President George W. Bush addresses U.S. Army War College on Iraq, May 24, 2004
White House (Eric Draper)
I did not go to work on May 17, 2004, thinking I would be the commander of Multi-National Force–Iraq in 45 days. I knew that the Secretary of Defense was looking to increase the new MNF-I headquarters from a three-star to a four-star command to handle the wide range of strategic issues that a corps’s headquarters is not equipped to deal with. But as the Army vice chief of staff, I was decisively involved in the multiyear reorganization of the Army. I had been asked by my boss, Army Chief of Staff Pete Schoomaker, to see that through.
Three days later, Pete told me that I had been selected by President George W. Bush to lead coalition forces in Iraq. With Pete’s support, I immediately shifted gears and laid out a plan to take command. My plan involved reading to update my thinking on counterinsurgency operations and the region; meeting with key figures in the executive branch to understand what was expected of me; meeting with leaders from other government agencies to understand how they planned to contribute; visiting the intelligence agencies to develop a better understanding of the intelligence picture (at least as it was viewed from Washington); meeting with knowledgeable experts outside of government to better understand the context for the current situation; meeting with financial and contracting experts to understand the mechanisms required to get the reconstruction effort moving; and meeting with numerous Members of Congress to get their views and to prepare for my confirmation hearing. This process proved essential in framing my understanding of the mission and greatly facilitated the rapid production of our campaign plan once I assumed command.
Framing the Mission
Years of experience at the strategic level had taught me that the higher up you go, the less guidance you receive. This mission proved no exception. I found there were three key documents that were most useful in framing the mission for Iraq: the National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) of May 11, 2004, the President’s May 24 speech at the Army War College, and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1546, with attached letters from newly appointed Prime Minister of Iraq Ayad Allawi and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The NSPD established the organization for U.S. Government operations in Iraq after the termination of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was to occur no later than June 30, 2004, and the reestablishment of “normal” diplomatic relations with a sovereign Iraq. It made the Ambassador responsible for the “direction, coordination and supervision of all United States Government employees, polices and activities in country” except for the “U.S. efforts with respect to security and military operations in Iraq,” which were the responsibility of the commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), the combatant commander to whom I would report. It directed the “closest cooperation and mutual support” between them.1
The NSPD also designated the Secretary of State as responsible for the “continuous supervision and general direction of all assistance in Iraq” and directed the USCENTCOM commander to lead the efforts to organize, train, and equip the Iraqi security forces (ISF) “with the policy guidance of the Chief of Mission.” It established two new organizations: one under the Secretary of State (the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office) to guide the development effort, and one under the Secretary of Defense (the Project and Contracting Office) to provide contracting and project management support to the reconstruction and assistance missions. Finally, the NSPD recognized that assisting Iraq through the transition to democracy would take “the full commitment of all agencies” of the United States, and enjoined the heads of all agencies to support the mission.2
Clear division of labor and lines of command are critical to the effective prosecution of any mission, and this NSPD endeavored to provide that. In retrospect, while the division of labor was clear, the NSPD did not create the unity of command necessary for the effective integration of civil-military efforts in successful counterinsurgency operations. The Ambassador and I would have to create the unity of effort required for success. This would prove a constant struggle as the two supporting bureaucracies—State and Defense—often had differing views. Things would get more complex as we increasingly brought the new Iraqi government into the effort. The political and economic effects, so necessary to sustaining our military success, would be outside of my direct control.
Shortly after the NSPD was issued, President Bush outlined our mission in a speech at the U.S. Army War College. He stated that our goal was “to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations,” and that our job in Iraq was not only to defeat the enemy, but also “to give strength to a friend—a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf.” He laid out five steps to accomplish our goal:
President Bush noted that national elections were the most important of the five steps and that, because of recent violence in Fallujah and the South, we would maintain our troop level at 138,000 “as long as necessary.” He stated that the United States would do “all that is necessary—by measured force or overwhelming force—to achieve a stable Iraq.” These were comforting words to a prospective commander. Finally, he talked about accelerating our program for training Iraqi security forces with an eventual goal of an Iraqi army of 27 battalions and an overall ISF number (to include police and border guards) of 260,000,4 making it clear that this would be a major part of my mission. In all, this seemed like clear direction, and I used the speech as the basis for my planning.
Perhaps the most important document in framing the mission was UNSCR 1546. It provided the chapter VII mandate from the United Nations: “. . . the Multinational Force shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq.”5 The accompanying letters relayed the public consent of the new Iraqi government to accept MNF-I and the political transition laid out in the UNSCR. This public acceptance would be essential to me when it came to working with the Iraqi government. It also established a timeline for the political transition:
This gave the Iraqis and coalition forces a political timeline for the next 18 months, which we saw as a good, if not necessary, driver to force consensus on what we knew would be tough issues. What we did not anticipate was the debilitating effect that three governmental transitions would have on our efforts to increase the capacity of Iraqi institutions.
Finally, the UNSCR and its supporting letters clearly stated my responsibility to establish a “security partnership” with the soon-to-be sovereign government of Iraq and to assist in building the capability of the Iraqi security forces and institutions that, the UNSCR envisioned, would “progressively play a greater role and ultimately assume full responsibility for the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq.”7 The UNSCR gave me a direct role with the sovereign government of Iraq to coordinate this security partnership, a role normally reserved for the Ambassador. I did not realize at the time how difficult and all-consuming this particular task would become.
Building a Key Relationship
I recognized from the outset that a close, cooperative relationship between John Negroponte, the newly appointed Ambassador to Iraq, and me would be absolutely essential—an instinct that he shared. We worked hard from the beginning to ensure that we entered Iraq with a common view of the situation and how we needed to address it. One of the most important agreements we made took place at our first meeting. There we discussed the fact that any counterinsurgency effort required political and military integration for success, and we agreed upon a concept to create unity of effort between the Embassy and MNF-I—One Team/One Mission. We agreed that we would develop a common statement of our mission and then guide the Embassy and MNF-I teams to work together to accomplish it. This understanding would prove vital to our success.
One of the toughest challenges for strategic leaders is to clearly articulate to their subordinates what it is they want them to accomplish. Before we left, the Ambassador and I worked to develop a clear view of what we wanted to accomplish in Iraq—understanding that we would take a period of time after we arrived to calibrate our views with realities on the ground. We also discussed the NSPD, the President’s speech, and the UNSCR and how they would help us frame what we needed to do. We recognized that the return of sovereignty to the Iraqis presented both challenges and opportunities, and we wrestled with how to use the transition to create momentum for the mission. To do this, we felt we needed to work on enhancing the legitimacy of the IIG to move Iraqis away from the perception of the coalition as an occupying force. We also realized that the transition from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Embassy and the One Team/One Mission concept would require some significant organizational changes to enable our success, and we began planning how to accomplish them.
In the end, we went into Iraq thinking that our mission was to facilitate the establishment of a representative Iraqi government that respected the human rights of all Iraqis, and that had sufficient security forces to maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists. To achieve that objective, we knew that we would have to build the national and international team to accomplish our mission, develop an integrated effort to defeat the insurgency, and work to build the legitimacy of the IIG and ISF.
These discussions with the Ambassador were extremely helpful in establishing a common view of the mission and the challenges we would face together. It was, we both realized, just the beginning of a long journey, but we were at least starting in the same place.
Consultations and Direction
As part of my preparations, I solicited views on Iraq from various experts from inside and outside the government: the Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of State, National Security Council, and Intelligence Community. The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University and my alma mater, Georgetown University, both hosted special sessions for me that were very helpful.
My consultations with these organizations surfaced a wide range of concerns and questions. Some experts questioned how to obtain and sustain unity of effort between the Embassy and military, while others wondered about the challenges and implications of sovereignty. There were concerns about the newly constituted ISF (mission, force levels, equipment requirements, and timelines for development), and the impacts of disbanding the Iraqi army, stringent de-Ba’athification policies, and Abu Ghraib. There was also real uncertainty about the nature of the threat. While most agreed that we were dealing with an insurgency, there was much debate about the composition of the insurgency. Lastly, from these consultations I gained a sense that people thought that Iraq would be an 18-month mission: we would complete the UNSCR political timeline while growing the ISF and turn the country over to the Iraqis when that was done. In all, I found that having access to a wide variety of views and insights better helped me sharpen my thinking about the mission.
During that month, I had several office calls with Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dick Myers to get direction. I had reviewed the Secretary’s April 27, 2004, guidance to USCENTCOM that planners should maximize the use of ISF, international forces, and contractors before resorting to U.S. forces.8 He also sent me a copy of the memorandum he prepared for the President in early June, entitled “Some Thoughts on Iraq and How to Think about It,” that sought perspective from history with respect to what he termed “a rough period of months.” He emphasized that “there is no way this struggle can be lost on the ground in Iraq. It can only be lost if people come to the conclusion that it cannot be done.”9 Those were prescient words.
During these office calls, the Secretary emphasized two concerns. The first was about the “can-do” attitude of the American soldier. The Secretary was worried that, in our zeal to accomplish the mission, we would try to do everything ourselves and not allow the Iraqis to gain the experience they would need to ultimately take charge. He felt that this would only extend our time there, and he encouraged me to take this attitude into consideration in my planning. I understood what he meant, having seen this attitude in our soldiers in Bosnia, and even getting captured by it myself during my time there. We were going to have to find the right balance between the drive needed to accomplish things in a tough environment and doing everything ourselves if we wanted the Iraqis to take charge anytime soon. This would be easier said than done. Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers were also concerned about the status of the ISF, and they asked me to develop an immediate assessment and long-term plan for ISF development as a matter of priority. We agreed that I would report back with an assessment of the situation and recommendations within my first 30 days on the ground.
In mid-June I was granted permission from the Senate Armed Services Committee to accompany Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on a 5-day trip to Iraq.† The purpose of the trip was to gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding the transition of sovereignty to the IIG,‡ which was scheduled to take place by the end of the month. The trip would enable me to meet with the Iraqi and coalition military leaders whom I would be working with to gain important on-the-ground insights. I focused on gaining an understanding of how the new Iraqi leaders viewed the threat, their current security challenges, their security forces, and the consultative mechanisms called for in the UNSCR to ensure coordination between the coalition and the Iraqi government. Not surprisingly, the insights I gained from this visit played a prominent role in preparing me to take command of the mission. Here are a few of my key takeaways from the trip:
Threat and Security Challenges. Prime Minister Allawi viewed radical Islamists and ex-regime loyalists, who were increasingly siding with the radicals, as Iraq’s primary threat. He thought both groups were getting support from regional powers, primarily Syria and Iran, and taking advantage of Iraq’s porous borders to undermine the political process under way. He stated that things would get worse before they got better and that establishing a functional democracy in Iraq would take a long time. He also said that his priority was to establish security across Iraq. It was clear that the April uprisings by Sadrist militia and the failed efforts to establish a government security force in Fallujah weighed heavily on him and the new government. Muqtada al-Sadr had established a safe haven in Najaf, and terrorists and insurgents had established a safe haven in Fallujah. Coalition and Iraqi forces loyal to the central government could not go into either area. The Iraqis saw them as separate problems with Fallujah being the more serious of the two. They also saw them as longer term problems and did not expect them to be resolved before sovereignty was established. I would inherit them.
Vision for Iraqi Security Forces. The prime minister and his security ministers believed there were insufficient ISF to deal with the threat, and those that did exist were underequipped. They saw this situation as unacceptable, and rightly so. On the army side, they looked down on the recently formed Iraq Civil Defense Corps (coalition-armed local security forces), and the prime minister and his ministers felt that they needed armored forces—at least five divisions—that could rapidly deploy around the country. They also wanted an aerial capability to assist in the counterinsurgency fight. On the police side, they recognized that, given the threat, the police would need the support of the army for some time, and that current training needed to be enhanced to allow the police to survive in a counterinsurgency environment. They wanted to create strong border and counterterror forces. They also wanted our help to unify the security effort (coalition, army, police), to develop an appropriate chain of command for the army and police, to build a “rapid deployment force,” so the central government could respond anywhere in the country, and to develop a strict vetting process for key leaders. Finally, they wanted Iraqi forces, not “photocopies of the U.S. or UK forces.”
Consultative Mechanisms. The letters from Prime Minister Allawi and Secretary of State Powell attached to UNSCR 1546 called for the establishment of consultative mechanisms to facilitate coordination between the coalition and the sovereign government of Iraq. We agreed that the Ministerial Committee for National Security would be the core forum for working strategic security issues and that the Strategic Action Committee would be the forum to prepare issues for its consideration. We began discussions on developing a policy for “sensitive offensive operations”—operations that could cause political problems for the government—and establishing formal and informal coordination mechanisms at the national, provincial, and local levels. We also agreed to establish a joint command center as quickly as possible. Establishing these agreements in advance would be critical to progress in the months ahead.
The conclusion of these busy weeks came with my confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 24 shortly after my return from Iraq. During the several days prior to the hearings, I visited key members of the committee to get their views and insights on the mission, and submitted my “advance questions” to the committee for the hearing.
I felt that my preparations to take command had set me up well for the hearing as the Senators echoed many of the concerns I had been hearing in the past few weeks. Members of the committee asked me how I planned to ensure unity of effort with the Embassy and to establish a good relationship with the Ambassador, how I planned to establish an effective relationship between MNF-I and the government of Iraq, about the status of the ISF and how I planned to develop them, and how I viewed my relationship with General Abizaid. I was also pressed by a number of Senators on whether I felt I had enough troops to accomplish the mission. I pledged several times to ask for more troops if I felt they were necessary, but I reiterated, as I did with many of the questions, that I had only been on the ground in Iraq for 3 days, and I would make a thorough assessment once I took command. I also agreed to consult with them frequently.
In response to a question posed by the committee concerning the major challenges I would face as the MNF-I commander, I listed the following:
This represented an accurate view of what I thought my main challenges would be as I prepared to depart for Iraq.
My preparation time for command had been brief but intense. I left for Iraq with a good idea of what was expected of me and what needed to be done. From the United Nations, I had received an 18-month political timeline to execute. President Bush provided the goal of seeing “the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations” along with a five-step framework to accomplish this.11 Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers had asked me to report back with an assessment and way ahead for not only the ISF but also for the mission in Iraq as a whole.
Going in, I believed that the U.S. objective was to facilitate the establishment of a representative Iraqi government that respected the human rights of all Iraqis and had sufficient security forces to maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists. I knew that I needed to quickly make an on-the-ground assessment, develop a strategy and a campaign plan to achieve our objective, and then work with Ambassador Negroponte to build our team and organize the mission for success—all while working to build a strong partnership with the newly sovereign Iraqi government. We would have plenty to do. While I knew the mission in Iraq would not be easy, I was just starting to understand its complexity.
† Permission was necessary to avoid “presumption of confirmation.” We can do better preparing senior leaders for key wartime jobs. For example, I would have welcomed the chance to study Arabic for several months, something I could not do without “presuming confirmation.”
‡ The Iraqi Interim Government was appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority just prior to sovereignty being passed.