Saturday, March 6, 2010

Malcolm Redfellow learns something new every day ...

Sunday, 7th March, 2010: military intelligence

It is a well-known truism that the British War Office was always prepared to fight the last war. That needs a whit of modern updating, "... and the next spending review".

There are certainly quite a few retired brass-hats now able to assure the world that the military deficiencies shown up in the Irag campaign were all the fault of the Treasury.

It all goes with perfect 20/20 after-vision.

Now Malcolm is still recovering from the long effort of striving for the end of James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover. Perhaps labour worthy of a better cause. The effort was a month in the achieving, with delightful intermissions such as
  • Jasper fforde's Shades of Grey [get it in hard back for £8.49, rather than wait for the paperback at £7.99 in the late autumn], which owes something to Brave New World, to John Christopher's The Guardians, and to all those other dystopias;
  • Malcolm Pryce's From Aberystwyth With Love, the latest of his Louie Knight stories, in which West Wales becomes a hardboiled parallel universe.
So, what next?

Well, here by the bed is an unread, mint copy (Oxfam books at £4.99, and still over-priced) of The War Within, the fourth of Bob Woodward's investigative-journalist contemporary-histories of the Bush Administration.

That is where Malcolm found his insight for this "something new everyday". Here is Woodward's account of Colin Powell before the blue-ribbon Congressional Iraq Study Group:
Perhaps more than anyone in the administration, Powell had been the "closer" for the president's case for war. A month before the war, he appeared before the United Nations and the world to make the public case, displaying what he said were the "facts" proving that Iraq had threatening stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The 76-minute presentation had proven effective, too effective, with Powell displaying all his powers of persuasion.

Four years later, no WMD had been found, many saw the war as a catastrophe, and Powell's reputation was irretrievably linked to it, forever damaged. So the 10:30 A.M. meeting on this Friday was both a mission of accommodation and penance. He was going to have to confront the war and its aftermath for the rest of his life, and this was but another stop on the road to sort out his anguish.

As he entered the small conference room, Powell was greeted warmly by the members of the group. He gazed around the room. There must have been a jailbreak, he joked. The room erupted in laughter.

There was an obvious camaraderie between Powell and the group members, most of whom had dedicated much of their lives to building up American power and credibility, winning the last phase of the Cold War and shaping a world in which the United States was the only superpower. Now Iraq threatened to undermine all they had built.

[President GHW Bush's Secretary of State, James A.] Baker and [Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lee] Hamilton sat together at the head of a table, with Powell directly across from them. The other members lined the sides of the table, and staff sat along the wall.

Did Powell have something to say up front? Baker asked.

"I have no opening statement."

Okay, then why did we go into Iraq with so few troops? Baker asked.

It was an unusual starting point. The study group was supposed to focus on future remedies, not past troubles. But the question of troop levels seemed to be at the heart of the problem, and the relatively small invasion force of some 150,000 troops had contradicted Powell’s philosophy of warfare—namely to send a large, decisive force that would guarantee success. For the 1991 Gulf War—a far simpler military task of ejecting the Iraqi army from its occupation of Kuwait—Powell, then JCS chairman, had insisted on a force of 500,000.

Baker’s question sparked a monologue that went on for nearly 20 minutes.

"Colin just exploded at that point," Perry recalled later.

"He unloaded," [Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff] Leon Panetta added. "He was angry. He was mad as hell."

Powell cited pages 393 to 395 from American Soldier, the memoir of General Tommy Franks, who was in charge of Central Command at the time of the Iraq invasion. Quoting from memory, he noted that Franks had faithfully reported a call that Powell had made on September 5, 2002, six months before the invasion. "I've got problems with force size and support of that force, given the long lines of communications" and supplies, Powell had warned Franks.

"Colin Powell was the free world's leading diplomat. But he no longer wore Army green," Franks had written. "He'd earned his right to an opinion, but had relinquished responsibility for the conduct of military operations when he retired as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993.

"I picked up the Red Switch and spoke to Don Rumsfeld. 'I appreciate his call,' I said. 'But I wanted to tell him that the military has changed since he left.'"

Franks reported that "Rumsfeld chuckled," but wanted to make sure that Powell's doubts were aired. "I want him to get them on the table in front of the president and the NSC. Otherwise, we'll look like we're steamrolling," Franks quoted Rumsfeld as saying.

Again citing Franks's memoir, Powell noted that he had raised his concerns at an NSC meeting held at Camp David with the president two days later. According to Franks's account, "Soft-spoken and polite, ever the diplomat, he questioned the friendly-to-enemy force ratios, and made the point rather forcefully that the Coalition would have 'extremely long' supply lines."

Powell did not mention that two pages later, Franks wrote that he had outlined his war plan without objection. "Colin Powell didn't debate the brief I gave, and he didn't ask any more operational questions," Franks wrote, suggesting that Powell did not persist.

Powell acknowledged to the study group that he couldn't have predicted the insurgency or the chaos of post-invasion Iraq. But he did know that such a mission required plenty of troops. It was the Powell Doctrine: Go-in big. Go in to win.

Seven months before the war, Powell had asked for a private meeting with President Bush to layout what he felt were the consequences of an invasion of Iraq that the president and his team had failed to examine. Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, summed it up this way: "If you break it, you own it."

At the study group meeting, Panetta later recalled, Powell said he had warned the president. "I did make clear that once this happens, you're the one who is going to have to pick up the pieces and put it back together again. And it's not going to be easy to do." Or as he put it later: "We not only did not have enough troops to stabilize the country and act like an occupying force, we didn't want to act like an occupying force. But we were the occupying force. We were the government."

In the classic sense, Powell told the group, there had never been a "front" to this war. The insurgency had begun from behind.

After his recapitulation on force levels, Powell moved without pause to the lack of postwar planning. He said he was stunned that Rumsfeld, when asked publicly about rampant looting in Iraq, had said, "Stuff happens." At a Pentagon press conference three weeks after the invasion, Rumsfeld had said that freedom was "untidy" and the extensive looting was the result of "pent-up feelings" from decades of Saddam Hussein's oppression. Powell quoted the defense secretary's "stuff happens" with utter disdain, suggesting it was an absurd evaluation and an abdication of responsibility.

Throughout that spring of 2003, Powell said, he'd kept thinking to himself, "When are we going to get this together?" All the Pentagon would say was, "Chalabi is coming, Chalabi is coming," a reference to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile with a checkered past who had long opposed Saddam Hussein. Chalabi had been the poster boy for a new democracy in Iraq, but Powell was dismissive.

"It was just Chalabi and 600 thugs," Powell said, noting that Chalabi failed to live up to the promise he'd made to the Pentagon to show up in Iraq with 10,000 men.

As secretary of state at the time of the invasion in 2003, Powell said he wasn't told about the decision to dissolve the Iraqi army until it happened. It was a monumental decision that disbanded the entire Iraqi army with the stroke of a pen, and its enactment was contrary to previous briefings that had been given to the president and to Powell. Nor was Powell told in advance about the sweeping de-Baathification order banning members of Saddam's Baath Party from many levels of government. It had effectively pulled the rug out from under the bureaucracy that made the country run, as many Iraqis had needed to be Baathists simply to get a job within Saddam's government.

Powell expressed astonishment that officials who lacked proper credentials had been sent to Iraq. He specifically mentioned Bernard Kerik, the troubled former New York City police commissioner, whom Bush had named to head the Iraqi national police and intelligence agency. "Bernie Kerik is in charge of police?" Powell asked, with a mixture of mock surprise and disgust. "Where did Bernie Kerik come from?"

Though he had been out of government for a year and a half, Powell's anger seemed fresh and raw. And now it had risen to the surface for them to see as he channeled years of accumulated resentments into his testimony.
Now, Malcolm reckons that teaches us a great deal:
  • Powell's Go-in big. Go in to win is conventional orthodoxy. It has been shown to be the most dependable strategy for most of military history and was Eisenhower's in North Africa and Normandy. One can assume it is the most basic rule taught at West Point. Yet, for the Iraq campaign and its lamentable aftermath, up to Bush's last-throw "surge", it was discounted.
  • If the supply lines were "extremely long" for the US logistical potential, they must be even more difficult for British forces, operating well out of their usual theatres. Did any UK military figure point this out to his political masters?
  • Not all the responsibility can be dumped on the Bush cronies. As Woodward comments (in connection with General George Casey being appointed to take over the Iraq command in May 2004):
The general attitude in the US military was "We can do this. Get out of our way. We'll take care of it. You guys stand over there."

This did not sell itself to Donald Rumsfeld. With such disconnection between the Pentagon and the Washington politicians, then, again, the British were further back in the queue.
  • If Powell, Secretary of State, was regularly by-passed on major decisions, we can reasonably assume that the British were equally kept out-of-the-loop. The whole of Woodward's book makes this clear by omission: Tony Blair achieves a single mention (pages 224-5): even Lawrence of Arabia gets two.
Throughout the book Woodward keeps coming back to what Powell says there, which is later defined as "the Pottery Barn rule": you break it, you own it. Deficiencies in US strategy, implementation and planning smashed the shop in Iraq (and, arguably, continue to do so in Aghanistan). Yet the opposition parties in Britain, and some political brass hats, seek to place the ownership of the breakages entirely on Blair and, now, Brown.

Surely something wrong?

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