Pentagon's postwar fiasco coming full-circle?
NEW YORK — Pentagon mismanagement, which takes the form of abuses in Abu Ghraib and confusion in dealing with Ahmed Chalabi's aspiration to political power in Iraq, is part of a disturbing pattern.
Pentagon officials shelved existing postwar plans for the reconstruction of Iraq - yet had no plan of their own. They ignored the advice of Iraqis, except Mr. Chalabi. Critical information was obscured or withheld from Congress. As a result, national interests have been ill-served, and the promise of democracy in Iraq has been betrayed.
The Future of Iraq project was set up more than a year before the war and was led by the State Department. The project also involved 16 other federal agencies and hundreds of Iraqis,and cost $5 million. I was the architect and facilitator of the project's democratic principles working group, which Iraqis called "the mother of all working groups." It was charged with developing a strategy for the political transition after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.
I know that the Future of Iraq project was no silver bullet for all of Iraq's problems. Yet the Pentagon's outright dismissal - and even undermining - of the project was one of its critical mistakes.
Pentagon officials thought the endeavor was too academic and ignored its recommendations simply because it was an initiative of the State Department. As part of a bureaucratic turf battle, Pentagon civilians treated State Department colleagues with disdain and disrespect. Civilians in the Office of Secretary of Defense were scornful of diplomacy itself, which is inherently about dialogue and compromise.
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his inner circle thought they could liberate a nation without even talking with those they were liberating. The Pentagon never had a policy or a program. All it had was a person - Ahmed Chalabi, who agreed with the Pentagon vision of making Iraq a laboratory for democratic development and using it as a launch point for reshaping the broader Middle East.
The State Department had a fundamentally different approach. It engaged Iraqis representing the country's different ethnic and religious groups. It was clear from the beginning of our work, however, that empowering other Iraqis was antithetical to the Pentagon's goal of pushing Chalabi into power.
At a meeting I attended with European diplomats to discuss reconstruction, a Rumsfeld protégé asserted that "Ahmed Chalabi is like the prophet Muhammad. At first, people doubted him but they came to realize the wisdom of his ways."
When a proxy of Chalabi's was wavering on whether to join our working group, he told me that officials in the Office of the Vice President had persuaded him to participate, with assurances that his views would prevail if he participated.
For sure, the Bush administration's decision to purge the Baath party and disband the Army was ideologically driven. In practical terms, the administration also wanted to eliminate centers of political gravity that might impede Chalabi's rise to power.
From the beginning, Pentagon officials and staff from the Office of the Vice President kept close watch on the democratic principles working group. As observers present at every meeting, they were all over the process. But independent-minded Iraqis had their own views about the transition. When representatives of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress tried to persuade the group to endorse creation of a government in exile, presumably to be led by Chalabi, other Iraqis would have none of it.
Though the working group was ultimately unable to reach consensus on a transition a few months prior to the start of military action, US plans went ahead for a large conference of free Iraqis in December 2002. When Chalabi was pushed to the sidelines of the meeting, Pentagon officials lost confidence in the ability of Iraqis to manage their own affairs and discouraged an Iraqi-led process that would culminate in a basic law and an elected Iraqi assembly.
The irony is not lost on anyone that the Bush administration's current approach mirrors previous plans developed by the Future of Iraq project. Denied self-rule, Iraqis became disaffected with the presence of US occupation. The failure to hand over power to Iraqis is at the root of resentment and rebellion.
Many of today's tensions surfaced in the Future of Iraq project during the run-up to war. However, the administration did not want difficulties to come to light lest they discourage support for the war on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon established the secretive Office of Special Plans. The project's director, a State Department official, was excluded from attending meetings of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
Dissembling and obfuscation defined the Pentagon's approach all along. Gen. Eric Shinseki was rebuked for suggesting that 200,000 troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq. Pentagon officials refused to provide an estimate of the costs of the Iraq war until September 2003, when congressional hearings were held to consider the administration's $87 billion request. Revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib were suppressed. In addition, the Pentagon demonstrated an alarming unwillingness to admit mistakes and make course corrections.
One senior career military officer tells me that in the halls of the Pentagon his colleagues are grumbling that one of Rummy's new rules is "Never let the facts interfere with reality."
As a result of the Pentagon's mismanagement, hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis have died needlessly. In Iraq, the well has been poisoned and a hard job made even harder. The fight against terrorism and the cause of global democracy are also casualties of war.
The administration plan has come full circle - after a year of failed occupation, the administration is finally focused on giving power to Iraqis and establishing self-rule. It's a year behind schedule, but not too late to salvage democracy in Iraq.
• David Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He resigned as senior adviser from the US Department of State last September.