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Iraq war, 20 years later: An insider reflects on the nightmare — and what America has learned

A former State Department official reflects on the road to war and the traumas that followed.

Twenty years ago this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell sat with me for half an hour, discussing Iraq, Afghanistan, national security — and a job that would soon consume me: I had been nominated as an assistant secretary of state. This was March 3, just two weeks prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Our conversation was focused on a specific task: I would direct the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), which would receive $2 billion, half for counternarcotics, half for training the virtually nonexistent police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After unanimous Senate confirmation in October 2003, led by then-Sen. Joe Biden and his counsel, the current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, my world went from zero to full throttle. Previously, I had run a small D.C.-based consultancy that provided advice on military and law-enforcement matters, among others. Now, my time was split between meetings with Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, sessions with the National Security Council and visits to Baghdad, Kabul, and Amman, Jordan, where we established a state-of-the-art police training academy. I held that job for 18 months.

Twenty years later, what haunts me is how much Iraq’s current fragile state cost Americans in blood and treasure, how many mistakes were made and how many of those errors were avoidable. There is a troubling sense of what might have been had the U.S. approach to Iraq been internally more unified, thoughtful, measured — and postponed.

As a former Naval Intelligence officer, former assistant secretary of state, and believer in both freedom and America’s leadership role in the world, I strongly feel that entry into war should not be driven by those who think wars are easily waged and won, nor by politics, ego or fantastic ideas of glory. Wars are long, dirty and devastating — shrapnel, glass and blood everywhere — even if they sound like a good idea at the outset.

Two decades ago this month, Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser and Vietnam combat veteran, was still trying to get Saddam Hussein’s compliance with U.N. resolutions in a bid to forestall war. That said, Powell had already thrown down the gauntlet, given his February 2003 speech to the United Nations, in many ways staking his reputation on intelligence that was soon proved thin, inaccurate and in error. The truth is that Powell and Armitage pressed the intelligence community hard for more; they questioned the data intensely and spent time prior to that speech grilling officials at the CIA. But rocks would not flip; the die was cast.

President George W. Bush — and most vigorously Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a team of cocksure White House security experts — were unwilling to question, critique or slow the process. Many of them, including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, just ignored it. Powell’s internal cautions, vocal warnings and life history were sidelined.

It’s notable that Bush and Cheney between them had five military deferments, Rumsfeld had never seen combat and Rice — with no military experience or firsthand knowledge of either Iraq or Afghanistan — was a convenient foil. The result, as we now know, can be summarized by one word: regret.

War came. The impact of that singular fact is enormous, especially in a historical context. The decision to militarily oust Saddam, even as America struggled to extinguish al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, was profound. And in retrospect, it was also profoundly wrong.

The decision to invade Iraq, utilizing a fully mobilized American military in the region, must have seemed opportune to those who pulled the trigger. I arrived at the office later, but the shadows on the cave wall were clear. Against Powell’s “give peace a chance” advice, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice launched.

The price of folly

What happened after the decision to invade is what filled my days.

My charge involved both Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter an effort that might have been concluded in two or three years but wound up lasting nearly 20 years. Rather than finish the job, which would have required U.S. and allied militaries to create an Afghan Army of 70,000 to 250,000, stabilizing the nation against the return of the Taliban, Rumsfeld declared, “The war is over in Afghanistan” in mid-2002. No one in the national security, diplomatic or allied communities believed that, but there it was.

Rumsfeld was all about driving an agenda. In retrospect, this inapt declaration helped him do so by largely shifting the focus of attention away from Afghanistan. The buildup of 160,000 U.S. military personnel in the region could now pivot to Iraq, a war Rumsfeld had long hoped to finish; Rumsfeld was among those who believed the elder George Bush had erred in not “finishing” the 1991 Gulf War, in which the U.S. and allied forces liberated Kuwait but stopped short of marching on Baghdad in pursuit of Saddam Hussein.

Ultimately, Rumsfeld — aided by Cheney and Rice — achieved two regrettable outcomes with one act. He prevented a swift completion of conflict in Afghanistan, the “just war” that the 9/11 attacks had triggered, and then argued that al-Qaeda was active in Iraq (which it was not) to initiate a second war.

Again, while hindsight is 20/20, the perception even then was that those hankering for war in Iraq were on a mission, dusting off old plans, aiming to one-up the elder Bush.

There was even the sense that some wanted a replay of Ronald Reagan’s epic transformation of an entire region, doing for democracy in the Middle East what Reagan had done in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. What was missing was a basic appreciation for the difference in cultures and post-conflict environments.

So, in October 2003, when I first began working in Iraq, we owned what we had broken. While Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Bush thought the mission was accomplished — Bush had made his infamous “Mission Accomplished” declaration on May 1 — it was, in fact, far from over.

By the end of that year, Powell’s State Department — and my bureau — had set up the major engine for training Iraqi police. It was located outside Amman, in Muwaqqar, and called the Jordan International Police Training Center, or JIPTC. The goal was to help stabilize Iraq by schooling at least 3,000 Iraqi police recruits every eight weeks and gradually reinserting them under the tutelage of State Department field advisers — seasoned police trainers with at least five years’ experience — across Iraq. This process had worked around the world, from Colombia to Kosovo. We believed it would work here.

The U.S. Congress had faith in Powell, State and a proven police training program and curriculum. Notably, it is a program still used today to great effect around the world. Throughout the end of 2003, 2004 and early-2005, State’s INL team — government and contract employees — trained the Iraqi Police.

On multiple occasions, I found myself in Baghdad, sometimes flying with the vetted Iraqi recruits from Baghdad to Jordan, where — rather miraculously — all 3,000 lived together in what amounted to cavernous, triple-bunked, metal-sided “hogans,” or horseshoe-shaped huts.

The miraculous part — given the sectarian divides present in Iraq at the time — was that these police recruits were a combination of Sunni, Shia, Christian, Yazidi and virtually every other sect or tribe in Iraq, and they lived and worked in harmony together at the JIPTIC. Talking long hours with them, I concluded that they all wanted to stabilize their country. I also came to understand that they all had suffered in Saddam’s Iraq.

Now came the next big error.

Initially, Gen. David Petraeus and I worked out lines of training authority: The State Department would handle the police training, Petraeus’ officers would train the Iraq military. (They shared space at the Baghdad Police training facility.) Things seemed on track.

Unfortunately, not long after, Rumsfeld and Cheney, with a nod from Bush and compliance from Rice (by then the new Secretary of State), made a fateful decision. They transferred the half a billion dollars dedicated to the State’s police adviser program in Iraq — those who were making real police officers of police trained in Jordan — over to the Defense Department.

Again, exercising an odd knack for two-in-one mistakes, Rumsfeld’s decision to rob Peter and pay Paul — stripping State of police training and shifting that money to pet Defense Department projects — would prove a tragic mistake. In one fell swoop, he ended a successful police training model and increased funding for so-called “special units’ in Iraq, which would ultimately turn into Shia-dominated vendetta squads.

The consequences were soon clear. The stabilizing police presence — from street cops and border policing to anti-corruption and anti-sectarian policing — was crippled. Five thousand newly trained police advisers were sent home and left without a mission. At the same time, Shia violence, stoked by support from Iran, took hold.

A more fundamentally misguided realignment of resources would have been hard to conceive. If Rumsfeld had been a student of history, he would have recalled that Gen. Douglas McArthur, after World War II, had insisted that civilians train the police in Japan. So determined was McArthur to prevent the militarization of civilian law enforcement that he removed himself from the process and brought the chiefs of police from New York and Minnesota to Japan to train the Japanese police — who today are among the world’s best.

Two years later, with violence raging across Iraq, Rumsfeld mobilized 3,000 Military Police (MPs) as field advisers, hoping they might chase down and field-train tens of thousands of schooled police recruits. Not surprisingly, most had melted back into the population. We had abandoned them. Some, no doubt, had joined the insurgency.

Also not surprisingly, by early 2007, without a national police force to supplement the Army, violence spiked even further, leading to the first major surge of U.S. forces. From a 127,000-strong troop presence in mid-2006, the Pentagon boosted the American presence to 171,000 by October 2007. What might have been a stable recovery from initial missteps just got worse.

Now 20 years on, other effects of the initial missteps are obvious. The Taliban have regained control in Afghanistan after an extended and excruciating two-decade effort by the U.S. to get it right; in Iraq, a delicate democracy holds on, with a powerful Iranian influence in the country. A less tangible consequence has been a steep decline in America’s credibility in the region and perhaps the world as well.

And of course, there are the other losses. More than 4,700 U.S. servicemembers were killed in Iraq, and nearly 32,000 wounded. And more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians were killed.

The entire enterprise should give us more than pause.

The last words, in deference to a great boss, honest man and patriot — 20 years after we sat together for the first time — belong to the late Colin Powell. They are as timely now as then. In war and peace, he said, “There are no secrets to success — it is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.” He would be the first to admit today that there is a lot still left to learn.

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