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How the Iraq War Got Off on the Wrong Foot

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A U.S. Marine pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein March 21, 2003 in Safwan, Iraq, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion began.

It’s always fascinating to listen to an eyewitness to history recount what was happening when the rest of us were relying on press releases and government spin. That’s what makes the comments from a retired Army colonel about the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. bracing.

A 1977 West Point graduate and armor officer, Kevin Benson was serving as the joint strategic plans and policy officer – the J-5 — at the Combined Forces Land Component Command – “see-lick” – as the war unfolded. That meant he was a key player in the ground war. He offered this full-bird-colonel’s-eye-view of how the U.S. military prepared for, and carried out, the invasion in this March interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Excerpts:

We were to invade Iraq and remove the regime. There were subordinate tasks of, let’s see — you know I used to have all these memorized — remove the Saddam regime; collect any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), we truly did expect to find; release any prisoners that were held since the First Gulf War, which were primarily Kuwaitis; and then ensure, for CFLCC, ensure conditions were established to a smooth transition ultimately back to Iraqi civilian control of their country…

The political guidance that we got was also contained in the 1003-Victor US Central Command (CENTCOM) campaign plan. Those were directly in accord, because those were more in the purpose of the campaign, if you will, the ultimate policy purpose was to by example, my words, put the “Fear of God” in other regimes. Ones that were mentioned were the Assad regime in Jordan, Kaddafi in Libya, even to a lesser extent this was sending a message to the Iranians as well. So, I think, well, I think, I know, because that’s what we were focused on, was that the very simple stated policy objectives, such as they were, were definitely what guided us in the construct of the campaign and then the subsequent major operations plan that I put together for the land component.

Q: You said Assad in Jordan, but you met Assad in Syria.

I beg your pardon, Assad in Syria…

Q: Did you feel the campaign that you planned was properly resourced, at the time, to support achieving those objectives?

[Laughs] There’s a very good question. The apportioned forces and I don’t mean to split hairs, but for a major war plan within the Department of Defense and if you know this please tell me, there are forces apportioned to that plan. US Marine, US Army, Navy, Air Force and the apportioned forces, I think, were sufficient to accomplish the campaign objectives.

Now, break, the Secretary of Defense did not send all of the apportioned forces.

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So, while on paper I think we had sufficient forces to accomplish all the objectives that we set out that would support obtaining policy objectives, in practical effect, with the rush to get the 3d Infantry Division (ID) home and the haste with which 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) withdrew and then the delay in the deployment, well, the 1st Cavalry Division (CAV) not being deployed, I think we planted the seeds of our own tough years, by the haste which all of us wanted to get the hell out of Iraq…

Here’s the story that I have told over and over and over again. It doesn’t get any better with the telling and it’s still true. When I arrived at Third US Army, the CFLCC, in July of 2002, the first question I asked my lead planner — well, the guy I was going to relieve — was, “What are we doing about after we get to Baghdad?” Phase V, I thought, because the phasing construct that I been most familiar with when I was an operation planner had a fifth phase. I did not know that we’d shrunk it to four.

First of all, my first response was, “There is no Phase V.”

“Okay, well whatever.”

“So what do we do after we get to Baghdad?”

The guy I was relieving said, “Let me have the lead planner come in.” So the lead planner was a lieutenant colonel, Tom Reilley, and so I asked Tom. “Who is working on what we do after we get to Baghdad?”

And he said, “Sir, we’re not working on that.”

“Okay, what are we working on?”

And he handed a piece of paper to me and it was the first snowflake that I had ever seen.

It had one sentence and one interrogatory.

The sentence was, “We have a brigade on the ground. Why can’t we go [invade] now?” and it was signed [Paul] Wolfowitz.

At first, I thought it was a joke.

I thought, “What a great outfit I’m joining. My lead planner looks like he’s been rode hard put up wet, but he busting his colonel’s ass right away.” I loved it. “This was my kind of outfit.”

But, he wasn’t kidding. That is what they were working on. So, there was an expectation from the start that the Iraqi regime was a house of cards and all it would take was one stiff wind and it would fall…democracy would break out…

What I felt, at least perhaps better stated, what I rationalized for myself was, “None of these civilians have any experience in war, save Afghanistan.”

At the time, what was the dominant picture?

It was bearded Special Forces guys riding horses with laser designators and B-1s and B-2s dropping bombs all over the place. That was the war experience of the civilian leadership and so the carryover was, well, we’ll do the same thing here.

So, it was constant give and take of, “Folks getting to Baghdad is the easy part, what do we do after we get to Baghdad? We’re going to be de facto, de jure occupying power, because we’re signatories of Geneva/Hague. You haven’t told us to break things and leave. You told us to go in remove the regime, establish conditions for a new regime. That’s going to take time. That’s going to take troops and we will have to be in charge.”

That was not well received. It wasn’t. There was give and take. The only pressure, so to speak, was in the form of, “You must find evidence of WMD. You must find it. We know it’s there.”

What we got was a list of some 300 plus grid coordinates that was from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that, “There’s WMD. Here’s where we think it is.”

“Can you prioritize that for us?”

“No.”

“So one place isn’t more likely than another?”

“No…”

At the root of cliché is wisdom, so clichés that we’ve heard, “No plan can look with certainty beyond initial contact with the enemy main body.” That is a truism as far as I am concerned. As LTG [William] Wallace said, and he almost got fired for it, “The enemy we’re fighting wasn’t the enemy we war-gamed.”

Absolutely true.

GEN Wallace is the commanding general of V Corps. He had his embeds with him, Rick Atkinson and one other guy and I can’t remember the other guy’s name. Both of whom reported that comment. It got back in the papers in the US and the Secretary of Defense was asking, “Why is this guy Wallace in command of V Corps? I want him fired.”

In the middle of the unfolding fight, my general, [Coalition Forces Land Component Commander David] McKiernan, really had to fly to Qatar to convince GEN [Tommy] Franks not to fire GEN Wallace….In the middle of the God damn fight.

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