General Petraeus' assessment of U.S. mistakes in Iraq

Greg Richards
As part of his testimony in his promotion hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today (Tuesday January 23, 2006), General Petraeus submitted answers to a series of questions from the senators.  The entire document is available here.

Perhaps the most interesting section is General Petraeus' discussion of mistakes we have made in Iraq.  This is a useful assessment of how we have gotten to where we are in Iraq by the person who is probably our greatest expert on the conflict.  The following section is taken directly from General Petraeus' document:

U.S. Mistakes

What do you consider to be the most significant mistakes the U.S. has made to date in Iraq?

First, there were a number of assumptions and assessments that did not bear out.  Prominent among them was the assumption that Iraqis would remain in their barracks and ministry facilities and resume their functions as soon as interim governmental structures were in place.  That obviously did not transpire.  The assessment of the Iraqi infrastructure did not capture how fragile and abysmally maintained it was (and this challenge, of course, was compounded by looting).  Additionally, although most Iraqis did, in fact, greet us as liberators (and that was true even in most Sunni Arab areas), there was an underestimation of the degree of resistance that would develop as, inevitably, a Shi'a majority government began to emerge and the Sunni Arabs, especially, the Saddamists, realized that the days of their dominating Iraq were over. Sunni Arab resistance was also fueled by other actions noted below.


Beyond that, as noted recently by President Bush, there were a number of situations that did not develop as was envisioned:

-         There was the feeling that elections would enhance the Iraqi sense of nationalism.  Instead, the elections hardened sectarian positions as Iraqis voted largely based on ethnic and sectarian group identity.

-         There was an underestimation of the security challenges in Iraq, particularly in 2006 in the wake of the bombing of the mosque in Samara, coupled with an over-estimation of our ability to create new security institutions following the disbandment of the Iraqi security forces - which was not helped by the planning issues described below.

-         It repeatedly took us time to recognize changes in the security environment and to react to them. What began as an insurgency has morphed into a conflict that includes  insurgent attacks, terrorism, sectarian violence, and violent crime. Our responses have had to continue to evolve in response, but that has not always been easy.

A number of mistakes were made by both political and military leaders during the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

-         The very slow (if that) execution of the reconciliation component of de-Ba'athification left tens of thousands of former Ba'ath Party members (many of them Sunni Arabs, but also some Shi'a) feeling that they had no future opportunities in, or reason to support, the new Iraq.  To be fair to CPA, AMB Bremer intended to execute reconciliation (or exceptions to the de-Ba'athification order) and gave me permission, e.g., to do so on a trial basis in Ninevah Province; however, when we submitted the results of the reconciliation commission conducted for Mosul University and subsequent requests for exception generated by Iraqi processes with judicial oversight,  no action was taken on them by the de-Ba'athification Committee in Baghdad.  As realization set in among those affected that there was to be no reconciliation, we could feel support for the new Iraq ebbing in Sunni Arab majority areas.


-         Disbanding the Iraqi army (which was, to be sure, an army that Iraq did not need in the long term as it had vastly more senior officers than were remotely required and was more of a jobs program than a competent military force) without simultaneously announcing a stipend and pension program for those in the Army, the future plan for Iraq's defense forces,
and provisions for joining those forces undoubtedly created tens of thousands of former soldiers and officers who were angry, feeling disrespected, and worried about how they would feed their families.  (The stipend plan was eventually announced some 5 weeks after the disestablishment was announced, but it did not cover senior officers, who remained, therefore, influential critics of the new Iraq.)  This action likely fueled, at least in part, the early growth of the insurgency and anti-coalition feeling.

-         We took too long to recognize the growing insurgency and to take steps to counter it, though we did eventually come to grips with it.

-         We took too long to develop the concepts and structures needed to build effective Iraqi security forces to assist in providing security to the Iraqi people.

-         Misconduct at Abu Gharyb and in other less sensational, but still damaging cases, inflamed the insurgency and damaged the credibility of Coalition forces in Iraq, in the region, and around the world.

-         We obviously had inadequate plans, concepts, organizations, resources, and policies for the conduct of Phase IV (stability and reconstruction) operations; consequently, we were slow to move into Phase IV operations.

-         We had, for the first 15 months or more in Iraq, an inadequate military structure. With hindsight, it is clear that it took too long to transform V Corps HQs into CJTF-7 HQs, and that even when we had CJTF-7 HQs, it was not capable of looking both up and down (i.e. performing both political-military/strategic functions and serving as the senior operational
headquarters for counterinsurgency and stability operations). Moreover, it is clear that we should have built what eventually became MNSTC-I HQs and the TF-34 HQs (which oversees detainee/interrogation operations) much sooner, along with the other organizations that were eventually established (e.g., the Gulf Region Corps of Engineer HQs).

-         Although not a problem in the 101st Airborne Division AOR during my time as 101st commander, it is clear that in certain other AORs there were more tasks than troops - especially in Anbar Province for at least the first year and likely in other areas as well.

-         Finally, the strategy pursued in the wake of the bombing of the Al Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 was unable to arrest the spiraling violence and rise of harmful sectarian activities.  Repeated operations in Baghdad, in particular, to clear, hold, and build did not prove durable due to lack of sufficient Iraqi and Coalition Forces for the hold phase of the operations.

This next section is essentially General Petraeus' statement of what he seeks to accomplish in Iraq:

Which of these mistakes, if any, are still having an impact, with which will you have to deal if confirmed?

We continue to feel the effects of many of the issues stated above.  If confirmed, I intend to work with the U.S. Ambassador to gain traction on a number of levels - security for the Iraqi people, establishment of effective local governance and economic development that will create stakeholders in the new Iraq, reconciliation, the continued establishment of effective
Iraqi Security Forces, and establishment of rule of law to ensure effective justice to all Iraqis.
As part of his testimony in his promotion hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today (Tuesday January 23, 2006), General Petraeus submitted answers to a series of questions from the senators.  The entire document is available here.

Perhaps the most interesting section is General Petraeus' discussion of mistakes we have made in Iraq.  This is a useful assessment of how we have gotten to where we are in Iraq by the person who is probably our greatest expert on the conflict.  The following section is taken directly from General Petraeus' document:

U.S. Mistakes

What do you consider to be the most significant mistakes the U.S. has made to date in Iraq?

First, there were a number of assumptions and assessments that did not bear out.  Prominent among them was the assumption that Iraqis would remain in their barracks and ministry facilities and resume their functions as soon as interim governmental structures were in place.  That obviously did not transpire.  The assessment of the Iraqi infrastructure did not capture how fragile and abysmally maintained it was (and this challenge, of course, was compounded by looting).  Additionally, although most Iraqis did, in fact, greet us as liberators (and that was true even in most Sunni Arab areas), there was an underestimation of the degree of resistance that would develop as, inevitably, a Shi'a majority government began to emerge and the Sunni Arabs, especially, the Saddamists, realized that the days of their dominating Iraq were over. Sunni Arab resistance was also fueled by other actions noted below.


Beyond that, as noted recently by President Bush, there were a number of situations that did not develop as was envisioned:

-         There was the feeling that elections would enhance the Iraqi sense of nationalism.  Instead, the elections hardened sectarian positions as Iraqis voted largely based on ethnic and sectarian group identity.

-         There was an underestimation of the security challenges in Iraq, particularly in 2006 in the wake of the bombing of the mosque in Samara, coupled with an over-estimation of our ability to create new security institutions following the disbandment of the Iraqi security forces - which was not helped by the planning issues described below.

-         It repeatedly took us time to recognize changes in the security environment and to react to them. What began as an insurgency has morphed into a conflict that includes  insurgent attacks, terrorism, sectarian violence, and violent crime. Our responses have had to continue to evolve in response, but that has not always been easy.

A number of mistakes were made by both political and military leaders during the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

-         The very slow (if that) execution of the reconciliation component of de-Ba'athification left tens of thousands of former Ba'ath Party members (many of them Sunni Arabs, but also some Shi'a) feeling that they had no future opportunities in, or reason to support, the new Iraq.  To be fair to CPA, AMB Bremer intended to execute reconciliation (or exceptions to the de-Ba'athification order) and gave me permission, e.g., to do so on a trial basis in Ninevah Province; however, when we submitted the results of the reconciliation commission conducted for Mosul University and subsequent requests for exception generated by Iraqi processes with judicial oversight,  no action was taken on them by the de-Ba'athification Committee in Baghdad.  As realization set in among those affected that there was to be no reconciliation, we could feel support for the new Iraq ebbing in Sunni Arab majority areas.


-         Disbanding the Iraqi army (which was, to be sure, an army that Iraq did not need in the long term as it had vastly more senior officers than were remotely required and was more of a jobs program than a competent military force) without simultaneously announcing a stipend and pension program for those in the Army, the future plan for Iraq's defense forces,
and provisions for joining those forces undoubtedly created tens of thousands of former soldiers and officers who were angry, feeling disrespected, and worried about how they would feed their families.  (The stipend plan was eventually announced some 5 weeks after the disestablishment was announced, but it did not cover senior officers, who remained, therefore, influential critics of the new Iraq.)  This action likely fueled, at least in part, the early growth of the insurgency and anti-coalition feeling.

-         We took too long to recognize the growing insurgency and to take steps to counter it, though we did eventually come to grips with it.

-         We took too long to develop the concepts and structures needed to build effective Iraqi security forces to assist in providing security to the Iraqi people.

-         Misconduct at Abu Gharyb and in other less sensational, but still damaging cases, inflamed the insurgency and damaged the credibility of Coalition forces in Iraq, in the region, and around the world.

-         We obviously had inadequate plans, concepts, organizations, resources, and policies for the conduct of Phase IV (stability and reconstruction) operations; consequently, we were slow to move into Phase IV operations.

-         We had, for the first 15 months or more in Iraq, an inadequate military structure. With hindsight, it is clear that it took too long to transform V Corps HQs into CJTF-7 HQs, and that even when we had CJTF-7 HQs, it was not capable of looking both up and down (i.e. performing both political-military/strategic functions and serving as the senior operational
headquarters for counterinsurgency and stability operations). Moreover, it is clear that we should have built what eventually became MNSTC-I HQs and the TF-34 HQs (which oversees detainee/interrogation operations) much sooner, along with the other organizations that were eventually established (e.g., the Gulf Region Corps of Engineer HQs).

-         Although not a problem in the 101st Airborne Division AOR during my time as 101st commander, it is clear that in certain other AORs there were more tasks than troops - especially in Anbar Province for at least the first year and likely in other areas as well.

-         Finally, the strategy pursued in the wake of the bombing of the Al Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 was unable to arrest the spiraling violence and rise of harmful sectarian activities.  Repeated operations in Baghdad, in particular, to clear, hold, and build did not prove durable due to lack of sufficient Iraqi and Coalition Forces for the hold phase of the operations.

This next section is essentially General Petraeus' statement of what he seeks to accomplish in Iraq:

Which of these mistakes, if any, are still having an impact, with which will you have to deal if confirmed?

We continue to feel the effects of many of the issues stated above.  If confirmed, I intend to work with the U.S. Ambassador to gain traction on a number of levels - security for the Iraqi people, establishment of effective local governance and economic development that will create stakeholders in the new Iraq, reconciliation, the continued establishment of effective
Iraqi Security Forces, and establishment of rule of law to ensure effective justice to all Iraqis.