The failure to find substantial evidence of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in Iraq has exposed serious weaknesses in the U.S. understanding of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat posed by its adversaries and in its ability to deal with these threats. A rancorous and highly politicized debate, primarily about the intelligence assessments of Iraqi WMD capabilities before Operation Iraqi Freedom, has dominated the national discussion of WMD in Iraq for months. Although Iraqi WMD capabilities remain elusive and, indeed, weapons may never be found, elimination operations conducted there provide important lessons.
The United States must begin to develop a permanent capability to plan for and conduct WMD elimination operations. The Department of Defense (DOD) in particular must begin to build such a capability as part of its overall approach to combating WMD proliferation. To be effective, however, DOD must work in concert with interagency partners and avoid a go-it-alone approach to this national priority.
Preserving the knowledge and experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan and translating them into effective structures and doctrine will be key challenges for military and civilian planners. Incorporating WMD elimination into early planning, ensuring access to key enabling capabilities, providing sufficient time to train units and exercise concepts, and, perhaps most importantly, following a program-centric approach to address the totality of adversary programs and stockpiles are all critical to future success.
As tensions between Iraq and the United States worsened in mid-to-late 2002 and as preparations began for Operation Iraqi Freedom, policymakers and military planners began to wrestle with the challenges posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Indeed, Iraqi defiance and deception in the face of United Nations (UN) sanctions, coupled with growing fears of WMD transfer to terrorist organizations--most prominently al Qaeda--were two primary reasons for confronting Saddam Hussein. Just as in the first Gulf War in 1991, deterring and defending against possible Iraqi use of WMD against coalition forces were key concerns for planners. However, as the crisis escalated in 2002, Department of Defense (DOD) planners began to foresee another challenge: how to remove comprehensively and permanently the threat of Iraqi WMD, not just to U.S. troops but also to the Middle East region and the world.
When faced with this challenge in late fall 2002, military planners and supporting DOD organizations realized that the comprehensive elimination of an adversary WMD program would entail far more than targeting enemy sites for destruction. A new mission, WMD elimination, was created, and planners began trying to define, adapt, and incorporate this mission into existing and developing war plans. As they did, they discovered critical gaps in U.S. preparations for dealing with a WMD-armed adversary.
While DOD made great strides over the last 10 years in improving the U.S. military's ability to fight and win in a WMD environment, far less attention was paid to the tasks of locating, understanding, and removing (or disposing of) an adversary program. In Operation Desert Storm, these tasks were not addressed until after the cease-fire agreement, and then they were handled as postconflict activities under UN management. In the leadup to Iraqi Freedom, policy and military experts disagreed about what exactly the role of the military would be; how long, if at all, it would assume primary responsibility; and when and to whom it would hand off mission responsibility.
Despite these uncertainties, planners began crafting concepts of operation to allow troops on the ground to locate, characterize, and secure Iraqi WMD and attendant development programs and delivery systems--a process that came to be known as exploitation. Even as WMD exploitation plans progressed, strategies to deal with the actual disposition or destruction of Iraqi WMD stocks, weapons, and production capabilities lagged far behind. …