From Victory to Failure the Army Study of the Iraq War, 2003-2006

By Zakheim, Dov S. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2019 | Go to article overview

From Victory to Failure the Army Study of the Iraq War, 2003-2006


Zakheim, Dov S., Naval War College Review


FROM VICTORY TO FAILURE THE ARMY STUDY OF THE IRAQ WAR, 2003-2006 Dov S. Zakheim The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, ed. Joel D. Rayburn [Col., USA] and Frank K. Sobchak [Col., USA]. Vol. 1, Invasion, Insurgency, Civil War: 2003-2006. Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2019. 742 pages. Free (e-book).

Sixteen years after the United States launched Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF), the war remains highly controversial, and American troops continue to operate in Iraq, albeit at reduced force levels and with far more-limited operational and tactical objectives. Recognizing that it was time to take stock of the Army's performance in a decade of operations, former Army Chief of Staff General Raymond T. Odierno initiated what the Army calls an "in-stride study" of the service's performance, and the lessons it should derive therefrom. The result was a massive two-volume Army War College study edited by two Army colonels, Joel D. Rayburn and Frank K. Sobchak, and supported by a large staff that conducted hundreds of hours of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of studies, memos, transcripts, and other materials, many of which were declassified specifically for the purposes of the study. The first of these two volumes addresses the run-up to the war and ends as the strategy of force reduction and handover to Iraqi units proved to be a complete failure. The study is dry and at times repetitive, but it offers an unvarnished assessment of both the Army's performance and the leadership decisions that drove strategy and operations before, during, and after the conduct of major hostilities.

Following what has become standard Pentagon procedure, both Odierno's foreword to the study and a second foreword by General Mark A. Milley, the current Army Chief of Staff and the designated successor to General Joseph F. Dunford, USMC, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, offer the reader their respective "bottom lines up front." Odierno, who had served as a division, corps, and force commander in Iraq, and therefore was able to observe the war from tactical, operational, and strategic perspectives, draws several major conclusions relating to all three levels of warfare. He bluntly observes that "those who rejected the idea that there is an operational level of war in counterinsurgency were wrong" (p. xxix). Indeed, as the report demonstrates, the Army continually committed a series of operational errors, primarily through deployment decisions that left major sectors, notably Baghdad itself, vulnerable to insurgent and sectarian attacks. These decisions stemmed from a chronic shortage of Army personnel. That shortage, as the study points out at some length, resulted both from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's desire to reduce force levels in Iraq as quickly as possible and from Army Chief of Staff General Peter J. Schoomaker's determination to "transform" Army force structure in the midst of the conflict.

Odierno also notes that the Army failed to understand the nature of the operating environment "and the local political and social consequences of our actions, especially when facing an enemy who understands the environment better than we do" (p. xxix). He adds that "when conditions on the ground change, we must be willing to reexamine the assumptions that underpin our strategy and plans and change course if necessary, no matter how painful it may be" (p. xxix). To do so, however, Odierno, as well as General George W. Casey, USA, who headed the multinational force in Iraq, and other senior Army commanders, would have had to challenge the notion that prevailed in the Pentagon well into 2005: that the opposition to the allied coalition's operations stemmed from "former regime elements" loyal to Saddam Hussein. In fact, by 2004 the coalition was facing two parallel insurgencies: one Sunni and the other Shia. The Sunnis resented what they perceived as allied favoritism toward the Shias. For their part, an element of the Shias, the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia, led by the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, pressed for the expulsion of American forces and sought to be the dominant Shia political and military entity. …

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