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Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001–2011

During the presidential election campaign of 2004, a favorite bumper sticker flaunted by unhappy voters read “Bush! Four more wars!” This characterization was unfair since the George W. Bush administration had initiated only two wars—with Afghanistan and Iraq—and they were only dramatic escalations of unfinished conflicts the new president had inherited from his father and Bill Clinton. These wars of choice, however, took on a dramatic new character after al-Qaeda’s aerial suicide attack on targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Three hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and killed almost three thousand Americans and citizens of seventy other countries in one morning. Passengers of a fourth hijacked airliner bound for the White House or Capitol building fought back and frightened the terrorists into plunging into a Pennsylvania field. The assault, known as “9/11,” not only surprised and shocked the American public, but it gave the Bush administration a defense focus it did not have and plunged the United States into what President George W. Bush called “the Global War on Terrorism.”

Largely untouched by his father’s experience in national security affairs in the twenty years before his election, Bush became commander in chief without much vision about defense. He did complain about Clinton’s defense policy, which meant the reduction of the armed forces. Clinton had also made too many commitments to misguided UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations. The Republican candidate who spoke about defense was Dick Cheney, whose four years as Secretary of Defense had hardened his prejudices more than they had sharpened his analytic sophistication. He trusted no nation that had ever been Communist, and he loathed the appeasement of any Arab leader but the oil sheikhs. Since the Gulf War, he had concluded that Saddam Hussein was a greater threat than Shi’a Iran, an avowed enemy of the U.S. since 1979. George W. Bush held similar views. Both shared a common interest in a superior nuclear force, an aggressive attack on “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) proliferation, and punishing terrorists, the instruments of rogue states.

The new secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, age sixty-nine, had similar ideas about defense policy and some very fixed ideas on how to run the Pentagon. Opinionated, pugnacious, an intellectual sponge of data he liked, Rumsfeld saw himself as a great corporate manager, based on twenty-five years as the CEO of a pharmaceutical company in his native Chicago. NutraSweet had made him wealthy and confident that he did not have to court any support for his initiatives, especially that of Congress. At heart he remained captive of the enthusiasms that had first drawn him to politics. Serving as a naval aviator after a university experience noted for his prowess as a wrestler, Rumsfeld went to Washington in 1957 and did not leave for twenty years. His résumé swelled with jobs of increasing power and influence: Congressional aide; congressman; director of the Office of Economic Opportunity; White House counselor; NATO ambassador; White House chief of staff for Gerald Ford. In 1975, Rumsfeld served as secretary of defense for fourteen months, during which time he pressed for more modern nuclear forces and less arms control. During these years, he became close to Dick Cheney. He showed great interest in technological innovation and driving senior officers, including the JCS, to teeth-clenching obedience by challenging their judgment on major weapons programs and strategy.

Rumsfeld maintained ties to the Defense Department as a consultant during the Reagan administration. He became chair of a congressional study of ballistic missile defense and related nuclear issues. He made no friends at the Pentagon by his imperious methods of information control and contempt for service technological conservatism. His experience as a Pentagon gadfly converted him to the latest intellectual rages inside the Beltway: Fourth Generation warfare, “net-centric” warfare, asymmetrical warfare, the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” and the “transformation” of the armed forces, which, to the degree it had definition, meant high-risk investment in target-acquisition technology and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) that destroyed from afar. He regarded anyone who did not embrace these ideas as disloyal and incompetent. As secretary of defense, he readily accepted Cheney disciples as influential appointees: Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, and Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen Cambone.

As secretary of defense in early 2001, Rumsfeld made clear that he did not intend to share his role as the president’s defense adviser with the chairman of the JCS. Bypassing the serving CNO for being too independent, Rumsfeld appointed General Richard B. Myers, USAF, then Vice CJCS, to succeed General Henry H. Shelton, USA, as CJCS. Myers’s experience in air warfare and space operations made him an appealing choice, but others suspected that the new CJCS would not challenge Rumsfeld’s crusade to make the Pentagon a model of innovation, whether or not the senior officers cooperated. The secretary proved his point by creating two new offices, one for “force transformation” and the other for “special plans,” to avoid the normal JCS and OSD processes. Rumsfeld proved that personal power outranked innovation by embarrassing a reformist Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki. A Hawaiian nisei who had lost part of a foot in Vietnam, Shinseki wanted to turn the Cold War or “legacy” Army into a more mobile, light, high-tech force that could put a brigade anywhere in the world in ninety-six hours and to follow with five divisions in a month. High-technology target acquisition and focused, devastating firepower would make this army unchallengeable. For example, the quick-reaction army would have no vehicle heavier than twenty tons. (The M-1 tank weighs seventy tons.) Shinseki’s vision challenged Rumsfeld’s proprietary grip on “transformation.” Rumsfeld opened an attack on Shinseki that eroded his authority. When Shinseki testified to Congress about Rumsfeld’s alteration of Iraq war plans, his replacement had already been named—more than a year in advance. Defense intellectuals thought Rumsfeld wanted to use the war in Afghanistan and a potential war in Iraq as laboratories for innovation without military opposition. Rumsfeld and Cheney had also convinced the president that an immediate increase of fiscal year 2002 defense spending by $43 billion was essential, despite a tax cut of $1.5 trillion for the years ahead. What was transformed was the national debt, which soared.

In its first ten months in office, the Bush administration managed the military commitments it inherited without a crisis. In almost every case, it reduced the commitments by agreement and because circumstances allowed withdrawal. Reporting to Congress “consistent with the War Powers Resolution,” Bush described a drawdown in East Timor in the UN mission to twelve Americans and a force reduction in the Balkans. The only bad news came from the Middle East. Operation DESERT FOX had hurt Iraq’s military infrastructure but improved its image of undeserving victim. The economic sanctions had unraveled with European and Asian countries seeking new business. Although Iraq could make legal oil deals for food and medicine, millions of illegal barrels of Iraqi oil kept pouring out through Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Jordan. When the United States and Great Britain sought more enforceable trade restrictions in the UN, France, Russia, and Egypt opposed the plan. The UN WMD inspectors did not think they would return to their weapons hunt, with or without American and British technicians, whom the Iraqis branded as spies and coup plotters. It even looked as if those great enemies, Iraq and Iran, might be collaborating in nuclear programs. American members of the UNSCOM and the IAEA inspection teams expressed concern about Iraq’s potential WMD threat, positions echoed by knowledgeable Clinton-era CIA officials and former diplomats. Whatever his motives, Saddam Hussein had made himself look like a threat.

The problem of Saddam Hussein made it difficult for the Bush administration to see other issues clearly. The influence of Iraq confrontationists, called neoconservatives or “neocons” by their critics, throughout the executive branch made it difficult for dissenting views to reach the White House. Vice President Cheney had rallied his disciples from the Nixon-Reagan years. In addition to Wolfowitz, Feith, and Cambone, whom he placed near Rumsfeld, Cheney found leverage positions for Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Kenneth Adelman, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and others. Because of her personal rapport with the president Condoleezza Rice did not slow the neocon crusade to remove Saddam Hussein as approved by Congress in the Iraqi Liberation Act (1998). Richard Clarke and CIA director George Tenant found that their warnings about al-Qaeda turned into discussions of state-sponsored terrorism, rogue nuclear programs, and Israeli security—not the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in nonstate terrorist forms. Within the Defense Department, such discussions focused on developing antiballistic missiles of great accuracy and strategic mobility that would defend the U.S. and its allies from terrorist or rogue-nation missile attacks.

In the meantime, al-Qaeda patiently planned for a sensational attack on American civilians at work in New York City and Washington. The failure of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing reached obsessive levels for Osama bin Laden and his closet operational deputy, Mohammed Atef. They turned to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti planner of the 1993 operation. Unlike most al-Qaeda leaders, Khalid had lived in the United States for years as an engineering student in the 1980s, spoke American English well, and came to loathe the United States. In 1987 he went to Pakistan for the final stages of the Soviet-Afghan war and became a committed jihadi. He helped fund the 1993 bombers and thus became identified by the FBI and CIA as a threat. He roamed the Middle East and Asia until he settled in Afghanistan in 1996 as a confidante to bin Ladin and Atef. For the next five years, Khalid thought about aerial attacks on the United States, and by early 1999 he had al-Qaeda’s blessing, money, and foreign contacts. His key associates were an Indonesian and a Saudi who had been involved in bombings in Yemen, Kenya, and Tanzania. By the end of the year, Khalid, bin Laden, and Atef concluded that of all the options, hijacking airliners and sending them on suicide attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, and the Capitol building would be just the thing to panic the United States. According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s later testimony, the only consensus target was the Capitol building.

Over the next two years, Khalid and his planning team screened and trained recruits for the suicide mission. They needed men who could fly an airliner, function in the United States without suspicion, foil the bans on weapons on aircraft, and welcome death as heroes of Islam. The first four recruits were Saudis. The next four (all former residents of Hamburg, Germany, where they learned English) came from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Yemen. Of this group, the leader became Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian with a university degree in urban planning and architectural engineering. Behind the planners stood bin Laden, who raised at least $30 million a year from Islamic donors throughout the world. (The 9/11 operation cost al-Qaeda only an estimated $500,000.) In May 2000, the “planes operation” team, nineteen members in all, began to enter the United States with legal or counterfeit visas. The operation struggled as the first team members could not speak enough English to take flying lessons. The “Hamburg Four” entered the U.S. from Europe and provided three of the four pilots. The fourth pilot was a Saudi who had lived in the United States and learned to fly because he wanted to be a commercial pilot. The four pilots, who never met as a group, wandered around the U.S. to fly at different places; some left the country and returned. They examined airline schedules, flew on recon missions, and awaited the thirteen terrorists who would seize control of the four airliners. Twelve of the hit team were Saudis; the thirteenth was a UAE citizen. They were all dependable jihadis, chosen by bin Laden and Khalid on the recommendation of mullahs and trainers. Each team would have a pilot and four crew-passenger attackers. Their weapons were box-cutters. They checked the plans with Ramzi Binalshibh, bin Laden’s personal representative and banker, who met the attackers outside the United States. He met most often with Mohammed Atta. Atta confirmed that they would hijack Boeing aircraft (easier to fly than foreign aircraft) fueled for long flights, yet close to New York and Washington. The preparations had moments of compromise. On August 16, federal agents arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, who was taking flight-training lessons in Oklahoma because one of the pilots seemed ready to back out. Unfortunately, Moussaoui knew nothing about the attack plans. At this point, the major critic of the al-Qaeda spectacular was the Taliban. Mullah Omar believed the United States would connect al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden with the attack and retaliate against al-Qaeda’s mountain fortresses in Afghanistan. He thought Israel was a better target. To placate Omar, bin Laden pledged support for a Taliban offensive against the Northern Alliance. He would assassinate Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leading Alliance general. As promised, two al-Qaeda agents, disguised as foreign journalists, killed Massoud with a camera bomb on September 9, as the four hijacking teams went to their rendezvous at Dulles, Newark, and Boston airports.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, three of the four hijacked airliners destroyed both towers of the World Trade Center and part of a wing of the Pentagon. Against a backdrop of explosions, flames, building collapses, and incredible examples of heroism and self-sacrifice, all captured on television, the American people found themselves at war. But with whom?

The Response to 9/11: Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, Afghanistan, 2001–2002

Before all the fires were extinguished and all the remains recovered, the Bush administration with public support announced its international mission: to lead all willing nations in a “war against terrorists of global reach . . . a global enterprise of uncertain duration.” Defense of the American people against violent enemies was an incontrovertible responsibility of the federal government. In his cover letter to a new study, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” written a week after 9/11, George W. Bush warned the American people that the traditional enemies of freedom, the totalitarian-militaristic states of the twentieth century, had given way to nonstate terrorists who wanted to destroy freedom everywhere and replace it with new forms of fear. Bush’s words on the nature of liberty would have pleased Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. His broad hints on how to protect the United States might have come from Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt. The United States faced a point in history, “the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” that allowed no hesitation in the face of threats. “[T]he only path to peace and security,” said Bush, “is the path of action.” The president believed that he would have to strike al-Qaeda hard, then wage preemptive war on other terrorists. Seeking a crusader to kill, Osama bin Laden had created one in Washington and set off “the Global War on Terrorism.”

The first order of business for the administration was to reorganize the executive branch to prevent other 9/11 attacks with WMD (including fuel-loaded airliners) on targets inside the United States. The truck-bomb explosions al-Qaeda had mounted abroad now seemed mere murderous annoyances when backlighted by the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center and a blackened wing of the Pentagon. Congress passed the Patriot Act (October 26, 2001), which gave Bush wide authority to reorganize the government search for terrorists. The divide between the FBI, the National Security Agency (NSA), and CIA had to be closed to share the records of thousands of phone calls, sightings, tips, purchases, financial transactions, and personal contacts that would eventually allow the identification of terrorists and divine their purposes. The post–9/11 inquiries revealed enough damning evidence to suggest that with more time the FBI and CIA would have discovered “the plane project.” Two of the pilots and one attacker, for example, had appeared on a special watch list, and their al-Qaeda contacts were being tracked. No one, not even the alarmed experts of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center of the NSC’s Counterterrorism Security Group, had a clear vision of the 9/11 operation. Evidence and instinct, however, persuaded the CIA to put threats by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in forty different President’s Daily Brief intelligence analyses between January 20 and September 11, 2001. There was not enough evidence, however, to put federal agencies on high alert.

Whatever its growing pains and organizational flaws, the Office of Homeland Security (2001–2003) evolved into a full-fledged executive department and pulled together all the federal agencies that processed the flow of people and things across America’s borders. Air travelers came to know the agents of the Transportation Security Agency. The integration of FBI and CIA information with Homeland Security traveler identification and tracking closed many of the “black holes” in tracing suspected terrorists. All these changes, useful and necessary, were like civil defense for nuclear attacks. They might deter attacks, and they limited the effects of damage, but they did not eliminate the terrorists. Nothing short of elimination would now satisfy the president and his White House–Pentagon posse of neoconservatives.

President George W. Bush told the nation on the evening of September 11 that he would use all his military, intelligence, and police capabilities to run the 9/11 killers down and “bring them to justice . . . and those who harbor them.” As Clarke and Tenant suspected, their analysis and that of foreign intelligence agencies pointed to Osama bin Laden as the source of “the plane project.” He had orchestrated the attack from Afghanistan as a guest of the Taliban. NATO agreed that the United States had suffered a foreign attack under Article Five of the NATO treaty and thus deserved the help of all NATO countries; this September 12 call to arms became more focused on October 2 when NATO made al-Qaeda the official enemy. Bush also received a congressional blessing for a retaliatory war. Without knowing exactly what Bush had in mind except action now, the Senate (98–0) and the House (420–1) gave the president the authority to hunt down the 9/11 killers in unlimited language reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964). In a televised speech to the nation on September 20, Bush identified Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the enemy, with the Taliban as an accomplice. He told his audience of the government’s actions to freeze terrorist funds, stop their travels, find their bases in foreign countries, and cut them off from foreign sponsors. He had also pressured Pakistan to break off relations with the Afghanistan government of Mullah Omar.

Even as the president spoke, the first wave of American forces prepared for an expedition to Afghanistan. Three carrier battle groups and two Marine amphibious battalions assembled in the Arabian Sea. On September 30 a fourth carrier sailed from Japan with U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALS, Air Force special operations forces and helicopters, and part of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) helicopter force embarked. Another group of 1,000 was bound by plane for the Karshi Kandabad (K2) base in Uzbekistan. The advance party of Joint Special Operations Task Force Dagger from the 5th Special Forces Group had arrived there by aircraft by October 1. The CIA already had agents in northern Afghanistan planning operations with the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Northern Alliance Tajik generals to the east who had succeeded the murdered General Massoud. In their first trips into Afghanistan, the CIA operators had two weapons: A fleet of assorted drones for target acquisition and backpacks stuffed with thousands of dollars. They also knew the Northern Alliance leaders and spoke Pashto and Dari, the Afghan common languages. They arranged the first air strikes at night (October 7) and during daylight (October 15) and maintained contact with British SAS teams already in central Afghanistan. Appropriately for a “transformed” force, the first combat loss was a reconnaissance drone. Assured that K2 would be defended by a 10th Mountain Division battalion deployed from Fort Drum, New York, teams from the 5th SFG entered Afghanistan by helicopter on October 19 to start the decisive campaign.

In five months (October 2001–March 2002), Operation ENDURING FREEDOM displaced the Taliban government in Afghanistan and drove al-Qaeda to new sanctuaries in Pakistan and throughout the Middle East. The elusive but talkative Osama bin Laden remained on the run in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, chiding the Americans on Arab TV for not catching him. For a quick victory with few American deaths (twelve in combat, eighteen in accidents), Operation ENDURING FREEDOM seemed to validate the American military “transformation.” The marriage of elite, high-tech ground forces, connected by satellite communications with the Air Force JSTARS command-targeting aircraft and the Global Hawk and Predator drones, could bring devastating air strikes, pinpointed by GPS devices, upon the Afghan armies. The campaign provided an illusion of easy victory in Washington and a taste for more victories.

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Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army’s Role in Peace Enforcement Operations, 1995–2004

As TF Dagger prepared for war, the CIA sought a viable Pashtun leader to organize a coalition to lead the southern campaign against the Taliban. The first choice was Abdul Haq, a hero of the anti-Soviet resistance. When Abdul Haq entered Afghanistan with a small band of followers, someone betrayed him to the Taliban, who hanged him publicly on October 26. A last-minute CIA effort to save Haq with a Predator drone attack failed. The CIA looked in vain for a replacement until Hamid Karzai, a former diplomat in exile in Pakistan, agreed to start a Southern Alliance. Assessing the future, Karzai mused that Afghanistan was a luckless country.

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Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army’s Role in Peace Enforcement Operations, 1995–2004

As extemporized by COMCENTCOM, General Tommy Franks, U.S. Army, an acerbic Texan artilleryman who pandered to superiors and terrified subordinates, ENDURING FREEDOM went through two phases. From mid-October until early December, TF Dagger, commanded by Colonel John Mulholland, joined Northern Alliance forces armed with Soviet weapons and mounted on horses and any truck that could run. Together they captured a northern tier of key cities (Mazar-e-Sharif, Taloqan, and Konduz) in a series of long marches and brief battles. The basic operational approach was to use Northern Alliance irregulars (Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks) to force Taliban units to concentrate, only to be savaged by American air strikes. By the end of November high-altitude B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s had dropped 80 percent of the bomb tonnage, unseen and unheard by their victims. The Special Forces advance teams and Air Force strike controllers pressed the attacks by their Afghan allies. In one battle General Dostum ordered his SF team out of the front lines. He feared, he said, that if one of them should die, all of the Americans would go home. In the meantime, the air strikes encouraged major Taliban defections in the north.

The first territorial objective of ENDURING FREEDOM, the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, demonstrated, in Pentagon-speak, the efficacy of the new operational paradigm, proved by the metrics. Translation: It worked. As it closed on Mazar-e-Sharif with Dostum’s Northern Alliance army, TF Dagger sent another group for Bagram air base, eighty miles north of Kabul, while a third group marched east toward the Taliban stronghold at Konduz. The simultaneous sieges of Mazar-e-Sharif and Bagram produced dramatic results. Despite an infusion of al-Qaeda regulars and the Taliban’s use of Soviet rockets and artillery, air strikes destroyed hundreds of entrenched Taliban until the survivors surrendered or fled. On November 10 Dostum’s army entered a jubilant Mazar-e-Sharif; two days later an Uzbek-Tajik army and their bearded SF advisers entered Kabul. While Bagram rapidly transformed into a forward base, a battalion of the 75th Infantry (the Ranger Regiment) and a detachment of Task Force Delta raided Taliban headquarters south of Kandahar, searching in vain for Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda leaders. There was one score. On November 16 an armed Predator drone killed Mohammed Atef with a missile fired into a fleeing truck. The Northern Alliance offensives stalled when the prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif rebelled and set off a five-day battle (November 24–29) that ended in the aerial slaughter of the rebels. Nevertheless, the Northern Alliance army had already captured Konduz on November 21 despite some heavy fighting with al-Qaeda regulars.

Operation ENDURING FREEDOM had endured and freed about half of Afghanistan and the city of Kabul. It had broken part of the Taliban army and outfought the al-Qaeda mujahideen, but the Pashtun provinces of the south and the regional stronghold of Kandahar remained unoccupied. CIA agents had helped organize two small (less than 200) anti-Taliban Pashtun forces called the Southern Alliance, but Taliban units had attacked and isolated them. The best of al-Qaeda’s fighters, protecting Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, faded back into the eastern mountain ranges on the Pakistani border, where they could occupy caves, tunnels, bunkers, weapons pits, and concrete-reinforced shelters that had foiled Soviet air and ground attacks. TF Dagger and the Afghans bypassed the al-Qaeda sanctuaries (about which they knew much) in order to rescue the Southern Alliance guerrillas and capture Kandahar. One key mission was to save a small band of Southern Alliance fighters led by Hamid Karzai, whose major appeal was his status as an authentic anti-Taliban Pashtun and fluent English speaker. The best news was that a brigade of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) would soon arrive, and more Special Forces had already reached Bagram, but the urgency of operations into Pashtunland meant that TF Dagger and its shrinking Afghan force would have to take Kandahar. Meanwhile, Task Force 58 created a base, Camp Rhino, southwest of Khandahar on November 24, where it was joined by more Navy SEALS, Navy Seabees, and Army and Australian Special Forces. The Marine mission was to pressure the Taliban and to prevent them from freely moving about the country.

The battle for Kandahar produced some tense moments, since the Southern Alliance Pashtuns did not rally in adequate numbers or possess the skills to fight the best warriors of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While they had no love for “Afghan Arabs” or the most fanatical Taliban, many southern Afghans preferred cautious and armed neutrality. Nevertheless, two American Special Forces teams infiltrated into the region and organized the Southern Alliance into two groups to assault the city. Accompanied by a Special Forces team to coordinate movements and air strikes, Karzai’s small group attacked toward Khandahar from the north, while another anti-Taliban group, headed by Gul Sherzai, assaulted from the south. Undermanned, TF Dagger and their Afghan allies faced not only hardcore al-Qaeda and Taliban mujahideen but thousands of new jihadis who joined the war from Pakistan. On December 5, a misdirected air strike killed three Americans and wounded eight. Among the six dead and forty wounded Afghans was Hamid Karzai, named the next head of the Afghan government by an exile council in Bonn, Germany. The siege of Kandahar dragged on until December 7, when Taliban troops finally agreed to a surrender and an amnesty proposal, which they used to buy time, then broke out and escaped by the hundreds. The Marines captured Khandahar airport on December 13. In the meantime, another American-Afghan force had taken up the chase of bin Laden.

Even as parts of TF Dagger headed for Kandahar and finished off Konduz, CENTCOM focused on the bin Laden mission while at the same time increasing the American ground units inside Afghanistan. The units that streamed in to manage Bagram and two other airbases were not shooters but, rather, engineers, technicians, communicators, staffs, MPs, and electronic and ordnance specialists. With battles waging around them, four Army and two Marine battalions guarded the bases. Then allies began to arrive: a Royal Marine commando battalion and one Canadian infantry battalion. The separate CENTCOM Special Operations Command swelled with SEALS, Australian SAS, and more Special Forces teams. To sort out ENDURING FREEDOM, General Franks asked for help and received the Third Army headquarters (Lieutenant General Paul T. Mikolashek, USA) for deployment to Kuwait. He then named Mikolashek a Combined Forces Land Component Commander (CFLCC) but not commander of Special Operations Forces (SOF) or the air component. The former group, TF Bowie, included a small army of electronic intelligence experts and analysts. Just controlling Bagram alone proved too complex, so CENTCOM formed another center of decision, CFLCC (Forward), at K2 under Major General F.L. “Buster” Hagenbeck, commander of the 10th Mountain Division. None of this reorganization put more dependable troops in the field, in part because TF Dagger did not want them.

Amid all the sound and fury from Konduz to Kandahar, Afghan sources and special operations analysts concluded that Osama bin Laden and his entourage had gone to ground in the Tora Bora region of the White Mountains, some forty-five miles southwest of a former Taliban stronghold, Jalalabad. American air strikes began against an estimated 1,000 al-Qaeda regulars on November 28. Even with plenty of Special Forces/USAF fire controllers, the only unit General Franks would commit to assault Tora Bora was an indifferent Afghan force of 800 under a local warlord. For two weeks the SF spotters and all the target identifiers the USAF could find directed aerial ordnance onto Tora Bora’s defense complex. The Air Force used all its ordnance, from a one-ton precision-guided penetrator to a seven-ton BLU 82 air-fuel exploder that burned and smothered anyone within a hundred yards of the burst. Yet every reluctant Southern Alliance advance halted in the face of deadly mortar and machine-gun fire. Ground taken during the day changed hands at night. When resistance faded away by December 16, the SF-Afghan investigators estimated that they had killed perhaps 200–300 diehard fighters who had covered the escape of al-Qaeda’s leaders and 700–800 elite jihadis into Pakistan. Osama bin Laden had indeed been in the Tora Bora complex, and he boasted about his escape to his global admirers. No one had a better chance to kill or capture him for a decade. Critics wondered whether a Ranger battalion or airmobile battalion might have made a difference in the assault or blocking escape routes, a proposal vetoed by Franks.

Even as Alliance forces and their SOF advisers chased remnants of the Taliban and the operations in Tora Bora withered away, the American forces and their NATO allies shifted to Phase IV operations, meaning humanitarian relief and UN-NATO peacekeeping. The Americans maintained their force autonomy, but NATO contingents fell under British command as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which by March 2002 numbered 4,900 troops (one-third British) from eighteen nations. The numbers and nationalities made coalition cooperation a nightmare. Different rules-of-engagement did not help. Intertribal warfare now poisoned peacekeeping; USAF jets destroyed a convoy of Afghan elders (sixty-five dead) when a warlord said they were Taliban. They were not. One could sense victory but not peace. The senior Air Force officers counted sorties flown (17,000) and ordnance dropped (6,500 strike missions, 17,500 weapons used). The Navy’s carrier air had flown the most missions, but the Air Force had dropped the most bombs and rockets, and PGMs had been 65 percent of the total. These were statistics that Donald Rumsfeld loved to describe at press conferences. The humanitarian relief workers counted tons of food delivered and Afghans inoculated. The U.S. Army counted bridges and roads repaired. There were other, more worrisome statistics: Afghans killed by accident and prisoners misidentified and unscreened for too long.

The toxic mixture of intelligence interrogations and the criminal prosecutions of terrorists drove the Bush administration from its self-defined moral high ground in its handling of captured suspected terrorists. During the Afghanistan campaign, U.S. forces captured 5,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Most Afghans stayed in Afghanistan for screening. Non-Afghan fighters, representing thirty or more different countries, presented a special problem. Had they been treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, they would have enjoyed legal protections assumed by the Detaining Power and would eventually have had to be returned to their native lands for disposition. Some native lands would have tried them for criminal acts; Australia actually did convict one returnee. Other countries did not want them or wanted them immediately for execution. Some countries wanted them back in order to release them and let them return to the war. That too happened. Moreover, a POW enjoys protection (enforced by International Red Cross inspectors) against extended interrogations that apply various forms of coercion (sleep and food deprivation) and torture. Yet American and foreign intelligence officers wanted to use coercive methods against al-Qaeda captives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the 9/11 planner) in order to roll up al-Qaeda’s complex international network.

After some imaginative legal interpretations by Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration announced that its captives were neither POWs nor criminals under American law since they were (with one exception) not American citizens and had not been captured on American soil. They did not belong to a national army. They were “detainees.” To make sure the detainees did not go to American soil, where they might fall under all kinds of legal protections, the administration established a prison camp at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba (GTMO), occupied under an expired lease agreement signed in 1903. At first a primitive tent camp, the GTMO facility evolved in 2002 into a camp that met IRC standards. Behind the scenes, however, CIA and military interrogators used coercive interrogation measures (approved in Washington) until news of these interrogations leaked in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. What emerged from the exposure of illegal practices at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and GTMO was the news that torture, including “waterboarding” or the use of threatened drowning, was also a common practice at secret interrogation centers run by the CIA in foreign countries. The “rendition” issue further eroded public support for the Global War on Terrorism.

The Bush administration tried to salvage something from the GTMO fiasco by claiming that it had extracted time-urgent information that foiled terrorist attacks, a claim challenged by FBI, NCIS, and Army CID agents at Guantanamo. Since only a handful of detainees had such information and its usefulness quickly vanished, this argument impressed only true believers, led by Vice President Cheney. As the screening continued, the number of detainees shrank. Of the 780 “persons of interest” sent to GTMO, 415 had been repatriated to some other nation by 2007, and eighty more were scheduled for release. When the first detainee conviction for terrorist crimes by a military tribunal reached the Supreme Court—after lower courts ruled that U.S. military tribunals fell under Supreme Court jurisdiction, as they had after World War II—the Court in June 2006 ruled that the detainees (“enemy” or “non-enemy”) were combatants and could be tried for war crimes only by an international tribunal. Hounded by the Justice Department, Congress in October 2006 passed the Military Commission Act, which allowed the armed forces to try terrorists under international law but with extensive restrictions against the abuse of individual rights. Military lawyers determined they had twenty-four triable suspects, but two more cases were dismissed, and the prosecutions ended for awhile.

Amid all the Phase IV activities, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda elite remained at large somewhere in the mountains. If his hideaway was in Afghanistan, he could be attacked. The Special Forces of TF Dagger and a second special operations group built on the 3rd Special Forces Group, SEALS, and Commonwealth special forces (TF K-Bar) prowled the mountains with the Afghanis. They concluded that al-Qaeda had reestablished itself in a mountain complex (8,000 to 12,000 feet) south of Tora Bora in an area known as the Gardiz-Shah-e-Kot valley region. The number of al-Qaeda fighters in the region might run as high as 1,000. Whether or not Osama bin Laden and his headquarters had chosen this refuge was uncertain, but it was certainly the largest surviving al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan. In March 2002, American tactical forces launched Operation ANACONDA, a maximum effort most notable for the mismatch between the available troops and the demanding missions. Commanded by General Hagenbeck of the 10th Mountain Division, the core forces of TF Mountain were about 1,200 Afghans in four small battalions with Special Forces advisers, a group of 800 semi-autonomous Special Forces soldiers and SEALs, and a three-battalion U.S. Army light infantry brigade. Transport and gunship helicopters came from the 101st Aviation Regiment. The scarcity and character of the ground forces dictated a phased hammer-and-anvil operation in which air strikes would do most of the killing. The largest Afghan force would travel overland from the northeast and attack an enemy complex nestled against Tif Ghal Gar Mountain, which separated the lower and upper Shah-e-Kot valleys. The passes that linked the valleys would be blocked by three other Afghan units. The three U.S. Army battalions and Special Forces units would fly by helicopter to critical terrain where they could direct air strikes and fight any enemy units trying to move between the two valleys. The enemy would be formidable, armed with Soviet artillery, RPGs, machine guns, and small arms. The GIs had no artillery support and had inadequate contact with USAF strike aircraft. The mission itself was appropriate: to eliminate the most menacing Taliban groups still in Afghanistan. There was also a competing mission: Get the al-Qaeda leaders.

The mythical “Mr. Murphy” who uses his powers to frustrate human activities reigned supreme in ANACONDA. The eighteen-day struggle left TF Mountain in control of the battlefield with a tactical victory, March 1–19, 2002. General Franks called ANACONDA a great victory, although the local commanders knew it was more limited. The battle started badly when poor roads, an errant USAF air attack, and enemy mortar and machine-gun fire stopped the main Afghan assault force on the first day. The first American troop insertions came under immediate and accurate mortar and machine-gun fire and had to fight to hold their small mountain enclaves. Apache helicopters and bomber strikes prevented disaster, but logistical flights and medevacs became perilous, and succeeding troop lifts did not occur. More jihadis joined the battle, coiling in around the hilltop positions. Then night came, and the enemy withdrew to eat, drink, and sing about their own heroism around their fires. In the meantime, TF Mountain regrouped, concentrated its American units, and changed the plans so that the GIs would sweep the mountains and valleys with Special Forces calling air strikes from one craggy peak to another, moving by helicopter. The Special Forces still had a competing mission: to find and kill al-Qaeda’s leaders in the same zone as the U.S. infantry brigade.

“Murphy’s Law” intervened on D+2 when ground fire and thin air brought down one SF helo, and in the rescue operation under fire, a SEAL was left behind. More rescue operations tied up much of TF Mountain’s fire support, gave jihadis a focus of attack, and eventually cost the lives of seven servicemen and resulted in wounds for seven more. Sharp peaks, thin air, and RPGs created a small Mogadishu II. Not until March 6 did ANACONDA take sound tactical form, and by then the enemy survivors were over the hills and far away. The operation became much searching and little destroying, but at least the Shah-e-Kot region had been occupied and turned over to Afghan forces. TF Mountain and its air supporters estimated enemy losses at 700; subsequent analysis put the dead at far fewer. The stubborn, skilled enemy resistance made intelligence analysts believe that the area sheltered Osama bin Laden, but it did not. Instead, the Shah-e-Kot valley had been a rallying point for a defense force of dedicated Taliban, al-Qaeda Arabs, and expatriate Uzbek rebels, all eager to kill infidels.

Operation ANACONDA closed the liberation phase of ENDURING FREEDOM and opened the stabilization phase of the UN-NATO-United States intervention in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai soon became the president of the new Afghanistan; but, protected by foreign soldiers, he was more warlord than the next George Washington. Except for the regional experts who knew better, the Pentagon thought the latest war for Afghanistan had ended.

The remnants of al-Qaeda and the inner elite of the Taliban had crossed the indistinct border into official Pakistan, in reality the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a ten-thousand-square-mile borderlands and the home of four million Pashtun Afghans. The Pakistani government followed a “live and let live” policy with the Afghans, who had fled the Soviets and then fought them from the FATA sanctuaries. The Pakistani army, particularly the ISI, maintained good relations with the Afghans, especially a private army led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban Pashtun warlord who hated Karzai and the Americans. Any attacks into the FATA by drones or Special Forces could cause a crisis with Pakistan.

Following Operation ANACONDA, CENTCOM refined the American command structure and operational concepts for stabilizing Afghanistan. In May 2002, General Franks established Combined Joint Task Force 180, formed around the 18th Airborne Corps and commanded by Lieutenant General Dan McNeil. Special Forces teams began to organize the first battalions of a nascent Afghan army at roughly the same time. This mission was eventually transferred to CJTF 180 headed by the 10th Mountain Division. Mirroring the Bush administration’s reluctance to engage in nation-building or peacekeeping, a “light footprint” became the basis for American commitment. Troop levels were kept low and oriented primarily toward combat and special operations. The light footprint allowed combat forces to raid and clear objectives, but not hold any ground for significant periods. Insufficient American forces and inadequate Afghan military and police forces enabled the Taliban and al-Qaeda to infiltrate back into Afghanistan from sanctuaries in Pakistan in succeeding years.

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, 2001–2003

For President George W. Bush, tutored by Vice President Cheney and the bellicose neoconservatives, there could be no “global war on terrorism” without a preventive war with Iraq. Had the administration wanted to select one nation to attack as a sponsor of state-supported terrorism, the CIA and State Department could have provided a long list of candidates. The list would have included Iran, Cuba, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and North Korea. The United States in 2001 did not face an immediate threat from any of these states, especially the worst case threat of weapons of mass destruction transferred to terrorists. Iraq was no different. Its sin was that it was governed by a despicable tyrant, Saddam Hussein, whose sadism toward his own people rivaled that of Josef Stalin. Saddam Hussein had ordered the execution of thousands, including two sons-in-law, for treachery and disloyalty. His sons Uday and Qusay inherited their father’s taste for torture and debasement. His inner circle of ministers, advisers, and generals shared his megalomania or kept their places through sycophancy of the highest order. The regime had a well-earned reputation for duplicity, evasion, corruption, and contempt for international norms. It had killed Iranians, Kurds, and Shi’a Arabs with poison gas. It had launched missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia. On top of all of these offenses, Saddam Hussein had targeted the Bush family for attack and had ridiculed the president’s father as a weak, ineffectual leader and a tool of international Jewry.

Taking his own counsel, which he admitted rested on his religious convictions and intuition, George W. Bush decided after becoming president that he would rid the world of Saddam Hussein, which already had congressional sanction in 1998. Bush made several public statements about his mission to remove “evil” tyrants and destroy governments that sponsored terrorists. Bush’s instincts took more stimulus from Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neoconservatives in the national security system. Even before 9/11 the White House had investigated what a global war on terrorism might entail. For a president impatient with the complexities of foreign policy, the national security analyses provided little comfort. No other government (not even Israel’s) had much stomach for redefining the continuing struggle against terrorism as a war upon a particular state, including Iraq. Even after the shock of 9/11 and the start of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, the Bush administration found little international interest in making Iraq Target Number One for international action. Instead, the consensus, communicated by the State Department and CIA, was that Saddam Hussein’s days were numbered and that his ability to attack his neighbors had been largely, if not completely, destroyed. Saddam was “contained.” The president did not accept these reassurances.

From the summer of 2001 until the start of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on March 19, 2003, the Bush administration did not debate about getting rid of Saddam Hussein but on how to justify a preventive war if needed. Its argument was that Saddam Hussein’s regime should be destroyed before it used WMD to destroy others. To win congressional acquiescence, which he needed, and to receive UN sanction, which he did not really want, Bush had to persuade the public that Iraq was a charter member of “the axis of evil” of state-supported terrorism that he intended to destroy. In meetings on September 17–20, 2001, Bush defined military invasion as the only sure instrument to remove Saddam Hussein, since all other forms of coercion had failed. The president also continued to ask intelligence officers about connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda. There were none of any consequence. Encouraged by Rumsfeld and Cheney, Bush began to doubt that the State Department and the CIA knew much about Iraq, even though three other agencies (the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Security Agency) reported to George Tenant in his dual role as Director of Central Intelligence. Bush allowed Rumsfeld to create an Office of Special Plans, the mission of which was to review all intelligence agency reports, which was really Tenant’s responsibility or that of the NSC staff. Condoleezza Rice, however, did not challenge Rumsfeld’s ploy, probably because she knew Bush and Cheney saw its utility in manipulating the case against Iraq. It was useful to make Bush look as if he were weighing all sorts of anti-Saddam options, which he was not. The administration also wanted to ensure that the UN and IAEA inspectors did not reduce the level of threat Iraq posed with WMD, since the seizure and destruction of WMD was the only issue that could rally skeptics and supporters.

The administration went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the UN and any other source of expertise and legitimacy did not weaken the WMD case against Iraq. It reinterpreted UNSCOM and IAEA reports to produce positive (not tentative) evidence of renewed Iraqi nuclear programs. It encouraged journalists and public figures to study its analyses and to learn that European nations also had alarmist views. It deliberately leaked classified analysis conducted by Cheney loyalists in the Pentagon, as well as a pessimistic CIA study of Iraqi WMD, completed in October 2002. It accepted specious evidence of Iraqi international efforts to create nuclear weapons. The Office of Special Plans became an enthusiastic patron of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, whose leader, Ahmed Chalabi, had not lived in Iraq for forty years but who claimed to have incontrovertible evidence of Iraqi WMD from agents and defectors. The INC certainly saw itself as the heir apparent for the next Iraqi government. Powell and Rice had reservations about the WMD cover story, but neither, for reasons personal and political, went public with their doubts.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had no doubts that there would be a war, and he wanted it to demonstrate the importance of “transformation” in the American way of war. The first CENTCOM contingency plan he examined in late 2001 looked like DESERT STORM II. He did not like it. Neither did the CENTCOM commander, General Tommy Franks, who found himself caught between cautious planners and an incautious boss. In fact, the proposed expeditionary force was half the size of its 1990–1991 predecessor. So too was the Iraqi army—and its equipment status was even worse than it had been in the Gulf War. The new CENTCOM force would have been 380,000, although Franks thought perhaps 275,000 could produce the “shock and awe” Rumsfeld favored. The optimism about the weakness of the Iraqi armed forces was well founded. Years of undercover persuasion convinced the CIA and JCS that the Iraqi regular army and even most of the regular Republican Guard would not fight and could be purchased with money, amnesty, and future employment. Rumsfeld believed that the force envisioned in Op Plan 1003V was still too large and would take too long to deploy to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It would require too much logistical support and be much too expensive. Rumsfeld and Franks shared one romantic assumption: that this allied force (including a British division) would crush the Iraqi army and Republican Guard, then turn around and go home, cheered by the Iraqis whom the allies had liberated. As for the air campaign, it would begin with the ground war, not with a prolonged and preparatory “strategic” phase. The most revealing part of the planning was the absence of troops for rear-area security, for the extended support of an occupation force, for civil affairs and policing, for emergency engineering and public health missions, and for restoring some sort of Iraqi government, collectively known at the Pentagon as Phase IV operations. The only serious attention to follow-on troops was the formation of teams to find WMD, a force of over 600 formed in early 2003. Rumsfeld rejected the State Department plan for nation-building. His response was to create an Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, headed by retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, USA, who had directed similar missions after the Gulf War. Rumsfeld’s lack of concern for Phase IV operations shocked anyone who understood the anarchy that would follow a tyrant’s fall.

For all its crusading self-confidence, the Bush administration saw the advantage of winning allies to its cause. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government became its primary prospective ally. Great Britain offered small but competent armed forces; its diplomats and intelligence officers had skill and experience in dealing with the Arab world. The British connection ensured leverage in NATO and the UN. Even American skeptics valued Blair’s potential influence on Bush in slowing the rush to war. The charming PM did not disappoint. Over much of 2002, Blair and his diplomats negotiated the preconditions for Great Britain’s participation and identified the flaws in the American planning. To the degree that the administration could recruit allies and international cooperation—essential to winning over or neutralizing the elite U.S. foreign policy establishment and media—it owed a debt to Great Britain. The British argued that the WMD issue had to be central to the justification for war, and Iraq had to be seen as a clear and present danger. Regime change was a means to that end, not an end in itself. What kind of regime would replace Saddam Hussein? The official “Cabinet Paper on Iraq” (July 2002) reported little American planning for postwar Iraq. The British thought that the UN-IAEA inspectors needed one more trip to Iraq if Saddam Hussein would permit it. If he did not, then he had clearly violated nine UN Security Council resolutions on WMD disarmament. The last British concern was that the Bush government would never find an Iraqi–al-Qaeda connection because none existed.

As the Bush administration prepared for war, Saddam Hussein retreated further and further into his own fantasy world. He believed that the United States would not attack because Americans lacked the will to take casualties. His forces could and would kill so many Americans that any Desert Storm II offensive would stall well short of Baghdad. He allowed no one in his inner circle to question his delusions. He also believed that France and Russia, his allies, would deter the United States from displacing him because that was in their economic interests. He planned to save his oil wells and air forces for another postwar rebirth. The WMD threat may have been real to Saddam Hussein and other true believers like his sons, but the missiles, warheads, and deadly chemicals were scattered, hidden, forgotten, decaying, and never existed, although few Iraqis outside of Chemical Ali’s circle knew it. The Iraqi high command was so stacked with loyalists that the generals could easily assume someone else’s part of the armed forces had real capability. Information-sharing was an invitation to disgrace and death. The Iraqi Military Industrial Commission filed reports that suggested a WMD program existed, for that ensured its flow of money.

Iraqi defense planning reflected fear of a military coup as well as a popular revolt. Iraqi ground troops deployed in two broad rings around Baghdad but concentrated to the north and south of the capital. The weak regular army divisions clustered around Mosul to the north (nine divisions) and Basra in the south (six divisions). The inner circle put two Republican Guard divisions in the north, none in the south. The inner ring around metropolitan Baghdad held four Republican Guard divisions, one Guard brigade, and one regular brigade. The one Special Republican Guard division defended the offices and palaces of downtown Baghdad. The new paramilitary militias had special areas to defend under the most loyal Baath Party officials. Any commander who lost an engagement risked immediate execution. The towns and cities in the Tigris-Euphrates valley bulged with infantry weapons and ammunition, issued by Baath officials so the loyal Sunni militia could crush Kurds, Shi’a, dissident Sunnis, and foreign invaders. The roads to Baghdad ran through these towns and over their bridges.

In the autumn of 2002 a war with Iraq looked certain despite reservations within the Bush administration and Congress. In October the White House asked for a use of force resolution that would allow Bush to use the armed forces as he judged best to meet “the continuing threat” posed by Iraq. The Senate vote was 77–21 in favor of the resolution, while in the House the affirmative vote was 296–139. Neither vote represented the same ringing endorsement of the previous year for the war in Afghanistan. In December the administration released a special White House study, “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which argued that a war against WMD would be a high priority (perhaps the highest) for American defense planning. There was a distinct emphasis on the concept that an immediate threat demanded immediate action. With some dismay, however, the administration had to live with a UN initiative to return to Iraq for more WMD inspections. In September 2002, after Bush’s UN speech on enforcing the UN resolutions on disarming Iraq, Saddam Hussein accepted a new UNMOVIC-IAEA inspection group. The inspectors returned to Iraq on November 27, 2002, and left one day before the war started on March 19, 2003. The nuclear investigators of IAEA made 237 visits to 148 sites, including 231 new ones, and found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. The UNMOVIC teams conducted 731 inspections and found evidence of chemical and biological warfare preparation and missile activity, but most (if not all) had been wrecked by DESERT FOX and not reactivated. The inspectors could have found an Iraq barren of all WMD capability, but by 2003 only Saddam Hussein’s abject surrender could have stopped a war. Inside his cocoon of delusion, Saddam Hussein, the Lion of Tikrit, awaited an American attack he would defeat as he had the attack in 1991.

For General Franks and CENTCOM, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) had become only a matter of timing. Plans for the ground offensive, named COBRA II for its 1944 Normandy predecessor, called for a combined, simultaneous air-ground attack that would halt only with the capture of Baghdad and the fall of the Iraqi government. The principal operational challenge was the defeat of the Republican Guard. Iraq was divided into three operational zones. For the north and south, speed was of the essence in order to save the Kurds and Shi’a from slaughter and to prevent the Iraqis from destroying their oil fields, the golden goose for financing reconstruction. The northern area would be assaulted from three directions: the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) under Major General Raymond T. Odierno from Turkey, a Special Forces task force with the Kurdish partisans (the pesh merga) from the northeast, and the 101st Air Assault Division (Major General David Petraeus, USA) by helicopter from the southwestern desert. The southern region was the objective of the British 1st Armored Division (Major General Robin Brims) and focused on Basra and its nearby oil fields. If necessary, this force could be reinforced from the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Lieutenant General James T. Conway, USMC). The capture of Baghdad became the mission of the U.S. Army V Corps (Lieutenant General William L. Wallace, USA), the principal arm of the Combined Forces Land Component Command (Lieutenant General David D. McKiernan, USA). The other major part of the Baghdad offensive was the I MEF’s 1st Marine Division (Major General James Mattis, USMC). The I MEF’s air task force from the 1st and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wings flew fixed-wing missions as part of the Combined Forces Air Component Command (CFACC), but its helicopters stayed under direct Marine control. An additional Marine brigade remained afloat in reserve. The last element would be a Special Forces task force, rich in electronics, that would scour the desert between Jordan and Baghdad for WMD sites and pretend to be a mechanized force driving toward the capital from the west, a contingency the Russians emphasized in advising the Iraqis. Even with the development of Kuwait as a base area since 1991, the OIF forces needed six months to assemble in the Gulf region.

The massing of the U.S.-British expeditionary force concerned its senior commanders. As the planners studied the requirements of desert and urban warfare for a mobile, mechanized American army and calculated the logistical and security problems of supporting this force from Kuwaiti bases hundreds of miles away, the generals doubted that they had enough of the right troops. The problems ran back to Rumsfeld and his neocon disciples, whose basic assumption was that the Iraqis would not fight to save Saddam Hussein. They overlooked the Iraqis’ history of fighting any foreign invader, however hopelessly. As General Franks’s protests weakened in the face of Secretary Rumsfeld’s hectoring, the COBRA II troop list shrank. Bush had set an arbitrary limit of 200,000 for the force, and Rumsfeld made even deeper cuts. Had the Army had its way, it would have added the 1st Cavalry Division or the 1st Armored Division or both to the CFLCC. It managed to get two armored cavalry regiments and the 82nd Airborne Division added, but as late arrivals. When Turkey objected to allowing the 4th Infantry Division to launch an offensive from its territory, the division diverted to Iraq, but not in time for the invasion. The commanders felt further shocks when, despite the awesome logistical effort in Kuwait, Rumsfeld limited the number of service support units sent to the theater and cut back the reserve mobilization. For example, planners estimated that CFLCC might have to handle over 100,000 enemy prisoners of war (EPW), but V Corps controlled only one small MP brigade until it received a patchwork National Guard MP brigade that was supposed to provide traffic and police services in Kuwait. The troop shortages did not seem fatal to the COBRA II drive to Baghdad, but the planners worried about the pacification of all Iraq and Phase IV operations. CENTCOM war games until 2003 predicted the need for 300,000 troops. On March 19, CFLCC went to war with 122,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines and 21,000 members of the British armed forces.

In terms of its broad strategic mission, destroying the organized Iraqi armed forces and any WMD in their possession and displacing the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM fulfilled its champions’ most optimistic expectations. Victory, officially announced by President Bush on the flight deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, meant the end of “major combat operations.” “Mission Accomplished!” the banner above Bush trumpeted. The president admitted that Iraq still presented reconstruction problems, the understatement of the decade. From the first air strikes on March 19 to the disappearance of the Special Republican Guard in Baghdad, the CFLCC with awesome air support ruined the Iraqi national, uniformed armed forces. Driving M-1A2 tanks, Bradley tracked fighting vehicles, and armed HUMVEES (a super Jeep), the 3rd Infantry Division broke over the border sand berm on March 20 and refueled its tanks in downtown Baghdad on April 7.

No contingency plan ever works exactly as planned, but COBRA II came close. The war started a day early because Bush approved a decapitating air strike on a Baath compound called Dora Farms. Intelligence analysts put the Hussein family there for a meeting, and the president could not resist ordering two USAF F-117A stealth fighter-bombers to destroy Dora Farms with precision-guided penetrating bombs, followed by a barrage of cruise missiles. People died, but not the Hussein males. Hours before the president told the world that the United States would lead a coalition force into Iraq, Special Operations Forces were on the ground on their missions, and the skies filled with aircraft and drones looking for targets and ruining any Iraq air-defense radars with electronic jamming. Assured of friendly skies, the CFACC aircraft went for the targets throughout Iraq ahead of the ground forces.

Images

Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army’s Role in Peace Enforcement Operations, 1995–2004

Remembering the confusions of the “scud hunt” of 1991, Central Command deployed more than twenty batteries of the improved Patriot air defense missile from four Air Defense Artillery brigades to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and Israel. If the Iraqi nuclear threat was exaggerated, CENTCOM had to assume that its forces might face tactical ballistic missiles with high explosive, chemical, and biological warheads. It was a sound precaution. Between March 20 and April 3, the Iraqis launched seventeen missiles at CENTCOM bases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. One missile fell to a Patriot of the 43rd Air Defense Artillery Brigade only three miles from CFLCC headquarters. Patriots destroyed eight other Iraqi missiles. The eight unintercepted missiles, carefully tracked, fell apart or landed without causing harm.

Among the many skills of the U.S. Air Force is its ability to amass statistics that measure effort accurately, if not destruction. The air war of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was no exception, and there is little doubt, by Iraqi testimony, that air attacks seriously limited Iraqi movement and destroyed units. There was virtually no effective Iraqi air defense. The Iraqis fired antiaircraft gun batteries 1,224 times and launched 1,660 antiair missiles. They downed six helicopters and one aircraft. Thirteen more aircraft fell to operational accidents. Sorting through all the statistics, the CFACC counters decided their 1,800 aircraft had flown 41,000 combat sorties. Half of the aircraft came from the Air Force, about half from naval aviation. The British, Canadian, and Australian air forces contributed 138 aircraft that flew 3,000 sorties. The CFACC flew 25,000 sorties against enemy targets (moving or stationary) and dropped almost 30,000 munitions, two-thirds of them precision-guided. The coalition air forces, commanded by Lieutenant General. T. Michael Moseley, USAF, made it easier to win with fewer American casualties—and to justify Rumsfeld’s passion for limiting the ground forces.

A bold plan, COBRA II depended on the surrender, dissolution, and poor fighting of the regular Iraqi armed forces, including the Republican Guard. With rapid maneuver and focused, massive air and artillery strikes, the ground forces could defeat any intact Iraqi units in detail. When the Turkish government prohibited the 4th Infantry Division attack, the division went by sea to Kuwait. The 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in Italy assumed the Kurdistan mission. The plan worked. In five days, with negligible losses, CFLCC crossed almost three hundred miles of Iraq and prepared for the final offensive on Baghdad. Iraqi resistance proved haphazard, ill organized, and more of a nuisance than an operational challenge.

Two days into COBRA II, the leading Army and Marine armored and mechanized task forces, however, faced a type of resistance they did not anticipate: ambushes and sudden assaults by non-uniformed Iraqis fighting from homes and shielded by helpless civilians. Vans, pickup trucks, and cars carrying men armed with RPGs, demolitions, and automatic weapons appeared from nowhere on suicide missions. The Saddam Fedayeen had joined the battle, however futile. They had been reinforced by 35,000 convicts released from Iraq’s prisons and armed by Baath leaders. Engagements spread all along the highways used by American columns and choked with service vehicles in the hundreds; bridges and crossroads became likely battlegrounds. Mosques served as ambush sites. One Bradley team killed at least 500 Iraqis in one brief fight on March 23. The march to Baghdad became memorable for obscure towns where the Fedayeen mounted last stands: as Samawah, an Najaf, an Nasiriyah, Karbala, al Hillah, al Amarah, and al Kut. Closer to Baghdad, Republican Guard units joined the fray. The race to Baghdad also ran into the Mother of All Sandstorms (March 25–27), which halted the lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division, advancing abreast into the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. The Republican Guard also sent a cautionary message when one brigade stopped a major attack by the Apache helicopter gunships of the 11th Army Helicopter Regiment; twenty-nine of thirty Apaches were so damaged by ground fire that the attacking battalion was out of the war for a week.

The logistical challenges that faced the COBRA II forces demanded a heroic transportation effort. The CFLCC consumed 54 million gallons of gas and oil, consumption greater than the Allies for all of World War I. The march to Baghdad required 5,000 tons of munitions and 1.7 million gallons of water. Sand and wind damaged vehicles and electronics. So did Fedayeen attacks, which plagued the convoys well behind the 3d Infantry Division’s leading brigade. General McKiernan had to assign units of the 82d Airborne and 101st Air Assault Divisions and the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment to protect his supply lines. Moreover, as the Army and Marine columns entered the Baghdad area, they left the desert and entered a land of canals, marshes, tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and sprawling villages that made the Americans even more roadbound and dependent on scarce engineer and vehicle service units. Only motorcraft and bridging companies could ensure passage over water obstacles. Much to Franks’s and Rumsfeld’s dismay, McKiernan ordered a pause to ensure one unbroken attack on Baghdad from five directions. In the meantime, the British had the Basra area in hand, and Joint Special Operations Task Force North (the 10th Special Forces Group and Kurdish pesh merga) had watched the Iraqi regular army fade away or surrender and then destroyed those isolated Republican Guard units that stood and fought. The 173d Airborne Brigade arrived to secure the victory.

The final attack on Baghdad on March 30 began with limited-objective attacks all along the city’s outer limits in order to eliminate a few Republican Guard units and secure bases for raids (“thunder runs”) into the central city. On April 3 the 3rd Infantry Division took Baghdad airport, news Saddam Hussein denied as false reporting. Three Republican Guard brigades defended the airport, but they proved no match for one American armored brigade and Air Force fighter-bombers. On April 6 the tank-infantry task forces massed astride the freeways leading to downtown Baghdad. Three days later an Army column met a Marine column in massive al Firdos Square in the city center. There was no Iraqi official to make a formal surrender agreement. The GIs and Marines watched hysterical mobs and clever gangs enter government buildings and leave with all the loot they could carry. The Iraqis did not know that the White House and Rumsfeld’s warriors expected a grateful victory parade.

The Pacification of Iraq, 2003–2011

The non-Arab world thrilled as it watched a mob and a U.S. tank recovery vehicle pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein onto the pavement of al-Firdos Square. The remnants of Saddam Hussein’s government and security forces faded into the general population and headed for countryside hideouts. Although there was no plan to resist the Americans with urban guerrilla warfare, all the ingredients for a protracted unconventional war against the hated foreign invaders already existed. Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, chief of security for the Baath Party, had the best claim as father of the insurgency. Escaping Baghdad with Saddam Hussein, Yunis left his boss at a safe house near Tikrit and drove into Syria, where he collected money and began to recruit partisans. His goal was to turn the Sunnis into active resistors, not passive victims.

Like the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship unleashed communal hatreds that reached back centuries. Saddam Hussein had created a Sunni secular tyranny in which power had become concentrated in the hands of the al-Tikriti clan and its allies. Other Sunnis could survive only if they served the government, its captive industries, and the Baath Party. Much of the Sunni professional and commercial class had gone into exile during and after the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars. The regime had little use for Islamic fundamentalists, even Sunnis. The regime had also stripped power from the traditional clan sheikhs. The Shi’a, the most numerous Iraqi group and known derisively as “marsh Arabs,” were tolerated only because they provided an underclass for the oil industry, urban service industries, construction, and anything that required cheap labor. The Kurds of northern Iraq were Muslims but not Arabs. They had been loyal supporters of the Ottoman Empire and allies of anyone who held the Sunnis in check, like the Hashemite kings who ruled Iraq after World War I with British support. Mix in personal megalomania, family feuds, and economic privileges (including office-holding) and the social chemistry was as explosive as a roadside bomb. American Arabists in the CIA and State Department knew all these tensions and made dire predictions. The White House and Pentagon did not respect this informed pessimism and brought peace to Iraq as if it were World War II Austria.

The CFLCC may have moved into Phase IV stability operations but many Iraqis had not stopped fighting just because Saddam Hussein and his army had disappeared. The country was awash with weapons, and many of them were in the hands of Sunni resistors. For the moment, the Kurds and Shi’a, truly liberated this time, helped root out Baathist officials and secret police. Ominously, varied Shi’a groups formed community militia forces, well armed and commanded by army veterans from the war with Iran. The Shi’a also drew support from their Persian co-religionists, who assumed that a Shi’a-dominated Iraq would become a de facto ally. The Kurds already had an army, and they used it to evict any leftover soldiers and officials from the Saddam Hussein regime. The Kurds, internally divided into two factions, would remain part of Iraq instead of creating a real Kurdistan, provided they got the lion’s share of the profits of the northern oil fields. The Kurds were the only Iraqis the Americans could really trust. The Sunni insurgents, however, were thick near Mosul in Kurdistan.

In Washington, Bush and Rumsfeld did not realize the enormity of the challenges faced by their Iraqi expeditionary force. Since they didn’t regard Iraqi deaths, purposeful or accidental, as a problem, they were comforted by the low U.S. casualties as of May 31, 2003: 214 deaths from enemy action in Iraq and Afghanistan. British deaths for all of 2003 were fifty-three; for other allies, forty-one. There was still fighting in Iraq, especially around Baghdad. The shooters were occasional warriors, just like the looters, said Rumsfeld. They were just too overcome with freedom. The looting, in fact, had destroyed the Iraqi bureaucratic infrastructure and much of its industrial potential—while American troops watched. The general feeling in American units was that the war was over. There were two bits of unfinished business. One was finding Saddam Hussein, his sons, and his most criminal associates and bringing them to justice. The other mission was to find all the WMD caches that the Iraqis surely had. The CIA, Iraqi agents, Delta Force, Special Forces, the 101st Airborne, and the 4th Infantry Division ran the Hussein family to ground. The sons died in a firefight in July 2003, and the father climbed out of a hide-hole in Tikrit in December. Convicted by Iraqis for crimes beyond counting, Saddam Hussein dangled from a rope in December 2006.

Images

Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army’s Role in Peace Enforcement Operations, 1995–2004

Other searchers roamed throughout Iraq searching for WMD. The Pentagon sent out a task force of 1,200 WMD engineers and scientists, led by UNSCOM veteran David Kay. This Iraq Survey Group continued the searches of the extemporized 75th Exploitation Task Force (XTF). The mission of the 75th XTF was to seize known WMD sites, search for unknown sites, and then conduct tests for evidence of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons or the research and manufacturing facilities necessary to make them. Since the Iraqis had launched twenty forbidden ballistic missiles at CFLCC targets during the 2003 war, the 75th XTF units had the highest priority and often appeared among the attacking advance forces. Special Forces actually raided and captured an uninspected research facility in northern Iraq. As the sand settled in the spring of 2003, UN inspectors also returned to Iraq for more inspections and consultation with the Iraqi Survey Group. Both WMD groups found Iraq in violation of the UN resolutions on aiding inspections, reporting WMD destruction, accounting for WMD, halting all missile and WMD development, and renouncing any future interest in WMD. An IAEA assessment of June 16–19, 2003, found that Iraq had 1.8 tons of uranium “yellowcake,” which was too little from which to extract even enough enriched uranium for research, let alone weapons.

The spinmasters in Washington moved into high gear to discredit Bush’s critics and to reinterpret the pre-2003 evidence to show that the administration had been misled, not duplicitous. The momentary embarrassment of the neocons did not translate into more sensible management of Iraqi affairs by the State Department. Instead, Secretary Rumsfeld scrapped the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, unappreciated and underfunded, and replaced it with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), essentially an occupation government headed by Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III, who had headed the State Department’s counterterrorism office twenty years earlier but was not an Arabist. Without blinking, he executed Rumsfeld’s most influential directive: Dissolve the Iraqi government, the top four levels of Baath Party leadership, and all military forces. The order was simply stupid. All three pillars of Saddam Hussein’s government had dissolved themselves. The Bremer interdict made it more difficult to screen past Iraqi officeholders for political crimes and, if cleared, hire them for a new government. The key to most successful occupations and counterinsurgency campaigns is to find work for rebels and potential rebels, even at larcenous rates. No matter how expensive, an amnesty-employment program saves time, money, and lives.

A strange mix of true reformers, opportunists, Bush loyalists, and marginal Washington bureaucrats, the CPA presided over a chain of security disasters that in three years brought the rebirth of Iraq to the brink of disaster. Civilians in the CPA, protected by the security of the “Green Zone,” a seven-square-mile piece of America inside Baghdad, did little to help the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps deal with an Iraqi effort to force a Somalia-like retreat on a grander scale. The direct attacks on American bases, convoys, and patrols mounted in the summer of 2003. The tactics of urban warfare all produced casualties: sniping, small ambushes, truck bombs, and the ubiquitous improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that killed and maimed with horrific anonymity. The annual death toll of American men and women remained high for four years: 849 (2004), 846 (2005), 822 (2006), and 904 (2007). A series of incidents simply enflamed the anti-American resistance. One was a chain of violent events staged by the Sunnis that turned Baghdad’s Shi’a against the occupation. Another was the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed the head of mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, a dedicated humanitarian. On August 29, 2003, two car bombs killed 124 Shi’a worshippers, including a prominent, moderate ayatollah. The bomb also wounded 140 other Shi’a as they left the Najaf mosque. Bremer reported the bad news: If the United States wanted Iraq to be peaceful, stable, and prosperous, it would take years of nation-building and hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. Bush did not welcome this report. The new CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, an officer of Lebanese descent who spoke Arabic, agreed with Bremer’s assessment.

A comparison of indicators for November 2003 and November 2005, compiled by The New York Times, demonstrates the escalating violence in Iraq.

 

NOVEMBER 2003

NOVEMBER 2005

U.S. Troop Deaths

82

96

U.S. Deaths, IEDs

20

40

Iraqi Deaths, Security Forces

65

176

Iraqi Deaths, Civilian

125

600

Deaths, Multiple, IEDs

6

41

Iraqi Security Forces

95,000

212,000

U.S. Troops

123,000

160,000

Foreign Troops

24,000

23,000

Insurgents

5,000

18,000

Iraqis who favor U.S. withdrawal soon

30%

80%

Despite the increase in security forces numbers and promising economic indicators, the war had swung to the insurgents. In the following year, 2006, Iraqi deaths numbered 16,273 by morgue count. Another Iraqi count put the dead at 60,000.

The American military response to the insurgency, once its nature was clear in the autumn of 2003, was to take the offensive in Baghdad and against cities to the north in the “Sunni Triangle,” a wedge of land between the Tigris and Euphrates, principally al-Anbar province. The western towns of Ramadi and Fallujah became centers of insurgency and destinations for foreign mujahideen, many recruited by al-Qaeda, who wanted to join the jihad. CIA and military intelligence officers identified Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a fanatical Jordanian Islamicist, as the head of al-Qaeda Iraq. Despite Rumsfeld’s fantasizing about al-Qaeda, the Sunni forces in the Triangle were principally Iraqi Baathists, members of Saddam’s army and police, tribal warriors, and unemployed youths who could earn American dollars as urban guerrillas and bombers. The money came from Syria, Iran, al-Qaeda, and much of the Muslim world. In 2004 the war developed a southern front that ran from the Shi’a slums of Baghdad (Sadr City) to Basra. The additional enemy was a Shi’a militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM). A council of clerics and Muqtada al-Sadr, son of a sainted imam killed by Saddam Hussein, directed these forces. The Shi’a militia units had formed to protect their own communities, but they were perfectly willing to kill infidels and Sunnis if ordered to do so.

A series of events between 2003 and 2004 fueled the insurgency and spread it throughout Iraq. One was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The prison population of 6,000–7,000 were detainees being held for ninety days or more for screening and interrogation. An MP’s private photographs revealed that the jailers had humiliated some prisoners with unclean acts with sexual and excretory implications. Several investigations discovered unauthorized coercion by intelligence personnel, even torture, to extract information and confessions. The Abu Ghraib scandal infuriated Muslims, Europeans, and the American antiwar movement.

Another gaffe was the First Battle of Fallujah, a Marine attack ordered from Washington to avenge the death of four contractors. In April 2004, a task force from the 1st Marine Division fought a door-to-door battle with veteran Sunni partisans until Washington ordered the operation ended—but before the city had been cleared. The units of the new Iraqi army and national police faded from the battle. American casualties (twenty-nine dead) seemed prohibitive to Bremer and even worse to Bush and Rumsfeld, who gave bold speeches but recoiled from the casualties. In addition, the Shi’a militias cowed the international units in the south and thus menaced the roads to the Kuwait logistical centers. In April 2004, the Provisional Iraqi Government, a fig-leaf council to replace the CPA, ordered one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s lieutenants arrested and the Shi’a revolt crushed. Fighting broke out again in Karbala, al Kut, an Nasiriyah, and many other towns, but the final battle took place in the holy city of Najaf in August. A task force of one Marine reinforced battalion and two Army cavalry squadrons methodically retook the city until the remaining Shi’a militiamen, sheltered in the Imam Ali mosque, surrendered. In twenty-four days of combat, the Americans lost eight dead and ninety wounded; the Iraqis, an estimated 1,000–2,000. The Americans could win battles and kill Iraqis, but the war continued with no end in sight. Insurgent attacks averaged 500 a month in June 2003, then climbed to almost 3,000 attacks by January 2005. Two-thirds of the attacks came against the foreign troops; the rest were divided almost evenly between Iraqi soldiers and civilians. By the end of 2004, the United States armed forces had lost 1,100 dead in Iraq in combat, losses the nation had not experienced since 1969 in Vietnam. The numbers of service personnel wounded in action—many permanently maimed by IEDs—ran at seven or eight times the deaths.

In order to maintain a force for Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the Defense Department had to mobilize National Guard and Organized Reserve Units—primarily Army and Marine Corps ground troops—for service in the war zone. The process began in 2003 for the invasion, but unlike the DESERT STORM mobilization, the activations continued. Only unit rotation could keep the Iraq “boots on the ground” troop levels at 150,000. Activated Guard and reserve units in 2004–2005 provided almost 40 percent of Army personnel and 15 percent of the Marines. Air Force and Navy reservists served in smaller proportions of the total force and often outside Iraq proper. The composition of III Corps, the U.S. Army combatant command in Iraq, 2004–2005, reflected the reserve’s contribution to the war. The corps troops included four National Guard battalions. The 1st Infantry Division included thirteen National Guard battalions. The 1st Cavalry Division included two National Guard brigades (nine battalions) and a Marine Reserve infantry battalion. Two National Guard brigades contributed eight battalions to the theater base security forces. Of the sixty-one maneuver battalions in the III Corps, twenty were Guardsmen or reservists from nine different states. The snipers and IEDs did not discriminate, so reservists died too. Between 2003 and 2009, 488 Army Guardsmen, two Air Guard members, and 319 Ready Reserve members of all the services died, about one-fifth of all military deaths in Iraq.

With all of Iraq a war zone, the Bush administration reluctantly concluded that its critics, a growing chorus of informed dissent from all sides of the political spectrum, had been right in 2004. Iraq was a mess, in part because of the American failure to execute an intelligent, well-funded temporary occupation under clear international sanction. Even Ambassador Bremer admitted that his CPA was an “ineffective occupier.” George W. Bush now sought wiser counsel among his father’s inner circle. Once past his reelection in November 2004, the president steeled himself for the creation of a realistic political-military strategy for Iraq. Part of his challenge was reshaping his own administration. When Colin Powell resigned in frustration as secretary of state, Bush appointed a far wiser and more aggressive Condoleezza Rice to his post and made her able deputy Stephen Hadley his national security adviser. Backed by the CIA and State Department professionals, the Rice-Hadley team became a more effective counterweight to the Cheney-Rumsfeld neoconservatives. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card also helped Bush deal with the war’s realities. The president even listened to advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and listened less to Vice President Cheney.

The military command in Iraq underwent two important changes when General George W. Casey Jr., Army vice-chief of staff, became the field commander in Iraq and Lieutenant General David H. Petraeus became chief adviser to the new Iraqi armed forces. Although they differed on the war’s wisdom and future course, the two generals did agree that a campaign demanded protecting the Iraqi people from many enemies. The essential security mission should be transferred to armed Iraqis. Casey thought in terms of an Iraqi national army and police. Petraeus was not sure that this notional force would be large enough and good enough or be formed soon enough for the mission, especially when he saw Sunni and Shi’a radicals infiltrating these forces. The Sunni and Shi’a militias regarded the Iraqi armed forces and police as inept and vulnerable and made them principal targets for attack. In the first two weeks of January 2005, the distribution of violent deaths showed a persistent pattern: ninety dead in the Iraqi army and police, sixty-nine Iraqi civilians, and twenty-five American service personnel. No members of the other international forces died in combat, although eight died in accidents. George Casey knew the statistics. In order to fight an extended counterinsurgency campaign with limited American participation, he would have to enlarge and improve the Iraqi security forces and bring down American casualties. General Abizaid wanted American patrols off the streets and into well-defended operating bases.

To turn the war over to the Iraqis required a government. Bremer’s first expedient, the Iraqi Governing Council, was not successful because it gave the Chalabi group and other exiles too much license for revenge. The Kurds were cooperative but feared by the Iraqi Arabs. After much negotiation throughout 2004, the CPA and the U.S. Embassy organized three major elections to create a representative Iraqi government. The American forces regarded the elections as a necessary political act of indeterminate effect. As one bit of GI graffiti put it: “We came, we saw, we conquered, we wasted a year, but now we’ve made the fuckers vote!” Not everyone voted. The Sunni politicians boycotted the election for a national constitutional assembly, boycotted the referendum on the new constitution, and then largely boycotted the election to form a new parliamentary government, which would elect a prime minister and approve his cabinet. The three major Shi’a factions claimed 140 out of 275 seats. A Kurdish coalition elected seventy-five members. The Shi’a-Kurd majority then divided the cabinet with a moderate Shi’a civilian, Kamil Mohammed Hasan Nouri al-Maliki, as prime minister. Condemned to death by Saddam Hussein for conspiracy, Nouri al-Maliki in exile had become head of the Islamic Dawa Party. However promising some of the developments of 2005, peace was not at hand. During the year 897 American service personnel died, down slightly from 2004.

The central operational objective was still to pacify the Sunni Triangle, which began with the Second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004. After a careful logistical buildup and repeated warnings for civilians to leave or seek shelter, a task force of 8,000 Marines and soldiers and 2,000 Iraqis took ten days to kill 1,000–2,000 very tough Sunni partisans, reinforced by the mujahideen of al-Qaeda Iraq. Senior officers likened the house-to-house fighting to the battle for Hue city in 1968. The fight was truly a joint operation, since the Air Force provided precise close air support and the U.S. Navy committed medical service personnel, engineers, and aviation controllers. Tanks and artillery pounded insurgent strongholds; by one Marine estimate 2,000 buildings were destroyed, 10,000 damaged. The battle cost the Americans fifty-four dead and 425 wounded, many by rocket ambushes and booby traps. For General Casey, the battle proved that the insurgents could not hold city enclaves. For General Petraeus, the battle showed that the Iraqi national army and police still shunned combat. And the war went on, with Marine forces fighting to the top of the Sunni Triangle at Ramadi and beyond, past Haditha Dam and along the Euphrates to the Syrian border. The 2nd Marine Division sent mechanized task forces to chase after Iraqi and mujahideen fighters who had escaped Fallujah before its siege ended and tried to roll up the network of caches and strongholds the insurgents used to bring weapons and other Arab fighters into al-Anbar province. The campaign exacted a price. Company L, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve unit from central Ohio, lost ten Marines killed in an amphibian tractor explosion in August 2005. The same company had lost six Marines in a firefight and amtrac explosion in May. The company’s losses were the highest of any Marine reserve unit in the war.

Elsewhere American forces found death but not many insurgents. The biggest killers were IEDs set off by electronic remote-control devices like radios and mobile phones. By 2006 hidden bombs were exploding somewhere in Iraq about once every fifteen minutes. Electronic warfare specialists deployed jammers that confounded remote detonations. Eventually they forced the bombers to return to using wire-detonating systems, in theory easier to detect by sight. Bombs were especially deadly in Baghdad, with its traffic jams, mass population, and millions of hiding sites. The bombers had decades of experience upon which to draw. They primarily used the bountiful supply of unexploded bombs and shells. All the services contributed to Task Force Troy, a force of thousands of explosive ordnance detection and disposal experts to combat the IED threat. The only way to stop bombers was to track them down and kill them; special sniper units eventually became skilled enough to kill about fifty emplacers a week by 2007. In the meantime, military vehicles in Iraq became more armored or designed to survive bomb blasts. Bombs declined as troop-killers, but Iraqi civilians continued to be the victims of IED explosions.

With virtually all indicators of economic improvement and public security now plunging in 2005 and 2006, the Sunni insurgents broadened the war by attacking the Shi’a population and the government they supported. It was not a new war, but it was more desperate and deadly. It was fed by two extremist groups, al-Qaeda Iraq and al-Qaeda Mesopotamia, an offshoot group that rejected al-Zarqawi’s leadership. In February 2006, agents for al-Qaeda Mesopotamia (AQM) blew up the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, a holy Shi’a shrine, and followed with attacks by car bombs and suicide bombers throughout Baghdad. Violence between Iraqis soared to new levels of horror, with bombings and mass murders averaging 1,500–1,800 deaths a month. Sunni civilians took the brunt of the Shi’a revenge campaign, mounted by Muqtada al-Sadr’s JAM private army of 50,000. Members of the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Shi’a Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, supported JAM from their positions in the ministries of the interior and transportation. JAM routinely captured as many as sixty Sunni men a night, tortured them, murdered them, and dumped them back in their neighborhoods. The Shi’a had adopted sectarian cleansing for Baghdad. Sunni families fled whole neighborhoods to escape the 2006 bloodbath, the greatest cause of the 35,000 Iraqis deaths that year. Many of the refugees headed for al-Anbar province or another country. The Shi’a vendetta, which killed Americans too, became so mindless that Muqtada al-Sadr actually tried to curb the excesses of his militia. Shi’a politics became even more chaotic in Basra when JAM, the Badr Brigade, a local warlord, and criminal gangs fought each other over the profits of the oil business. With parliament and the important ministries under their control, the collective Shi’a leadership sought to check the vendetta, but only if someone else did the dirty work of pacification the army and police would not.

The local Sunni sheikhs and some public officials in al-Anbar province looked for help to stop the flood of refugees, the advancing Shi’a, and the suicidal foreigners of al-Qaeda who, like mercenaries of old, decided they liked living among the cowed Sunnis. The al-Anbar Sunnis, however, now wanted American help, not American lives, and started negotiations with Marine and Army commanders and civil affairs officers for arms for their own Salvation Council militia, eventually called the Sons of Iraq. They did not get weapons, but were welcomed into the police and army. They were heartened by the death by bombing of the head of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in June 2006. Despite reservations by General Casey and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the police soon bulged with Sunni ex-soldiers and ex-partisans. The Americans embraced the Sunni Awakening and helped the new allies kill or drive away the two al-Qaeda factions. Casey, however, tried to keep his troops out of the way and urged the Pentagon to reduce his force, concentrated in large, defended bases around Baghdad but inevitably caught in the crossfires and still taking casualties.

The Sunni Awakening caught Washington by surprise, but it helped push Bush toward a new, high-risk strategy for Iraq. Formally called the Baghdad Security Plan or Fardh al-Aanoon (“imposing the law”), the plan reflected Bush and Nouri al-Maliki’s desperation. The idea of “the Surge” had many fathers. One group of advocates rallied around General John M. Keane, a retired Army vice-chief of wide respect, who had examined the Iraq morass under the sponsorship of Rice and Hadley. Bush made Keane’s advocacy easier by forcing Rumsfeld to resign (December 2006) and replacing him with Robert M. Gates, a pragmatist of long Washington service. Keane rallied retired Army and Marine generals steeped in population-centric counterinsurgency. He had no trouble recruiting David Petraeus, who had returned home from his second Iraq tour as a media favorite and a very persuasive champion of counterinsurgency. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, USA, whose 4th Infantry Division had been a heavy-handed occupier in 2003–2004, believed in the Surge and directed it for Petraeus as commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq.

Other powerful military and political voices in Washington sought to convince Bush to change strategy. The elite press, fed with leaks of the plan, endorsed the Surge. Bush could also read the report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of Washington’s most canny and respected leaders under the chairmanship of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and retired Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, a lifelong internationalist. At the heart of its recommendations was the suggestion that the United States might have to increase its troop strength in Iraq in the short term in order to come home with victory in the long term. The American forces would have to join and train the Iraqi forces and interpose themselves between all the warring parties until the rebels came to terms with the Nouri al-Maliki government. Many of the concepts came from the commission’s military advisory panel, which included John Keane.

The basic outline of the Baghdad Security Plan announced in January 2007 was simple enough. American troops would emerge in numbers and combat-ready from their bases and, with the Iraqi army and police, crush any armed forces that opposed the Iraqi government and killed Iraqi civilians. This force would be reinforced by as many as 32,500 combat troops from the United States. The Surge might last a year or more, which meant American troop strength in Iraq would return to 160,000. Where local Baghdad communities defended themselves against al-Qaeda and Iraqi terrorists, they would be protected from seventy security posts around the city. The immediate objective was to crush AQM and JAM and stop the Shi’a pogrom. There were unstated consequences to the plan. The neighborhoods depopulated by JAM would not be restored to the Sunnis. And American soldiers and Marines were going to die in higher numbers, but at least they would not die as passive IED victims.

The battle for Baghdad and four neighboring provinces tested the efficacy of the Baghdad Plan, and the results showed some progress by the end of 2007. The casualty count was clear enough. The U.S.-Iraqi-Coalition forces lost at least 2,592 lives. The American deaths for 2007 (904) were the worst of the war. It was the last year that any other international force lost troops since “the coalition of the willing” had wilted. Six months into the campaign, some of the vital indicators of improving security and social conditions worsened and continued to look dismal into 2010. One critical sign of success, however, was the declining American death toll, which fell off sharply in 2008. Iraqi civilian deaths in 2008 fell to one-quarter of the deaths in 2006 and 2007. The Iraqi security forces almost doubled in two years (2006–2008), and their service deaths dropped by half. By 2010 the American forces left in Iraq numbered only 50,000.

Several factors explain the success of the Baghdad Security Plan. Its primary objective was to break JAM opposition to any government, and the U.S.-Iraqi army did this quickly and efficiently, at least by earlier standards. Implicated in JAM’s terrorism, Muqtada al-Sadr went into exile, which brought great relief to the senior Shi’a ayatollahs and politicians. The Badr army put on national uniforms or went home. The Kurds enjoyed legal regional autonomy, defended by the pesh merga. Despite the Iraqi government’s inefficiency and corruption, the nation’s economic woes after forty years of war and dictatorship were predictable and reversible. The United States would not press Nouri al-Maliki too hard on corruption (an estimated $4 billion a year), but it would not tolerate abuse of the Sunnis, who had helped drive out al-Qaeda and break up JAM. American commanders supported the 100,000 Sons of Iraq, a neighborhood security force. Sectarian violence would not disappear overnight, and Americans still died but not so many: 314 (2008), 149 (2009), and 60 (2010). The Iraq war, finally, was fading away.

The consequences of IRAQI FREEDOM cannot in 2012 be assessed with certainty. Whether or not it was worth the cost cannot yet be determined and depends on the course of history for Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. Dictators seem to have a one-generation half-life, as the fall of the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi suggest. Yet WMD and a three-generation succession have survived in North Korea. Saddam Hussein was a weak regional threat in 2003; he might have been a larger threat in 2013 had he survived in power. The expert consensus is that his regime was bound for ruin, but tyrants have fooled experts before. The tragedy of Iraq is not the 2003 war but the eight years of violence that followed the American invasion. The accumulated cost of the war is sobering: 4,488 Americans dead, 32,223 wounded, and an added defense cost of $806 billion. For the Iraqis, the estimated death toll is a staggering 120,000. The important consequences cannot be quantified. They are held in the minds of a generation of Arab nationalist leaders and the Iranians.

The war probably did little to make terrorism in the Arab world a greater or lesser threat than it had been before 2001. A 2010 compilation of Arab terrorist groups by European experts identified by name eighty terrorist groups. Of the eighty groups, fifty existed before 2001 with roots in the anticolonial, anti-Israel struggle. Of the thirty identified as formed after 2001, only eight could be identified as part of the al-Qaeda network. No doubt there have been some rearrangements after the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Nevertheless, safe havens for al-Qaeda are less hospitable. Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan have quit ignoring or supporting al-Qaeda; and Syria and Iraq have reopened diplomatic relations, which makes it more difficult for the fugitive Baathists to be allies to al-Qaeda. Given Ayman al-Zawahri’s Egyptian roots and the chaos in Cairo, Egypt may be the next al-Qaeda homeland.

The Iraq war may have convinced Middle Eastern leaders that the United States is a better ally than an enemy in military affairs. In truth, the Iraq war probably did nothing to solve the problems of the Arab world, which is to find some accommodation between fundamental Islam as mutated by nationalism and the challenges of twenty-first-century economic modernization and global interdependence. Will the Iraq war simply reinforce the Arab perception that Israel dictates American regional policies? If the Iraq war is a tragedy from the perspective of American national security policy, it is because it had so little to do with the global war on terrorism. It may not increase the chances of Israel’s survival, and it is probably irrelevant to the course of the Iranian Revolution. Iran may be the ultimate strategic winner in the war, since Iraq will no longer be a threat.

The Obama Administration and the War in Afghanistan, 2009–2012

The destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq diverted attention from the pursuit and punishment of al-Qaeda’s leaders. The war, in fact, made Osama bin Laden look clever and undefeated. The counterterrorism community in Washington and in the field had kept its eyes open and saw the geographic spread and increased incidence of terror in the decade after 9/11 and the first Afghanistan campaign. Despite its fragmentation and flight in 2001–2002, al-Qaeda had found safe havens in southeastern Afghanistan and the ill-policed tribal border areas of the FATA and the two Waziristan provinces. The Pashtun Taliban had also retained its internal order through the Mullah Omar, also in hiding. By 2003 the Taliban had returned to southern Afghanistan.

Without much prompting from Osama bin Laden, Islamic terrorists followed 9/11 and the Afghan war with increased attacks across the globe. In the next decade, jihadis carried out deadly bomb attacks in Great Britain, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Turkey, Spain, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Kenya, and India. This list is not complete. Unlike Europe, where Muslim populations are proportionately large, poor, unemployed, and unassimilated, America’s 2.4 million Muslims are fragmented by race, geography, cultural origin, and levels of income, not to mention varieties of Islam. A Somali woman operating an airport snack bar in Columbus, Ohio, has little in common with a male Iranian millionaire in Houston, Texas. Working within personal rights laws more restrictive than in Europe for those combating terrorism, American police still had fewer problems identifying and arresting terrorists. The fact that there has been no repetition of 9/11 dulled American public awareness of the real global war on terrorism being waged elsewhere by other nations and American counterterrorism teams. Some nations blame the United States for giving Islamicists a cause for holy war. In addition to its ties to Israel, America’s de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia irritates other nations because the House of Saud listens closely to its own radical-conservative Wahhabi clerics. Some Saudis export people and resources to Muslim extremists outside of Saudi Arabia, although the House of Saud crushes dissenters at home. Pakistan’s toleration of the Taliban makes it a feeble ally or incomplete enemy. Another exporter of terrorism, Iran, has been run by an anti-American regime since 1979. Muslim extremists have plagued Indonesia and the Philippines. The 9/11 tragedy brought a spike in international sympathy for the United States that rapidly waned with the invasion of Iraq.

Terrorism remains a global problem. By a rough accounting, the victims of terrorist bombings in Europe and the Muslim world (and not counting Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001–2011) now exceeds the number of deaths of 9/11 and the American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the worst offenders is Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), a Pakistani terrorist group with links to Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency. The attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) on the Indians illustrates the deadliness and persistence of just one Muslim terrorist group. LeT detonated thirteen bombs in Mumbai on March 12, 1993, killing 257 people and wounding 700. Eight years later, LeT renewed its attacks on India by assaulting the Parliament building in New Delhi, killing twelve. In August 2003, two bombs in Mumbai killed 44 and wounded 150. On July 11, 2006, the same terrorist group set off seven bombs in an eleven-minute period in the Mumbai commuter train system. The bombs killed 209 and wounded 700 riders. LeT suicide bombers on November 26–29, 2008, attacked ten crowded targets in Mumbai, killing 164 people and wounding 308 bystanders. The world watched the historic Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel burn while Indian special police battled with the bombers. Lashkar-e-Taiba is only one of forty-six such groups operating in India.

The fate of post-liberation Afghanistan demonstrated how inattentive the Bush administration was after 2002. Afghanistan had a proven anti-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai, who was momentarily acceptable to the Northern Alliance warlords. Under UN and NATO approval, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of 30,000 patrolled the major cities. In 2004 ISAF and the Karzai government spent $4 billion in U.S. aid money to organize a new Afghan National Army (ANA) and police force. This force struggled to reach a goal of 150,000 in 2008. At the end of 2009, the ANA had only 94,000 soldiers for an area and population larger than Iraq. The Afghan army and police (the Afghan National Security Forces or ANSF) faced serious problems. First, the private armies of the Northern Alliance in the non-Pashtun provinces had no intention of disarming or serving in the ANSF outside their Hazara, Turkoman, Uzbek, and Tajik homelands. Second, in the Pashtun provinces, about half of Afghanistan, the ANSF faced a resurgent Taliban. By 2006 the Taliban had established shadow governments and guerrilla units among most of the Pakistani border and southern provinces. The Karzai government followed traditional practices of appointing personal and tribal loyalists to the ANSF and administrative posts and paid them with half of the aid dollars. Often with no special ties to the people they were supposed to govern and protect, ANSF commanders concentrated on extortion and corruption and not confronting the Taliban. Between 2002 and 2007, terrorist attacks on government and ANSF targets jumped tenfold.

The ISAF units followed rules of engagement that allowed them to fight only in self-defense or as part of an ANSF operation as foreign advisers. The mission was to protect the twenty-six Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the nation-builders. When Taliban units attacked ISAF units, the incidents seemed designed to tempt the foreigners to overreact and alienate the Afghan villagers. Moreover, while forty-three nations sent troops to Afghanistan, only ten nations (other than the United States) sent units of battalion strength or larger, the minimum force for pacification operations. Spain, Italy, and Germany put almost 10,000 troops in the northern and western provinces already policed by the Northern Alliance, and France put its 3,000 crack troops inside Kabul as a palace guard. American units tried to guard the Pakistani border provinces, while the British, Canadians, and the Dutch occupied the heart of Talibanland in the south. In 2007, ISAF numbered 37,000. In ISAF only the British, Dutch, and Canadians in southern Helmand Province attempted limited attacks on Taliban strongholds.

The battle for Musa Qala, Helmand Province, 2006–2007, was typical of ISAF operations and frustrations in pacifying the Pashtun provinces. In October 2006 a British brigade occupied the town and region and established a progovernment shura (town council), but in February 2007 the Taliban returned, executed the local leaders, and prevented a brigade of the Afghan army and police from restoring any permanent control. The Taliban initiated the attacks, broken only by NATO air strikes. In October 2007 a different British brigade of 1,200 from four understrength battalions surrounded Musa Qala and cautiously squeezed the Taliban back into Musa Qala town while under long-range mortar and machine-gun fire. The key to success was the defection of a local warlord of Taliban persuasion and his 400-man clan army. To exploit this event, a U.S. airborne battalion assaulted Musa Qala in helicopters on December 7 and took the town after a six-hour battle, losing one dead and six wounded. The British brigade then defeated a Taliban counterattack. President Karzai appointed as governor the Taliban general who had defected and gave him an ANA brigade to hold the region and supervise a campaign to stop growing opium poppies.

The Musa Qala district was still a battleground when the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines escorted an ANSF company back into the region in 2009–2010. In ten years 812 ISAF and ANSF soldiers had died in Musa Qala from snipers, ambushes, rocket and mortar attacks, and IEDs. The villagers were hostile or uncooperative. Whole villages had been abandoned. The jackals howled at night while raiders on motorcycles raced toward ISAF outposts to attack them, then disappeared into the dry hills. Pashtun translators, working for $865 a month and a U.S. visa, seldom located Taliban hideouts. The Uzbeks and Tajiks in the ANSF were no more at home than the Marines. In 2010 the number of ISAF troops in Helmand province reached 25,000. The pattern of ISAF casualties demonstrates two phenomena: the growing Taliban threat and the ISAF shift to more aggressive offensive operations. In 2004 ISAF military fatalities numbered 60(52 Americans), then jumped to 295 (155 Americans) in 2008. When ISAF doubled in strength in 2009 to 71,000, the result of an American surge of over 30,000 troops, fatalities doubled to 521 (317 Americans), climbed to 711 in 2010, then fell back to 446 in 2011 as the counterinsurgency campaign had some successes and ISAF passed more missions to the Afghanis. By the end of 2011 American deaths had reached 1,777 and the allies 950 (382 British). The “boots on the ground” strength of American troops in Afghanistan in 2010–2011 reached 90,000.

Much of the continuing violence in Afghanistan is hidden by the use of civilian contractors, who numbered 113,491 by 2012. Twenty-two percent are American citizens, the others from Afghanistan and all over Europe and Asia. The contractors are attractive targets for raiders that kill and plunder. The largest employer, L-3 Communications, has already lost 370 dead and 1,789 wounded. The next favorite target is the ISAF caterer, the Supreme Group, which has suffered 240 dead. Of the foreigners in Afghanistan only the American and British armed forces have lost more members than the contractors.

Although the Bush administration recognized the growing Taliban menace, it passed this political snowdrift on to a new president in 2009. Barack Obama knew something about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which he experienced as a U.S. senator. He decided to be cautious and inquisitive before enlarging the American commitment to Afghanistan. One issue was the legitimacy and effectiveness of Hamid Karzai, reelected in 2009 in balloting reeking with fraud. Linked to the Karzai regime were international charges of corruption and opium trading. Karzai argued with some justification that the Taliban would be worse than he was and that his enemy was not just the Taliban but the Islamicists in ISI and the Pakistani army, who wanted him replaced. Karzai did not care what the American domestic media and liberal politicians thought of him as long as they did not treat him like Saddam Hussein or the late Shah of Iran. Obama did not regard Karzai as an indispensable president, but he did not encourage the State Department or the CIA to look for alternatives. Instead he followed a late-stage Bush policy of putting more pressure on Pakistan. The United States had pressed Pakistan to form a civilian government, which it had in 2008 with the election of Asif Ali Zardari, but he had none of the public respect extended to General Musharraf or Zardari’s assassinated wife, the iconic Benazir Bhutto. Almost doubling U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan ($2 billion in 2008, $3.6 billion in 2010) helped buy better Pakistani cooperation against some terrorists. This cooperation focused on al-Qaeda’s “foreigners” and the part of the Taliban not sponsored by Pakistani Islamicists. The Obama administration decided to risk relations with Pakistan by mounting Predator drone missions and Special Operations Forces raids into Pakistan without prior warning. At least that is the cover story. In 2008 Predator strikes into Pakistan numbered ten, in 2010 forty-five. The raids into Pakistan scored their greatest success on May 2, 2011, when SEAL Team Six on Army special operations helicopters raided a fortified compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden when he resisted capture. After a number of identification tests, bin Laden was buried at sea. His cause most certainly survived, though weakened by his death and a decade’s worth of intelligence material brought out by SEAL Team Six. The death of bin Laden did nothing to end the Taliban’s bid to surround Kabul with captive rural provinces.

The Obama administration had already approved another “Surge” in December 2009 and watched 15,000 soldiers and Marines attack the Taliban heartland around Kandahar. To manage the campaign, the president sent General Stanley A. McChrystal, USA, the jedi knight of counterterrorism who had commanded the joint special operations units in Iraq for seven years. He replaced a harried General McKiernan, perceived as too “traditional” by the White House. Although Obama later relieved McChrystal for some published critical remarks about the Afghan and American governments, the Petraeus-McChrystal population-centric pacification campaign went on without check in 2011. In the meantime, the administration quit hectoring Karzai in public and focused on long-term economic and infrastructure development. As the ANSF slowly assumed more combat missions, American deaths (all causes) dropped below ten a week, the point at which the war became truly forgotten again except by the Afghans and the 140,000 officers and men of the ISAF who still make their appointed rounds in search of the Taliban.

The shift of emphasis in the 2009–2010 campaign plan for Afghanistan was its stress on partnership with the Afghans and the avoidance of civilian casualties, key principles of counterinsurgency. Leader decapitation and band destruction remained important but as a handmaiden to population control. The emphasis on air strikes in 2007–2009 had raised civilian casualties and public ire. President Karzai went to the UN in 2008 and complained about the incidence of civilian casualties caused by ISAF-controlled air strikes. The head of the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan supported Karzai. At whatever risk, ISAF patrols could no longer rely only on drones and fighter-bombers to clear villages. They would also have to depend more on their Afghan allies, also perilous. In February 2010, ISAF and Afghan army and special police began Operation MOSHTARAK, the ultimate “clear and hold” campaign to break the Taliban grip on Helmand province. With 15,000 troops, about half ISAF and half Afghani, the objective of MOSHTARAK (“together”) was control of the city of Marja and its poppy-growing region.

The novel aspects of MOSHTARAK were the level of Afghan combat participation, the patience of the advance, and the commitment of “holding” forces of administrators, public works personnel, police, and economic nation-builders. The slowness of MOSHTARAK reflected two determining factors: avoiding civilian casualties (only twenty-eight killed in five months) and the Taliban use of mines and IEDs as its main defense. Four Marine and one Army battalions and three British and one Canadian battalions provided the ISAF advance combat units and suffered forty-eight KIAs while killing perhaps two hundred and fifty to three hundred Taliban fighters. The key operational concept was to isolate the Marja region with helicopter-borne blocking forces in eleven different locations and spread “clearing” forces from these enclaves into the farming villages around Marja. The Taliban defenders numbered no more than 500, half of whom died in house-to-house battles. Marja fell after two weeks of some intense but small-scale engagements. The battle for Marja, however, did not end, since snipers and bombers plagued the ISAF and Afghan occupiers for the rest of the year. Whether Afghan security forces could reduce the opium trade and hold the Taliban at bay without ISAF remained questionable.

A war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan required a war in Pakistan and a war by the Pakistani army against terrorists it had once sponsored—and still did. Partisans like the al-Haqqani network had become part of Pakistan’s war of subversion against India in Kashmir and along its border. The United States has spent $20 billion on Pakistan and bought selective cooperation. The Pakistanis gave up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed of 9/11 infamy, but cannot find Mullah Omar. The al-Haqqani terrorists conducted bomb attacks on the U.S. and Indian embassies in Kabul in 2011. Pakistani politicians and generals may cooperate with American agents in secret, but they also encourage public anti-Americanism, including violence. To avoid Pakistani interference, the United States now ships 60 to 70 percent of its supplies to Afghanistan through two rail-and-truck routes that begin in Latvia and Turkey and end in the Muslim republics above Afghanistan.

Since the Pakistani government would not accept joint operations into the FATA, the Americans turned to armed drones as their striking weapon. Operating in a crowded sky of target-acquisition and surveillance drones, Predators and MQ-9 Reapers stalk their victims. Since 2007, the drone strikes by Pakistani count have killed 964 people, 793 of them Pakistanis. Another analysis sees the strikes in a mounting tempo, 53 in 2009 and 118 in 2010 with at least 100 more in 2011. To put these statistics in perspective, the Pakistanis claim that 25,000 people have died inside their borders since 2003. The CIA-managed drone campaign continues outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2011, in two different attacks in Yemen, drones killed three terrorists of Arab descent who also happened to be U.S. citizens, which raises some challenging legal questions.

The global war on terrorism has extracted a high price in lives and treasure. It also coincided with a decade of growing economic hardship for many Americans. The war seemed to contribute to the country’s economic woes by distorting American foreign policy. The defense budget in George W. Bush’s years doubled from $304 billion (2001) to $616 billion (2008). The national debt climbed from 32.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (2001) to 53.5 percent of GDP (2009). Indebtedness to the People’s Republic of China climbed from $78 billion (2001) to $1.1 trillion (2011). One analysis estimates that the global war on terrorism has cost $1.65 trillion. Another $800 billion in expenses may be paid in the years ahead. Adding the costs of homeland security ($589 billion), the United States will spend $3.8 trillion on war and counterterrorism, or $6.6 million for every dollar al-Qaeda spent to send four planes on a suicide mission. Americans would have rejected any administration that did not pursue Osama bin Laden, but the strategy of the hunt remains debatable.

For the Common Defense in the Twenty-first Century

As mandated by Congress, the Department of Defense submitted its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review on the assumption that the war in Iraq would end for U.S. combat units by 2012, as President Obama had promised. With the usual confusion of ends and means, the report stressed that the armed forces would try to deter wars and “prevail” in “today’s wars,” which would require the capabilities to “defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies.” The key mission was to defend the United States and “support civil authorities at home.” The armed forces should prepare to operate against the “aggression by state adversaries” and “new trans-national terrorist threats.” They should be prepared for “counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations.” The forces must be ready to meet multiple threats in “overlapping timeframes,” meaning at the same time, so the force had to be made flexible and invest in “key enablers.” The term “transform” did not appear in the executive summary. The new mantra was to “rebalance” the force and “reform” how the Department of Defense did business.

As required by law, the QDR had to provide estimated costs. Defense spending would peak in fiscal year 2011 at $708 billion, drop to $616 billion in 2012, then slowly grow to $666 billion in 2015 at a real growth rate of only 1 percent. The defense budget would be 4.7 percent of gross domestic product—historically a bearable national expense. Continuing the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Overseas Contingency Operations) would require a minimum of $132 billion for 2011.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates knew, the budget, normally cut 2–4 percent by Congress, would be a dead document unless the armed forces reduced their personnel. The Army and Marine Corps would have to manage with 60,000 and 20,000 fewer troops, respectively. A more novel part of the QDR was the promise to stop or delay several aircraft and warship programs, so the Air Force and Navy would have to make sacrifices too. The transition to a high-technology force, however, would not stop since information, target acquisition, and precision-guidance for munitions would increase for all the services. Anything that would counter IEDs and WMDs would receive developmental priority. Drones and robots would become commonplace above and on the battlefield. Headed for the junkyard would be HUMVEES, replaced by Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles. The digitization of warfare would become the province of a new Cyber Command.

In 2011, as part of a toxic negotiation on reducing the national debt, the Obama administration and Congress agreed to cut the defense budget by $400 billion over the decade ahead. If executed, this plan will reduce personnel costs by cutting the defense military and civilian force by 100,000 or more, but the cuts still cannot be made without 20–30 percent reduction in other categories of defense spending, like weapons modernization. Yet dramatic reductions in military personnel justify drastic investments in robotics and unpiloted vehicles, important but not decisive elements in the future force. The U.S. armed forces may not prevail in whatever conflicts lie ahead unless the American people insist that their political leaders make security decisions on the basis of expert advice from their civilian and military professionals and not make decisions based primarily on their impact on domestic politics. Only then will the United States have a common defense.

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