Saturday, March 12, 2005

Remembering all those arguments made 1,500 deaths ago

Knight Ridder
Remembering all those arguments made 1,500 deaths ago

By Joseph L. Galloway, Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Something about anniversaries prods us to pause and reflect on what's transpired in the intervening time. March 20 is the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and it's a good time to consider what's happened since then.

Do you recall our civilian leadership's rationale for a pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein? President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and, yes, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told the world that the United States had no choice but to invade Iraq. They said Saddam was hiding chemical and biological weapons, and that his scientists would be able to produce a nuclear weapon in a few years.

Do you remember those who predicted that the operation would be financed in large part by sales of Iraqi oil? It would be cheap, easy and, oh yes, so swift that civilian leaders in the Pentagon ordered the military to plan to begin withdrawing from Iraq no later than the summer of 2003.

There was no need for much post-war planning because there wasn't going to be any post-war. America would come, conquer and get out. If Iraq was broken, its new government headed by the neo-conservatives' favorite exile, Ahmad Chalabi, could fix it. There would be no need for American nation-building, just some modest humanitarian aid.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's office had visions of a replay of the almost effortless destruction of Afghanistan's hated Taliban regime using precision-guided munitions, Special Operations forces with laser pointers and Afghan allies.

In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, less would be more, lighter would be better and faster would be best of all. Any Third World regime could be taken down by a few special operators and some airplanes. The Army's heavy divisions were relics of the Cold War.

When then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki reluctantly answered a senator's persistent questioning by suggesting that occupying and pacifying Iraq, an unruly nation the size of California with 25 million citizens, might require a force of "hundreds of thousands," he was mugged by Rumsfeld's minions.

Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz hastened to the Hill the next day and told the legislators that Shinseki's estimate was "wildly off the mark," and that Iraq wouldn't be nearly as tough as Afghanistan had been because Iraq didn't have the sort of nasty ethnic divisions one found in Afghanistan.

At that moment, in late February 2003, on the eve of the invasion, the U.S. invasion force of 278,000 American troops began to dwindle as someone tried to prove the job could be done with fewer than Shinseki's 200,000 troops. Call that the Shinseki Threshold.

One division's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles bobbed around at sea for weeks and arrived too late for the attack. A second division of tanks and Bradley armored vehicles slated for the follow-up to the invasion was canceled; a third division's deployment to Iraq was postponed for several months. Military Police units needed to secure a hundreds of miles of dangerous supply lines - and to establish law and order - disappeared from the war plan.

A strike force that amounted to an Army division and a Marine Expeditionary Force, with Air Force and Navy fighters and bombers, took down Baghdad in three weeks.

But as the invasion forces regrouped, the world witnessed an orgy of looting and burning of government ministry buildings, and even the power plants upon which a city of 11 million people depended. There was no one to prevent it.

Birthing democracy, Rumsfeld allowed, can be "messy."

After nearly 18 months, the Pentagon admitted that a team of nearly 1,000 intelligence officials and scientists had combed Iraq for evidence of chemical and biological weapons or any sign of an active nuclear weapons program. They found nothing.

This war that was supposed to be a cakewalk has taken the lives of 1,510 American troops and sent thousands more home, maimed by improvised explosive devices that tear off arms and legs.

American taxpayers have paid more than $200 billion in two years for a war we were told wouldn't cost much, if anything, and the cost in fiscal 2006 will be at least $70 billion more.

Now the administration tells us that we had to attack not because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda, but because he wasn't a democrat. Sadly, however, the costs of trying to make Iraq a democracy probably would have been lower, and the chances of succeeding better, if we hadn't gone to war with flimsy evidence and wishful thinking.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005-3994.

Originally published March 11, 2005