Thursday, 21 June 2007

PBS Documentary: Endgame

After watching PBS' documentary 'Endgame', I'm astonished by just how little we knew of the strategic thinking behind the war in Iraq. In the day to day news reports of bombings, kidnappings and "security" operations, its often difficult to discern the larger picture. Its a true case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

PBS has pieced together an incredibly informative documentary. You can watch the entire thing on their website, which also has transcripts of interviews, links to articles and a informative timeline. This is, so far, the definitive account of the changing U.S. strategy in Iraq. Some really important points emerge which really help to deepen our understanding of what has come before, and what is happening now.

By now it is common knowledge that the military and pentagon planners had no post-invasion plan to secure Iraq. There were plans around, most notably one drawn up by the State Department, which were never seriously examined by the war party. One key failure that followed from this was the unwillingness of the American forces to provide security for the Iraqi people after the Saddam government fell. In the looting and violence that followed, groups of armed Iraqi men started banding together to provide security for their neighbourhoods - in these were the seeds of the various militias and insurgent groups that abound today.

What the documentary reveals is that the Americans never planned to secure the Iraqi population. Rumsfeld and his military plans were always looking for the quick exit strategy - they insisted that the U.S. army should try and withdraw as soon as possible. This was known as the 'Light Footprint' strategy. The idea was to withdraw to safe bases, train a new Iraqi army who would take up the security task as soon as they were ready, and then pull out of the country. Rumsfeld refused to countenance alternative strategies of 'clear & hold'.

The effects of this were numerous. Firstly, it allowed the militias free reign, allowing them to gain credibility and leverage. Secondly it allowed places like Fallujah to become safe havens for insurgent groups. The Iraqi army never managed to take over security operations, and with no security, chaos and bloodshed grew, reconstruction efforts stalled completely and the nascent Iraqi government continued to lose credibility in the eyes of Iraqis. Perhaps most ominously, Al-Qaeda was successful in its declared aim of sparking off a sectarian civil war. These failures were compounded by a military leadership obsessed with the focus on an 'Exit strategy' and a presidential administration that refused to admit the truth of what was happening, both to the U.S. public and to itself and consequently refused to make any difficult decisions.

It was only in 2006 that the movement to shift to a different strategy gained momentum - that was to take U.S. troops out of their safe bases and into the streets - to provide security for Iraqi civilians and 'clear and hold' neighbourhoods. This strategy needed a huge commitment of troops and money and so Bush dithered. Until, that is, the 2006 elections which led to a resounding defeat for the Republicans. Galvanized by this defeat, Bush sacked Rumsfeld, the main opponent of a 'surge', a move ironically enough, supported by Democrats. The head of the military in Iraq was also removed. The new plan was adopted, but once again watered down. It was considered politically too unpalatable to commit the kinds of numbers of troops a 'clear and hold' strategy needed. Instead of a 'surge', the U.S. generals were to get a 'dribble'.


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