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U.S. Military Operations in Iraq: Planning, Combat and Occupation

Authored by Mr. Shane Lauth, Ms. Kate Phillips, Ms. Erin Schenck. Edited by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | April 2006

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On November 2, 2005, a colloquium entitled ?U.S. Military Operations in Iraq: Planning, Combat and Occupation? was held in Washington, DC, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The Merrill Center of the Johns Hopkins University organized the colloquium and co-sponsored it with the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. Its objective was to gain insight from the apparent successes and problems of different phases of the 2003-05 Iraqi war. Distinguished military officers, national security scholars, leading authors, and journalists gave presentations.

Forging consensus was not a goal of the colloquium, but panelists? presentations and participants? comments and questions appeared generally to support the following significant conclusions:

  • Military lessons, even for Phase III, of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM remain subject to considerable controversy, and what we now see as conventional wisdom and insight will be increasingly challenged.
  • Appraisals of the importance of speed in military operations may be subject to considerable revisions as the study of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM continues.
  • The transition from Phase III to Phase IV of military operations is particularly challenging. Considerable effort may be needed to address aspects of Phase IV while Phase III is still being waged.
  • All phases of future wars need to be coordinated to work towards the same end.
  • Serious analysis must be given to the interplay between force protection and accomplishing stabilization requirements. With regard to Iraq, some commentators argued that force protection should not be a priority at the expense of winning, and protecting the Iraqis.

The remainder of this colloquium report is devoted to detailed summary and analysis of presentations from each panel, comments and questions from attendees, and keynote speaker?s comments.


In the final session, Dr. Cohen introduced the two commentators who would provide their thoughts on the day?s panel discussions. He asked them to give their general thoughts, but also asked them specifically: Having reflected on events in Iraq (and bearing in mind normal expectations about performance of government and military organizations), how each commentator would evaluate the U.S. Government for:

  • planning major combat operations;
  • operations and counterinsurgency; and,
  • particular individuals or institutions.

The first commentator began by comparing operations against the insurgency in Algeria to the U.S. position in Iraq. Although he defined the good news as the fact that U.S. forces are adapting, the bad news is that we have wasted a year, spent billions of dollars, and alienated the Iraqi center. He argued that it will be difficult to reverse that. He stated that we are making military progress, but that he is concerned that the ?political clock? will run out before we are ready. He framed the war as one of ?containment?: the first Iraq war began in 1991, and he considered that an 11-year containment campaign. He asserted that there will be another 10 years of containment to come. He argued that force protection should not be a priority at the expense of winning and protecting the Iraqis. Too many officers fail to emphasize these goals.

On grading of officials, the speaker gave a firm ?F? to the war planning, and asserted that the war plan was perhaps the worst in American history. On grading of the counterinsurgency, he gave an ?incomplete.? He said that the U.S. military is correctly moving from anti-insurgency (killing insurgents) to counterinsurgency (a broader effort). He asserted that the focus must shift more toward protecting Iraqis: It is wrong that we are putting them in situations of greater vulnerability than our own soldiers.

He agreed with all the prior presentations on Phase IV. He asserted that it is important to create indigenous Iraqi forces, but there is much more to be done. On Fallujah, he reminded the audience that we should recall that the struggle there was actually a very well-fought urban battle by insurgents. On the topic of understanding the enemy, he reminded the audience of the Algerian insurgency, and the failure of the French to understand their enemy.

The second commentator noted that the panel on Planning and Execution was ?very upbeat,? despite the grave problems of Phase IV. He emphasized that, indeed, ?it was a great war if it wasn?t for the victory.? He assigned grades of ?A? to military commanders. Everyone else, particularly those involved in political and diplomatic areas, received a ?conditional? or ?failing? mark. He praised the presentation entitled ?Speed Kills,? but had some reservations. Although he agreed that we were fighting against an inept enemy and that we used speed as a great advantage, he remarked that the presentation raised the point that we still do not know whether a new transformation of the military can do the job against a first class enemy. Certainly, though, speed was helpful in Iraq.

He found the Afghan model to be fascinating, and agreed that, with only a very few people, the United States was able to change the dimensions of battle strategically. He agreed with the presenter on the importance of operating with locals on the ground who are welcoming. He then examined the assumptions about key elements that drove what happened in the war. From the DoD point of view, the war in Iraq was laid out to be an industrial enterprise. Some of the key assumptions were that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, that the Iraqis would destroy infrastructure, that Baghdad was the center of gravity, and that the Republican Guard was the military center of gravity. In the Phase IV stage, the DoD also assumed that the United States would receive international support. He asserted that the validity of all of these assumptions is arguable.

However, some assumptions were indeed correct. One was that the Iraqi military was weak enough that a small, mobile force could do the job well. Another was that the United States would have near-perfect battle space awareness, and that ?shock and awe? would be effective and would cut down Iraqi command and control. He pointed out that, although this was true, it was counterproductive in the sense that command and control would be needed for reconstruction efforts later on.

He argued that one element overlooked was the paramilitary Fedayeen. In the end, this was the force that the United States had to fight, and which was the military center of gravity?not the Republican Guard. This reflected an intelligence failure, and ultimately gave basis for the insurgency after Baghdad fell. Another element that he claimed was overlooked was post-combat operations. He argued that a disconnect remains between the military and politics: the military does almost everything in Iraq. The State Department gave responsibilities to DoD, and the only people with resources are the military, so nobody else takes the responsibility.

He concluded by noting that changes to the National Security Act of 1947 are necessary for us to learn from the civil-military disconnect. We have seen in Iraq that civil-military operations cannot be disentangled, and that legal authorities must be properly distributed.

A question was asked, ?Was insurgency unavoidable? Is the presence of American troops supporting the insurgency, and would leaving help?? The second commentator answered that even if the United States had everything it needed, an insurgency would still have been likely. He asserted, however, that it would be a matter of degree: the insurgency would still exist, but perhaps not to the same extent. The first commentator discussed how the presence of the troops was fueling the insurgency. His primary worry, however, was the undisciplined behavior of the support structure (i.e., supply truck drivers, contractors not responsible to the U.S. chain of command, and personal security details). Reducing the presence of this support structure?rather than of the U.S. forces?might help against the insurgency.

Several panelists answered a question about embedding political advisors to support the military, addressing the possible role of State Department representatives. Although the consensus was that State representatives would play an important role, it would be a challenge, given limited staff and the difficulty of forcing staff to spend time in the field.

Dr. Cohen then asked whether previous panelists would like to make any last comments. One speaker raised the issue of CERP and its usefulness as a short-term injection of money into rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure. He said that there was just not enough money: more aid could have given a major boost to Iraqi small businesses and communities. Another panelist noted that advisors available to suggest how to apply these funds also would have been useful.

Another speaker stated that the escalation to insurgency was a direct result of U.S. mistakes. He maintained that assumptions about post-war were wrong, were not challenged, and that the military did not do contingency planning. Another panelist commented on the difference between political and military objectives and recalled the Clausewitzian concept of war as policy. He asserted that the agenda for Iraq, as it was written, was a political and not a military object. However, he noted that the United States operationalized plans based on the military objective, and then implemented the policy. However, this did not equate to a strategic victory.

Cohen noted that the most effective wartime conduct of operations often occurs when civilian-military relations are in-depth and heated. He asserted that this did not happen during the war in Iraq, and that there were limits to the willingness of the military to argue and debate with civilian authorities. Ultimately, civilians are responsible, but such debates are important to effective wartime decisionmaking.