Iraq After 10 Years
In February 2002, I was part of a small team of Army planners who were given the charge to ready a war plan for Iraq. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that the United States was going to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime from power. We were also told to use April 28th – of 2002, as the initial planning date for D-Day. It was not a coincidence that that date was Saddam’s birthday. Our leadership in Washington wanted to send an unmistakable message.
Following that initial meeting, it soon became clear that the war could not start that quickly. After all, it takes time to, among other things, position forces and supplies. But, it was also clear that we were on a path to war. And that was the unmistakable impression of everyone who was working on the war plan. This campaign was a matter of when, not if.
As spring approached, the planning effort continued but D-day fell back. With summer and the extreme heat of the Iraqi summer approaching, we knew that the start of the war would be delayed until at least the fall when temperatures would become more tolerable. Central Command held conferences with its subordinate commands and logistics began to quietly flow into Kuwait and other neighboring countries.
In April of 2002, the first major draft of the plan was complete and the Coalition Forces Land Component Command, the three star headquarters that would command all ground forces, held its first mission analysis briefing. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to address the legal issues. I had shared with the planning team why I thought the legal issues were important and they agreed and wanted the commanders to understand how strategic decisions made in Washington, especially the legal basis, could impact operations.
I told the various commanders that although the legal basis for the campaign would issue from Washington, it would impact our efforts. The degree to which the campaign was viewed as legitimate under international law would influence domestic and international support. How? If a nation was uncomfortable with the legality of U.S. actions, they would be less likely to contribute forces or provide overflight rights. I thought the commanders needed to be conscious that diplomacy and operational issues were closely connected. In the end, the controversy over Washington’s justification for war turned out to be a major factor on the ground. Few nations participated in the coalition, and Turkey refused the request to stage 4th Infantry Division forces for a northern invasion.
In August of 2002, I reviewed every pre-planned target with my counterpart from Central Command. There were thousands and a number of potential targets were identified as suspected sites for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We read the descriptions and assumed the intel was accurate. At that time, I don’t recall any debate about whether or not it was. Presidential palaces were also on the target list, justified for the “symbolic value” that would be derived from their destruction. Consequently, we recommended that the palaces be spared. As is well known now, these presidential palaces later became the headquarters for coalition forces.
After the new year, I was ready to go. I wasn’t hoping for the war to start, but I was ready for it to begin – especially since temperatures can start soaring in that part of the world by the end of March. I knew this from personal experience. When I watched Secretary Powell give his speech to the UN, I thought to myself, “Soon. Very soon.” At the time, I didn’t think critically about what he said. Instead, I knew it was nothing more than a performance to build the case for war.
A few days before the war started, I read an order that sent Navy SEALS inside Iraq for surveillance and reconnaissance. When I saw that, I wrote an entry in my journal: “Any day now.” I also received a note from my father, who had served in Vietnam. He wrote, “If I had one wish, I’d trade places with you. Look after your buddies and you’ll be ok.”
When the war started, it felt a bit surreal. Because I had prepared for it for more than a year, at first it didn’t seem like much had changed. I remained at the headquarters at Camp Doha, Kuwait, where I had been for months, and I was doing the same tasks – reviewing targets and providing advice on the laws of war and the rules of engagement. Only now it was real. And then the first Iraqi missile attack came, intercepted by a Patriot not far from us. These Iraqi missile attacks would continue until the Air Force neutralized Iraq’s missile sites about a week later. After that first attack, my boss, Colonel Richard Gordon, said, “Now you know what Winston Churchill meant when he said, ‘there’s nothing as exhilarating as being shot at and missed.’”
One of my responsibilities was to help commanders make decisions on targets. I recall being in a time-sensitive targeting session at the beginning of the war and the target was Chemical Ali. A few days later, his name was again on the target list. I wasn’t getting much sleep so I double checked the name. It was the same. I then asked the obvious question, “Didn’t we just go after him?” We did, but that intelligence turned out to be wrong. Now we had new intelligence. In these moments, commanders have to make judgments based on what they are told and it’s the responsibility of those providing the information to be correct, or provide degrees of certainty. The mission for a second attack on Chemical Ali was approved. Unfortunately, it turned out that that intel was also wrong. He would later be captured on August 17, 2003.
There were dark days during the initial invasion, but it went by remarkably fast. It only took 21 days for our forces to seize Baghdad and our worst fears for the invasion were never realized. We expected that Saddam would use any WMD he had in his arsenal when our troops closed on Baghdad. That’s why our forces wore their MOPP suits into Baghdad: to prevent them from chemical and biological agents until the capital was captured. I know there has been much criticism about the WMD, and rightly so. But I thank God that it wasn’t used against us.
After the fall of Baghdad, I attended a planning session wherein we were directed to develop a plan to scale forces down to 30,000 troops by August – of 2003. That plan was prepared but never implemented. Instead, the warnings about the war issued by various experts but ignored by our nation’s leaders came true: the hardest part of the conflict wouldn’t be the offensive operations; it would be holding the country together after taking it over.
As I close, I want to say that this only scratches the surface of what I experienced and learned a decade ago. And the most important lesson I learned wasn’t about any of this. It was the same lesson that’s been learned by everyone who has seen combat: it’s all about your buddies who are next to you. On this day, 10 years later, that’s who I’m thinking about.
Scott Holcomb is a Truman Security Fellow.