This is the fourth of an eight part review series of the Patterson Summer Reading List.
1. Colossus, Niall Ferguson
2. Illicit, Moises Naim
3. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
4. The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman
Cobra II is about the campaign and the military buildup to the campaign, rather than the aftermath. As such, it grants some important but limited insights into how the campaign affected the post-conflict environment. Some of the decisions made in the very early days were certainly crucial for what happened later, but Gordon and Trainor don’t dwell on the disastrous incompetence that characterized the occupation. Rather, Cobra II is an excellent campaign history, following Franks and his lieutenants as they prepared for and executed the war, often with Don Rumsfeld watching over their shoulders and offering unhelpful advice.
Cobra II paints a fascinating portrait of Franks as military commander. Certainly, constructing a battle plan with continual interference from Don Rumsfeld and his jolly band of morons was no easy thing. Franks was, however, an effective bureaucratic fighter, using Rumsfeld rhetorically to quash resistance within the Army and the Marine Corps. In some sense, I almost felt that Trainor and Gordon shorted Franks a bit of the credit for his execution of the war. He was very involved in the planning of the campaign, successfully parried Rumsfeld enough to preserve a workable operation, and effectively overrode opposition within his own ranks. If we understand his role as primarily to create and execute a plan to seize Iraq in a short period of time with minimal casualties, Franks performed exceptionally well. Trainor and Gordon mention several incidents during the campaign in which on the ground commanders began to have serious reservations about the execution, and detail how Franks, in gruff and intimidating style, overruled them and pushed them forward. In all fairness to Franks, he was almost always correct about the capacity of US forces to destroy and bypass Iraqi opposition, even when the Iraqis began using tactics that the Americans were unprepared for.
It’s on the political side that Franks really fell short. Trainor and Gordon suggest that he really hated diplomacy, and understood the military sphere as separate and distinct from the political. In other words, and just as so many generals have before him, he ignored the critical tenets of Clausewitz. He didn’t take time to mollify the Turks or other potential allies in the run up to or execution of the war. He understood the Iraqi guerilla tactics as primarily a military problem, one that posed little significant threat to his advance, rather than as a political problem for the aftermath and occupation. He gave little thought to what would happen following the destruction of Iraqi forces and the seizure of Baghdad. Most importantly, he failed to resist Rumsfeld and the Pentagon strongly enough on the construction of post-war Iraq. In an important sense, Franks abdicated his responsibility as a political actor, a role that all senior military officers must be prepared to accept. Franks operated much more in the “Patton” than the “Eisenhower” mode, and his experience should serve to remind us just how important it is to have a general like Eisenhower who can balance the military and political parts of the job.
Any discussion of Iraq as a model for other military action has to deal with the question of the competence of Iraqi forces. The Iraqi Army has, historically, displayed a high level of ineptitude even for an Arab military organization. The reasons for this are long and complicated, but have a lot to do with a generally dysfunctional political system and consequent civil-military problems. These problems were evident in the 2003 campaign. The problems started at the very top, with Hussein and his inner circle making several devastating misjudgements regarding American intentions and capabilities. Hussein failed to perceive the threat that the Americans posed, and consequently failed to give his forces the tools and freedom they needed to fight the invasion. Regular Iraqi units and even Republican Guard units were rarely trusted with the equipment, information, or latitude of action necessary to resist the US attack. In part because of this (but also because of the US interdiction campaign, and the general collapse of the Iraqi state) the regular units began to disintegrate a week or so into the battle. When regular Iraqi forces met US troops, they got dusted; Iraqi T-72s were simply incapable of doing significant damage to US tanks, for example, and Iraqi tactics were in general quite poor. The Iraqis ended the Iran-Iraq War by developing a French/Egyptian model of methodical planning, but this was obviously unavailable in the context of Iraqi domestic politics in 2003, and given the speed and agility of US forces. The ineptitude of the Iraqi forces extended to the irregular Fedayeen, who were occasionally able to construct clever ambushes, but who were wholly incapable of dealing with US firepower superiority. On countless occasions, inexperienced Fedayeen guerrillas launched pointless and suicidal attacks against well defended and supported US positions. A competent and experienced guerilla organization (like Hezbollah) would likely have performed much better, and posed a far more significant threat to US rear areas and supply lines during the initial advance. It would be wrong to assume that all foes that the US fights in the future will display the same level of incompetence as the Iraqis.
Trainor and Gordon do an outstanding job of depicting various critical encounters between Iraqi and US forces. Even as US forces were slaughtering fedayeen attackers, the Iraqis were creating situations that posed real problems for the Americans. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Americans were always concerned that the Iraqis were about to mount either armored assaults or chemical attacks. Most of the serious engagements were between advance elements of US units and Iraqi guerrillas. Trainor and Gordon cover this in detail, just as they give clear and informative discussions of the runs through and eventual seizure of Baghdad. The authors even make good use of Iraqi sources, although more at the strategic level than the operational or tactical. It would be nice, in particular, to hear how the guerrillas conceived of and executed their attacks, and of the state of morale in the face of overwhelming US firepower superiority.
The guerrilla strategy employed by Iraq posed serious difficulties for the US advance, even if the guerrilla attacks were not competently executed. Oddly, the US operation played directly into the Iraqi strategy, as the US advance left long, hard to defend supply lines vulnerable to guerilla assault. Had the fedayeen displayed more competence, they might have been able to do serious damage to the US battleplan. It is a difficult (and somewhat daring) thing to turn over significant responsibilities for national defense to what are essentially irregular guerrilla organizations, and it will be interesting to see if other states begin to follow suit. Certainly, the Iraqis could have done a much better job of training the guerrillas, and of establishing cooperation between guerilla and regular forces. I suspect that the Iranians in particular are studying the campaign with an eye toward particularly those questions. The Iranian state is probably better equipped for this kind of fighting than most any other, given the division of responsibilities between the conventional military and the Revolutionary Guard, and the rather irregular nature of the latter.
As a final note, the CIA comes through as completely incompetent in Cobra II. They got the big questions (WMD) wrong, and they got the medium questions (Iraqi public opinion) wrong, and they got the small questions (various tactical situations) wrong. Even before Porter Goss was inflicted upon the Agency, it seems that there were serious problems with how it did business, problems that weren’t all created by pressure from the administration. For example, even the much vaunted phone calls to Iraqi officers on the eve of the invasion failed, in part because the Iraqi accented Arabic was so genuine that the officers believed that the calls came from Hussein’s security services.
Cobra II is an excellent work, and I highly recommend it to students of military science, as well as to anyone interested in the general contours of the 2003 campaign.
UPDATE: See this review of The World is Flat. Via FMGuru.