Reports released last week on two inquiries into the abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad dealt only briefly with what might have been the most shocking confirmation of policy failure: the apparent failure to plan for anything but the most rosy possible scenario in the wake of the attack on Iraq.
Here is how the independent commission headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger put it:
“In Iraq, there was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations. The October 2002 CENTCOM (Central Command) War Plan presupposed that relatively benign stability and security operations would precede a handover to Iraq’s authorities. The contingencies contemplated in that plan included sabotage of oil production facilities and large numbers of refugees generated by communal strife.
“Major combat operations were accomplished more swiftly than anticipated. Then began a period of occupation and an active and growing insurgency that followed after major combat operations.
“Although the removal of Saddam Hussein was initially welcomed by the bulk of the population, the occupation became increasingly resented.
“Detention facilities soon held Iraqi and foreign terrorists as well as a mix of enemy prisoners of war, other security detainees, criminals and undoubtedly some accused as a result of factional rivalries.”
The importance of this for the Abu Ghraib prison was that in October 2003 it held 7,000 prisoners and had a guard force of only 90 people, many of whom could not speak the languages of the detainees.
Both the Schlesinger report and the report issued by Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones and Maj. Gen. George Fay recount a comedy of errors — or perhaps a tragedy of errors — that followed, including poor leadership, minimal training of reserve and National Guard troops, personnel who had no idea they would be on prison duty until they got to Iraq and shuffling in and out of the prison assignment, officers looking the other way at reports of abuse, and confusion as to what interrogation techniques were permissible.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib shocked many Americans. What should be more shocking was the fact that so many top officials apparently believed the “cakewalk” theory — that Iraqis would be so pleased to be “liberated” that occupation would present no major problems.
War advocates apparently believed their own propaganda so much that they had no Plan B or Plan C. U.S. military personnel in Iraq are paying for this failure still — all too often with their lives — and U.S. credibility the world over has taken tremendous hits.
The best lesson to take from all this, of course, is to adopt a more humble approach if the temptation to invade a country that poses no imminent threat to U.S. security interests strikes again.
But if another invasion does occur, we hope civilian and military planners will adopt a prudent “hope for the best but plan for the worst” approach rather than assume things will be easy.
In war, things always go wrong. And it is wise to be flexible and realistic rather than keeping rose-colored glasses securely in place.