Hoover Daily Report

Lessons of Abu Ghraib

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

During my years covering the Pentagon I followed enough military investigations designed to cover up incompetence, malfeasance, and downright stupidity to turn even the most credulous reporter into a skeptic. Whether it was the downing of an Iranian airbus, raunchy behavior at a Tailhook convention, or a fatal explosion aboard an antique battleship, the first mandate of investigative panels was always to protect the reputation of the service and the "good old boys" who ran it.

Not so the military's investigation into the sordid goings on at Abu Ghraib prison. Here the area command reacted swiftly to soldier Joseph Darby's charges of torture and abuse. Major General Antonio Taguba put the blame squarely where it belonged, on senior planners and commanders responsible for dealing with Iraqi detainees. From Taguba there were no mind-numbing homilies about the small handful of bad soldiers obscuring the good work of many. Here the problem was "systemic." It went to the core of any military operation—training, discipline, and leadership. Or, to put the matter bluntly, the soldiers supervising thousands of Iraqi prisoners were ill-prepared for the task and permitted to rampage through the prison like a band of vigilantes while senior intelligence officials—uniformed and civilian—may well have egged them on. Unit commanders were nowhere in sight.

And why did U.S. security forces find themselves in this predicament? For the same reason U.S. combat forces have suffered opposition so fierce that for a period military commanders in Iraq openly courted Baathist Republican Guard personnel and fanatics serving in the militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. And for the same reason that they are currently permitting any number of private militias to flourish. Because there simply have not been enough forces to handle the situation that has actually developed on the ground—as opposed to the best-case scenarios for which top Pentagon strategists had prepared.

There was, of course, no harm in believing that U.S. troops with their state-of-the-art weaponry would make short work of Iraqi forces, that they would be welcomed as liberators by long-oppressed Iraqis, that they would find the thirst for democracy acute in this acrid authoritarian environment, and that democracy and a market economy would bring all but the most extreme into the fold. No harm, that is, so long as your planning accommodates less-optimal developments.

The Pentagon's planning failure was evident from the first moments of the occupation as ferocious mobs rampaged through Baghdad and other cities while under-manned U.S. forces watched on the sidelines. In the weeks and months to follow, the rebels struck infrastructure targets, seized massive arms caches, and demolished hotels, marketplaces, and UN headquarters while increasingly bold and sophisticated resistance fighters took a savage toll of American lives.

All this has served to increase the stakes in Iraq to the point where even most prewar doves now recognize that a defeat there will have a catastrophic effect on both the war against terrorism and U.S. interests in the Middle East. In an ironic, almost bizarre way, the Pentagon's own planning failures have given it a final window of opportunity to get things right, to move the personnel and equipment to Iraq needed to do the job on the battlefield, in the political community, and, yes, even in the prisons. What is needed is fortitude, not fig leafs. Generations to come will pay the price of failure.