Frontline's Exposé of Iraq War Endgame Strategy


Frontline's latest documentary, ENDGAME (what when wrong, and why, in America's tragically failed effort to find a strategy for success in Iraq), shows a shocking level of incompetence leading to the options we face now:

On Dec. 19, 2006, President George W. Bush said for the first time that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq. It was a dramatic admission from a president who had insisted since the start of the war that things were under control.

Now, as the U.S. begins what the administration hopes is the final effort to secure victory through a "surge" of troops, [snip] military and government officials talk to FRONTLINE about both the military and political events that have led up to the current "surge" strategy.


The fifth in a series on the Iraq war, this documentary casts a clear light on the mistakes made at the highest levels, both from a civilian and military point of view.

In a particularly telling segment, Thomas Ricks from the Washington Post refers to the army's early strategy as: "War Tourism."

"You have war tourism. Units based on big forward operating bases - FOBS, going out and doing patrols from Humvees, usually not foot patrols, but mounted patrols, and then coming back to their base. If that's the way you're operating, you're not in the war. You're simply a war tourist."

General Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army Vice Chief of Staff, added:

"When you look back on that, and analyze that, it's a short war strategy. Nowhere in there, is a plan to defeat the insurgency."

The documentary points out that the original strategy was to leave Iraq by Sept. '03, that the top generals in charge were brought back shortly after the invasion and command was assigned the "lowest ranked three start general in the Pentagon" (Sanchez) for what what was, essentially, supposed to be a mopping up and withdrawal operation.

The narrator says the planning did not account for an insurgency.

One can't help but remember Saddam Hussein saying -- prior to the start of the war -- if you attack we'll turn Iraq into another Vietnam.

In fairness to Gen. Casey (the four star general brought in to replace Sanchez after Abu Ghraib), he was one of the first to point out that the solution needed to be political, not military, after he realized his requests for more troops would not be met.

He brought in a large group of military strategists (Casey's Ph.D's) who tried to figure out the best way fight the insurgency without alienating moderate Sunnis. At one point, they suggested the military hold off on attacking the insurgents at Fallujah until they could figure out a way to reach out to the moderate Sunnis.

That strategy lasted until Nov. 8, 2004 (just after the Iraqi election). Then the army was sent in to take Fallujah.

"Ultimately," according to Major Thomas Mowle, one of the advisers that Casey had assembled, "if you draw out all the events that followed Fallujah, that certainly decreased the Sunni Arab support and, in that sense, it did help the insurgency."

The Iraqi elections produced warnings from Casey's Ph.D's that the Sunni boycott had split the Iraqi government into something that would increase the insurgency and prevent a political solution at the same time that Bush's rhetoric was painting the result at Fallujah as a success.

It's important to note that it was not that the military on the ground that failed. Specifically, the successful strategy created by a Col. H.R. McMaster (Clear, Hold and Build), where his troops went into a city, lived among the population in small units, built trust and protected the population while they fought the insurgents.

Requests to implement his strategy that went up the ranks were stopped at the highest levels. The reasons given: it would take more troops and put them in more danger. Thomas Rick's reaction: you can't fight a war as a tourist." It was not implemented by the Pentagon.

The State Department representative in Iraq heard about "Clear, Hold and Build" and flew back to tell Condoleeza Rice. Rice then went before Congress and, in what turned out to be a direct challenge to Rumsfeld, formally recommended the Clear, Hold and Build strategy during a hearing that was broadcast live.

Rumsfeld quickly held a press conference where he said (paraphrase): we didn't have the troops to implement it and it wasn't our responsibility to protect the Iraqis.

The insurgency exploded.

The State Dept and several generals did not give up on the idea of Clear, Hold and Build, however. While acknowledging it would put more troops at risk, they pointed to Col. McMasters' success as the only feasible strategy, and also noted, in what was described as an act of sheer will on McMasters' part, that he managed to do it with the limited number of troops he'd been given.

Limited was the condition during the summer of '06 when Clear, Hold and build was tried on a "limited" basis -- enough resources to clear but not to hold, with Iraqi troops for the hold part.

Which Gen. Keane says was doomed to failure.

Which it did (just before the '06 elections).

Rumsfield's departure soon followed. After that, the drive for the strategy of Clear, Hold and Build began to gain momentum, renamed "Surge", which Keane was told to put together for a presidential briefing. He says he was clear with President Bush about the resources needed, the risks, the need for a political solution, etc.

Keane came away from the meeting thinking he had a consensus.

But Thomas Ricks, referring to Dick Cheney as the "Moby Dick" of the administration, said that Vice President "Cheney, as a rule, goes in after meetings and works on Bush until he changes the outcome of decisions."

As a result, the Clear, Hold and Build, which had worked with McMasters, began with exponentially less troops than were needed to provide success.

Gates and Petraeus then came on board. General Petraeus, who Ricks describes as a realist, a strong advocate of Clear, Hold and Build, brought both Keane and McMasters into his inner circle once he took command and ordered the implementation of the "Surge" years after McMasters had proven its feasibility.

Some conclusions after viewing the documentary:

  1. The planning from the start was to go in and get out within a few months. Anything that didn't fit in with that strategy was disregarded.

  2. The bases and embassy planned were part of a combination army and contractor force that would stay to protect oil resources and as a forward operating base on both Syria and Iran's borders, while the combat invasion forces would be withdrawn.

  3. The experienced commanding generals were called back within a few months of the invasion and the command.

  4. The successful strategy developed early on by Col. McMasters, Clear, Hold and Build, was not supported by Rumsfeld and, as such, was not implemented until the arrival of Gates and Petreus.

  5. Condolezza Rice did see the value in Clear, Hold and Build enough to challenge both Cheney and Rumsfeld by going before Congress to advocate for it.

  6. The Clear, Hold and Build strategy was refused by Rumsfeld at a time when the circumstances on the ground might have allowed that strategy to provide for a political solution.

  7. After Rumsfeld was ousted, Clear, Hold and Build was put into planning stages, resulting in what is described now as "The Surge."