Fighting ourselves in Falluja

Bing West, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is the author of “No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Falluja.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23/01/06):

THE persistence of the insurgency in Iraq has divided America in a way not seen since Vietnam. Now the blame game among the principals has begun. The former presidential envoy to Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has written in his new memoir that he informed President Bush that the military did not have “a strategy to win.”

Quite. The lesson the Pentagon should learn from Iraq is to avoid another L. Paul Bremer. This is less a reflection on Mr. Bremer, who accurately described himself as “the American viceroy” in Iraq and “the president’s man,” than on the position he and the American military commanders in Iraq were placed in by the White House’s failure to put one person in charge.

In 1967, when confusion among military and civilian officials in Vietnam was undermining the war effort, President Lyndon B. Johnson placed all civilian reconstruction and security functions under the top general, William Westmoreland, insuring unity of command under Westmoreland’s successor Creighton Abrams. Confronting similar confusion in Iraq, President Bush unfortunately assigned to the military the responsibility for security but gave Mr. Bremer the authority to shape, recruit, train and finance the Iraqi military and police.

Mr. Bremer writes that he believed the Iraqi military should not “have internal security duties” and that the police should be trained by American civilians. But not enough civilians ever arrived to do the job. Mr. Bremer was unable to design a strategy for building up the Iraqi military and police. This failure extended the period in which the American military had to do the fighting while also taking over the training of both Mr. Bremer’s new army and the police.

This disunity of command reached its tragic apex in the spring of 2004, during what Mr. Bremer calls “the most critical crisis of the occupation.” When four American contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated in Falluja on March 31, Mr. Bremer joined with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of American forces, in ordering the fractious city seized.

Five days later, however, Mr. Bremer changed his mind after Sunni members of the Iraqi Governing Council threatened to quit in protest. He prevailed on General Abizaid to order the Marine battalions that were advancing through Falluja to halt. Mr. Bremer acknowledged that this “temporary cessation of offensive action” would be “rough on the military.” Secretary Rumsfeld, for his part, disagreed with the halt and urged General Abizaid to finish the attack. But as the military prepared to end things quickly, Mr. Bremer changed his mind about the “temporary” cessation. He told President Bush that the assault would “collapse the entire political process”; the president sided with his viceroy and told General Abizaid “to let the political situation there develop.”

Develop it did. The insurgents’ morale soared and their defenses toughened. According to Pentagon reports, 21 marines were killed around the city in April, and 25 were killed over the next six months as Falluja degenerated into Taliban-style rule and became the lair of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And then 70 American soldiers and marines were killed in the main assault on Falluja that eventually took place in November. The cost of dithering: 116 American lives. Because of the stop-and-start decisionmaking, Falluja developed into the fiercest battle yet of the Iraqi war. The lines of authority, responsibility and communications to the president were fatally tangled. The establishment of two independent chains of command in the midst of war guaranteed error and human loss. The result was indeed “rough on the military.” Ask the soldiers and marines who fought at Falluja.

The singular lesson in war is to put either the civilian viceroy or (better) the general in charge, but not both. Bing West, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is the author of “No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Falluja.”