Top 10 U.S. blunders in Iraq

This is an edited excerpt from a recent speech by retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, delivered to the directors of the Center for Defense Information, outlining his views on "10 crucial mistakes" made by the United States in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni was commander of Central Command, which controls U.S. military operations in the Middle East, in 1997-2000.

1. Rejecting the policy of containment.

I think the first mistake we made in Iraq was misjudging the success of containment. I heard the president say, not too long ago, that "containment did not work." That's not true. I think we did pretty well, given the circumstances.

It began with president George H. W. Bush accepting the U.N. resolution to conduct the 1991 Gulf War, staying within the framework of the U.N. resolution, and not going into Baghdad after the war, breaking the coalition, ending up inheriting a country that I think he clearly saw would be a burden on us, our military and our treasury, and would break relations around the region and put him outside what he considered his international legitimacy.

During that time, when we asked allies in the region to join us in other conflicts, like Somalia, they came. Egyptians came, Pakistanis came, Saudis came, Kuwaitis came, the Emirates came and provided forces.

They joined us in the Balkans and elsewhere on operations when we needed them.

We built a magnificent coalition of forces, without ever once signing a piece of paper. And we contained Saddam Hussein.

We watched his military shrink to less than half its size from the Gulf War until the time I left command, not only shrinking in size but dealing with obsolete equipment, ill-trained troops, dissatisfaction in the ranks and absenteeism.

We didn't see the Iraqis as a formidable force. We saw them as a decaying force and bombed almost at will. No one in the region felt threatened by Saddam and no one denied us our ability to conduct sanctions.

Many countries joined us in sanctions enforcement, in the no-fly zones, and in maritime operations to intercept oil and gas smuggling.

So, to say containment didn't work, I think is not only wrong from the experiences we had then, but the proof is in the pudding in what kind of military our troops faced when we went in there: It disintegrated.

Containment as a policy certainly worked against the Soviet Union, has worked with North Korea and others. It's not a pleasant thing to have to administer, but containment is a lot cheaper than the alternative, as we're finding out now.

2. Flawed strategy

The second mistake I think history will record is that the strategy was flawed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing about the benefits of this strategic move: that the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true ... ; that we would walk in and be met with open arms; that people would glom on to democracy overnight; that strategically we would reform and reshape the Middle East by this action.

All those who believed this was going to be the catalyst for some kind of revolutionary change in the region got more than they bargained for and didn't understand the region, the culture, the situation, the issues or the effect that what they were about to do would have in those areas.

3. False rationale

The third mistake was one we repeated from Vietnam: thinking we had to create a false rationale for going in to get public support. The books were cooked, in my mind. The intelligence was not there.

I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee one month before the war, and Senator Richard Lugar asked me: "Do you feel the threat from Saddam Hussein is imminent?"

I said: "No, not at all. It was not an imminent threat. Not even close. Not grave, gathering, imminent, serious, severe, mildly upsetting, none of those."

I predicted that organized resistance would be over in three weeks. To Gen. Tommy Franks' credit, he did it in 19 days.

He did a magnificent job, as did our troops. But the rationale that we faced an imminent or serious threat was ridiculous.

Now, whether the intelligence was flawed or exaggerated, remains to be seen. I have my own opinions.

4. Failure to internationalize

We failed, in the fourth mistake, to internationalize the effort.

To his credit, the first president Bush set a standard that held up throughout the post-Cold War period until this war in Iraq.

He went to the United Nations before we undertook the operation to expel Saddam from Kuwait. There were tremendous diplomatic efforts to get a resolution from the U.N. to authorize the use of force and then to create the remarkable coalition we had in the Gulf War. We had Arab countries, Islamic countries, European countries, contributions from the Far East, all over the world.

That model was extremely successful and, if you think about it, so was every intervention we had while using it.

It worked in Somalia, in Haiti, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, East Timor. There were variations, but it always started with that U.N. resolution.

Not only did we get the resolution we needed for the Gulf War, we got it again in '93 and in '98. When we needed to use force, we got the authorization we needed during the enforcement of the sanctions to use force.

Why would we believe that we would not get it this time? Why would we believe that this time for some reason, unlike before, the inspectors would not call the shots honestly? The inspectors don't make judgments; they just report facts. Why, suddenly, was Hans Blix suspect? And what was the rush to war?

5. Underestimating reconstruction risks

I think the fifth mistake was that we underestimated the task.

I think former commanders of U.S. Central Command, beginning with Gen. Schwarzkopf, have said: You don't understand what you're getting into. You are not going to have a "cakewalk."

You are not going to have Iraqis dancing in the streets to receive you.

You are about to go into a problem that you don't know the dimensions and the depth of, and it's going to cause you a great deal of pain, time, expenditure of resources and casualties down the road.

I can't understand why there was an underestimation when you look at a country that has never known democracy, that has been in the condition it's been in, that has the natural fault lines and issues it has.

And to look at the task of not only reconstructing this country, but the idea of creating Jeffersonian democracy almost overnight, is almost ridiculous, in concept, in the kind of time and effort that was given as an estimate of what would be needed to do the job.

6. Relying on exiles

The sixth mistake, and maybe the biggest one, was propping up and trusting Iraqi exiles, the infamous "Gucci guerrillas" from London.

To its credit, the CIA didn't buy into their intelligence reports, so I guess the Defence Department created its own boutique intelligence agency to vet those reports.

And we ended up with a group that fed us bad information that led us to believe we would be welcomed with flowers in the streets, that led us to believe this would be a cakewalk.

When I testified before Congress in 1998, I said these guys are not credible and they are going to lead us into something we will regret.

At that time, they were pushing a plan for Central Command to supply air support and special forces while they Pied Piper their way up to Baghdad and the whole place would fall apart.

The exiles did not have credibility inside the country or in the region. Not only did they not have credibility, it was clear that the information they were providing was not accurate.

7. Lack of planning

The seventh mistake has been a lack of planning.

I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, right behind the panel of planners from the State Department and the Department of Defence, and I listened to them describe a "plan."

I didn't hear anything in it that told me they had the scope of planning for the political, economic and social reconstruction of Iraq or for developing an infrastructure for the country.

And I think that lack of planning the idea that you can do this by the seat of the pants: reconstruct a country, make decisions on the fly, with just a handful of people at the last minute was patently ridiculous.

In my time at CentCom, we actually developed a plan for reconstruction, because I thought that we, the military, would get stuck with it.

In my mind, we needed formidable teams at every provincial level. Eighteen teams.

The size of the Coalition Provisional Authority is about the size we felt we needed for one province, not the entire country.

8. Insufficient forces

The eighth problem was the insufficiency of military forces on the ground. There were a lot more troops in my military plan for operations in Iraq.

When that plan was presented, the secretary of defence said it was "old and stale."

But it sounded pretty new and fresh to me, because there were a hell of a lot more troops to freeze the situation. The extra divisions we wanted were not to defeat the Republican Guard; they were to freeze the security situation because we knew chaos would result when we uprooted an authoritarian regime like Saddam's.

9. CPA shortcomings

The ninth problem was the ad hoc organization we threw in there. No one can tell me the Coalition Provisional Authority did any planning for its structure.

One hundred forty-four bodies were scraped from embassies around the world people that I know, for a fact, walked in and were put in the positions.

There were never the kinds of qualifications or the breadth, scope and depth needed to work the problems down to the grassroots level.

Horses were changed in midstream. Gen. Jay Garner leaves, and in comes Paul Bremer. Third quarter, you're down seven bring in the backup quarterback and part of his job is to create the game plan while he's out there.

10. De-Baathifying and disbanding Iraq's army

The failure of the CPA's ad hoc leadership led to the 10th mistake: de-Baathifying down to a point where we alienated the Sunnis and stopped having qualified people down in the ranks people who don't have blood on their hands but know how to make trains run on time.

Disbanding the Iraqi army, this is one I'll never understand, because when I arrived at CentCom as the commander, there was an ongoing program started by my predecessors to run a psychological operations campaign against the regular army.

Every time we struck Iraq, we dropped leaflets on regular army formations and garrisons saying, "If you don't fight when the time comes, we'll take care of you."

When I did interviews on Al-Jazeera TV and other Arab networks, I would always mention the poor Iraqi soldiers of the regular army victims of Saddam.

We always intended to get rid of the top military leaders but keep the regular army intact. Its troops would be the basis for a ready-made force to pick up some of the security duties.

But they were disbanded.