WASHINGTON — In March 2003, days before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American war planners and intelligence officials met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to review the Bush administration's plans to oust Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in Iraq.
Near the end of his presentation, an Army lieutenant colonel who was giving a briefing showed a slide describing the Pentagon's plans for rebuilding Iraq after the war, known in the planners' parlance as Phase 4-C. He was uncomfortable with his material - and for good reason.
The slide said: "To Be Provided."
A Knight Ridder review of the administration's Iraq policy and decisions has found that it invaded Iraq without a comprehensive plan in place to secure and rebuild the country. The administration also failed to provide some 100,000 additional U.S. troops that American military commanders originally wanted to help restore order and reconstruct a country shattered by war, a brutal dictatorship and economic sanctions.
In fact, some senior Pentagon officials had thought they could bring most American soldiers home from Iraq by September 2003. Instead, more than a year later, 138,000 U.S. troops are still fighting terrorists who slip easily across Iraq's long borders, diehards from the old regime and Iraqis angered by their country's widespread crime and unemployment and America's sometimes heavy boots.
"We didn't go in with a plan. We went in with a theory," said a veteran State Department officer who was directly involved in Iraq policy.
The military's plan to defeat Saddam's army worked brilliantly and American troops have distinguished themselves on the battlefield. However, the review found that the president and many of his advisers ignored repeated warnings that rebuilding Iraq would be harder than ousting Saddam and tossed out years of planning about how to rebuild Iraq, in part because they thought pro-American Iraqi exiles and Iraqi "patriots" would quickly pick up the pieces. The CIA predicted up until the war's opening days that the Iraqi army would turn against Saddam, which never happened.
This report is based on official documents and on interviews with more than three dozen current and former civilian and military officials who participated directly in planning for the war and its aftermath. Most still support the decision to go to war but say many of the subsequent problems could have been avoided.
Every effort was made to get those who were interviewed to speak for the record, but many officials requested anonymity because they didn't want to criticize the administration publicly or because they feared retaliation.
One official who was deeply involved in the pre-war planning effort - and was critical of it - initially agreed but then declined to cooperate after expressing concern that the Justice Department might pursue a reporter's telephone records in an effort to hunt down critics of the administration's policies.
Some senior officials spoke up about their concerns for the first time. President Bush and top officials in Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's office never responded to repeated requests for interviews. They've publicly defended their plans for the invasion and its aftermath, and now some top officials are blaming the CIA for failing to predict the messy aftermath of Saddam's fall.
The United States and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi are now taking steps to defeat the Iraqi insurgency and permit national elections scheduled for January. They've negotiated an agreement to disarm some of the militia led by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr and are pressing an offensive against Sunni rebels. After more than a year of internal squabbling, U.S. military commanders, intelligence officers and diplomats in Baghdad are acting as a team.
But the hole created by the absence of an adequate plan to rebuild Iraq, the failure to provide enough troops to secure the country, the misplaced faith in Iraqi exiles and other mistakes made after Baghdad fell is a deep one.
"We've finally got our act together, but we're all afraid it may be too late," said one senior official who's engaged daily in Iraq policy.
The Bush administration's failure to plan to win the peace in Iraq was the product of many of the same problems that plagued the administration's case for war, including wishful thinking, bad information from Iraqi exiles who said Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators and contempt for dissenting opinions.
However, the administration's planning for postwar Iraq differed in one crucial respect from its erroneous pre-war claims about Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and links to al Qaida.
The U.S. intelligence community had been divided about the state of Saddam's weapons programs, but there was little disagreement among experts throughout the government that winning the peace in Iraq could be much harder than winning a war.
"The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious," warned an Army War College report that was completed in February 2003, a month before the invasion. Without an "overwhelming" effort to prepare for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the report warned: "The United States may find itself in a radically different world over the next few years, a world in which the threat of Saddam Hussein seems like a pale shadow of new problems of America's own making."
A half-dozen intelligence reports also warned that American troops could face significant postwar resistance. This foot-high stack of material was distributed at White House meetings of Bush's top foreign policy advisers, but there's no evidence that anyone ever acted on it.
"It was disseminated. And ignored," said a former senior intelligence official.
The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency was particularly aggressive in its forecasts, officials said. One briefing occurred in January 2003. Another, in April 2003, weeks after the war began, discussed Saddam's plans for attacking U.S. forces after his troops had been defeated on the battlefield.
Similar warnings came from the Pentagon's Joint Staff, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the CIA's National Intelligence Council. The council produced reports in January 2003 titled "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq."
Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which Iraqi troops were trying to maintain their grip on Kuwait, "they are now defending their country," said a senior defense official, summarizing the Joint Staff's warnings. "You are going to get serious resistance. This idea that everyone will join you is baloney. But it was dismissed."
In the first weeks of 2003, as war appeared inevitable, it began to dawn on many officials throughout the government that the United States was unprepared to stabilize and rebuild Iraq after Saddam was defeated.
At the CIA, the national intelligence officer for military issues, retired Maj. Gen. John Landry, became concerned that the military wasn't preparing adequately for postwar Iraq.
He and fellow officer Paul Pillar, acting on their own, convened a brainstorming session of government and private experts at the CIA two months before the war.
It uncovered many problems, including some that couldn't be solved before the war began.
The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, couldn't get Pentagon approval to pre-position in Kuwait all the relief supplies he thought would be necessary. The White House was slow to release funds for rebuilding Iraq.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner wasn't named to lead Iraq's reconstruction until January 2003 and didn't oversee the first major interagency conference on postwar Iraq until Feb. 21, less than a month before the invasion.
At the Pentagon, the director of the Joint Staff, Army Gen. George Casey, repeatedly pressed Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the Central Command, for a "Phase 4," or postwar, plan, the senior defense official said.
"Casey was screaming, 'Where is our Phase 4 plan?' " the official said. It never arrived. Casey is now the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
Franks' Central Command did have an extensive plan to restore order and begin rebuilding the country, called Operation Desert Crossing, said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who drew up the plan and updated it continuously when he led Centcom until 2000. It was never utilized.
On March 17, 2003, two days before the war began, ground force commanders asked the Army War College for a copy of the handbook that had governed the U.S. occupation of postwar Germany, which began in 1945.
The same officials who saw no need for a plan to secure and rebuild a defeated Iraq also saw no need to position thousands of U.S. soldiers, including military police, engineers, ordnance disposal teams and civil affairs specialists, to begin taking control in Iraq even before the war against Saddam was over.
Longstanding Army doctrine calls for beginning reconstruction in freed areas of a country while fighting rages elsewhere. It also calls for a shift in military forces from combat troops to civil affairs, military police and the like.
"Unfortunately, this did not occur despite clear guidance to the contrary," Army Col. Paul F. Dicker wrote in an assessment. Bush, Rumsfeld and other top officials insist that their military commanders were given everything they requested, and Franks wrote in his book, "American Soldier," that Rumsfeld supported his war plan. Technically, that's accurate. However, three top officials who served with Franks at the time said the plan was the product of a lengthy and sometimes heated negotiation between the Central Command and the Pentagon, in which Rumsfeld constantly pressed Franks and other senior officers to commit fewer troops to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At one point, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former chairman of the joint chiefs, weighed in on Franks' side and helped persuade Rumsfeld to commit more troops, a senior administration official said. Rumsfeld and his aides wisely wanted to keep the U.S. footprint in Iraq as small as possible, realizing that more troops would likely breed more Iraqi resentment, and they wanted a smaller, faster force that could overwhelm the Iraqi military before it could torch the country's oil fields, retreat into the cities and create a humanitarian disaster.
"There were different motivations by different people in this administration for going after Iraq, but they all came together . . . in a way that blotted out prudence and caution," said a senior intelligence official.
Rumsfeld and his aides made it clear what would happen to generals who bucked them. When, under persistent congressional questioning in February 2003, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, said he thought several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed to secure Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz publicly called his estimate "wildly off the mark." Then Rumsfeld's office leaked word of Shinseki's replacement 15 months before Shinseki was due to retire, both embarrassing and neutralizing the Army's top officer. "Rumsfeld just beat up on the military," said the senior intelligence official. "And so they just shut up and did what they were told."
Central Command originally proposed a force of 380,000 to attack and occupy Iraq. Rumsfeld's opening bid was about 40,000, "a division-plus," said three senior military officials who participated in the discussions. Bush and his top advisers finally approved the 250,000 troops the commanders requested to launch the invasion. But the additional troops that the military wanted to secure Iraq after Saddam's regime fell were either delayed or never sent.
Four senior officers who were directly involved said Rumsfeld and Franks micromanaged the complex process of deciding when and how the troops and their equipment would be sent to Iraq, called the Time-Phased Force and Deployment Data, canceling some units, rescheduling others and even moving equipment from one ship to another.
As a result, two Army divisions that Centcom wanted to help secure the country weren't on hand when Baghdad fell and the country lapsed into anarchy, and a third, the 1st Cavalry from Fort Hood, Texas, fell so far behind schedule that on April 21 Franks and Rumsfeld dropped it from the plan.
One senior military official who was also deeply involved said the only major change in deployments was the cancellation of the 1st Cavalry. The decision was made, he said, because of concerns that the United States might be short of forces to deal with crises in Korea or elsewhere in the world.
Moreover, he said, there was a realization that fresh troops would eventually be needed to replace worn-out units in Iraq.
"We could not burn the candle on the Cav prematurely," he said. Others said that civilian officials in the Pentagon were so convinced that these "follow-on forces" wouldn't be needed in Iraq that they thought they could withdraw 50,000 troops from Iraq in June 2003; 50,000 more in July; and a final 50,000 in August. By September 2003, Rumsfeld and his aides thought, there would be very few American troops left in Iraq.
Instead of providing a plan and enough troops to take control of Iraq, officials, advisers and consultants in and around the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office bet on Iraqi exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, who assured them that Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators.
Gen. John Keane, the vice chief of the Army staff during the war, said some defense officials believed the exiles' promises. "We did not see it (the insurgency) coming. And we were not properly prepared and organized to deal with it . . . . Many of us got seduced by the Iraqi exiles in terms of what the outcome would be," Keane told a House committee in July.
Rumsfeld's office "was utterly, arrogantly, ignorantly and negligently unprepared" for the aftermath of the war, said Larry Diamond, who was a political adviser in Baghdad from January to March of this year.
Douglas Feith, the Defense Department's No. 3 official, and former Pentagon consultant Richard Perle both acknowledged that their vision for post-Saddam Iraq included putting pro-Western exiles in power.
"We had a theme in our minds, a strategic idea, of liberation rather than occupation, giving them (Iraqis) more authority even at the expense of having things done with greater efficiency" by coalition military forces, Feith told The Philadelphia Inquirer last month. Perle, in an interview, said he and others had for years advocated "helping the Iraqis liberate themselves - which was a completely different approach than we settled on."
"We'll never know how it would have come out if we did it the way we wanted to do it," he said.
The CIA, the DIA and the State Department all warned that Chalabi was a charlatan, and the uniformed military dragged its heels in training exiles to join the fight against Saddam.
The battle over Chalabi was one of numerous bitter interagency fights about Iraq that neither Bush nor his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, never resolved.
"I'm not going to put my thumb on the scale," Bush said at a White House meeting where Chalabi's bona fides were hotly debated, according to an official who was present.
That left Pentagon officials to plow ahead with their attempt to position Chalabi and his militia, the Free Iraqi Fighting Forces, to take power after Saddam's fall.
Within 48 hours of their arrival in Baghdad in April, some of Chalabi's men, including members of his personal bodyguard force, began taking cars, bank accounts and real estate, said a senior military officer who received reports of the events. It became evident almost as quickly that Chalabi and other exiles had a larger political following in the Pentagon than they did in Iraq. Intelligence officials now charge that Chalabi or some of his senior aides were paid agents of Iran's intelligence service, and that Chalabi or his security chief provided classified U.S. military information to Iran. Chalabi has denied the allegation.
(This report was reported by Knight Ridder's Joseph L. Galloway, Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott, with research by Tish Wells.)