WASHINGTON — The war in Iraq has become "a major debacle" and the outcome "is in doubt" despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces, according to a highly critical study published Thursday by the Pentagon's premier military educational institute.
The report released by the National Defense University raises fresh doubts about President Bush's projections of a U.S. victory in Iraq just a week after Bush announced that he was suspending U.S. troop reductions.
The report carries considerable weight because it was written by Joseph Collins, a former senior Pentagon official, and was based in part on interviews with other former senior defense and intelligence officials who played roles in prewar preparations.
It was published by the university's National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research center.
"Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle," says the report's opening line.
At the time the report was written last fall, more than 4,000 U.S. and foreign troops, more than 7,500 Iraqi security forces and as many as 82,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed and tens of thousands of others wounded, while the cost of the war since March 2003 was estimated at $450 billion.
"No one as yet has calculated the costs of long-term veterans' benefits or the total impact on service personnel and materiel," wrote Collins, who was involved in planning post-invasion humanitarian operations.
The report said that the United States has suffered serious political costs, with its standing in the world seriously diminished. Moreover, operations in Iraq have diverted "manpower, materiel and the attention of decision-makers" from "all other efforts in the war on terror" and severely strained the U.S. armed forces.
"Compounding all of these problems, our efforts there (in Iraq) were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East," the report continued.
The addition of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year to halt the country's descent into all-out civil war has improved security, but not enough to ensure that the country emerges as a stable democracy at peace with its neighbors, the report said.
"Despite impressive progress in security, the outcome of the war is in doubt," said the report. "Strong majorities of both Iraqis and Americans favor some sort of U.S. withdrawal. Intelligence analysts, however, remind us that the only thing worse than an Iraq with an American army may be an Iraq after a rapid withdrawal of that army."
"For many analysts (including this one), Iraq remains a 'must win,' but for many others, despite obvious progress under General David Petraeus and the surge, it now looks like a 'can't win.'"
The report lays much of the blame for what went wrong in Iraq after the initial U.S. victory at the feet of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. It says that in November 2001, before the war in Afghanistan was over, President Bush asked Rumsfeld "to begin planning in secret for potential military operations against Iraq."
Rumsfeld, who was closely allied with Vice President Dick Cheney, bypassed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the report says, and became "the direct supervisor of the combatant commanders."
" ... the aggressive, hands-on Rumsfeld," it continues, "cajoled and pushed his way toward a small force and a lightning fast operation." Later, he shut down the military's computerized deployment system, "questioning, delaying or deleting units on the numerous deployment orders that came across his desk."
In part because "long, costly, manpower-intensive post-combat operations were anathema to Rumsfeld," the report says, the U.S. was unprepared to fight what Collins calls "War B," the battle against insurgents and sectarian violence that began in mid-2003, shortly after "War A," the fight against Saddam Hussein's forces, ended.
Compounding the problem was a series of faulty assumptions made by Bush's top aides, among them an expectation fed by Iraqi exiles that Iraqis would be grateful to America for liberating them from Saddam's dictatorship. The administration also expected that "Iraq without Saddam could manage and fund its own reconstruction."
The report also singles out the Bush administration's national security apparatus and implicitly President Bush and both of his national security advisers, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, saying that "senior national security officials exhibited in many instances an imperious attitude, exerting power and pressure where diplomacy and bargaining might have had a better effect."
Collins ends his report by quoting Winston Churchill, who said: "Let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. ... Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think that he also had a chance."
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Read the report by the National Defense University.