Army Historian Cites Lack of Postwar
Major Calls Effort in Iraq 'Mediocre'
By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff
WriterDecember 25, 2004
The U.S. military invaded Iraq without a formal plan for occupying
and stabilizing the country and this high-level failure continues to
undercut what has been a "mediocre" Army effort there, an Army historian
and strategist has concluded.
"There was no Phase IV plan" for occupying Iraq after the combat
phase, writes Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, who served as an official
historian of the campaign and later as a war planner in Iraq. While a
variety of government offices had considered the possible situations
that would follow a U.S. victory, Wilson writes, no one produced an
actual document laying out a strategy to consolidate the victory after
major combat operations ended.
"While there may have been 'plans' at the national level, and even
within various agencies within the war zone, none of these 'plans'
operationalized the problem beyond regime collapse" -- that is, laid out
how U.S. forces would be moved and structured, Wilson writes in an essay
that has been delivered at several academic conferences but not
published. "There was no adequate operational plan for stability
operations and support operations."
Similar criticisms have been made before, but until now they have
not been stated so authoritatively and publicly by a military insider
positioned to be familiar with top-secret planning. During the period in
question, from April to June 2003, Wilson was a researcher for the
Army's Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group. Then, from July 2003 to
March 2004, he was the chief war planner for the 101st Airborne
Division, which was stationed in northern Iraq.
A copy of Wilson's study as presented at Cornell University in
October was obtained by The Washington Post.
As a result of the failure to produce a plan, Wilson asserts, the
U.S. military lost the dominant position in Iraq in the summer of 2003
and has been scrambling to recover ever since. "In the two to three
months of ambiguous transition, U.S. forces slowly lost the momentum and
the initiative . . . gained over an off-balanced enemy," he writes. "The
United States, its Army and its coalition of the willing have been
playing catch-up ever since."
It was only in November 2003, seven months after the fall of
Baghdad, that U.S. occupation authorities produced a formal "Phase IV"
plan for stability operations, Wilson reports. Phase I covers
preparation for combat, followed by initial operations, Phase II, and
combat, Phase III. Post-combat operations are called Phase IV.
Many in the Army have blamed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
and other top Pentagon civilians for the unexpectedly difficult
occupation of Iraq, but Wilson reserves his toughest criticism for Army
commanders who, he concludes, failed to grasp the strategic situation in
Iraq and so not did not plan properly for victory. He concludes that
those who planned the war suffered from "stunted learning and a
reluctance to adapt."
Army commanders still misunderstand the strategic problem they
face and therefore are still pursuing a flawed approach, writes Wilson,
who is scheduled to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point
next year. "Plainly stated, the 'western coalition' failed, and
continues to fail, to see Operation Iraqi Freedom in its fullness," he
"Reluctance in even defining the situation . . . is perhaps the
most telling indicator of a collective cognitive dissidence on part of
the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people's war, even when
they were fighting it," he comments.
Because of this failure, Wilson concludes, the U.S. military
remains "perhaps in peril of losing the 'war,' even after supposedly
Overall, he grades the U.S. military performance in Iraq as
Wilson's essay amounts to an indictment of the education and
performance of senior U.S. officials involved in the war. "U.S. war
planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war
far too narrowly" and tended to think of operations after the invasion
"as someone else's mission," he says. In fact, Wilson says, those later
operations were critical because they were needed to win the war rather
than just decapitate Saddam Hussein's government.
Air Force Capt. Chris Karns, a spokesman for the U.S. Central
Command, which as the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East
oversaw planning for the war in Iraq, said, "A formal Phase IV plan did
exist." He said he could not explain how Wilson came to a different
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who as chief of the Central Command led
the war planning in 2002 and 2003, states in his recent memoir,
"American Soldier," that throughout the planning for the invasion of
Iraq, Phase IV stability operations were discussed. Occupation problems
"commanded hours and days of discussion and debate among CENTCOM
planners and Washington officials," he adds. At another point, he
states, "I was confident in the Phase IV plan."
Asked about other officers' reaction to his essay, Wilson said in
an e-mail Monday, "What active-duty feedback I have received (from
military officers attending the conferences) has been relatively
positive," with "general agreement with the premises I offer in the
He said he has no plans to publish the essay, in part because he
would expect difficulty in getting the Army's approval, but said he did
not object to having it written about. "I think this is something that
has to get out, so it can be considered," he said in a telephone
interview. "There actually is something we can fix here, in terms of
In his analysis of U.S. military operations in 2003 in northern
Iraq, Wilson also touches on another continuing criticism of the Bush
administration's handling of Iraq -- the number of troops there. "The
scarcity of available 'combat power' . . . greatly complicated the
situation," he states.
Wilson contends that a lack of sufficient troops was a consequence
of the earlier, larger problem of failing to understand that prevailing
in Iraq involved more than just removing Hussein. "This overly
simplistic conception of the 'war' led to a cascading undercutting of
the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian
and governmental/non-governmental agencies . . . and too little allotted
time to achieve 'success,' " he writes.