Bush team: Chaos derailed '06 Iraq plan
Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 11:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Bush began 2006 assuring the country that he had a "strategy for victory in Iraq." He ended the year closeted with his war Cabinet on his ranch trying to devise a new strategy, because the existing one had collapsed.
The original plan, championed by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Baghdad, and backed by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, called for turning over responsibility for security to the Iraqis, shrinking the number of American bases and beginning the gradual withdrawal of American troops. But the plan collided with Iraq's ferocious unraveling, which took most of Bush's war council by surprise.
In interviews in Washington and Baghdad, senior officials said the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department had also failed to take seriously warnings, including some from its own ambassador in Baghdad, that sectarian violence could rip the country apart and turn Bush's promise to "clear, hold and build" Iraqi neighborhoods and towns into an empty slogan.
This left the president and his advisers constantly lagging a step or two behind events on the ground.
"We could not clear and hold," Stephen J. Hadley, the president's national security adviser, acknowledged in a recent interview, in a frank admission of how American strategy had crumbled. "Iraqi forces were not able to hold neighborhoods, and the effort to build did not show up. The sectarian violence continued to mount, so we did not make the progress on security we had hoped. We did not bring the moderate Sunnis off the fence, as we had hoped. The Shia lost patience, and began to see the militias as their protectors."
Over the past 12 months, as optimism collided with reality, Bush increasingly found himself uneasy with Casey's strategy. And now, as the image of Saddam Hussein at the gallows recedes, Bush seems all but certain to reverse not only the strategy that Casey championed, but to accelerate the general's departure from Iraq, according to senior military officials.
Casey repeatedly argued that his plan offered the best prospect for reducing the perception that the United States remained an occupier — and it was a path he thought matched Bush's wishes. Earlier in the year, it had.
But as Baghdad spun further out of control, some of the president's advisers now say, Bush grew concerned that Casey, among others, had become more fixated on withdrawal than victory.
Now, having ousted Rumsfeld, Bush sees a chance to bring in a new commander as he announces a new strategy, senior military officials say. Casey was scheduled to shift out of Iraq in the summer. But now it appears that it may happen in February or March.
By mid-September, Bush was disappointed with the results in Iraq and signed off on a complete review of Iraq strategy — a review centered in Washington, not in Baghdad. Whatever form the new strategy takes, it seems almost certain to include a "surge" in forces, something that Casey insisted earlier this year he did not need and which might even be counterproductive.
In a telephone interview on Friday, Casey continued to caution against a lengthy expansion in the American military role. "The longer we in the U.S. forces continue to bear the main burden of Iraq's security, it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to make the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias," he said. "And the other thing is that they can continue to blame us for all of Iraq's problems, which are at base their problems."
Yet if Bush does send in more American forces, historians may well ask why it took him so long. Some Bush officials argue that the administration erred by refusing to send in a bigger force in 2003, or by sufficiently bolstering it when the insurgency began to take hold.
This year, decisions on a new strategy were clearly slowed by political calculation. Many of Bush's advisers say their timetable for completing an Iraq review had been based in part on a judgment that for Bush to have voiced doubts about his strategy before the midterm elections in November would have been politically catastrophic.
Bush came to worry that it was not just his critics and Democrats in Congress who were looking for what he dismissed in November as a strategy of "graceful exit." Visiting the Pentagon a few weeks ago for a classified briefing on Iraq with his generals, Bush made it clear that he was not interested in any ideas that would simply allow American forces to stabilize the violence. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, later told Marines about the president's message.
"What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win," he quoted the president as warning his commanders, "not how we're going to leave."
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