Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ignoring the Lessons of "Provide Comfort"

In 1991, President George Bush, Sr. encouraged the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north to rise up against Saddam Hussein. But when the uprising occurred, the US military was required by the civilians in Washington to sit on the sidelines. Kurds flew from the wrath of Saddam into the mountains. Only after their dire straits became evident did the Bush administration send assistance, in the form of Operation Provide Comfort. We learned a lot about the Iraqi people and culture during that time, but very little of that knowledge was implemented in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As operation Desert Storm came to a close, President George H. W. Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against their dictator, Saddam Hussein. US aircraft even dropped leaflets into Iraqi units in the field encouraging them to overthrow Saddam.

Then suddenly, the Bush Administration declared the war over. American military units sat sometimes within visual and hearing distance of the resulting slaughter perpetrated by Iraqi helicopter gunships on the rebellious Iraqi populace.

As Saddam wreaked revenge on the northern Kurds, they began to flee by the thousands into the northern mountains. Their situation was dire, with obviously poor sanitation and very little food. Finally, in late July of that year, President Bush relented and offered hope and help to the beleaguered Kurds.

General Jay Garner, later put in charge for a very short time of Iraqi reconstruction, commanded the operation. General Anthony Zinni was Chief of Staff for Provide Comfort. John Abizaid, then a Lieutenant Colonel, led the charge southward into Iraq, occasionally fighting and usually intimidating Iraqi military units into submission

We learned a great deal from Operation Provide Comfort. Ironically, not much of the lessons derived were used in what little preparation there was for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Three of the main players, who developed a great deal of practical knowledge about Iraq, its people, and its culture, were either persona non grata in the Bush administration or were required to take their orders:

  • Jay Garner was given little time to prepare to lead the Iraq reconstruction effort, and was barely in Kuwait when the gig went down. When Bush's pie in the sky dreams went south, Garner's head was the first to roll.
  • Anthony Zinni, who had been in the thick of Iraq during Provide Comfort, was dismayed at the cavalier attitude with which many in the Bush administration approached the Iraq invasion. Despite his warnings that America's leaders had grossly underestimated the task ahead of us, Bush jumped pell-mell into the fray.
  • John Abizaid, recent commander of CentCom in Iraq, appeared to grumble under his breath often at the instructions of the Bush administration. After recently expressing his doubts about the Iraq "surge", he announced his retirement from the military.
The Bush Administration thought the whole Iraqi thing would be a quick feather in their cap. And they paid no heed to the intelligence and military types who said it would be much more difficult than their wildest imaginations. Karl von Clausewitz said "[do] not [] take the first step without considering the last." Sun Tzu taught that "To win victory is easy; to preserve its fruits, difficult."



Rich Warnick said...

Every successful operation needs a nice-looking patch. Seriously, I got a more favorable view of Jay Garner from reading Fiasco. Seems like he might have done better than Bremer if he hadn't been fired.

Our erstwhile friends the Kurds are about to cause some big trouble when they move to seize Kirkuk in the very near future.

Frank Staheli said...

I got a better impression of Garner when reading Woodward's State of Denial. But at the very least, a guy who had been in country for quite some time would have a better idea how to take care of things than a "suit" (Bremer).

Rich Warnick said...

In Cobra II, the authors didn't give Garner much credit. Now I've been exposed to the other side of the story. I did know that Garner wanted to use the Future of Iraq Project as a starting point, but wasn't allowed to.

As one unnamed Defense official (Garner?) put it:

"State has good ideas and a feel for the political landscape, but they're bad at implementing anything. Defense, on the other hand, is excellent at logistical stuff, but has blinders when it comes to policy. We needed to blend these two together."