May 03, 2008

Circular Firing Squad: The Sanchez Chronicles

Last month, Dr. iRack took note of Doug Feith's new memoir War and Decision, which pointed the finger at everybody else but OSD in assigning blame for failures in Iraq during the early part of the war. Now, in the next chapter of the "it's everybody else's fault but mine" saga, comes Ricardo Sanchez's new book Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story (Dr. iRack has no idea if the title is supposed to be ironic, although he doubts it). A portion of the book recounts the various ways Combined Joint Task Force-7 (CJTF-7), the corps command that LTG Sanchez headed up during the "lost year" in Iraq (2003-2004), was built to fail. It is widely known that one of the many major mistakes made at the outset of Phase IV was to disengage CENTCOM and replace McKiernan's Combined Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC), which was well staffed and had extensive planning experience on Iraq, with CJTF-7, which was understaffed and consisted of a group of V Corps officers (including Sanchez, the most junior 3-star in the Army) with very little relevant experience in the Middle East, let alone Iraq.

In an excerpt from the book published in Time, Sanchez recounts an April 2006 meeting with Rumsfeld where the SECDEF said that, at the time of the decision, he had "no idea" that this change of command was going to occur or that a significant draw down of forces was being planned. According to Sanchez:

Secretary Rumsfeld . . . pulled out a two-page memo and handed it to me. "I wrote this after a promotion interview about two weeks ago," he explained. "The officer told me that one of the biggest mistakes we made after the war was to allow CENTCOM and CFLCC to leave the Iraq theater immediately after the fighting stopped — and that left you and V Corps with the entire mission."

"Yes, that's right," I said.

"Well, how could we have done that?" he said in an agitated, but adamant, tone. "I knew nothing about it. Now, I'd like you to read this memo and give me any corrections."

In the memo, Rumsfeld stated that one of the biggest strategic mistakes of the war was ordering the major redeployment of forces and allowing the departure of the CENTCOM and CFLCC staffs in May/June 2003.

"This left General Sanchez in charge of operations in Iraq with a staff that had been focused at the operational and tactical level, but was not trained to operate at the strategic/operational level." He went on to write that neither he nor anyone higher in the Administration knew these orders had been issued, and that he was dumbfounded when he learned that Gen. McKiernan was out of the country and in Kuwait, and that the forces would be drawn down to a level of about 30,000 by September. "I did not know that Sanchez was in charge," he wrote.

I stopped reading after I read that last statement, because I knew it was total BS. After a deep breath, I said, "Well, Mr. Secretary, the problem as you've stated it is generally accurate, but your memo does not accurately capture the magnitude of the problem. Furthermore, I just can't believe you didn't know that Franks's and McKiernan's staffs had pulled out and that the orders had been issued to redeploy the forces."

At that point, Rumsfeld became very excited, jumped out of his seat, and sat down in the chair next to me so that he could look at the memo with me. "Now just what is it in this memorandum that you don't agree with?" he said, almost shouting.

"Mr. Secretary, when V Corps ramped up for the war, our entire focus was at the tactical level. The staff had neither the experience nor training to operate at the strategic level, much less as a joint/combined headquarters. All of CFLCC's generals, whom we called the Dream Team, left the country in a mass exodus. The transfer of authority was totally inadequate, because CENTCOM's focus was only on departing the theater and handing off the mission. There was no focus on postconflict operations. None! In their minds, the war was over and they were leaving. Everybody was executing these orders, and the services knew all about it."

Starting to get a little worked up, I paused a moment, and then looked Rumsfeld straight in the eye. "Sir, I cannot believe that you didn't know I was being left in charge in Iraq."

"No! No!" he replied. "I was never told that the plan was for V Corps to assume the entire mission. I have to issue orders and approve force deployments into the theater, and they moved all these troops around without any orders or notification from me." . . .

After the meeting ended, I remember walking out of the Pentagon shaking my head and wondering how in the world Rumsfeld could have expected me to believe him. Everybody knew that CENTCOM had issued orders to drawdown the forces. The Department of Defense had printed public affairs guidance for how the military should answer press queries about the redeployment. There were victory parades being planned. And in mid-May 2003, Rumsfeld himself had sent out some of his famous "snowflake" memorandums to Gen. Franks asking how the general was going to redeploy all the forces in Kuwait. The Secretary knew. Everybody knew.

Oh, Dr. iRack is sure that Rumsfeld had noooo idea. Dr. iRack is positive that Rumsfeld--a micromanager on the war plan and a proponent for an accelerated draw down--was completely ignorant of these changes. And if you don't believe Dr. iRack, ask his pet unicorn.

In the aftermath of this incident, Rumsfeld supposedly approved a Joint Warfighting Center study into the matter. According to Sanchez:

A few months later, I was making a presentation at the Joint Warfighting Center and ran across several of the people involved with the study. "Say, did you guys ever complete that investigation?" I asked.

"Oh, yes sir. We sure did," came the reply. "And let me tell you, it was ugly."

"Ugly?" I asked.

"Yes, sir. Our report validated everything you told us — that Franks issued the orders to discard the original twelve-to-eighteen-month occupation deployment, that the forces were drawing down, that we were walking away from the mission, and that everybody knew about it. And let me tell you, the Secretary did not like that one bit. After we went in to brief him, he just shut us down. 'This is not going anywhere,' he said. 'Oh, and by the way, leave all the copies right here and don't talk to anybody about it.'"

"You mean he embargoed all the copies of the report?" I asked.

"Yes, sir, he did."

From that, my belief was that Rumsfeld's intent appeared to be to minimize and control further exposure within the Pentagon and to specifically keep this information from the American public.

Continuing the conversation, I inquired about the "original twelve-to-eighteen-month occupation deployment," because I wasn't sure what he was talking about. It turned out that the investigative team was so thorough, they had actually gone back and looked at the original operational concept that had been prepared by CENTCOM (led by Gen. Franks) before the invasion of Iraq was launched. It was standard procedure to present such a plan, which included such things as: timing for predeployment, deployment, staging for major combat operations, and postdeployment. The concept was briefed up to the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the President of the United States.

And the investigators were now telling me that the plan called for a Phase IV (after combat action) operation that would last twelve to eighteen months.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had never seen any approved CENTCOM campaign plan, either conceptual or detailed, for the post�major combat operations phase. When I was on the ground in Iraq and saw what was going on, I assumed they had done zero Phase IV planning. Now, three years later, I was learning for the first time that my assumption was not completely accurate. In fact, CENTCOM had originally called for twelve to eighteen months of Phase IV activity with active troop deployments. But then CENTCOM had completely walked away by simply stating that the war was over and Phase IV was not their job.

That decision set up the United States for a failed first year in Iraq. There is no question about it. And I was supposed to believe that neither the Secretary of Defense nor anybody above him knew anything about it? Impossible! Rumsfeld knew about it. Everybody on the NSC knew about it, including Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and Colin Powell. Vice President Cheney knew about it. And President Bush knew about it.

There's not a doubt in my mind that they all embraced this decision to some degree.

Dr. iRack is not inclined to give Sanchez much of the benefit of the doubt on anything, but given other available evidence, Dr. iRack suspects that much of this account is true. Sanchez and the U.S. military as a whole were really set up to fail in 2003-2004. Too few forces, not the right forces with the right training, not enough post-war planning, too much denial, etc. None of this can be laid at the feet of Sanchez and it really stacked the deck against him succeeding.

That said, none of this gets Sanchez off the hook for the horrible mistakes that were under his control, including his failure to give clear guidance to his subordinates on basic COIN principles or provide any strategic coherance to U.S. units (in the form of a campaign plan) across the battlespace in the context of a growing insurgency. And let's not forget Sanchez's approval of interrogation methods that (along with guidance from Rumsfeld) set the stage for Abu Ghraib, one of the biggest blots on the reputation of our country in history . . . and a mistake that greatly exacerbated the Sunni grievances driving the insurgency.

It will be interesting to see how Sanchez tackles these issues in his memoir. Dr. iRack is not holding his breath that it will be "fair and balanced," but his pet unicorn is.

(Once again, tip of the hat to Laura Rozen for tagging this article.)

Update: Based on this excerpt, Dr. iRack just ordered the book . . . so from that perspective Sanchez can say "Mission Accomplished."