Passing the Dinar
By John Tierney
The New York Times
Two months before the Iraq war began, David Kay reported to the Pentagon for a job in the agency being formed to run postwar Iraq. Kay, a former Defense Department scientist and weapons inspector in Iraq, was supposed to oversee the police.
He assumed this meant preparing for the looting and crime to be expected when any regime collapsed. But those problems didn't seem to be on anyone else's mind, he told me, recalling his first day on the job.
"I said our first priority should be to establish order quickly, but that was considered a peripheral issue," he said. "The attitude was that it's not a problem, and if something happens the military will deal with it. I had one of the worst feelings ever in my gut, that this was going over a cliff."
On his second day on the job, he resigned — an excellent career move in retrospect, although Kay doesn't believe it took any special clairvoyance. There were tough questions before the war, like figuring out whether Saddam had W.M.D. or forecasting the strength of the insurgency. But the looting and disorder were easily predictable, and Kay wasn't the only one making the predictions, as Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor document in their new book on the war, "Cobra II."
Before the war, Dick Mayer, a former policeman working for the Justice Department, came up with a plan to send in thousands of international police officers to maintain order after the invasion. But Pentagon officials bristled at the expense, and the White House rejected the plan.
A similar plan was proposed in a prewar briefing at the Pentagon by Robert Perito, a veteran of peacekeeping operations in other countries. He told the Defense Policy Board, the advisory group led by Richard Perle, that neither Iraqi authorities nor American soldiers could be counted on to maintain order, and that the U.S. should send in a constabulary force as soon as it occupied Iraq.
"The group at the Pentagon liked the concept and said it was a worthwhile thing to do," Perito told me. "But as one member put it, 'Not this war.' Their feeling was that the conflict in Iraq would be over so soon and things would be back to normal so quickly that it wasn't worth the effort."
Some Pentagon officials did warn of civil disorder and crime, but they didn't do anything about it. They passed the buck to Gen. Tommy Franks, even though he didn't have enough troops or money for the job and showed little interest in postwar planning. He simply assured President Bush that there would be a "lord mayor" in each city and large town to deal with civilian problems.
Looting, crime, mayhem — that was always someone else's department. The buck-passing reached its most absurd level at a briefing in the Situation Room just before the invasion, when Bush heard about the postwar plan to rely on Iraqis for law enforcement. According to Gordon and Trainor, the president was told of an intelligence report concluding that the Iraqi police "appeared to have extensive professional training."
That was like concluding that Inspector Clouseau appeared to be a master detective. During Saddam's era, when his security forces were the prime enforcers of order, the Iraqi police were notorious for corruption and lethargy. Officers waited for citizens to report crimes and expected bribes for investigating them. To the police, preventing crime, or even doing street patrols, was not their job.
When the regime fell, they didn't even protect their own police stations against the mobs of looters, a lack of professionalism that came as no surprise to the Iraqis I encountered shortly after the invasion. Nor were they surprised by the initial outbreak of violence against the buildings built by an oppressive regime.
But they were shocked at how little the Americans did in response. The looting went on so long that it became a regular job. Thieves methodically dismantled office towers, removing wires, pipes, walls, floors, escalators. In the summer of 2003, they took the "broken windows" theory of social disorder to a new level — to broken buildings — and Iraq has been paying the price ever since.
That summer, as Iraqis watched looters and criminals taking control, they kept asking why nobody put a stop to the crime. The answer from officials in Washington, it turns out, is the same one that would have been given by the old Iraqi police: not my job.
Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
- On Anniversary, Bush and Cheney See Iraq Success
- Shiite Pilgrims Are Walking Targets in Sectarian Conflict
- 'War' as Epithet: Sound of Clay Feet Cracking
- Study Is Said to Find Overlap in U.S. Counterterror Effort
- “Cobra II : The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq” by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. Pantheon, 640 pp., March 2006.