WASHINGTON, September 27, 2004 – If the US wishes to prevail in conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, it must completely revamp the way it approaches reconstruction efforts in failed or defeated states, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni said today.
Speaking to the fall 2004 IRP Fellows and SAIS students, Gen. Zinni, former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from 1997-2000, assessed the state of the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the lessons they hold for future U.S. military missions.
When President Bush declared “mission accomplished” in May 2003 at the end of major combat operations in Iraq, according to Zinni “the problem was we had another [post-combat] phase to go into,” known in military parlance as Security and Stability Operations (SASO).
Zinni said he believe the U.S. government and military are unprepared to deal with this phase, which is an integral part of reconstruction efforts for failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan and may involve everything from peacekeeping to humanitarian operations to redesigning economic, political and security systems. “Right now the way we do it is the way you saw it in Iraq. It is ad hoc,” Zinni said. “It’s a pickup team.”
Zinni said his tours of duty in Somalia in the early 1990’s helped underline how the nature of the future wars the U.S. military will face is changing. He described “whole new areas of conflict” the United States must grapple with, particularly in failed states. “Messy little missions which had all been side issues or secondary issues,” many of them religious or ethnic conflicts, are becoming the dominant military issues of the post-Cold War era, Zinni said.
He said the U.S. needs to pursue one of two courses for dealing with reconstruction missions in the future: either create an entity that would work closely with the military, or assign national reconstruction tasks to the military itself—a step Zinni admits would be “a significant, monumental change for the military.”
Zinni, whose former area of command included both Afghanistan and Iraq, criticized “post-combat phase” operations in both countries. Of Afghanistan, he says “we did not put a stake through the heart of al-Qaida and the Taliban. We allowed warlordism and the drug trade to pick up.” He said the U.S. strategy of relying on the Northern Alliance has strengthened the hands of warlords who are impeding long-term stability. “If this marks the future, then our military is not prepared for it.”
Of Iraq, Zinni said, “We’ve wasted 18 months…we’ve made every bad mistake we could make.” He described the uprising there as a “classic Maoist insurgency,” and said it was probably in its third phase, the one just preceding civil war. He believes it will be one to two years before U.S.-trained Iraqi forces can seriously confront the insurgency, and two to five years before they can operate without U.S. backup. He decried the slow pace of efforts to restore basic services like electricity and water, and the extensive use of expatriates from the U.S. and other countries for reconstruction efforts when almost 60 percent of the Iraqi workforce is unemployed.
With the current level of violence, Zinni said he doubts national elections can be held in January. He said Iraq may have to opt for local elections in secure areas. “We may have to have this country come together in pieces.”
Zinni said he first started planning for a post-Saddam Iraq after the 1998 Operation Desert Fox, in which the U.S. struck Iraqi military and Baath party leadership targets after Saddam Hussein expelled United Nations weapons inspectors. Regional leaders became concerned the shaken Iraqi regime might implode, and asked what contingency plans the U.S. had in place.
After spending a week on the issue with experts from across the government, Zinni recalls, “we were not prepared to handle this. I said to the other agencies in the government… we need to do something we’ve never done. We need to create an interagency plan for the reconstruction of a country.”
When no other agency expressed interest, Zinni says he realized the military would end up stuck with the problem. He ordered plans for an operation codenamed “Desert Crossing,” spelling out the aftermath of an Iraq War. The plans were half completed by the time he retired. Years later, however, when the United States was actually prepared to invade Iraq, Zinni says Operation Desert Crossing was all but forgotten by the Department of Defense.
Zinni said that when he heard the second Bush administration’s plans for civilian control of reconstruction in Iraq a month before the war started he realized “… what I heard was no plan… I thought, we are going to be in for a major, major problem.”
He said he believes there are currently insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq. His plan called for 350,000 troops on the ground to deal with a post-regime occupation. Zinni said he believes the U.S. military needs not just more troops on the ground, but a different mix of troops. He said each brigade should have advisers from Arab and Muslim forces trained in U.S. military schools, to help U.S. forces understand local conditions and tribal customs.