October 27, 2004
I served as part of the Future of Iraq Project at the State Department. The project was an effort to plan for post-Saddam Iraq.
Immediately after the Gulf War the United States promoted the overthrow of Saddam's Ba'ath regime. This effort failed miserably, as mass graves recently unearthed attest. Maybe the effort failed because we failed to give sufficient support to the Shiites. Regardless, it was a mess.
In the mid-1990s, the United States began to give clandestine support to efforts to overthrow Saddamefforts many say Ahmad Chalabi led. These efforts also ended in failure and many executions.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law. The President said that he wanted Iraq back in the family of nations as a free state. He rejected the idea that Iraq's history and ethnic mix made it unsuitable for democracy. Congress budgeted eight million, initially, to organize the effort to overthrow Saddam. President Clinton and everyone else supported regime change; the question was how to get there.
It soon became clear that just supporting Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) was not going to succeed. There were a large number of groups of all sorts willing to discuss either efforts to unseat Saddam or to plan for his absence. A partial list follows:
The Iraqi National Congress
The Free Officers Movement
The Iraq Foundation
The Iraqi National Accord (Allawi's group)
The Iraq National Movement
Dawa (an extreme Shiite group involved in terrorism in the 1980s))
Kurd groups, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The Assyrian Democratic Movement
Alliance of Iraqi Tribes
New Eden (an environmental group committed to the restoration of Iraq's marshlands)
The Mujahedeen Khalq (an anti-Iranian group listed by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism)
The Bush administration kept the effort to overthrow Saddam and the effort to plan for his aftermath separate. The plan that became the Future of Iraq Project began as an effort to bring these groups together to plan for the aftermath. Initially, the aim was to keep the US government minimally involved. The Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank ran the initial meetings.
But the internal battling among the groups was too much for the Institute. Responsibility fell to the State Department. A small group of people had the lead.
It's important to note that the people who did this planning were not being cynical. The objective was to plan for Iraq after the transition. The assumption was that Saddam's exit would be violent and that there would be a period of transition. We were not planning for the transition.
We formed seventeen Iraqi working groups. The vast majority of the participants were exiles, many ex-Ba'ath, especially the military ones. Most of the planners had been abroad a long time. We sought out professionals and a cross section of interests and groups to get an informed consensus. US government experts, industry experts, and experts from think tanks were involved.
The groups were: Transitional Justice, Public Finance, Public Outreach, Democratic Principles, Water, Agriculture and the Environment, Defense, Local Government, Economy and Infrastructure, Civil Society, Transparency and Anti-Corruption, Education, Refugees, Free Media, Foreign Policy, Oil and Energy, and Cultural Heritage.
Here's how the groups worked. Each had ten to twenty Iraqis and two to five international experts. We designed the groups to be heterogeneous. Each was moderated by State Department officials. There were observers there from other government agencies, including the Office of the Vice-President. Often these were senior experts. They took an advisory position. Contrary to some reporting, officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense participated. However, they came less and less in early 2003 as the Defense Department began its own planning.
While State ran the groups, the goal was to give the Iraqis as much power as possible, in part by creating subgroups. In many cases the planning was very detailed, for instance, on the electricity system.
Planning began in October 2001 in State and at the National Security Council. The meetings began in spring 2002 at the Middle East Institute and quickly came to State.
Most of the groups met and produced plans. The groups focused on technical matterswater, agriculture, and the environment, oil and gas, public health, and even the legal grouphad more success than those focused on more political matters. The Foreign Policy group never met due to politics. The Cultural Heritage group never met because of timing.
The Democratic Principles group only met once. It concluded that Iraq must
be treated more like Japan or Germany than Afghanistan. That meant not a long
military occupation, but a long-term commitment of US resources, and a truly
The Defense Policy working group meet twice and reached broad-based consensus positions. It was agreed that retraining the military was essential. It was assumed by all that the military would not be disbanded. No one favored that. The consensus was that while it was essential to vet and dismiss some officers, the military was needed to preserve security. There was disagreement on how centralized the military should be, with the Kurds pushing for less centralization. Some younger former officers wanted retraining in human rights and the rule of law, while older former soldiers resisted this.
All of this begs the question: what the hell happened?
One failing of the project was that State, perhaps due to insularity, did not insist that other key agencies, DoD, CIA, and NSC, be forced to buy into the planning. A cynic might say that plan was only given to State to distract it from the plan to invade and occupy Iraq.
The primary problem was lack of coordination of US government agencies. In January 2003, the Defense Department opened a Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs office for Iraq. This group was staffed strictly by DoD personnel, probably more due to insularity than interagency fighting. State Department officials were only initially invited to these meetings.
At the end of 2003, an Iraq transition planning team was created, with the task of planning the move from Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) rule to Iraqi sovereignty and a US embassy. This team was run by a General. He quickly realized that he needed help and demanded and got State and NSC participation. The result was a massive effort, which worked, in the sense that transition was achieved smoothly.
The Future of Iraq Project needed NSC direction from the beginning. The White House needed to buy into planning, which it did not. The key failure was a lack of sharing of knowledge and information across the government.
The State Department shares responsibility for the failure we see today in Iraq with DoD, the NSC, and the White House. More planning was needed than the Future of Iraq Project, even had the plans been heeded.
Charles Patterson is a retired career Foreign Service Officer with extensive experience in the Middle-East. He served in Beirut, Tel Aviv, and other posts. He participated in diplomatic efforts associated with Operation Desert Storm and the Middle-East peace process. He headed UN Security Council peacekeeping efforts for the State Department, and worked recently on Libyan disarmament.
Rapporteur: Ben Friedman
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