We quit while we were ahead, and rapidly fell behind. That's the message of Cobra II, the best
book so far written about the war in Iraq.
Cobra II was the code name LtGen. David McKiernan gave to the battle plan for the invasion of
Iraq. (The first Operation Cobra was Patton's plan for breakout from Normandy to liberate
France in World War II.)
"The U.S. military commanders who battled their way to Baghdad and endured the long hot summer
of 2003 believe that there was a window of opportunity in the early weeks and months of the
invasion, which was allowed to close," wrote Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in their
epilogue. "Though some degree of opposition was unavoidable, the virulent insurgency that
emerged was not inevitable but was aided by military and political blunders in Washington."
Unfortunately, that judgment is the least supported part of the 507-page book, most of which is
the story about how the battle plan evolved, and a gripping, unvarnished account of all the
battles soldiers and Marines fought on their way to Baghdad.
Gordon, the chief military correspondent for the New York Times, and Trainor, a retired Marine
lieutenant general, based their book on a massive number of interviews with participants, and a
meticulous review of after action reports.
Gordon and Trainor are more cautious in making judgments than other commentators less
conversant with the facts. But the judgments they make are harsh. The most egregious and most
gratuitous errors were made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but he had plenty of company.
The CIA's performance was awful. The WMD threat the agency predicted never materialized, and
CIA missed entirely the presence of the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam, which offered the most
resistance to the invading U.S. troops.
Senior generals reacted slowly to the significance of the Fedayeen, missing entirely the
possibility that the guerrilla tactics practiced by the organization would be continued after
the fall of Saddam.
No sooner had the regime fallen than the Army removed from the theater the officers with the
most experience in and knowledge of Iraq, leaving the occupation to be botched by relative
By far the most serious of the errors was that little planning had been done for what would
happen after the regime fell; such planning as was done was puerile and contradictory, and
those tasked with carrying out the puerile and contradictory plans were allocated grossly
inadequate resources to do so.
The military bore much of the blame for this. The authors note that in the war plan prepared
by Gen. Anthony Zinni, Gen. Tommy Franks' predecessor as head of Central Command and a
prominent Rumsfeld critic, "there was a gaping hole in the occupation annex...CENTCOM would
have the responsibility of general security. But there was no plan for the political
administration, restoration of basic services, training of police, or reconstruction of Iraq."
This gaping hole was never filled in the many iterations of the plan that became COBRA II.
But the failure was mostly Rumsfeld's. He wanted to attack Saddam with as few forces as
necessary for victory, and to withdraw them as soon as he could. This involved certain
Pollyanna meets Dr. Pangloss assumptions, the most important of which were that an Iraqi
provisional government could rapidly be stood up, and that the Iraqi army would be available to
Then Rumsfeld postponed turning Iraq over to the Iraqis in favor of a regency by Ambassador
Paul Bremer, one of whose first acts was to formally abolish the Iraqi army.
There is less to this controversy than some would make of it, since the Iraqi army had
effectively demobilized (all the soldiers had deserted). But the generals interviewed by
Gordon and Trainor believe Bremer's overly ambitious de-Baathification program hugely delayed
and complicated its reconstitution, and gave Sunnis whose rice bowls had been broken a
grievance against the United States.
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Gordon and Trainor think establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority was a huge
mistake. I agree, but proof of the thesis will have to await another book. This one provides
only the assertion.
Everyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are in Iraq should read COBRA II. We
cannot learn from our mistakes unless we know what they were, and how we made them.
COBRA II is necessarily incomplete, because the war in Iraq continues. The way to think of it
is as the first volume in a two volume history of the war. I hope Gordon and Trainor are
already at work on the sequel.