Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Cobra II – The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq

As the Bush administration’s Iraq policy continues to unravel, and April proves to be yet another cruel month for the US forces in Iraq with 69 deaths, Cobra II gives an excellent ringside view to the key moments in war planning as well as to the scenes on the war front during many of the key battles (the account of second attack on Baghdad, Thunder Road, is particularly riveting). Hearing the arguments and counter-arguments over what was done right and what was not, whether the civilian leaders heeded the advice of military planners or not, if strategic or tactical mistakes were made or not, can be a mind numbing experience. Cobra II painstakingly reconstructs the story behind the decision to go to war with Iraq starting from hours after the September 11th attack and unless this book is a work of fiction (which it clearly is not) a few things become clear over the din created by talking heads.

First and foremost, this war was not fought by taking recommendations of military planners into account. In fact, most of the recommendations of the military planners were brushed off by civilian leaders. Secondly, despite repeated assertions by leaders of the country, military leaders did not get the resources that they asked for. And finally, no one comes out with their reputations intact from this war, not the ideologues like Rumsfield and Cheney, not some of the military leaders like Tommy Franks and Richard Myers, not intelligent and supposedly moderate leaders like Powell and to some extent Rice and certainly not President Bush. The facts are for everyone to read in the book and it is clear that until this day, when politicians claim that they gave the military leaders what they asked for they are lying and relying on the propensity of the people to not go into details of the matter. People are looking for soundbites, and that is what they get whether it be hours and hours of balderdash on cable TV or 30 minutes of network news.
Cobra II, written by Michael Gordon, the chief military correspondent for the NY Times, who spent the war with the Allied Land command, and Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine Corps lt. general and former director of the National Security Program at the JFK School of Government has a lot of facts, names and details but rarely has a dull moment (or as Rumsfield would frame it, Is it intense? Yes! Does it demand concentration? Yes! Is it boring? No!). Read this book, keep all the partisanship and consipracy theories aside regarding the war on Iraq and for a moment assume that it was necessary to wage a pre-emptive war on Iraq; then based on the case presented in this book, try to deduce the reasons for failure and you might come up with these two – incompetence and ideologues. This should not come as too much of a surprise to followers of this administration. After all, from Homeland security to environment to Katrina, these are the two main reasons that show up again and again as the usual suspects. In many respects, the leadership, particularly of Rumsfield reminds me of the boss in the cartoon strip Dilbert. Right in the initial pages, Greg Newbold, a three star general who served as chief operations deputy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Richard Myers at that time – this position was occupied by Collin Powell during Gulf War I) is outlining a contingency plan to Rumsfield in the event of a war with Iraq. The plan calls for as many as 500,000 troops. Rumsfield thinks that to be too high a number. When asked by Richard Myers as to what his estimate is, Rumsfield says in exasperation that he does not see a need for more than 125,000 troops and even that might be too many. That number seemed to be pulled out of thin air, with no reason behind it. That scene could have been directly from Dilbert with the boss setting unrealistic targets without information or the knowledge about the end result.

Like I mentioned earlier, no one really comes out unscathed from this book, but Rumsfield takes the worst beating. Intent on his ideology of a more flexible, faster and leaner armed forces, ironically, he fails to see the inflexibility of his own positions. Till date, he claims that war plans change when they meet the ground reality but in fact, all through the war planning, Rumsfield, despite repeated warnings from various sources stood pretty firm on his requirements that the number of troops on ground should be as few as possible. Like a CEO that he once was, he kept pushing his planners to come up with lower and lower estimates of both the financial costs and manpower until it reconciled with the estimates that he had in his mind. So when he or the other leaders claim that they gave the armed forces what it wanted, at best it is a dubious claim and at worst it is a plain lie. As the book mentions, “there is a saying in Washington that you can done a lot done if you do not want credit for it. Rumsfield took the notion a step further. It was better that he not receive credit. Rumsfield understood that there was political value in being able to stand at the Pentagon podium and say that the Bush administration was implementing the military’s plan.” (even though it was the Bush administration plan all along that the military was implementing).

There is also relevant mention of the British in the book – the British army is fairly well acquitted but not their political leaders. During the final stages of war planning, the British military leadership is uncomfortable with the half-baked war plans presented to them but the British civilian leadership attitude is more faith based. Faith in Bush’s and his administration’s competency that is. They stake their support on the belief that the US would not take the momentous step of invading and occupying Iraq unless it was persuaded that it had a winning plan. If only they knew!

The authors of this book also got access to “Iraqi Perspectives” – a study done by US Joint Forces Command of how the Iraqi leadership managed its military establishment, sized up its foes, and prepared for war. This study has not yet been made public. They are able to present insider information from the Saddam camp for periods before and during the war. It was never clear to me as to why Saddam did not come clean if he did not have WMDs rather than risk his regime on a lie. It appears that for Saddam, the more immediate risks were an internal Shiite uprising and Iran and he needed to carry on the charade of WMDs if he were to survive these two. The US was a distant third on his list of dangers and he never really believed that the US would attack him. The internal palace conspiracies of Saddam also provide with an interesting comparison with the way Pentagon worked under Rumsfield during war planning. In Baghdad, you dare not speak against Saddam or argue against his beliefs about how a war should be fought, things were not so different at Pentagon either where you risked being shunted out or at least shut off from the decision making process if you did not believe in the gospel of lean, mean and a technically savvy armed forces. Moral of the story – always be open to opposing viewpoints which obviously was not an option with this group of ideologues who have laid this administration to waste.

There is a lot more to read in the book including evidence that the Bush administration was warned many times by many experts about the perils of post-war Iraq, about the need for many more boots on the ground after Saddam was gone (for example – David Kay, the security expert who would later lead the CIA effort to investigate the mystery of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and who joined Garner’s team as Mayer’s boss resigned, determined to distance himself from a venture he concluded was headed for trouble. “I told Jay that it was headed for disaster,” Kay disclosed. “There was a reluctance to divert resources to post-conflict maintenance of law and order and when you don’t you get organized crime and political chaos”), about the importance of restoring the infrastructure as fast as possible but all those warnings fell on deaf ears. An extremely informative and thought provoking book that will greatly enhance your ability to look at the Iraq war beyond the fog of talk shows and the flurry of accusations being traded right now.

Note: You can read the points that I wrote down while reading this book here. It includes some quotes from the book that I referred to while writing this review.