The New York Times’ chief military correspondent criticized U.S. military policy in Iraq while speaking at GW on Wednesday, saying the government did not sent enough troops to secure the country.
“If we had handled things differently, Iraq would have been a difficult problem, but not as difficult as it is now,” Michael Gordon said. “What a lot of people don’t ask is, how did it get this way?”
Gordon’s speech, titled “How Fallujah became Fallujah,” was based on information he collected as an embedded journalist with an Army unit in the insurgent stronghold.
Gordon outlined what he called the mistakes of the U.S. government in its approach to the Iraqi occupation since the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003. U.S. troops invaded the country in March 2003.
Gordon said part of the reason he thinks America is failing in Iraq is because the U.S. did not bring enough troops.
“We didn’t have a big enough stick, and we didn’t have a big enough carrot,” Gordon said.
While the number of troops sent to unseat Hussein was sufficient, too few troops were sent following the regime change. He blamed this problem on misunderstanding Iraq before the war. The U.S. government envisioned Baghdad as the center of activity, but control of Baghdad merely forced insurgents to move elsewhere.
“You can cut off the head of the snake, but the snake is still alive,” Gordon said. He added that the Iraq conflict depended on many unknowns, but the U.S. government should have anticipated the unexpected.
Despite U.S. intentions to topple the regime and leave quickly, Gordon said, troops remain in Fallujah and elsewhere. In April 2003, America was discussing plans for leaving Iraq.
“It seems mind boggling in retrospect,” he said.
In April 2003, the Pentagon decided against sending an extra division to Iraq, a move Gordon said was not welcomed by American generals.
Gordon said that when American forces came to Fallujah on April 24, 2003, the government foresaw a short-term involvement. Gordon said the U.S. approached the situation with “the very optimistic assumption that the war was done.” But the U.S. government underestimated the difficulty of stabilizing Iraq, and Fallujah in particular.
“They didn’t come prepared for what they had to face in Fallujah,” he said.
Gordon said the military’s first encounter with Iraqis in Fallujah was a fight with the native crowds that resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians.
“It set the thing off on the wrong foot,” Gordon said. “First you shoot some people and then you leave.”
The situation deteriorated over the course of several months of violent interactions. But Gordon said some of the encounters that angered Fallujans toward American occupation were a matter of misunderstanding. When U.S. soldiers killed a carload of American-trained Iraqi police officers, they simply did not recognize the officers because another group had trained them. Gordon said the incident reflects the instability in Fallujah caused by a succession of occupying forces that left control of the region constantly changing hands. He also said U.S. troops would face difficulty winning over the Iraqi people.
He added that he did not know who would win the war, but he doubted that the U.S. would withdraw troops.
“What I don’t see is a scenario where the U.S. leaves,” Gordon said. “There’s too much at stake.”