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'Frontline: Losing Iraq' Shows a History of Mistakes

By the time Frontline: Losing Iraq arrives at the present moment of ISIS, the long history of US missteps in Iraq seems nearly overwhelming.

Frontline: Losing Iraq

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, John Burns, L. Paul Bremer, Thomas Ricks, Dexter Filkins, Frederick Hagan, Stephen Hadley, David Petraeus, Zalmay Khalilzad, Peter Baker, Ryan Crocker
Network: PBS
Air date: 2014-07-29

"Something told me, you know, this isn't going to be quite as easy as we thought." Looking back at Iraq in 2003, specifically, the moment when a group of Iraqi men attempt to pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Rajiv Chandrasekaran points out the struggle to bring the statue down. When hammers and ropes and brute strength won't do the job, American soldiers bring more elaborate means, including a vehicle, the process at last providing the image that became iconic and, eventually, ironic.

As the first scene in Frontline: Losing Iraq, the Firdos Square commotion lays out not only Chandrasekaran's point, that the war in Iraq would continue to be hard even after US forces' triumphant march into Baghdad, but also, a series of fictions and mistakes. The story assembled here -- based on years of reporting by Frontline -- is full of mistakes, flawed assumptions and arrogance, not to mention abject ineptitude.

In hindsight, of course, such errors might seem especially obvious, and indeed, the many speakers here -- ranging from journalists like Chandrasekaran and Dexter Filkins, to military personnel like Jack Keane and Daniel Petraeus to administration officials like Paul Bremer and Ryan Crocker -- make this case. Many also reveal they had doubts doubts during the process of losing Iraq, however, and that may be even more troubling, that mistakes were obvious even as they were made.

Just so, and beginning again with the scene in Firdos Square, journalist John Burns notes that even as Iraqis cheered the statue falling, "Within a matter of an hour of the Marine tanks coming up the Canal Expressway, of course, the looting had begun." In 2003, Frontline reminds you, "the looting", and more specifically, media coverage of the looting, occasioned a famous press conference by Donald Rumsfeld ("And it just was, 'Henny Penny, the sky is falling.' I've never seen anything like it. It's just unbelievable how people can take that away from what is happening in that country").

Then, reporters in the room laughed along with the Secretary of Defense. Now, that moment indicates a pervasive condescension and ignorance in the administration, a set of conditions that shaped increasingly deleterious policy.

The iconography for this policy is well known, beginning with President Bush's 1 May 2003 declaration that "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended in the battle of Iraq." This was set against the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner (Thomas Ricks terms this announcement "premature").

The show notes other miscalculations too, including the erection of the "Green Zone" (where Americans like Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer remained removed from experience and information in the rest of the country leading in part to his disastrous Ba'athification policy), the Bush administration's jumbled responses to the growing insurgency ("We were in a state of denial," observes Anthony Cordesman, "We were looking on these as sort of a small group of isolated diehards that we could largely ignore"), the murder of American contractors in Fallujah, the installation of Nouri al-Maliki ("A man who," says Burns, "If you were sitting on a local school board, you'd worry about appointing him to be principal of your local high school").

Several observers and participants describe the lack of security and planning: in the midst of such generally ineffective "war tourism", Ricks calls out specific decisions, for instance, to use the facility at Abu Ghraib to imprison thousands of Iraqis rounded up during dragnet arrests, terming it the "biggest single tactical mistake."

If the program does not note other high profile problems, like the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the Halliburton scandals, the murders of civilians by Blackwater contractors at Baghdad's Nisour Square, or even the initial administration fabrications concerning weapons of mass destruction, it makes plain the paucity of good options and results. Losing Iraq finds these in both the Bush and Obama administrations, all in a brisk 90 minutes. Repeatedly, civilian officials clashed with military leaders, and repeatedly, the priority was not to stay (and to allay consequences during political seasons back in the US).

Each episode leads to another, from the "ignominious" 2004 departure of Bremer and the CPA and the insertion of a new general, George Casey, Jr. (who had never led troops in combat) to Petraeus' counter-insurgency expertise and the 2007 surge ("Perhaps it was a sign of how desperate the times were that, you know, I got the nod," says Petraeus, "I don't know"). But even this seeming turnaround is a disaster in the making, as Petraeus recruits Sunni paramilitary troops to fight al-Qaeda with wads of cash (transactions recorded and replayed here), calling them "sons of Iraq".

And then, the shoes: Bush stands with his friend Maliki, and when a journalist in the audience throws his shoes, the Iraqi president "looks stricken", and Bush is left to content with another defeat. "The wind has been taken out of his sails," says Peter Baker, "I think it was a deflating moment for him."

Bush's promise to leave US troops in country through 2011 leaves his successor with another set of problems. When Obama names a withdrawal date, against Petraeus and Crocker's advice (a moment made visible here as military officers shake their heads at the moment of the announcement), another cycle of losing begins. With decreased interaction with US officials, Maliki "cracks down" on Sunnis, and the semblance of a coalition collapses.

By the time the program arrives at the present moment of ISIS, a moment that is far from over, the long history of missteps seems nearly overwhelming. "What was a surprise to the White House was the rapid collapse of the Iraqi forces," says Michael Gordon, "And why was that a surprise? Because we didn't have any advisors with the Iraqi troops."

With so much technology, so many minds, and so many resources, how has this gone so wrong, in so many different ways and yet so repeatedly? Losing Iraq suggests the pattern of results is a function of other patterns, of US neglect and ignorance (willful or not), of profound misunderstanding.


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