Neoconservatives Who Designed Disastrous Iraq War Plan Advising McCain on Iraq

Sen. John McCain has spent the past several weeks on the presidential campaign trail touting his support for last year’s troop “surge,” which he said led to a sharp decrease in violence, as evidence that his policies on Iraq are far superior than his Democratic challenger, Sen. Barack Obama who had opposed the war and the troop build up.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a progress report on the troop surge that concluded violence in Iraq has dropped over the past year, but the training of Iraqi security forces still lags, Sunni insurgents have not been defeated, cease-fires with Shiite militias are fragile, and political reconciliation, a cornerstone of the surge, still has not been achieved.

The plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq came about as a result of the disastrous war plan McCain had been a strong supporter of, and it was developed four years into the conflict that had claimed the lives of 3,000 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. More than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed and tens of thousands more injured since the plan was announced 18 months ago. It is unknown how

The surge, which was part of the Bush administration’s “New Way Forward” plan, ends this month, as U.S. troop levels begin to drop back to about 130,000, where they were before the “surge” began in the first several months of 2007. As of June, there were 153,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

When the surge was announced it was seen as an escalation of the Iraq war at a time when the public had soured on U.S. presence in the region and supported a complete withdrawal from Iraq.

The same neoconservatives who provided the Bush administration with its prewar military strategy and had been proponents of using force to remove Saddam Hussein from power drafted the military plan McCain supported.

Neoconservative Frederick Kagan, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the white paper “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,” which President George W. Bush used as the basis for his “New Way Forward” plan that called for increasing U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

McCain has said he depends upon Kagan for advice on Middle East issues, underscoring just how closely aligned he is with the policies of the Bush administration.

Essentially, the “surge” was an admission by Bush administration officials that their prewar planning for the occupation of Iraq was a disaster and that it was a mistake to ignore advice by career military officials to send more troops as part of the March 2003 invasion.

In February 2003, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said several hundred thousands soldiers would likely be needed to maintain order in post-invasion Iraq.

Shinseki was publicly criticized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and was forced into an early retirement.

In October 2002, Rumsfeld ordered the military’s regional commanders to rewrite all of their war plans to capitalize on precision weapons, better intelligence, and speedier deployment in the event the United States decided to invade Iraq.

The goal was to use fewer ground troops, a move that caused dismay among some in the military, who said that concern for the troops requires overwhelming numerical superiority to assure victory.

Rumsfeld refused to listen to his military commanders, saying that his plan would allow the military “to begin combat operations on less notice and with far fewer troops than thought possible – or thought wise – before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” the New York Times reported in its October 13, 2002, edition.

Military officials viewed Rumsfeld’s approach as injecting too much risk into war planning and said it could result in US casualties that might be prevented by amassing larger forces.

McCain who claims he was critical of Rumsfeld’s war plans, was actually an early backer the former defense secretary’s approach. McCain said against sending a large number of U.S. soldiers into Iraq, telling Larry King in an interview on Dec. 9, 2002 “I don’t think you’re going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991.”

Moreover, McCain told a reporter for the Hartford Courant on March 5, 2003 that he has “no qualms about our strategic plans. I thought we were very successful in Afghanistan.”

That statement contradicts assertions McCain has made on the campaign trail claiming he was critical of the way the former defense secretary managed the war.

“I believe [Rumsfeld] has done a good job in the early stages of the war,” McCain said during an appearance on Fox News’s “The Big Story” on May 4, 2004.

A few weeks after the March 2003 invasion, McCain spoke to Today Show host Katie Couric and told her that he believed Iraqis “will greet us as liberators.”

“I believe that they will have an opportunity over time, and it will be difficult, to realize the same hopes and dreams and aspirations that every person in the world has and deserves the opportunity to live in a free and open society,” McCain said in a March 20, 2003 interview.

McCain continued to defend the Bush administration’s policies toward Iraq until November 2006, when public support began to wane and when it became clear Democrats-who had just won majority control of both Houses of Congress-would try and force the administration to set a timetable for withdrawal. McCain urged the commander-in-chief to resist calls for removing troops from the region.

At the time, the Iraq Study Group, led by Bush family confidante James A. Baker III, was preparing to issue a lengthy report that ultimately recommended the Bush administration “pullback” US troops from Iraq stating that the solution to the conflict is political and not military.

But Bush rejected the report and instead entered into discussions with neoconservative and Iraq war architect Frederick Kagan, who in December 2006 published a column in The Weekly Standard titled “We Can Put More Forces In Iraq,” which suggested sending more troops to the region and continuing to fight the war for up to two years.

McCain had just returned from what he said was a fact-finding trip to Iraq with Sen. Joseph Lieberman and also entered into discussions with Kagan on the new Iraq policy.

In January 2005, Kagan, who at the time was associated with the controversial Project for the New American Century, signed a letter sent to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate urging lawmakers to deploy an additional 25,000 US troops to Iraq, not so much to quell the violence between Sunni and Shiite factions as to intimidate Iraq’s neighbors in the Middle East by maintaining bases. Kagan, his brother Robert, and PNAC founder and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote that the Bush administration had ignored its suggestions, and chose to stick with a plan drafted by Rumsfeld, who said the Iraq war could be won with fewer ground forces and superior air power.

“We write to ask you and your colleagues in the legislative branch to take the steps necessary to increase substantially the size of the active duty Army and Marine Corps,” states the January 28, 2005, letter sent to Senators Bill Frist and Harry Reid, Congressman Dennis Hastert, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. “While estimates vary about just how large an increase is required, and Congress will make its own determination as to size and structure, it is our judgment that we should aim for an increase in the active duty Army and Marine Corps, together, of at least 25,000 troops each year over the next several years. The administration has been reluctant to adapt to this new reality.”

As US casualties piled up, Kagan publicly criticized Rumsfeld’s plan for post-war Iraq and began to peddle his ideas for a substantial increase in US troops.

“The secretary of defense simply chose to prioritize preparing America’s military for future conventional conflict rather than for the current mission,” Kagan wrote in the January 17, 2005, issue of the Weekly Standard. “That position, based on the hope that the current mission would be of short duration and the recognition that the future may arrive at any moment, is understandable. It just turns out to have been wrong.”

Kagan resurfaced in December 2006 with another column in the Weekly Standard, “We Can Put More Forces in Iraq,”

“A study of post-conflict operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere conducted by Ambassador James Dobbins showed that success in those operations – characterized by severe ethnic and sectarian violence – required force ratios of 1 soldier per 100 inhabitants,” Kagan wrote. “Iraq poses challenges that are in some respects more severe, at the moment, but it also offers its own rules of thumb. Successful clear-and-hold operations in Tal Afar required a force ratio of around 1 soldier (counting both US and Iraqi troops) for every 40 inhabitants. On the other hand, in 2004, Major General Peter Chiarelli suppressed a widespread uprising in Sadr City (an area inhabited by about 2.5 million Shiites) with fewer than 20,000 US soldiers – a ratio of about 1 to 125.”

Following the publication of Kagan’s column in The Weekly Standard, Vice President Dick Cheney and senior members of Bush’s cabinet began to enter into a dialogue with Kagan to draft an alternative plan for dealing with the civil strife in Iraq. The move was orchestrated so the White House could avoid adopting the proposals set forth that week by the Iraq Study Group, according to several Defense Department officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Kagan quickly published “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,” the AEI white paper that recycled his public statements and columns from 2005 that were highly critical of Rumsfeld’s post-war planning. Like the January 28, 2005, letter he sent to Congress and the Senate, the 47-page report called for sending more troops into the region to combat the violence between Sunnis and Shiites – which ultimately would ensure the war would continue to be fought for years.

Some of the key points of Kagan’s plan included:

* We must change our focus from training Iraqi soldiers to securing the Iraqi population and containing the rising violence. Securing the population has never been the primary mission of the US military effort in Iraq, and now it must become the first priority.

* We must send more American combat forces into Iraq, and especially into Baghdad, to support this operation. A surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments to support clear-and-hold operations starting in the spring of 2007 is necessary, possible, and will be sufficient.

* These forces, partnered with Iraqi units, will clear critical Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods, primarily on the west side of the city.

* After the neighborhoods have been cleared, US soldiers and Marines, again partnered with Iraqis, will remain behind to maintain security.

* As security is established, reconstruction aid will help to reestablish normal life and, working through Iraqi officials, will strengthen Iraqi local government.

On Jan. 5, 2007, McCain and Sen. Joseph Lieberman endorsed Kagan’s plan during an appearance at AEI.

“I’d like to especially commend General Keane and Fred Kagan for the outstanding work they’ve done, not only on this issue but on transformation of the military and many other national security issues,” McCain said, as protesters marched outside of AEI’s Washington offices.

“There are two keys to any surge of U.S. Troops,” McCain told the hawkish members of the audience. “To be of value the surge must be substantial and it must be sustained — it must be substantial and it must be sustained. We will need a large number of troops. During our recent trip commanders on the ground spoke of a surge of three to five additional brigades in Baghdad and at least an additional brigade in Anbar province. I believe these numbers are the minimum that’s required — a minimum.”

Ultimately, President Bush agreed with Kagan-and McCain-and used the key recommendations of Kagan’s study as the foundation for his new Iraq policy – a policy that even some staunch pro-war Republicans have distanced themselves from.

Kagan’s brother, Robert, is now an “unofficial” and unpaid foreign policy adviser to McCain’s campaign. Frederick Kagan has written numerous columns over the past several months praising McCain for backing last year’s troop surge.

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