Five Big American Blunders in Terror War

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst. His forthcoming book is "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World." E-mail:

Almost three years ago, soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, I began to write a twice-a-month column for the Opinion section on military affairs and the war on terrorism. This is the last in that series of columns and -- with terrorism continuing to haunt the nation’s thoughts, as well as the presidential campaign -- it may be worth looking back at what we have learned. Think of it as looking back in order to look forward more clearly.

Failing to learn from the past may not always condemn us to repeat it, as George Santyana famously suggested, but it does mean our journey forward will be rougher. With that in mind, here are five lessons for the struggle ahead, based on the experience of the last three years.

First: Beware the Next Big Thing.

On the military side of the war on terrorism, the Next Big Thing has been U.S. Special Forces. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld jumped to embrace special operations in the Afghanistan war and expected them to play a substantial role in rooting out Iraqi die-hards. At first, the ninja warriors did seem to personify 21st century military transformation. And the shadowy, no-rules ethic of special ops nicely paralleled the president’s “bring ‘em to justice” thinking.


But the special operations strategy is essentially a SWAT team approach: Highly trained operators swoop down on the enemy and clean house. It works well for the police, because the bad guys are usually holed up somewhere. You can’t surround a whole city or country, though. By the time we kick in the doors, the bad guys have often scattered. Or they were never at that particular address to begin with; witness the still-futile search for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Second: What you don’t know can be bad, but what you think you know can be worse.

Administration officials have tied themselves in knots trying to explain why they were so sure Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Faulty intelligence is the scapegoat these days.

Certainly the intelligence community has shortcomings, and its senior officials happily joined the groupthink syndrome by shading their assessments to fit their bosses’ preconceptions. But the truth was not hard to come by at the time. Two weeks before the Iraq war in March 2003, I wrote, “There is simply no hard intelligence of any such Iraqi weapons.” That statement remains uncontrovertible. The proof of what intelligence analysts really knew -- and didn’t know -- was revealed by the fact, reported in my column then, that “there is not a single confirmed biological or chemical target on their lists, Air Force officers working on the war plan say.”

A president or a military leader who operates on the basis of what he thinks must be true, instead of the specific details of what is known and not known, is headed for trouble.

Third: Be a little skeptical about people with “inside” information. (Even though low-level military insiders spoke the truth when they told me there was no hard evidence of Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.)

Looking back now, I can see that much of the griping about how Rumsfeld and company were planning the war was parochial to the Air Force or Army.

I missed the real message: Rumsfeld and his team were impervious to any views other than their own. Because of their love of secrecy and contempt for debate, they simply tuned out any naysayers warning about what to expect in postwar Iraq. That was true even when the warnings of postwar trouble came from tough-minded military advisors, not those wimpy experts from the State Department and academia.

Fourth: Changing a long-standing policy on the basis of immediate circumstances is not a good idea. It’s hard to think long-term in the midst of a crisis.

In March 2002, I was able to describe classified details of the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review that revealed its decision to increase the role of nuclear weapons in military planning. I said then, and believe now, that the administration’s decision to redefine nuclear weapons requirements -- a redefinition that makes their future use more likely -- was a panicky overreaction to Sept. 11.

We have continued to move down the path of developing more usable nuclear weapons. And we are shortchanging far too many efforts that would reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the first place.

It’s a decision that may reduce America’s security in the long run, not the least by persuading rogue states that they must accelerate the quest for nuclear weapons of their own.

Fifth: Never mistake a mirror for a window.

With dismaying frequency, Bush, Rumsfeld and senior military leaders have made critical decisions on the basis of what they thought was a clear view of their adversaries -- looking at the enemy through an open window, so to speak. In reality, they were looking at a mirror and seeing fuzzy images of themselves.

Consider the question of whether we have too few troops in Iraq. Coalition forces are sometimes spread thin. But the problem in Iraq is not too few troops, or even too few allies. It’s that we’ve persisted in seeing our enemies as mirror images of ourselves and tried to fight them as though they were us.

Senior officials talk about Iraq as part of something fundamentally different from past military challenges. But they fight it like a conventional war: From the beginning, our strategy was to engage the enemy in battle, win a crushing victory and reap the fruits of unconditional success. Thus, field commanders have talked of “victories” in Najaf and “strategic progress” in Fallouja. Meantime, soldiers continue to die by the ones and twos on conventional infantry patrols.

Unfortunately, our adversaries are not interested in engaging us head-on. That’s why the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened in the first place.

Because we have been unable to break out of our old mind-set, it’s actually a blessing we don’t have more troops in Iraq. The fact that the coalition force is relatively small is one reason that, on average, fewer than two soldiers are being killed each day, compared to the 30 American soldiers who died each day during the peak of U.S. fighting in Vietnam in 1968.

What is true militarily in Iraq is also true politically, there and in the rest of the Arab world: We keep thinking that, deep down, our adversaries are really just like us. In reality, for the present and for the foreseeable future, most of the Islamic world is not -- and does not want to be -- like us. It has profoundly different values and priorities. Thus our entire strategy is predicated on a mirror-picture that we will someday “defeat” the increasingly angry anti-American mob of Iraqi nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists, with democratic stability miraculously arising from the ashes.

Unfortunately, John F. Kerry doesn’t really offer a different view. He promises to execute his plans better, but that may not help much if the underlying vision of the situation is off.

Both presidential candidates, and both parties, seem to have accepted the idea that the war on terrorism is part of a larger clash, a titanic struggle for national survival. There’s a seductive ring to such a battle cry. Part of the American character -- and human nature generally -- likes a call to heroism. But there’s another part of our character that favors taking a deep breath, looking at things as they are and figuring out a practical solution. To me, the final lesson of the last three years is that this is the voice we need to hear.