Army Criticizes Its Post-Invasion Practices in Iraq

The U.S Army will release a 700-page report on Monday that blasts the post-invasion phase of the Iraq war. The report says operations were badly mismanaged and poorly planned. Retired Army General Ricardo Sanchez speaks with host Andrea Seabrook about the report and his role in the war.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The U.S. military now admits it made big mistakes in Iraq. Tomorrow, the army will release a 700-page report documenting the lack of planning and preparation for the period after the initial invasion of 2003. The report is based on hundreds of interviews including accounts from active and recently retired officers. One of those is retired Army General Ricardo Sanchez. He was put in charge of ground forces in Iraq a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad.

I spoke with Sanchez today from his home in San Antonio. One of the things that makes it so interesting, General Sanchez, is that in the past the Pentagon has rebutted suggestions that the post-war planning in Iraq was flawed. Now, the army in its own report says that it in fact was flawed.

Is this as close as the military gets to admitting big mistakes in Iraq?

General RICARDO SANCHEZ (U.S. Army): Well, I think what has happened to us is that over the course of the last five years we really have begun to embrace the fact that our nation went down this path in Iraq because of some very flawed decisions that we made at the very beginning in order for us to extract ourselves and hope to be able to fix some of the deficiencies in the country. I think it's right for us to embrace those lessons and then hopefully work to keep them from recurring to us again in the future.

SEABROOK: What exactly does that mean, embrace those lessons? What does it mean practically?

Gen. SANCHEZ: Well, what it means, first of all, we have to accept as an institution that we erred, that we in fact made big mistakes. There were institutional decisions that created significant challenges, not just for our soldiers on the ground, but for a country as a whole. And unless we understand why those decisions were made, who made them and the - more importantly, the impact of those decisions both first order and second and third order effects of those decisions and we'll never really be able to fix the problems.

SEABROOK: General Sanchez, the report has not come out yet. We haven't seen the full text of it. We only have hints and teases. But can you tell me, sir, at least in your opinion whether a large part of the mistakes made in Iraq are due to political failures from the civilian leadership?

Gen. SANCHEZ: Well, I think it's a combination. I think there are political failures that occur. The decisions that were made within the Department of Defense in those early days were not isolated decisions. They were done in coordination with and with the approval or our political leadership. So I think it was a combination of both political and military leadership challenges.

SEABROOK: Do you believe that these big mistakes that the Pentagon is now admitting could possibly have hampered irrevocably the course of the Iraq War?

Gen. SANCHEZ: Well I think it's not an irrevocable impact. It did put us on a path during the first 18 to 24 months of having tremendous difficulties. It led to the enhanced insurgency and to the tremendous instability that we faced in the country before the surge. It also allowed us to not take advantage of the windows of opportunity that our military forces on the ground were providing from the summer of 2003 forward.

I don't believe that it is a given that we will be defeated, but I think the solution will be much different than what we had envisioned in the summer of 2003.

SEABROOK: There's no doubt that the report will be used by both sides of the political campaigns going on right now. What do you think, General Sanchez, the argument that with so many mistakes that were made, that U.S. forces should just pull out?

Gen. SANCHEZ: I think that's trying to go back to the past. I think what we have to do is we have to clearly understand what is going on in the country today within our military, within the political, the economic initiatives and then go from there. And if we're still making some of the mistakes that we had made and had not fixed over the course of the last four or five years, we ought to fix those because this problem is now a problem that has to be solved by America.

SEABROOK: General Sanchez, it is so easy to talk about, for both of us to talk about the civilian mistakes, the military mistakes, and so on, but we have to remember that there were so many U.S. military lives lost during this period that the army is admitting mistakes were made in. How do you read this report if you're a parent or wife or a husband of someone who was lost during this time?

Gen. SANCHEZ: You know, I have called the front end of this war and the decisions that are made and the April, May, June time frame of 2003, a catastrophic strategic blunder and gross dereliction of duty on the part of some of our most senior leadership. And this is why we need to embrace these lessons. And this is why we must never forget and never allow America to go this way again because in the end it's the lives of my soldiers that were at risk and it was those lives that I lost; over 843 total casualties during my time there that drive me to this day.

SEABROOK: You were the top ground commander in Iraq at the time of this report, do you believe you're responsible for any of these mistakes?

Gen. SANCHEZ: Well, of course we make some errors on the ground in terms of the military decisions and the judgments that we make. We underestimate our enemy. We don't convince Washington on multiple occasions of the fact that there's a war going on, even though there's a, you know, the reports are continuously going forward to Washington. You know, why exactly they never accept our judgments is still to be determined.

But I consider those failures on my part to not have been able to accomplish those very critical tasks. But no, there was never a commander on the ground that is not responsible for some of those errors. I mean that just doesn't happen. That's not the reality of war. And I think there's an element of responsibility and blame that has to go to all levels of command.

SEABROOK: Retired Army General Ricardo Sanchez. Thanks very much, sir.

Gen. SANCHEZ: Okay, thank you very much for the opportunity.

SEABROOK: And to America's other war, in Afghanistan. Today, the top humanitarian official at the United Nations said the number of civilians killed in fighting in Afghanistan has soared. It's increased by nearly two-thirds. The U.N. says it knows of nearly 700 civilian deaths for the first half of this year. That's compared to 430 civilian deaths during the same time last year.

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