The Pentagon is rumbling into Baghdad completely unprepared to fashion a viable new Iraqi government, seemingly obsessed with installing the discredited and corrupt Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), as the country's leader. The task force assigned the job of putting Humpty Dumpty together again after the shooting stops is woefully ill-equipped for its mission, is keeping the Department of State at arm's length, and has few regional experts and Iraq specialists aboard. At the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., where the military staff is supporting the task force, there is something akin to panic.
"[The Pentagon brass] haven't a clue as to what's going on,'' said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst and Iraq expert at the National Defense University. "They don't have plans for a transition in place, they don't know where the money is going to come from, they don't have any organization. And they just don't know anything about Iraq."
The Pentagon plans to rebuild Iraq under the supervision of a retired American general with strong ties to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, to Israel's military-industrial complex and to the neoconservative civilians at the Pentagon. That person is Jay Garner, appointed on Jan. 20 by his friend Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to head the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Garner, 64, retired in 1997 after serving as vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army. He decamped to Kuwait from Washington in mid-March, just before the outbreak of war, in the midst of making plans on blank sheets of paper for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. By then he'd assembled a staff of 200, including 100 "free Iraqis" -- many of whom were recruited by the INC. Garner's initial tasks included assigning U.S. officials to each Iraqi ministry as part of the occupation. "You have to have a face, a U.S. face, a government interagency face, for every [Iraqi] ministry," said a senior Department of Defense official.
Garner himself has limited experience in Iraq. In 1991 he helped oversee what the Pentagon called "Operation Provide Comfort,'' a haphazard and fiasco-ridden mission to support the Kurds in northern Iraq. For more than a decade, both during his military service and then in retirement, Garner established a pattern of close ties to the Israeli military and its U.S. supporters. The Forward, the English-language version of the venerable Yiddish weekly newspaper, recently carried a headline referring to Garner that read, "Pro-Israeli general will oversee reconstruction of postwar Iraq."
In the mid-1990s, Garner was commanding general of the U.S. Army's Space and Strategic Defense Command, which was responsible for the Army's contribution to the "Star Wars" anti-missile program. In that post, Garner oversaw the development of the Nautilus program, a high-energy laser weapon designed to shoot down short-range rockets in flight. The system was developed jointly by TRW, the American defense contractor, and several Israeli contractors, including Israeli Aircraft Industries, Rafael and Tadiran.
Upon retiring in 1997, Garner was named president of SY Technology, a southern California defense contractor that was later purchased by L-3 Communications. At SY, Garner worked closely with Israeli military officials on Israel's $2 billion Arrow missile-defense system, whose development and testing the Pentagon partially funded.
During this time, Garner attracted the attention of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), an American think tank strongly identified with the Israeli right. Among JINSA's founders and members of its board are a number of former U.S. military officers and several of the hawkish neoconservatives who've been prominent in pushing for war against Iraq, including Richard Perle, a former Pentagon official and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow; Michael Ledeen, another AEI scholar and Middle East specialist; James Woolsey, former CIA director; and Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations. In 1998, Garner joined a 10-day sojourn to Israel sponsored by JINSA. Two years later, on Oct. 12, 2000, Garner signed a JINSA statement that praised the Israeli armed forces for having "exercised remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of a Palestinian Authority that deliberately pushes civilians and young people to the front lines."
When U.S. armed forces occupy Baghdad and establish relative order in the rest of Iraq, Garner will be, by all accounts, the American proconsul, reporting directly to Gen. Tommy Franks of the U.S. Central Command. Garner's office was created under the supervision of Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's undersecretary for defense policy and a former aide to Perle. Garner's deputy is Michael Mobbs, the man who will handle the political aspects of Iraqi reconstruction and who might well be the person most responsible for picking and choosing which Iraqis get the inside track in forming the new government. Until moving to Garner's task force, Mobbs, a University of Chicago Law School graduate and a friend and former law partner of Feith, served as Feith's "special adviser." While doing so he developed the legal theory that allowed the Defense Department to hold U.S. citizens without trial or legal counsel if deemed "enemy combatants" in the war on terrorism.
Starting last fall, Feith, Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz battled to make sure that the future politics of Iraq fell under the supervision of the Pentagon and not the State Department. At the same time, they excluded many of the most knowledgeable U.S. experts on Iraq, rejecting much of the work done by the State Department's Future of Iraq project. "[The Office of the Secretary of Defense] has no interest in what I do," said Iraq expert Yaphe. "They've brought in their own stable of people from AEI, and the people at the State Department who worked with the Iraqi exiles are being kept from Garner."
It's no secret that the civilians at the Pentagon have battled continuously with the State Department and the CIA over Iraq policy, and part of that battle centered on the role of the Iraqi National Congress. The INC and its leader, Chalabi, draw strong support from the Defense Department's civilians and their neoconservative allies, but Chalabi is disdained by the State Department and the CIA as ineffectual, unreliable and lacking support in Iraq. By putting Garner's office under the supervision of Feith's Defense Department policy office and by minimizing the State Department's role, the INC's allies in Washington hope to give Chalabi a dominant role in the next government of Iraq. "The INC has been there for a dozen years with a program that I think the United States would welcome," Perle told The American Prospect. "We could not draft a better program ourselves."
But many State Department officials and outside experts on Iraq predict that a Chalabi-led government would be an unmitigated disaster. "It seems to me pretty clear that he will be seen by Iraqis as a representative of the United States," a State Department official who worked on the Future of Iraq project said. "And he's seen by Iraqis as a Shia businessman with a checkered past." Still, they acknowledge that the INC will have some role in a new regime, though they would prefer that it be a marginal one. "It's important to make sure that [the INC] gets only one seat at the table," said Bathsheba Crocker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It's very important to make sure we don't try to make Ahmed Chalabi the Iraqi Karzai."
Danielle Pletka, vice president of the AEI and an expert on the Iraqi opposition, angrily denounced State Department officials who disparage Chalabi. "The [Defense Department] is running post-Saddam Iraq," said Pletka, almost shouting. "The people at the State Department don't know what they are talking about! Who the hell are they? Who gives a good goddamn what they think?" Pletka concedes that the State Department has a "deep bench," a lot of expertise and Arabic-speaking professionals. "But they need to remember that the president of the United States needs to be boss," she said. "And the simple fact is, the president is comfortable with people who are comfortable with the INC."
While angling to ensure a dominant role for the INC, the Pentagon is failing to prepare adequately for the transition to a new civil administration. "Post-War Iraq: Are We Ready?'' a recent report co-authored by Crocker, cited a long list of areas in which the Pentagon falls short. Among them are confusion over whether Iraq will be run by a U.S. military officer or a civilian official, inadequate coordination with the United Nations over its role in postwar Iraq, and an insistence by the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office on a rapid turnover to an interim Iraqi government, which could give the INC and its newly established "leadership council" an edge. "When we've tried to push people in Garner's office, we get vague responses," said Crocker. "You get a blank stare in return."
By giving control to the INC, the Pentagon seems intent on creating a government modeled on South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem regime, which would require a U.S. praetorian guard to prop it up for years to come. Said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, "I don't know how long Ahmed Chalabi will be alive under those circumstances. Are you going to keep the Marines surrounding him for 10 years?"
But the AEI's Ledeen predicted no backing off in the coming fight over the INC. "The battle over Basra," he said, "will be nothing compared to the battle over the Iraqi National Congress."