WASHINGTON — Secretly, they gathered in an auditorium in the nation's snowbound capital -- uniformed generals, assistant Cabinet secretaries, war college professors with top security clearance, and senior planners from the Pentagon, the U.S. Central Command and dozens of other federal agencies.
The date was Feb. 21. More than 100,000 U.S. and British troops were already poised at Iraq's doorstep. Their battle plan was rehearsed and ready. In fewer than 30 days, the first American tanks would cross the sand berm into Iraq from Kuwait, launching the tip of the spear of what would be a swift and brilliant battlefield victory.
Yet this two-day gathering at the Pentagon's National Defense University was the first time all of these planners had gathered under one roof to address an equally vital matter: how to win the peace in Iraq once the war was over.
"The messiah could not have organized a sufficient relief and reconstruction or humanitarian effort in that short a time," recalled Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who attended the session.
"The military's war planning was light-years ahead of its planning for everything else," added a senior defense official who was present.
Jay Garner, the retired Army lieutenant general who led the meeting and would soon attempt to lead the peace, called it a rock drill: "It's a military term -- you know, you turn over all the rocks."
When they did, Garner acknowledged in a recent interview, the group uncovered "tons of problems," including gaps in planning, coordination and anticipation of such mission-threatening problems as looting and civil unrest.
Nearly five months later, the price for those gaps is still being paid.
Since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, U.S. and British troops have struggled to bring order from chaos. Water, electricity and security are in short supply, fueling resentment among many Iraqis. A guerrilla-like resistance has taken shape against the occupation; U.S. casualties mount almost daily in an op-eration that is costing nearly $4 billion a month and stalling the withdrawal of American forces.
The Bush administration planned well and won the war with minimal allied casualties. Now, according to interviews with dozens of administration officials, military leaders and independent analysts, missteps in the planning for the subsequent peace could threaten the lives of soldiers and drain U.S. resources indefinitely and cloud the victory itself.
Rivalry and Misreadings
The tale of what went wrong is one of agency infighting, ignored warnings and faulty assumptions.
An ambitious, yearlong State Department planning effort predicted many of the postwar troubles and advised how to resolve them. But the man who oversaw that effort was kept out of Iraq by the Pentagon, and most of his plans were shelved. Meanwhile, Douglas J. Feith, the No. 3 official at the Pentagon, also began postwar planning, in September. But he didn't seek out an overseer to run the country until January.
The man he picked, Garner, had run the U.S. operation to protect ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Based on that experience, Garner acknowledged, he badly underestimated the looting and lawlessness that would follow once Saddam Hussein's army was defeated. By the time he got to Baghdad, Garner said, 17 of 21 Iraqi ministries had "evaporated."
"Being a Monday morning quarterback," Garner says now, the underestimation was a mistake. "But if I had known that then, what would I have done about it?"
The postwar planning by the State and Defense departments, along with that of other agencies, was done in what bureaucrats call "vertical stovepipes." Each agency worked independently for months, with little coordination.
Even within the Pentagon there were barriers: The Joint Chiefs of Staff on the second floor worked closely with the State Department planners, while Feith's Special Plans Office on the third floor went its own way, working with a team from the Central Command under Army Gen. Tommy Franks.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's civilian aides decided that they didn't need or want much help, officials in both departments say.
Central Command officials confirmed that their postwar planning group -- dubbed Task Force Four, for the fourth phase of the war plan -- took a back seat to the combat planners. What postwar planning did occur at the Central Command and the Pentagon was on disasters that never occurred: oil fires, masses of refugees, chemical and biological warfare, lethal epidemics, starvation.
The Pentagon planners also made two key assumptions that proved faulty. One was that American and British authorities would inherit a fully functioning modern state, with government ministries, police forces and public utilities in working order -- a "plug and play" occupation. The second was that the resistance would end quickly.
Some top Pentagon officials acknowledged that they have been surprised at how difficult it has been to establish order.