Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Cobra II - Gordon and Trainor

Title: Cobra II
Authors: Michael R. Gordon and Gen (Ret’d) Bernard E. Trainor
Publisher: Vintage
Date: 2007
Pages: 727
Photos/Maps: 35 b/w//18 
There have been many books written about the Iraq War from a myriad of angles. Cobra II is one of those that successfully peels back the layers from the macro to the micro, encompassing both the preplanning, invasion and immediate aftermath of the conflict. It is a balanced and critical evaluation of what the Americans did right and wrong in their planning and prosecution of this intervention. With commendable insight, the authors analyze the circumstances behind some of the more controversial decisions made by the participants including: what were the key influencers of Saddam Hussein’s decision making before the invasion and how were these actions interpreted in the West, what was the motivation of the US to re-engage in the Iraqi theatre,  how did the various key US agencies cooperate in setting policy and decision making, what impacted war-planning and how did the US military adjust and what were the key aspects of planning for post-war Iraq and were they successful? 
There is no question that the war has polarized US society and world opinion and has become the defining aspect of the Bush presidency. Many critics and supporters, with the benefit of hindsight, have offered up their interpretations of what was done correctly and incorrectly and whether or not the price was worth the investment. While every book is going to have elements of subjectivity, this narrative, in my opinion, provides information in such a way as to allow the reader to form their own opinions with the facts and events presented in an evenhanded manner. 
Following an in depth rendition of the timeline and key events of the lead up to and execution of the war, the authors provide an interesting and insightful analysis of some of the key lessons learned that they have gleaned from their research: 
1. A notable failure of the intelligence community to provide clear and accurate information and to not work together, both before and during the operation itself; specifically referring to agencies such as the CIA; 
2. A marked failure of key decision makers to work together  during the run-up to the war. Specifically, DoD, CIA, NSA and SecState did not cooperate and exercised (especially DoD) very compartmentalized information management;
3. A failure of the US Government, specifically DoD, to both appreciate and adequately prepare for the post war environment and to ignore indicators that ran contrary to their perceived ideas of how things would unfold; 
4. A marked lack of comprehension of the type of adversary that they would be facing (ie the asymmetric warfare of the jihadists and the Fedayeen) and a failure to adapt once they were engaged, and 
5. A diametrically opposite approach to the conflict between the civilian and military leaders within the DoD; Rumsfeld micromanaged the planning process with a view towards minimizing personnel and cost and relying upon technology. This was in direct contrast to the planning staffs of the US military and ignored the inputs of commanders who had significant experience in the region. This difference of opinion was never satisfactorily reconciled. 
The authors include as appendices a synopsis of acronyms very helpful to the narrative, reproductions of actual documents outlining attack orders, dissolving Iraqi military and paramilitary organizations at the direction of Paul Brenner and timelines/briefings provided to the President. All add significant breadth to the understanding of the actions of the book.
Another very interesting fact that is repeatedly identified is the impact of technology upon the unfolding battlespace. Much has been said regarding the overwhelming technical advantage that the Coalition forces had over the Iraqi's and indeed they did; however, the downside of said technology has rarely been mentioned. Such downsides included micromanagement from senior levels as they were able to watch in real time individual units and vehicles moving via "blue force tracker", an inability for US elements to speak to each other due to incompatible communication systems and an assumption that Iraqi forces would not be able to effectively counter US strategies (which proved to be false in the case of anti-air combat against US helicopters for example). 
Overall, Gordon and Trainor have produced a superb narrative and analysis of the initial years of the Iraq war. Future leaders would do well to read and learn the lessons identified in this book. That the West would win the war in Iraq was of little doubt; however, the planning fell far short of producing an effective strategy to deal with the dramatic changes that unfolded within the conflict zone as the war progressed. This book is very highly recommended.

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