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Post-Saddam Iraq:
The War Game

"Desert Crossing" 1999 Assumed
400,000 Troops and Still a Mess

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 207

Introduced by Roger Strother

Posted - November 4, 2006

For more information contact:
John Prados - 301/565-0564 or Roger Strother - 202/994-7000

"There was consensus that the United States would not intervene without coalition support except under the most dire circumstances such as WMD use or catastrophic humanitarian disaster."
- Desert Crossing After Action Report, 1999.

"When it looked like we were going in, I called back down to CENTCOM and said, 'You need to dust off Desert Crossing.' They said, 'What's that? Never heard of it.'"
- General Anthony Zinni (ret.), 2004.

In the news

War Games In '99 Predicted Iraq Problems
Associated Press via CBS
November 4, 2006

Related posting

New State Department Releases on the "Future of Iraq" Project
New Documents Provide Details on Budgets, Interagency Coordination and Working Group Progress

Washington D.C., November 4, 2006 - In late April 1999, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), led by Marine General Anthony Zinni (ret.), conducted a series of war games known as Desert Crossing in order to assess potential outcomes of an invasion of Iraq aimed at unseating Saddam Hussein. The documents posted here today covered the initial pre-war game planning phase from April-May 1999 through the detailed after-action reporting of June and July 1999.

The Desert Crossing war games, which amounted to a feasibility study for part of the main war plan for Iraq -- OPLAN 1003-98 -- tested "worst case" and "most likely" scenarios of a post-war, post-Saddam, Iraq. The After Action Report presented its recommendations for further planning regarding regime change in Iraq and was an interagency production assisted by the departments of defense and state, as well as the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency, among others.

The results of Desert Crossing, however, drew pessimistic conclusions regarding the immediate possible outcomes of such action. Some of these conclusions are interestingly similar to the events which actually occurred after Saddam was overthrown. (Note 1) The report forewarned that regime change may cause regional instability by opening the doors to "rival forces bidding for power" which, in turn, could cause societal "fragmentation along religious and/or ethnic lines" and antagonize "aggressive neighbors." Further, the report illuminated worries that secure borders and a restoration of civil order may not be enough to stabilize Iraq if the replacement government were perceived as weak, subservient to outside powers, or out of touch with other regional governments. An exit strategy, the report said, would also be complicated by differing visions for a post-Saddam Iraq among those involved in the conflict.

The Desert Crossing report was similarly pessimistic when discussing the nature of a new Iraqi government. If the U.S. were to establish a transitional government, it would likely encounter difficulty, some groups discussed, from a "period of widespread bloodshed in which various factions seek to eliminate their enemies." The report stressed that the creation of a democratic government in Iraq was not feasible, but a new pluralistic Iraqi government which included nationalist leaders might be possible, suggesting that nationalist leaders were a stabilizing force. Moreover, the report suggested that the U.S. role be one in which it would assist Middle Eastern governments in creating the transitional government for Iraq.

General Zinni, who retired in 2000 shortly after the completion of Desert Crossing, brought the report to the attention of the public after the war. Even before the invasion, he had made his opposition to an imminent war widely known. In a major address at the Middle East Institute in October 2002, he disputed the view that war was either inevitable or desirable. On the question of establishing a new government to replace Saddam Hussein, he said, "God help us if we think this transition will occur easily." (Note 2)

Zinni disparaged the views of pro-war advocates who minimized the significance of Arab opinion: "I'm not sure which planet they live on, because it isn't the one I travel." In a Q&A after the speech, he declared that while it was necessary to deal with Saddam Hussein "eventually," "[t]hat could happen in many ways" short of war. "The question becomes how to sort out your priorities .... My personal view, and this is just personal, is that I think this isn't No. 1. It's maybe six or seven, and the affordability line may be drawn around five." (Note 3)

Zinni commented in depth publicly about Desert Crossing at UCLA in 2004 where he discussed the origins of the plan in the wake of the Desert Fox bombing campaign in 1998:

And it struck me then that we had a plan to defeat Saddam's army, but we didn't have a plan to rebuild Iraq. And so I asked the different agencies of government to come together to talk about reconstruction planning for Iraq. . . . I thought we ought to look at political reconstruction, economic reconstruction, security reconstruction, humanitarian need, services, and infrastructure development. We met in Washington, DC. We called the plan, and we gamed it out in the scenario, Desert Crossing. (Note 4)

Zinni noted the parallels to what eventually happened after the invasion as well as to the lack of interest elsewhere in the U.S. government for tackling the problems of reconstruction:

The first meeting surfaced all the problems that have exactly happened now. This was 1999. And when I took it back and looked at it, I said, we need a plan. Not all of this is a military responsibility. I went back to State Department, to the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Department of Commerce and others and said, all right, how about you guys taking part of the plan. We need a plan in addition to the war plan for the reconstruction. Not interested. Would not look at it. (Note 5)

So the General decided to take action himself -- "because I was convinced nobody in Washington was going to plan for it, and we, the military, would get stuck with it."

Zinni claimed that his report had been forgotten only a few years later, stating: "When it looked like we were going in [to Iraq], I called back down to CENTCOM and said, 'You need to dust off Desert Crossing.' They said, 'What's that? Never heard of it.' So in a matter of just a few years it was gone. The corporate memory. And in addition I was told, 'We've been told not to do any of the planning. It would all be done in the Pentagon.'" (Note 6)

The planning done at the Defense Department changed Zinni's original conception in some fundamental ways. For example, Zinni proposed a civilian occupation authority with offices in all eighteen Iraqi provinces, whereas the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was actually established only in Baghdad.

Even more significantly, the former CENTCOM commander noted that his plan had called for a force of 400,000 for the invasion -- 240,000 more than what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved. "We were concerned about the ability to get in there right away, to flood the towns and villages," USA Today quoted Zinni as saying in July 2003. "We knew the initial problem would be security." (Note 7)

Army General Thomas "Tommy" Franks adjusted the concept when he assumed command of CENTCOM upon Zinni's retirement. Yet even his initial version of OPLAN 1003-98 envisioned a need for 385,000 troops, according to the book, COBRA II, (Note 8) -- before Rumsfeld insisted that the number be sharply reduced.

 


Documents
Note: The documents cited in this Electronic Briefing Book are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Desert Crossing Pre-Wargame Intelligence Conference, April 29, 1999

Desert Crossing After Action Report, June 28, 1999

Desert Crossing After Action Report Briefing, July 22, 1999

Desert Crossing Miscellaneous E-mails, May-August 1999

Joint Intelligence Center Central, "Suggested new name for CONPLAN DESERT RESOLVE," November 14, 1999

 


Links to some of Gen. Zinni's public comments

Zinni quoted in "I'm Not Sure Which Planet They Live On," by Eric Boehlert, Salon.com, October 17, 2002 [last accessed: 03 November 2006].

Leslie Evans, "Straight Talk from General Anthony Zinni," University of California at Los Angeles Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, 14 May 2004 [last accessed: 01 November 2006].

Thomas Ricks, "For Vietnam Vet Anthony Zinni, Another War on Shaky Territory," Washington Post, 23 December 2003, p. C01 [last accessed: 01 November 2006].

Kurt Achin, "Post-War Chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan Shows US Needs Better Reconstruction Strategy, Says Former CENTCOM Commander," The Johns Hopkins University International Reporting Project, Fall 2004 [last accessed: 01 November 2006].

CBS News, "Gen. Zinni: 'They've Screwed Up:' Former Top Commander Condemns Pentagon Officials Over Iraq War," 60 Minutes, 21 May 2004 [last accessed: 01 November 2006]

 


Notes

1. This report was compiled prior to another prescient study of post-invasion Iraq, the Department of State's "Future of Iraq Project" -- see the National Security Archive's Electronic Briefing Book No. 198.

2. Zinni quoted in "I'm Not Sure Which Planet They Live On," by Eric Boehlert, Salon.com, October 17, 2002 [last accessed: 03 November 2006].

3. Ibid.

4. See Leslie Evans, "Straight Talk from General Anthony Zinni," University of California at Los Angeles, Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, 14 May 2004 [last accessed: 01 November 2006].

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Barbara Slavin and Dave Moniz, "War in Iraq's Aftermath Hits Troops Hard," USA Today, posted July 21, 2003 [last accessed 01 November 2006].

8. Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, COBRA II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), p. 28.

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