More than five years into the war, the United States mission in Iraq has become a case study of policy blunders, political misunderstandings, and wasted opportunities.
From the Bush administration's embrace of preemption, to its failure to deploy enough troops during the initial invasion, many of the errors are now acknowledged and widely rejected.
But one problem at the center of the Iraq crisis remains festering -- an intelligence community that was at first deemed unreliable (see: weapons of mass destruction) and has since become overly marginalized.
A.J. Rossmiller was part of that community. In his book, "Still Broken: A Recruit's Inside Account Of Intelligence Failures, From Baghdad To The Pentagon", he writes about going to Iraq in 2004, eager to transfer his understanding of Middle East affairs into U.S. military benefit. What he found as a member of the Defense Intelligence Agency, however, was disheartening. America's mission was being hindered by a shocking lack of cultural and political understanding, by interrogation methods that were indiscriminate and reliant on intimidation, and by a poorly planned, mostly reactive counter-terrorism strategy.
"When we invaded, I believed the war was a bad decision for America's national security, but post-invasion I though the U.S. presence was preventing a full-scale meltdown," Rossmiller writes. "I knew our presence had created many of the problems that existed, but I thought coalition troops were the dam preventing a flood of sectarian violence and terrorist encampment. [My experiences] furthered my realization that the U.S. occupation was, long-term, actually making the country less stable. We were arming multiple sides of an incipient civil war, playing whack-a-mole with insurgents, and destroying our moral standing and strategic interests in a vital region. The idea that the most politically and militarily powerful nation in the world could be doing more harm than good was difficult to swallow, but it was something I had to consider."
"Still Broken" contains countless waking-up-to-reality accounts such as these. Rossmiller's experience -- distinct from other Iraq tales in that it comes from someone at lower end of the bureaucratic hierarchy, with an unvarnished, unafraid tone -- is to an extent a laundry list of U.S. strategic blunders. Take, for instance, the "Culture Guide" handed to officials heading to Iraq that included the following insight: "Arabs are emotional people who use the power of emotion in forceful and appealing rhetoric that tends toward exaggeration..."
"Having a better understanding of the Iraqi culture would have made a huge difference," Rossmiller told the Huffington Post. "Once you piss people off by violating the norms of their culture it is just about impossible to get that trust back."
U.S. missteps went far beyond assimilation failures. And Rossmiller experienced many of them first-hand, such as the ill-advised implementation of a counter-insurgency strategy.
"All the high-level people had theories on the origins and driving force of the insurgency," he writes "but they seemed to miss the simple but imperative fact that for an insurgency to survive, it needs support--or at least acquiescence--from the masses." Instead of addressing Iraq's collapsing economy, which was spreading poverty and disillusionment, U.S. strategy was focused on narrow goals, like intercepting funds to insurgents, despite the fact that their attacks were surging on a shoe-string budget.
Rossmiller also accounts, at times in harrowing detail, a detainee policy that was heavy on intimidation and incarceration and light on actionable results.
"I turned away as the interrogator called for an escort to take the prisoner to the holding area for later transport to the prison," he writes. "No evidence, no charge, no reason. What the hell were we doing?"
Mostly, however, "Still Broken" details a foreign policy that shunned the intelligence community, despite the obvious benefits it provided. After six months in Iraq, Rossmiller moved back home to the Pentagon's Office of Iraq Analysis, where the staff was hampered by a shortage of funds and even desks (though flat screen television sets blaring Fox News were in abundance). The work he produced was frequently edited or undermined by higher-ups who demanding more optimistic analysis.
"The Bush administration has set up a system in which good news is rewarded," Rossmiller said. "There is that infamous bubble perception. It helps out the leadership in two ways: intelligence analysis that reinforces their positions allows them to say their positions are right. And subsequently, if you give people slightly below Rumsfeld and others, numbers and analysis that fits their predictions and then it doesn't, they can then say, well the intelligence was wrong."
Taken today, "Still Broken" is at once fascinating and distressing: to think how differently things could have gone had there been greater appreciation and use of the intelligence community. Tactically, Rossmiller argues, the armed force's mission in Iraq would have more effectively targeted key problems (the ebbing insurgency, the collapse of the political infrastructure, etc.). Politically, the U.S. could have been better equipped for a society not welcome to a political system imposed by occupiers. Mostly, however, troops lives could have been saved.
"I think substantively very little has changed [since I left the Pentagon]," said Rossmiller. "In terms of Iraq, some of the tactical stuff has gotten better but the overall structure has not improved. The departure of Donald Rumsfeld is a benefit to everyone... but from talking with my friends who are still there and reading how the intelligence is put out and reported, it seems to me that the rewarding of good news, and the inhibiting of accurate information when it doesn't support the Bush administration's objectives, continues to this day."