So, it seems George W. Bush was vindicated in his claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The New York Times’ investigative piece in October of 2014 showed that members of the military recovered thousands of chemical warheads and shells in a secret program run by the CIA; some soldiers involved in the operation were wounded by the chemicals. This program–Operation Avarice–was highly secretive to the point where critical information was kept from members involved with the disposal of the warheads. These munitions were obtained through a secret source in Iraq; his payments and identity are unknown (via NYT) [emphasis mine]:
The Central Intelligence Agency, working with American troops during the occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased nerve-agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort to ensure that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, according to current and former American officials.
The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation Avarice, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the American military deemed it a nonproliferation success. It led to the United States’ acquiring and destroying at least 400 Borak rockets, one of the internationally condemned chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government manufactured in the 1980s but that were not accounted for by United Nations inspections mandated after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The effort was run out of the C.I.A. station in Baghdad in collaboration with the Army’s 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion and teams of chemical-defense and explosive ordnance disposal troops, officials and veterans of the units said. Many rockets were in poor condition and some were empty or held a nonlethal liquid, the officials said. But others contained the nerve agent sarin, which analysis showed to be purer than the intelligence community had expected given the age of the stock.
A New York Times investigation published in October found that the military had recovered thousands of old chemical warheads and shells in Iraq and that Americans and Iraqis had been wounded by them, but the government kept much of this information secret, from the public and troops alike.
These munitions were remnants of an Iraqi special weapons program that was abandoned long before the 2003 invasion, and they turned up sporadically during the American occupation in buried caches, as part of improvised bombs or on black markets.
The potency of sarin samples from the purchases, as well as tightly held assessments about risks the munitions posed, buttresses veterans’ claims that during the war the military did not share important intelligence about battlefield perils with those at risk or maintain an adequate medical system for treating victims of chemical exposure.
The purchases were made from a sole Iraqi source who was eager to sell his stock, officials said. The amount of money that the United States paid for the rockets is not publicly known, and neither are the affiliations of the seller.
Most of the officials and veterans who spoke about the program did so anonymously because, they said, the details remain classified. The C.I.A. declined to comment. The Pentagon, citing continuing secrecy about the effort, did not answer written questions and acknowledged its role only obliquely.
The analysis of sarin samples from 2005 found that the purity level reached 13 percent — higher than expected given the relatively low quality and instability of Iraq’s sarin production in the 1980s, officials said. Samples from Boraks recovered in 2004 had contained concentrations no higher than 4 percent.
The new data became grounds for concern. “Borak rockets will be more hazardous than previously assessed,” one internal report noted. It added a warning: the use of a Borak in an improvised bomb “could effectively disperse the sarin nerve agent.”
An internal record from 2006 referred to “agent purity of up to 25 percent for recovered unitary sarin weapons.”
Cheryl Rofer, a retired chemist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said such purity levels were plausible, because Iraq’s sarin batches varied in quality and the contents of warheads may have achieved an equilibrium as the contents degraded.
To get a sense of the lethality of sarin gas, John Hinderaker at Powerline wrote, “Just 1 to 10 milliliters on the skin can be fatal. So a concentration in a rocket of up to 25% purity would seem to be lethal.”
Additionally, as the Times noted, the fact that these rockets were not accounted for after the UN inspections of 1991 proves that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction. Hinderaker noted that:
One individual was able to produce more than 400 of them, suggesting that they most likely were stored and inventoried by the Baathist regime. If that is the case, the conventional belief that the world’s intelligence agencies were wrong, and Iraq did not possess significant stockpiles of WMDs prior to the 2003 war, is incorrect. One shudders to think what a terrorist group could accomplish with 400 sarin-equipped rockets.
Still, this doesn’t mean that the Iraq War was without its faults. The fact that American forces had no clear orders on crowd and riot control after the capture of Baghdad led to widespread looting and vandalism. Iraq’s National Library, which contained scores of priceless historical documents, was burned to the ground.
Paul Bremer, the leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) from 2003-2004, instituted disastrous measures that further destabilized America’s strategic position in the country. Members of the Ba’ath Party were banned from public office, and the Iraqi military–all 400,000 of them–were disbanded. Bremer has said British and American government approved this decision before he executed it.
While reports of money being lost in the reconstruction effort–roughly $9 billion vanished–were also damaging, there was the painfully visible problem that the U.S. simply didn’t have enough troops to fight an insurgency and provide security. It took another four years after the end of major combat operations in Iraq for the Bush administration to institute the Surge, or the “clear, hold, and build” strategy. Then-Gen. David Petraeus would spearhead the operation after he assumed command of Multi-National Force –Iraq in 2007.
Also, Bush issuing the National Security Presidential Directive 24 on January 20, 2003, which gave the Department of Defense control of post-war Iraq was also probably a misstep given that Donald Rumsfeld seemed incapable of getting the situation under control, let alone recognizing the problem; by 2006, the situation in Iraq was perilous.
After the 2006 midterms, which was a disaster for Republicans, Rumsfeld tendered his resignation to President Bush.
So, while the reason to go into Iraq might have been justified, the serial incompetence that ensued in the post-war operations should have Americans questioning whether we should undertake the massive–and arduous–task of nation building, especially in a region of the world where historical precedent for democratic ideals registers from little to none.
Also, did the 2006 upheaval cause us to drop the ball in Afghanistan?
Frankly, I still don’t know how I feel about Iraq. What I do know is that we knew where President Bush stood on these issues–and everyone else around the world did too.
With Obama, it appears he’s been so focused on trying not to be like Bush that he might leave us in a geopolitical disaster by the time he leaves office in 2017.