In the course of his confirmation hearings, Bernard Kerik may be able to shed some unique light on decision-making in the early days of the Iraq occupation.
Here's what interests me most.
In an article in the New York Daily News on May 16th 2003, Kerik confirmed that he'd been tapped to be the American in charge of the Iraqi Interior Ministry (formally, he'd be the chief 'advisor'). Principally, that meant he'd be in charge of domestic security and specifically in charge of standing up a new Iraqi police force. This was just after Bremer had arrived on the scene. And he told the Daily News he'd be leaving for Iraq within three days. As for how long he'd be in the country, he said he'd be in Iraq "in excess of six months, but no one really knows . . . as long as it takes to get the job done."
As Kerik suggested, six months seemed optimistic. In mid-July, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Robert C. Orr, who the Pentagon had just sent as part of a fact-finding mission to Iraq, said that "former New York police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik, is training an Iraqi police force but his work won't be completed for at least another 18 months, and the need for help is urgent and immediate (italics added)."
If you review the newspaper reportage over the next couple months you'll see Kerik quoted in various articles about security and policing in Iraq. He even showed up in walk-along columns by the Post's Jim Hoagland and the Times' Thomas Friedman.
But little more than two months into his tour, just as Iraq was slipping the first few rungs down the ladder into chaos, something happened -- something that I've never seen explained.
Remember that on August 7th, the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad was bombed -- the first high-profile terrorist act since the war. Then on August 19th a truck bomb destroyed the UN compound in the Iraqi capital killing seventeen, including the head of the UN mission, SÃ©rgio Vieira de Mello.
Then, only a few days later, a few press reports noted for the first time -- in most cases just in passing -- that Kerik was preparing to leave the country. The earliest of these that I'm aware of came in a Times article by Dexter Filkins in which he notes in passing that Kerik was "wrapping up his tour in Iraq" and later that Kerik's "time here is to end in a week."
[ed.note: If there are earlier references to the timing of Kerik's departure I'm not aware of them. But if you are, I'd be obliged if you could let me know.]
Then just a few days later, on August 29th, a bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf killing upwards of a hundred people including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of SCIRI.
Tracking down the precise date of Kerik's departure is difficult. But he apparently left the country either two or three days later. The first word of Kerik's departure that I could find comes in a September 3rd article by John Tierney in the Times, which reported on the truck bombing of the central office on the Iraqi police in Baghdad. In that report Tierney notes that the leader of the effort to reconstitute the Iraqi police force had been "Bernard B. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner [who] finished his three-and-a-half-month tour here this week."
The question, I suppose, pretty much asks itself: what happened? Kerik arrived in Iraq with a rather open-ended committment. By his own account, it should have carried him at least through the end of 2003. There was even some suggestion that it would keep him in the country through 2004. Yet just after the first two major terrorist attacks in Baghdad reports surfaced that he was about to leave. And only a week later, after major terrorist incidents numbers three and four, he was gone.
At the time, the Pentagon and Kerik (or rather people speaking on his behalf) made rather unconvincing claims that Kerik's departure was simply part of the original plan.
As TPM noted a week after Kerik left, the Pentagon said the Kerik was actually supposed to leave in the summer and "extended his stay to finish his ongoing projects." That was a bit hard to figure since that would have meant his entire tenure in the country would have lasted only a few weeks. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Kerik's employer, Giuliani Partners, said the plan had always been that he'd only stay in the country for 90 days. But that of course directly contradicted Kerik's own statements.
We now know that the many of the key security-related decisions that have haunted the occupation for the last year and a half happened in those first few months. Kerik also left at a time when there seemed to be plenty of police work to go around in Iraq.
So again, what happened?