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Iraq & National Security
The Texas Governor's Mansion
"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.”
JOHN F. KENNEDY, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
10 Questions that Should Have Been Asked
Before the Invasion!!
1.) What would Iraq look like without Saddam Hussein?
Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but he was also just about the only thing holding Iraq together. The people planning this war should have foreseen that once the repressive lid of Baathist rule was lifted, just about everything would be up for grabs in Iraq, including national unity and the balance of power among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.
Mr. Hussein had spent much of the preceding 35 years systematically reshaping Iraq and its institutions around his personal will. No one who had bothered to look at and understood that history could have seriously imagined that things would have fallen simply and peacefully into place by merely removing him and dissolving his army.
2.) Regime change or nation-building?
President Bush often disparaged nation-building, but given Iraq’s fragility, it should have been clear that mere “regime change”—removing Mr. Hussein and his family but leaving the basic structures of public order intact—was not a realistic possibility. Once American forces invaded Iraq, it was obvious that Washington would find itself hip-deep in some pretty arduous and long-term nation-building. Obvious, that is, to everyone but the Pentagon
(“groupthink” a la “Bay of Pigs”/NASA)
When Baghdad fell, Gen. Jay Garner was dispatched to organize a quick, simple regime change and American military exit. Only one week later, General Garner’s mission lay in ruins and the White House had completed reversed field. Within a few months, General Garner’s replacement, L. Paul Bremer, started issuing ambitious plans for a 5-year phased political transition. But by then such plans seemed wholly unrealistic because Iraqis had already lost confidence in American competence and staying power. Mr. Bremer himself recognized that salvaging the situation would require many additional American troops, something that the Pentagon, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the President were never willing to consider.
3.) How many American troops would be needed, and for how long?
The best time to have asked this questions was before the invasion, the timing of which was completely a matter of Washington’s choice. If the administration had asked the right questions (“the wisdom of diverse, independent, aggregated, non-hierarchical crowds”), it would have understood that defeating Hussein’s army was only the beginning of the mission, to be followed by an extended period of peacekeeping and rebuilding political institutions.
There was at least one person who was asking the right questions at the right time—the Army’s chief of staff, General Erick Shinseki. Based on the army’s experiences in the Balkans and elsewhere, he publicly called for sending “several hundred thousand troops” into Iraq. But this view faced sharp opposition from highers-up, notably Rumsfeld, who had rejected an initial war plan that called for using 380,000 troops. Gen. Shinseki was publicly slapped down by Wolfowitz and was “encouraged” to “retire early.” He did so in 2003.
The Pentagon sent a force about half the size of what people like Gen. Shinseki were asking for. It was enough, as it turned out, to win the first phase of the war, but NOT NEARLY enough to secure the peace. Iraq, America and the Army have been paying for that failure to think things through ever since. More troops from the start could have prevented those first weeks of anarchy when Iraqis came to doubt the competence and the strength of the occupiers and the insurgency got its crucial first wind.
4.) What about safeguarding Iraqi weapons arsenals?
The main justification offered for the invasion was the danger that Saddam Hussein would make weapons, especially the weapons of mass destruction Washington CLAIMED he possessed, available to terrorists. Fortunately, those unconventional weapons turned out not to exist, but just about every other weapon in the Iraqi army’s arsenal did seem to make its way into the hands of insurgents and terrorists.
For a war that was supposed to be about weapons, it is remarkable how little planning went into locking down Iraqi arsenals. But such a lockdown would have required not only better planning, but MORE TROOPS!
5.) And what about sealing the borders?
If anybody in Washington was really worried about Al Qaeda getting its hands on Iraqi weapons, a top military priority should have been sealing Iraq’s borders with Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Sealing those borders would have helped prevent the infiltration of Al Qaeda into chaotic post-war Iraq.
This TOO would have required MORE American troops!
6.) Would Iraq hold together as a unified state?
Baghdad is an ancient city, but Iraq is a modern invention. Its historical roots as a unified nation are the work of extremely shallow British colonial mapmakers who assembled Iraq in 1920 out of three quite different provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire—Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. In doing so, they created one of the Arab world’s least homogenous countries, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. Planting the seeds for later trouble, Britain installed a foreign king from the Sunni Arab minority, and surrounded him with a Sunni political elite and a Sunni-dominated army. That army quickly became the most powerful political force in the land. Shiites and Kurds were relegated to 2nd class citizenship long before Saddam Hussein was born or the Baath Party was created.
For decades before the American invasion, the ONLY GLUE holding Iraq’s three pieces together seemed to be Baathist terror. Saddam ruthlessly persecuted the millions of Shiites and Kurds who opposed his rule, while co-opting the few who were willing to do his bidding. To the extent that any real Iraqi national identity emerged during those decades, it did so under Baathist tutelage. In contrast, among those Kurds and Shiites who resisted Saddam, separatist regional and sectarian identities grew stronger. None of this was exactly a secret. It should have been easy to foresee that once the Baathist regime was gone, demands for regional autonomy would surge forth.
7.) What could the British experience have taught us?
Some of the parallels between the puncturing of Britain’s delusions about Iraq in the 1920s and the rude shocks encountered by America eight decades later are so uncanny it’s hard to believe nobody (not even the British) managed to learn anything useful from that earlier experience. An article in the 2006 March-April issue of Foreign Affairs by Joel Rayburn, an American military historian, recounts the essential elements of the story:
Back in 1917, British military commander, Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude stormed into Baghdad from the south proclaiming that his armies “do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, or enemies, but as liberators.” Whether he realized it or not, Bush used almost identical language when he addressed American troops preparing for war in 2003, telling them, “you’ll be fighting not to conquer anybody but to liberate people.”
But as both occupations wore on, large numbers of Iraqis came to see it differently. By 1920 Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were all in armed revolt against the British. Britain used air power and other state-of-the-art weaponry to shock and awe the rebels into submission. That didn’t work out quite as well as the British hoped. Rising casualties on both sides turned British opinion against the war, and British officials started churning out deliberately over-optimistic reports boasting of progress in political development, stability and training of Iraqi security forces that became increasingly detached from the disappointing realities.
All this certainly sounds familiar. Either Washington didn’t bother studying the British experience, or somehow could not imagine the same things could happen to the U.S. Clearly, it could happen and it did.
8.) How do we get and keep the Iraqi people on our side?
The best insurance against repeating Britain’s unhappy experience would have been a serious strategy for showing Iraqis that the American presence would improve their lives.
This should not have been impossible. Hussein was widely and wildly unpopular. Twelve years of punishing economic sanctions had reduced the Iraqi middle class to misery. After years of dictatorship and suffering, popular expectations were fairly modest: safe streets, longer hours of electricity (currently only 6 hours of electricity exist a day in Baghdad, forget the rest of the country), and a reviving economy, helped along by new jobs for former soldiers and the idle young men of the slums, could have gone a long way.
Instead, Washington simply assumed that Iraqis would be so grateful for the end of Hussein’s rule that they would rally around their American liberators, even if their lives did not get better in all the other ways that matter (see “Katrina” for proof that this is not true, “anarchy happens”)
9.) Once a post-Baathist Iraq took shape, how would it fit
into the map of the Middle East?
Iraq straddles some of the most volatile ethnic and religious fault lines in the entire Middle East, some of which have been fought over repeatedly through the centuries. Turkey, the country with the world’s largest Kurdish minority, has long opposed anything smacking of full autonomy or independence for Iraqi Kurds.
Iran, the region’s only Shiite-rule country, considers itself a big brother to Iraq’s long-persecuted Shiites. And for a long time after Iran’s 1979 revolution, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab-ruled states of the Arabian Peninsula viewed a military strong, Baathist-ruled Iraq as an essential bulwark against the Shiite revolutionaries in Iran.
Washington should have understood that any significant change in the political complexion of Iraq would inevitably send shockwaves through the region, and it should have been better prepared to deal with it.
10.) More specifically, would invading Iraq make Iran more or less of a regional threat?
Some Bush administration hawks once gleefully imagined that the presence of American troops on Iran’s eastern flank, in Afghanistan, and its western flank, in Iraq, would greatly reinforce America’s quarter-century effort to contain Tehran’s adventurist clerical regime. The reality has been just the opposite.
Iran has benefited enormously from America’s military intervention in Iraq and continues to do so. The Shiite fundamentalist parties that America helped bring to power in Baghdad are deeply indebted to Iran for the years of sanctuary, training and aid they received there during Hussein’s dictatorship. Now those parties are well positioned to repay those debts, while America, with much of its military tied down and its multilateral credibility in tatters, is poorly positioned to thwart Iran’s advancing drive to arm itself with nuclear weapons.
It was never any secret that Hussein was Iran’s most feared enemy. Nor was it any secret that Iraq’s two main Shiite parties—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party—were Iranian-sponsored. The only mystery is why Washington never bothered to put two and two together and figure out before the war how to keep Iran from becoming the biggest beneficiary of American intervention.
10 Questions that Should Have Been Asked
Since the Invasion!!
1.) Where were the flowers?
V.P. Dick Cheney predicted on television before the war that American troops in Iraq “will be greeted as liberators.” Kanan Makiya, an expatriate intellectual, personally told Pres. Bush that American soldiers would be welcomed with “sweets and flowers.”
But within just a few weeks of the invasion, it was becoming clear that many Iraqis were less than delighted with the presence of a foreign occupying army.
That ought to have prompted a hard look at the military plans that had been drawn up on the basis of those over-optimistic assumptions. It was time to recognize that the occupation was going to involve a LOT more than victory parades, smiling children, and toppled statues. It was time to think about ways to make American forces simultaneously less conspicuous and more numerically matched to these more demanding conditions. It was time to think about strategies for winning the hearts and minds that had been wrongly assumed to be already on America’s side.
2.) Where were the Chalabi voters?
Pentagon neoconservatives believed the secular Iraqi exile Ahmand Chalabi when he assured them that Iraqis of all persuasions would rally to him as the democratic leader of a new Iraq. But the smooth talking Mr. Chalabi, who had last lived in Iraq in 1958, proved badly out of touch with contemporary Iraqi reality. He attracted little political support after returning to Baghdad on the heels of the American invasion. Another secular exile favored by Washington, Ayad Allawi, also never won as large a following as his American backers expected.
The only exile politicians who succeeded in winning a large following were those associated with the two disciplined Shiite fundamentalist parties that spent the Hussein era based in Iran—S.C.I.R.I. and Dawa. Besides Iranian money and arms, they benefited from the support of powerful party militias and backing from Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. By failing to recognize much earlier that first Chalabi and then Allawi were not the political champions they claimed to be, Washington made it that much easier for the Iranian-backed fundamentalist parties to win dominant positions in the constitution-writing assembly and the current elected parliament.
3.) What can stop the looting?
(and the accompanied erosion of American credibility)?
Nothing more fatally undermined American reconstruction and transition plans than the weeks of unchecked looting that followed the toppling of the Baathist regime. Iraqis, who were used to an all-powerful police state, watched in horrified amazement as vandals stripped everything of value from hospitals, schools, museums and ministries and destroyed the critical infrastructure that brought water and electricity into homes and oil to foreign and domestic markets.
Rumsfeld dismissively declared at the time that freedom was untidy and that “stuff happens.” That sent PRECISELY the wrong message to Iraqis, who were starting to conclude that the American authorities were not all that powerful or competent—and that their lives had gotten worse since the invasion. Halting the looting should have been a top priority for the Pentagon. But that would have required sending more troops.
The unchecked looting was not the sole reason for the insurgency. Baathist diehards and radical Islamists might have risen up anyway. But they would not have attracted anywhere near the level of popular sympathy and support that they did after those appalling weeks of American policy paralysis.
4.) Once Plan A for political transition collapsed amid the
looting and growing Iraqi ill-will, what might have been
a more realistic Plan B?
Plan A was the ill-fated Jay Garner plan for a fast-paced hand-over to Iraqi administrators and an early America withdrawal. That strategy was in ruins by May 2003, and the White House dispatched L. Paul Bremer to take over and organize a new transition. But while the Garner timetable had been unrealistically short, and not backed up by enough troops, the timetable that Mr. Bremer produced in July 2003 was unrealistically long and backed up by too few American troops.
In the abstract, a staged 5-year transition to elected Iraqi government, might have been long enough to allow the creation of real national institutions and a democratic political culture. By the fall of 2003, however, neither the Iraqis nor Washington had the patience for that long a period of American military and political oversight. The White House abruptly insisted on a much shorter timetable. What resulted sometimes seemed to resemble the worst of both possible worlds—a half-baked political transition combined with an indefinite American military presence.
5.) What’s more important:
on-time elections or inclusive elections?
Once the new electoral timetable was announced, based more on Washington politics than Iraqi preparedness, it quickly became untouchable. Firm deadlines can sometimes be helpful at forcing compromise. But as Iraq’s first free elections approached, in January 2005, the only hope for coaxing estranged Sunni Arab parties and voters to take part would have required reaching a consensus agreement between all groups, and that the only realistic chance for achieving this would have involved delaying the vote for a few months.
Washington stood firm against any delay. The result was a badly skewed constitutional assembly and a badly skewed constitution that has contributed to the alarming drift toward civil war. Iraqis had waited all their lives for free elections. Why was Washington so unwilling to think about waiting a few months more for elections that were not only free, but inclusive enough to build a nation around.
6.) Who are America’s natural allies in Iraq?
Faced with a political map as complicated as Iraq’s, Washington should have tried to figure out early on which Iraqi constituencies had a self-interest in building an inclusive, secular democracy. Washington early on allied itself with the Shiites and the Kurds, who suffered most at the hands of Hussein. But the main Shiite parties turned out to be far more interested in imposing fundamentalism and carrying out vendettas against their former oppressors than in building a free and united nation. And the Kurdish parties have so far shown themselves to be almost exclusively interest in autonomy for the Kurdish northeast and almost indifferent to what goes on in the Arab areas of Iraq.
Obviously, Washington should not have turned its back on the Shiites and Kurds, who together constitute more than three quarters of the Iraqi population. But it could have done a better job, early, of convincing Sunni Arabs that they could benefit from American protection against Shiite vengeance. Washington could also have handled the Kurds better ,reminding them that in return for the American support they had come to count on, Washington expected them to play a more constructive role in Iraqi nation-building. These are precisely the messages that America’s current ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has begun deliver over the past few months. But it is now awfully late in the day and the threat of civil war has become awfully real.
7.) What would it take to get more international support?
Incredibly, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon seemed to have assumed at first that America’s Western and Arab allies, and the U.N., would practically trip over each other to get right with the new order by sending peacekeeping troops and conferring international legitimacy on the political transition. By late 2003, it was increasingly evident that wasn’t about to happened. To those not hypnotized by blind self-righteousness, it was no surprise.
Washington had spent much of the previous year generating international ill-will and undermining the U.N. by bypassing Security Council opposition and pulling the plug on international weapons inspectors. President Bush’s harsh with-us-or-against-us rhetoric also created a poor climate for multinational cooperation.
The administration might have attracted more nations to help with the hard work that lay ahead in Iraq by offering substantial political and economic concessions. But it never wavered from its insistence on controlling all political, military, and contracting decisions itself. In recent months, Bush as begun to talk more about the difficulty of going it alone, not just in Iraq, but in all of America’s dealings. But this represents a turnabout that comes very late in the day and that many find hard to fully believe.
8.) What could be done to minimize the damage of Abu Ghraib?
Every top business executive learns about damage control strategies, and every good one learns that a successful strategy has to go beyond managing the bad news to managing the problem itself. Yet in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Bush, the first business school graduate to occupy the White House, did just about everything WRONG.
Although the Pentagon first learned about the abuses by early Nov. 2003, it took no serious steps to get out in front of the problem until graphic photos were published in the New Yorker nearly six months later, in its April 30, 2004 issue. The president never demanded accountability from the cabinet official ultimately in charge—Rumsfeld—or from the senior commanders and officials responsible for the brutal interrogation policies at the prison. Instead, the administration kept repeating that all the blame belonged to a few bad apples, and only pursued court martials or serious punishments against low-ranking officers.
That struck at the core principle of command responsibility on which the professionalism of any military force depends. It also encouraged Iraqis, and the rest of the world, to see the U.S. as a country that practiced and tolerated torture—and as all too similar to Hussein, the man who first made Abu Ghraib famous for torturing innocent Iraqis there.
9.) What kind of Iraqi security forces should we be building?
The theory of the current occupation is that the U.S. has to remain in place until the Iraqis develop the capacity to preserve order themselves. As early as 2003, the Pentagon was regularly reporting rapid progress in building the necessary Iraqi security forces. But anyone who looked at the details could see that the Pentagon’s numbers were puffed up by including security guards hired to protect building sites along with actual soldiers and police.
Paul Bremer’s memoir makes clear that the Pentagon was flogging these inflated numbers to try to deflect his urgent pleas for more American troops. As it turned out, even the much smaller number of new Iraqi army recruits listed in the Pentagon totals was not entirely real. Most of these purported recruits later melted away when sent into battle against Iraqi insurgents.
The Pentagon also managed to avoid the other key point about these recruits—where they were coming from. As it turned out, many were members of sectarian and party militias, mainly Shiite fundamentalist enforcers or Kurdish former separatist guerillas incorporated wholesale into the new “national” force. The result was that instead of being a unifying nation-building institution, the Iraqi army and interior ministry police were themselves becoming a particularly acute source of divisions. The torture of Sunni prisoners in interior ministry prisons and the appalling refusal by Iraqi troops to protect Sunni neighborhoods and mosques from mob reprisals after last spring’s bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine fueled the dangerous drift toward civil war.
10.) Again: how many U.S. troops will be needed, and how long?
First, American troops were supposed to be withdrawn within three months. Then, as the insurgency exploded, the target became early 2005, as Iraqi forces became large enough and capable enough to take over. Then, American troops were temporarily increased for the spring 2006 elections, with promises of significant withdrawals later this year.
Clearly, what have been driving this timetable is American politics (notably the recent midterm elections, which saw the Democrats regain control of Congress after 14 year due primarily to public discontent with the situation in Iraq). Slightly more than two thirds of the American public believe that Bush “does not have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq,” an all-time high and getting worse. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces now look less capable than ever of holding the country together. And American forces are still too thin on the ground, which forces them to put their own security first, and keeping Iraqi civilians out of the crossfire second.
That is not a mission that can end happily. If American forces are to have any hope of building anything positive in Iraq, their numbers need to be increased and their mission reshaped. And they will only be granted enough time to try if Bush finally masters the essential task that has clearly eluded him for the past 3 years: convincing the American people that his administration knows what it is doing in Iraq. Firing Rumsfeld was a start on this effort, but only the beginning…