Iraq in Retrospect

by N. M. GUARIGLIA April 4, 2012

Nine years after the invasion of Iraq, the debate most worthy of revisiting is not whether the war was justified, but rather how, in retrospect, the United States should have executed the mission.

The historical caricature goes like this: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted a rapid and "light" war.  This would have vindicated his view that the U.S. military ought to transform into a faster, leaner, quicker, more flexible and agile force able to do more with less (more like the Special Forces).  He would walk around the Pentagon saying "speed kills."  Therefore Rumsfeld sent enough troops to capture Baghdad in three weeks, but not enough troops to secure the rest of the theater.  We "won the war" in April 2003 but "lost the peace" by that summer. 

The consequent disorder inspired an insurgency which continued for nearly four years.  Then in 2007, General Petraeus took over and implemented the "surge" counterinsurgency strategy of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, which saved the war effort.

Although there is some truth to this narrative, it evades the overriding question of the war:  Having overthrown Saddam Hussein in April 2003, should the United States have occupied Iraq in the first place?  One of the great ironies of the war, often overlooked by historians, is the fact that the invasion's largest advocates-Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, etc.-all opposed occupying Iraq after ousting Saddam.  Rumsfeld was in line with this thinking.  This group saw the distinction between liberation and occupation, between supporting Iraqi democrats and the mission-creep of nation-building.

There are those who say this view of military intervention is naïve, even reckless.  Colin Powell and the Pottery Barn rule come to mind: "You break it, you own it."  Senator John McCain used to pride himself on championing the "more-troops" strategy long before President Bush executed it in 2007-08.  You can't just invade a country and then leave it, they say.

But that's not necessarily what the neocon-types had in mind.  They felt the Iraqis were better equipped to run their country than Paul Bremer and the Coalitional Provisional Authority.  In their view, sovereignty and political authority ought to have been transferred to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) the moment Saddam's statue fell in Baghdad's Firdos Square. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the INC was not comprised of U.S. "puppets."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The INC comprised nearly all of Iraq's exiled political opposition, (Saddam killed off the internal dissidents).  In fact, even with the disintegration of the INC in 2003, many of today's elected Iraqi politicians were once under the INC umbrella.  Chalabi merely had the guts and wherewithal in the 1990s to unify the Iraqis together against Saddam better than anyone else.  The INC should have been Iraq's interim government-in-waiting in 2003; not the U.S. State Department.

In bypassing the INC, four things happened.  First, the American diplomats haphazardly disbanded the Iraqi military, leaving a security-vacuum.  Second, newly unemployed Iraqi soldiers, and the specter of American bureaucrats governing Iraq, needlessly created new enemies.  Third, because of this security-vacuum, the Iraqi people turned to sectarian parties with militias.  The pro-U.S. parties that believed in secular democracy were disorganized and could not offer security.  This led to the incompetent Ibrahim al-Jaafari administration in 2005-06 and much of the sectarian violence.  And fourth, this security-vacuum put U.S. troops into an uncomfortable middle ground of having the presence of occupiers but not sufficient resources to provide security.

Before the invasion of Iraq, there were a few conceptual war plans that emphasized not occupying the country following Saddam's fall.  The Downing Plan, named after the late Gen. Wayne Downing (Ret.), was one.  It would have entailed Iraqi units themselves overthrowing Saddam, with a light U.S. Special Forces footprint assisting the Iraqi uprising with logistics and air-strikes.  Remember, two-thirds of the country was already outside of Saddam's control.

Rumsfeld was also fascinated by the ideas of Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.), a truly original military thinker.  Macgregor was invited to the Pentagon in late 2001 to discuss his concepts.  "The Chief of Staff of the Army says it will take at least 560,000 troops," Macgregor was told.  Macgregor laughed.  "Fifty thousand troops," he replied: "The real emphasis has to be on getting rapidly to Baghdad ... we remove the government, but we don't want to fight with the army, because ultimately the Iraqi army's going to have a key role in the postwar environment.  They're going to have to maintain security."

This vision of the U.S. military, and how it ought to be used in future wars, will prevail for several reasons.  Should an insurgency arise in a future conflict, the U.S. military probably wouldn't replicate the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy, as it requires too much commitment in time, resources, and lives.  This is a last resort.  The Pentagon has already begun thinking about how to do "counterinsurgency-light." 

Democratic republics loathe fighting wars of attrition.  The future belongs to expeditionary maneuver interventions, where the United States military acts as the SWAT team kicking down the door, not the police officer walking the beat. 

Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.

 



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