Along the Tracks

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Observations on three years of war

I've just read through Gregory Djerejian's recent thoughts, and those of his commenters, on where we find ourselves with Iraq, and how we got here.

I wouldn't call myself a "regular" reader of the Belgravia Dispatch, but when I stop in, Djerejian usually has some worthwhile insights.

He does here, too, but I think he gets a bit swept up in melancholy.

Iraq is a mess. This is typical in war.

Mistakes have been made in strategy and in implementation during our three-year effort. This should come as no surprise, and is not grounds for desperate abandonment of our goals.

Those of us supporting the war were wrong on many counts about how the effort would unfold. The only reason we know this is because we made the effort. If the effort had not been made - say, we backed off and settled for eternal inspections and slowly-slipping sanctions, we would now know precisely how the proponents of that policy course were wrong. Those who supported regime change would now be making the scathing criticisms over the failures of the sanctions-inspections policy.

The point here is not to defend the status quo, nor to minimize the Bush administration's sometimes bumbling efforts. In a moment, I'll run through those. But before we get in a lather, let's point out a) Iraq is a painful struggle, but it is not lost and, frankly, won't be lost unless we decide to "lose" it by exiting prematurely; b) during a monumental change as has been occurring in Iraq, the ground situation is always in flux, and adaptations which work today may not tomorrow; c) the Iraq War is about more than Iraq - it is about cutting off a potential source of collaboration between chemical, biological and nuclear technology experts and terrorist groups; it is about battling terrorists outside the west; it is about adding strain to the brittle Iranian and Syrian regimes; it is about forcing the Islamic world to confront the demons in its midst.

If the Iraq War was only about Iraq, we would not have invaded. Indeed, one reason we have not (and won't) invade North Korea, despite its threatening posture and nuclear development, is because we recognize its danger is limited. Iraq was, and remains, a very different case. A little while back, when Gen. Odom put out his strange overview of Iraq strategy, I noted that the payment of blood and treasure in Iraq has had, and will continue to have, dividends, even if we must remain at (relatively) high troop levels indefinitely. Islamic militants are drawn to Iraq where they battle our exceptional forces - a fight we win. Strategic and operational ties between al Qaeda and former weapons program scientists in Iraq are greatly hindered, if not completely prevented. Iran and Syria are slowed in their extraterritorial adventures due to fear of a quick strike from just over their borders, should they be caught. And, painful though it may be to watch, the activities of al Qaeda and other terrorists in Iraq have given the Islamic world a vivid picture of who these extremists are and how little they respect traditional Islam.

Opponents of the war set up a false measurement system when they ignore these important facets of the war effort. Focusing on a "stable, democratic Iraq" to the exclusion of these other crucial markers means Iraq is by definition a failure - until, that is, when it succeeds.

Now, let's look at the Bush administration's mistakes and mismanagement.

*Error in not developing alternative "hammer-and-anvil" plan when Turkey refused to allow American forces to invade from its territory. Most of the Baathist insurgents we face today escaped because of this failure.

*Error in not recognizing the "melt-and-harass" tactics used by Iraqis, particularly the Fedayeen Saddam, as the southern-route-only U.S. invasion advanced. By failing to bring in occupying troops to deny havens for these paramilitary forces, they lived to become another important segment of the insurgency.

*Error in never fully "occupying" Iraq. This blunder still seems almost inconceivable. This war was never merely about toppling Saddam. The eventual development of a stable, democratic Iraq inevitably required overwhelming force in the early days to disarm potential threats, smash pockets of resistance and to assure the general population that the U.S. military was there to protect them. These first three points are all related to military strength, and all go back to Donald Rumsfeld's rejection of the Powell Doctrine, the key tenet of which is use of overwhelming military force. The strength and resiliency of the terrorist-insurgent nexus, the slow pace of the reconstruction, the high costs of security, the development and influence of the Shia and Kurdish militias - all these ills come back to this major mistake.

*Ignoring one's own sound advice. Rumsfeld's often quoted as saying, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want." This is a truism, yet the Bush administration, including Rumsfeld himself, stubbornly fought it. In a race to "transform" the military, Rumsfeld asked it to do things based on a conceptual design, not reality. The military has struggled to transform itself to a fast, light and multiplied force even as it has been asked to do the daily grunt work of nation-building. There's no denying the transformational aspects of its mission in Iraq and around the world have been successful, but they are eclipsed by the situation in Iraq, where a "transformed" military is not well suited to the mission. Ironically, the "Cold War" force was/is very well suited to such demands, if only the Bush administration had allowed it to "be itself."

*Mismanagement. Poor choice of initial occupation leadership, slow decisions on de-Baathification and Iraqi military status, bad decision to disband the Iraqi military, slow recognition of the power structure inside a new free Iraq, a top-down management and decision-making paradigm, glacial pace of small- and large-scale reconstruction, failure to listen to and implement the suggestions of field commanders, over-reliance on foreign contractors rather than native Iraqis - these and many more problems all fall under the category of "mismanagement." Bush holds ultimate responsibility, but again, he was poorly served by Rumsfeld, as well as Paul Bremer. The problem was not the "lack of a plan" as so many war critics have suggested. Rather, the plan was bad, and even after it became clear the plan was bad, the Bush administration failed to adjust. Many have pointed out the much-better performance of the overall U.S. effort in the last six months or so. This means the adjustment took approximately TWO AND A HALF YEARS. That plodding pace has cost America and Iraq dearly.

I could add to the above, or go into more subtle details, but the point is clear: The length and expense of the conflict in Iraq have been greatly extended by these and other mistakes, and quite a few of them have never been rectified. With much of the same team in place at the White House, it's unlikely the needed changes will occur any time soon, if ever. This is as disappointing to me as it is to Mr. Djerejian and millions of other Americans who support the larger goals of the war, if not its inept implementation. Yet, despite all the very real problems, dangers and costs, we have accomplished, and continue to accomplish, some very important objectives in Iraq which directly improve national security.

And despite all the challenges, we still are in a position to achieve that final goal, a stable, democratic Iraq. Looking forward, I believe it is the duty of all of us who have supported the war from the start to remain honest in our viewpoints, strong in our criticisms and committed to accomplishing all the objectives set out and ultimately completing the mission in Iraq.

Very well written and I agree with you on your points. Especially the mismanagement factor.

Paul, if you begin with one error in belief from the beginning of the war, the current situation is the logical conclusion.

Paul Wolfowitz admits that the planners never expected the Iraqi Army to give up and go home. Much effort had been put into contact with certain generals and expectations were that whole divisions would desert. Bremer didn't disolve the Army. They did it to themselves.

Absent an army and a police force, I am not surprised that it has taken this long to rebuild. I've likened Saddam's rule to a criminal gang having taken over Iraq. As if Al Capone took over Chicago. Once the "made men" were killed, captured or on the run, the rest of the criminal enterprise collapsed.

I truly think that we have made as much progress as we have says much about our soldiers and their ability to train and inspire Iraqis, and about the Iraqis strong desire to be free and lawful.

Chuck Simmins
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