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Revisions in Need of Revising: What Went Wrong in the Iraq War

Authored by Dr. David C Hendrickson, Dr. Robert W Tucker. | December 2005

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The dramatic contrast between expectations and reality in the Iraq war has sparked a wide-ranging debate over ?what went wrong.? According to many critics, civilian planners made a series of critical mistakes that have turned what might have been a successful war and occupation into a fiasco. The most common critique takes roughly the following form:

  • Though the war plan to topple Sad dam was brilliant, planning for the peace was woefully insufficient.
  • The United States did not have a sufficient number of troops to restore order in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and also failed to develop a plan to stop the widespread looting that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad.
  • The administration erred in disbanding the Iraq army, which might have played a valuable role in restoring security to the country.
  • The United States erred further in its harsh decrees proscribing members of the Ba?ath party from participation in Iraq?s public life ? a decision, like that which disbanded the army, needlessly antagonizing the Sunnis and pushing many of them into the insurgency.
  • The Bush administration needlessly antagonized the international community?including both the United Nations and our European allies?and made it much more difficult to obtain help for the occupation and reconstruction of the country.
  • The Bush administration was too slow in making funds available for reconstruction and created a labyrinth bureaucracy for the awarding of contracts.

These revisions, the authors argue, are themselves in need of revising. Though the critics have made a number of telling points against the conduct of the war and the occupation, the basic problems faced by the United States flowed from the enterprise itself, and not primarily from mistakes in execution along the way. The most serious problems facing Iraq and its American occupiers? ?endemic violence, a shattered state, a nonfunctioning economy, and a decimated society??were virtually inevitable consequences that flowed from the breakage of the Iraqi state.

The critique stressing the insufficient number of forces employed in the invasion, though valid abstractly, exaggerates the number and type of forces actually available for the conduct of the war. Once account is taken of the exigencies of a multi-year campaign, the stresses on active and reserve forces created by maintaining troops in the 108,000 to 150,000 range, and the unrealism of assuming significant allied contributions (given the opposition of public opinion to the war in most allied states), it would have been impossible to generate force levels in the 300,000 to 400,000 range called for by many critics.

Plans for ?Phase 4? operations, which were given little attention before the war, failed to anticipate the most serious problems facing U.S. forces after the fall of Baghdad?persistent anarchy and the emergence of a raging insurgency. This was a mistake, as critics point out, but it is very doubtful that U.S. forces could have gotten a handle on the problem even had these contingencies received the planning they deserved.

A war plan keyed to the problem of postwar disorder would have inevitably confronted a substantial gap in time between the disintegration of the state and the arrival of forces of sufficient size to establish order. A different plan in all probability could have prevented the worst consequences of the looting, such as the destruction of irreplaceable cultural sites and important government ministries, but the larger consequence of widespread anarchy probably was unavoidable.

It was clearly a mistake to misperceive the size and motives of the insurgency, but it is not so clear that there was a solution to the problem once its scale had been fully appreciated. Most armed opposition was created by the invasion itself and would likely have arisen even had U.S. forces employed milder tactics or employed a different political strategy.

It is very doubtful that the reconstitution of the Iraqi army could have stemmed the immense disorder of occupied Iraq. At best, there are unanswered questions regarding who might have officered the force, the functions it would have performed, and its political orientation and reliability. Though U.S. forces did not give the training of Iraqi forces the attention it deserved in the first year of occupation, the limited results were due, also, to the artificial character of the national forces the United States sought to build.

Criticisms of the political course followed by the United States?the creation and administration of the Coalition Provisional Authority, persecution of the Baathists, distrust of the Shia (through cancellation of local elections)?all have merit. At the same time, the more fundamental truth is that the United States had thrust itself into the middle of a bitterly divided society, and there was no apparent way to split the difference between groups whose aims were irreconcilable.

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was in basic respects a test of the theory that civilians must intervene in the military planning process and force their perspectives down the chain of command. Though the record of Iraq war planning does nothing to advance the case for civilian activism, critics also have neglected the larger lesson that there are certain limits to what military power can accomplish. For certain purposes, like the creation of a liberal democratic society that will be a model for others, military power is a blunt instrument, destined by its very nature to give rise to unintended and unwelcome consequences. Rather than ?do it better next time,? a better lesson is ?don?t do it at all.?

Other lessons are that the military services must digest again the lesson that ?war is an instrument of policy.? The profound neglect given to re-establishing order in the military?s prewar planning and the facile assumption that operations critical to the overall success of the campaign were ?somebody else?s business? reflect a shallow view of warfare. Military planners should consider the evidence that occupation duties were carried out in a fashion?with the imperatives of ?force protection? overriding concern for Iraqi civilian casualties? that risked sacrificing the broader strategic mission of U.S. forces.