OK, here’s my challenge. From the comfort and detachment of my home office, what worthwhile observations can this strategist contribute on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War? Well, here are ten thoughts.
1) Weak intelligence provided a poor picture to policy makers both before and during the war. Political opponents and some intel players trying to avoid blame have successfully established a meme that the information provided to the UN and the American people was simply created from whole cloth: “Bush Lied: People Died.” There is no evidence for this conclusion. I find Charles Duefler’s well titled article “Bush wasn’t lying about WMD. He was just wrong” (Foreign Policy, 18 March 2013) to be the more convincing explanation. Saddam had WMD in the past and he used it. Intel communities in many other countries agreed that he had probably kept it in violation of UN directives. Saddam’s henchmen later admitted to confusion over what he had in storage, and Saddam himself threatened to use what he apparently did not have. More importantly, Bush’s political opponents have focused on the single issue of WMD while in fact intelligence was just as weak in later phases of the war. Intel missed the existence of the Fedayeen, the emergence of the Sunni/Shiite civil war, Iranian assistance, the rise of Al Qaeda, the Anbar Awakening . . . the list goes on. Developing actionable intelligence on another people, language and culture is very hard. Sometimes, despite best efforts, intel gets it wrong. There is an important lesson for the future here – a lesson you miss if you simply blame Bush.
2) What does appear likely is that Bush officials interpreted intel uncertainty to suit their strategic preferences. The war was not about oil (another partial truth elevated to the status of accepted myth by political opponents). The war was about world view. For nearly a decade, neo-cons (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, etc.) had argued for establishing a global US benign hegemony in the absence of another global superpower. That posture required the forward presence of key bases, and the ability to conduct preemptive regime change to keep those who disturbed the international order under control. Iraq was a chance to move that plan forward. In the face of weak and contradictory intelligence, civilian officials in the Bush Administration pressed forward with a plan to win the war, establish a permanent position in the Mideast, and dominate the world. This required a positive Iraqi reception of American forces, and the idea that economic advancement would replace all that unpleasant talk of tribal preferences and religious extremism. That line of thinking was wrong; it failed to account for human nature.
3) Saddam had an opportunity to avoid the American invasion by cooperation; he turned it down. Had he accepted the UN mandate for WMD inspections, and shown that he had no WMD on hand, the Bush Administration would have been unable to make the case for military action, either domestically or internationally. People still remember Colin Powell’s convincing presentation before the UN. But it was Saddam’s intransigence that sealed his fate. Why he preferred destruction to an admission that he did not possess WMD remains a mystery to this day.
4) At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a decade after the end of the Cold War, our senior military leaders were prepared to fight a new type of war – but not prepared to win it. To back up just a bit, the central narrative to emerge from the astonishing collapse of our Cold War enemy was that by applying information technology in new ways, the US military had leapfrogged so far ahead that the Russians bankrupted themselves trying to keep up with our “Revolution in Military Affairs.” As military budgets became tight during the Clinton Administration, military leaders argued that continued development of advanced technology would cause military capability to be “Transformed” at affordable cost. By 2003 most of the proposed technology was not yet available, but military doctrine and operations and the use of precision fires had advanced. The result was a crushing defeat to Saddam’s outdated forces in the field. However, the military spent so much intellectual effort on the fighting part of their mission, that they neglected (nay, ignored) the “what to do when you have won” part. Military historians remembered that the last time the US occupied a country (Germany and Japan in 1945) we ended up overseeing all government functions with mostly military personnel. But military planners and operators were not ready for that challenge in 2003. And to make matters worse, Iraq was not a nation with a unified culture or religion or loyalty. Over time, US military authorities tried to create and institutionalize a government based on rule of law, among a people who had never known anything but rule by power. Creating a new culture and new government bureaucracy on the fly during a civil war proved impossible.
5) Civilian officials and agencies were even less prepared for this challenge. Unlike the military, many government civilians had extensive experience in assisting developing countries. But the scale of the problem, and the difficulty of creating infrastructure in a country at war with few native infrastructure experts available proved too much. Over and over, expensive, well-intended projects just didn’t work. Perhaps more importantly, specialists from the US government and Non-Governmental Organizations were used to working with some degree of functioning security. Given competing demands for US troops, the State Department frequently turned to contract security, which became problematical in its own right.
6) As the US military stayed and adapted, new ideas did not come from the stateside organizations designed to produce them, but rather from soldiers and leaders in the field. This is, perhaps, as it should be. New tactics will frequently come from those in closest contact with the enemy. But why did General Petraeus have to go home to the library at Ft Leavenworth and read for a year to come up with the strategy for “the surge?” Could no one in our war colleges, staff colleges, think tanks, and the extensive staff organizations in the rear fill that void? Really?
7) With all these factors working against us (as well as an innovative, adaptive, thinking enemy who lived where we were fighting), we none the less avoided catastrophe for three reasons:
- Excellence in operations, tactics, techniques and procedures – our volunteer military showed discipline and professionalism under terrible conditions, in performing everything from combat operations, to medical care, to population security.
- Logistics, logistics, and logistics. The US ability to provide complex support over long distances made the Romans look like amateurs.
- The sustained support of the American people for their military, even during political upheaval and dark days of casualties and loss.
From a military perspective, those who served from the post 9/11 counterattack in 2002 through the withdrawal from Afghanistan next year in 2014 give their World War II forbearers a run for the title of our "Greatest Military Generation."
8) Some of the allied efforts in this war were more for show than effect. But in fairness, many of our friends deployed from other countries really did come through for us.
9) And in the process of this decade long war (with operations still on going in Afghanistan) we have developed a capability and methodology that can hunt down and eliminate our enemies, in ways unparalleled in history. For some reason, many people find targeted killing more distasteful than the less discriminating and less effective practice of putting large numbers of soldiers directly in harm’s way. Targeted killing works.
10) Finally, Religion matters. For decades, political scientists and specialists in international relations have been competing to explain how the world works based on theories of power, bureaucracy, organization, information or economics. One of their few points of agreement has been the idea that religion may be fine at the personal level, but is not a matter for serious consideration in security studies and international affairs. That idea was proved wrong over the last decade of conflict. 9/11 was a religions act, not just a political act. The Taliban exist because of religious beliefs, not economic concerns. Iraq fractured along religious boundaries, not just political alignments. The suicide attacks that nearly drove us from Iraq were mounted by people motivated by scripture, not wiring diagrams. Religion is not an environmental condition of the operation, like geography or weather. It is a causative factor of conflict. It better be considered in any strategic solution.
So, in the process of a decade long war, we made a lot of mistakes, demonstrated admirable courage, and developed an unparalleled capability for killing the enemy . . . if only we can figure out why he fights, and what might cause him to stop.
That last point is an issue that still haunts our war in Afghanistan today.