The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. made too many mistakes in Iraq to be successful. It didn’t garner enough international support before the invasion, went in with not enough troops, and then started polices like deBaathification afterward that made the situation worse. Some claim that with better decision-making, things could have turned out differently. Professor Daniel Byman of Georgetown University in an article for the journal Security Studies entitled “An Autopsy of the Iraq Debacle: Policy Failure or Bridge Too Far?” argued that Iraq would have turned out badly no matter what the Bush administration did. That was because there were too many structural barriers the United States faced, which limited the choices and outcomes available to it. What follows is an interview with Prof. Byman about his thoughts on Iraq on the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion.
The Bush White House faced a number of structural issues that would make Iraq difficult no matter what decisions it made (Foreign Policy Journal)
1. In your article you wrote that the U.S. faced several structural problems when it decided to invade Iraq. One was that the Bush administration knew very little about the country. How did that affect planning for the war?
Ignorance about Iraq was inevitable. Iraq was a closed police state, and in the post-Saddam era many of the most important actors were local, not national figures. However, this ignorance had profound consequences. Often the United States did not know key tribal or local leaders, did not understand local economic patterns, or was otherwise unable to anticipate how policies at the national level and various U.S. actions would shape local responses.
2. A second issue was that the Americans turned to Iraqi exiles to fill in for their lack of knowledge about Iraq. What did these exiles tell the White House about Iraq, and how the invasion would go down?
The exile story is well known: they convinced some U.S. officials that the United States would encounter few problems in post-war Iraq. To me, however, blaming the exiles is a bit of a cop out. Of course the exiles had an interest in convincing the United States to go to war. Given the inherent uncertainty of the whole situation, all responsible officials should have been aware of this bias and planned for the worst as well as for the best.
3. What kind of problems did Iraq have that would make any American strategy difficult to realize?
The list of post-Saddam problems in Iraq was vast, ranging from economic devastation to meddling neighbors. I’d emphasize that Saddam had magnified the divisions always present in Iraqi society as part of his divide-and-rule strategy, making it hard to form a united and legitimate government once he fell. Outside powers played on this, greatly exacerbating the problems.
4. Did the U.S. have the resources and staff to conduct the nation-building task it ended up facing in Iraq?
The United States lacked the resources to rebuild Iraq. On the military side, U.S. forces were not prepared for occupation and counterinsurgency duties. On the civilian side, the United States had little recent experience in acting as the de facto government of a foreign country on the scale of Iraq. The military learned from failure and dramatically improved. The civilian side remained weak.
5. On top of those institutional issues, the U.S. then made a series of bad decisions both before and after the invasion. The one that’s the most striking to me is that the Bush administration began talking about Iraq as soon as it entered office, but never came up with an agreed upon and unified plan for what to do after the war. How did that happen?
This is still rather stunning to me too. Part of it was political. Planning for problems meant admitting that things might go less than perfectly. The offices/officials involved risked having their plans leak and becoming part of the political debate. So the need to ensure domestic support for the war meant downplaying potential problems, many of which materialized. However, it is still surprising to me that a professional military and bureaucracy did not push this more.
6. When it came to the actual invasion plans, Secretary of Defense played an overbearing role. What was his vision of the U.S. military, and how did that play out in Iraq?
Rumsfeld’s view seemed to be that the United States would go in and quickly topple Saddam, as indeed happened. However, he did not seem to focus on the post-war, and initially had a vision of a small U.S. footprint and quick handoff similar to what happened in Afghanistan. The initial muddle after Saddam fell made this impossible.
7. When the U.S. invasion turned into an occupation, which garnered resistance was the military ready for that kind of fight?
Initially the military was not ready to police Iraq and wage a counterinsurgency campaign. Part of it was a lack of political warning and support for these roles, but part of it was U.S. doctrine, which was focused on winning conventional wars, and had deemphasized counterinsurgency since the Vietnam days. So some commanders rose to the task, but many did not have the doctrine or training. It took grievous losses and setbacks to get the attention of top U.S. officials, but lower level commanders began learning and innovating quite early.
8. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) have been roundly criticized for their strategy for rebuilding Iraq, and trying to create a democracy. What do you think were its worse mistakes?
The two obvious ones were massive deBaathification and disbanding the Iraqi army. Both had a logic to them. DeBaathification in particular was meant to reassure the Iraqi Shi’a that they should support the new order in Iraq. However, they both sent a message to local Sunni communities that they would be frozen out of power, even though with this was not Bremer’s intention. At a more practical level, these measures also released tens of thousands of armed young men into the country who proved a natural source of recruits for various insurgent organizations.
9. Your argument was that the U.S. could have made several different decisions in each one of these situations, such as listening to General Eric Shinseki and sending in a larger invasion force, but that the U.S. would have still run into problems, because of its structural problems. Could you explain what you meant?
Because the U.S. military did not have a policing/COIN doctrine, more troops would not have always been better. Some U.S. units used massive firepower or other approaches that initially made the problem worse, not better. In addition, a larger force would have sent a message that the U.S. presence would endure, as indeed it did, and thus anger Iraqi nationalists and alarm the country’s neighbors.
All that said, more troops would have been better.
10. Finally, do you think that the U.S. learned from the difficulties it faced in Iraq or have the institutions and the Obama administration just tried to forget about the war?
I think the Obama administration’s lesson is straightforward: try to avoid putting large numbers of ground troops anywhere, but particularly the Middle East. So in Libya it was air only, and in Syria even less. This is not a bad lesson, but I worry it is a bit too knee-jerk and has at times led to the United States to miss opportunities.
Institutionally, the civilian side has not transformed how it does business in response to Iraq. The military has done better at institutionalizing counterinsurgency, but as budgets fall there will be a strong desire to reemphasize traditional platforms and doctrines.
Byman, Daniel, “An Autopsy of the Iraq Debacle: Policy Failure or Bridge Too Far?” Security Studies, October 2008