In the October 2008 issue of the journal Security Studies, Daniel Byman of Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution, asked the question could the U.S. have done better with post-war Iraq? The article was entitled, “An Autopsy of the Iraq Debacle: Policy Failure or Bridge Too Far?” The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. didn’t have enough international support going into the war, didn’t commit enough troops, didn’t expect an insurgency, and then made bad policy choices like disbanding the Iraqi army. That was too many mistakes to be successful. The question then is if the U.S. made better decisions would post-war Iraq have turned out differently? Byman’s answer is no. There were too many structural barriers that limited choices to make things decidedly different immediately after the 2003 invasion.
Even before U.S. forces entered Iraq in March 2003, Byman believes the Bush administration faced three structural impediments to creating a stable Iraq. First, the U.S. knew little about the country. For example, when the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs, the first civilian group put in charge of post-war Iraq was making plans to run Iraq’s ministries, it didn’t even know how many there were. In light of facts about Iraq, Washington instead relied upon a best-case scenario for what the nation would be like after the war, which was that the U.S. would be greeted as liberators, the Iraqi government would still be up and running, reconstruction would be limited and paid for by Iraqi oil, democracy would sprout, and American forces would be out in a number of weeks. Second, many of these ideas of what Iraq would be like came from Iraqi exiles that were actively lobbying the administration for regime change. The liberators scenario for example came after three Iraqi exiles met with President Bush at the White House. This skewed America’s vision of the situation in Iraq, and what the likely outcomes of an invasion would be like. Finally, the U.S. lacked the resources and staff to conduct nation building. As Professor William Olson of the National Defense University recently wrote in an article for Small Wars Journal, the U.S. spent fifty years fighting the Cold War, which privileged spending on the Pentagon and the military over the civilian agencies of the U.S. government like the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Pentagon was thus given control of post-war Iraq because the State Department couldn’t handle the job even if it wanted to. The Defense Department however didn’t have the expertise or personnel either to take on what the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has called the largest rebuilding project in American history. These three issues greatly limited the choices the U.S. could make before and after the war, and put the administration in a hole before it even entered Iraq.
To make the situation worse, the U.S. made several pre-war policy mistakes. First, the U.S. did not adequately plan for post-war Iraq. As reported before, the White House usually had at least two different organizations strategizing for Iraq after the invasion completely independently, and usually with no knowledge of what the other was doing. That meant there was no comprehensive or unified plan for what to do with Iraq. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice tried to coordinate this planning phase, but failed. The best-case view promulgated by the White House also meant that the various agencies tasked with thinking about post-war Iraq never really thought about serious contingencies. There were also some in the administration that didn’t want any detailed post-war planning because they thought it would cause political problems in convincing the country to go to war. Second, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld micromanaged the military planning, and whittled down the invasion force to match his plans for transforming the U.S. armed forces. That meant there were enough troops to overthrow Saddam, but not enough to deal with the country afterward. Third, the U.S. military had also rejected counterinsurgency strategy since the Vietnam war, which made them unprepared for the insurgency that quickly sprouted after the fall of the government. Byman doesn’t believe any of these choices were inevitable. The military for example is known for its in-depth planning, yet failed to do that with post-war Iraq. The U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki famously warned that Iraq would take several hundred thousand troops to run the country, but was ignored by policy makers. The U.S. thus set itself even farther back in dealing with the eventual occupation of Iraq through these decisions.
There were also structural barriers within Iraq. Most importantly, Iraq was a devastated country. In the 1970s it was a middle class and developing nation, but the costs of the Iran-Iraq War and the sanctions imposed after the Gulf War destroyed all that. The United Nations estimated that the standard of living dropped 2/3 from 1988 to 1995 as a result. Many political scientists believe that a middle class is necessary to support democracy, so any attempt by the U.S. to build one would be constrained by this factor. Second, occupations often create backlashes, and the American presence in Iraq caused resentment by both Sunnis and Shiites, some of which took up arms against the U.S. as a result. Third, Saddam’s divide and conquer policies created deep ethnosectarian divisions in Iraqi society, which would explode after the invasion. The fact that the U.S. knew nothing about these issues, and didn’t want to plan for them anyway because it expected everything to go well after the war, had devastating effects upon the country and the U.S. occupation.
As if these barriers within America and Iraq, and poor pre-war choices weren’t enough, the U.S. made more mistakes after the invasion. First, Paul Bremer decided to disband the Iraqi Army leaving thousands of angry and out of work ex-soldiers. Second, Bremer also set up a deBaathification program that went too deep and caused resentment amongst Sunnis. Third, the U.S. didn’t stop the looting, which cost millions of dollars in damages, slowed the administration of Iraq, and made the Americans look powerless. Fourth, the U.S. went back and forth on Iraq’s political future causing confusion and anger. Fifth, the Coalition Provisional Authority implemented a privatization and free trade policy, which failed at turning Iraq into a capitalist country, but did put many Iraqi enterprises out of business, and added to the unemployment problem. Sixth, the U.S. military refused to acknowledge and adapt to the insurgency. Seventh, reconstruction went slowly due to the post-war chaos and lack of security, which caused growing anti-Americanism amongst Iraqis. Eighth, the Coalition Provisional Authority lacked a trained and stable staff. Ninth the U.S. occupation lacked unity of command with Bremer and General Ricardo Sanchez both claiming authority over Iraq, and neither cooperating or liking each other. Finally, the military rotated units in and out of Iraq, which meant a loss of knowledge and local contacts each time a new set of troops replaced an old one. Again, policy makers had various alternative policies they could have pursued, and were often warned about the decisions they did make.
Byman believes the U.S. didn’t follow Sun Tzu’s axiom, “Know they self, know they enemy” when it went it decided to go to war. The U.S. knew next to nothing about Iraq, and didn’t understand the limits of the U.S. government’s capabilities either. That created too many structural barriers, which severely constrained the options open to the administration. To add to that the U.S. made bad choices again and again before and after the invasion. Byman believes that even if the U.S. had made some different decisions it would’ve only marginally improved the situation. For example, if the U.S. had sent more troops that didn’t mean they would’ve dealt with the looting or suddenly adopted counterinsurgency tactics. The results as everyone knows, were a burgeoning guerrilla war, the rise of Shiite militias, political fragmentation, sectarianism, mass unemployment, crime, and the growth of Iranian influence. Iraq quickly turned into a failed state as a result. The U.S. has been trying to make up for many of these mistakes since then. For all of these reasons Byman does not think post-war Iraq could’ve turned out any better.
Byman, Daniel, “An Autopsy of the Iraq Debacle: Policy Failure or Bridge Too Far?” Security Studies, October 2008
Collins, Joseph, “Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, April 2008
Elliott, Michael, “So, What Went Wrong?” Time, 10/6/03
Fineman, Mark, Wright, Robin, and McManus, Doyle, “Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace,” Los Angeles Times, 7/18/03
Government of Iraq, “Iraq National Report on the Status of Human Development 2008,” 12/31/08
Gordon, Michael, “Army Buried Study Faulting Iraq Planning,” New York Times, 2/11/08
McGeary, Johanna, “Looking Beyond Saddam,” Time, 3/10/03
Olson, Dr. William, “Mistakes Were Made, How Not to Conduct Post-Conflict Management and Counterinsurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 7/17/09
Parker, George, Assassins’ Gate, 2005
PBS Frontline, “INTERVIEWS Karen DeYoung,” Bush’s War, 3/24/08
Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
Thompson, Mark and Duffy, Michael, “Pentagon Warlord,” Time, 1/19/03
U.S. Army History of Iraq War Vol 1- Chapter 19 The Iraqi Civil War Comes Into The Open, January-June 2006
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