After much delay the U.S. Army finally released its official history of the Iraq War in 2019. It was a self-critical report that noted the many flaws and shortcomings in the invasion of Iraq and the following occupation. The first chapter of the two-volume set was about the divisions over doctrine facing the Army after the Cold War and the tremendous changes that Iraq went through in the 1990s due to United Nations sanctions. Both of these factors would go on to affect how the war was conducted and received.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the U.S. Army was in search of a new rationale for its forces. Many in the leadership wanted to maintain focus upon conventional warfare. Then the military went to Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans. In Somalia the army went from supporting the United Nations to offensive actions against a warlord. In Haiti and the Balkans the U.S. was sent for stability operations and stayed for years. The Army created different approaches to each deployment. In Haiti and the Balkans protecting the U.S. forces became the overriding concern because of Somalia and had little impact upon the peace process or interaction with the population. In Kosovo the Americans had to be more active and stop warring sides. The Clinton administration also claimed that air power destroyed up to half of the Serbian military and forced it to retreat, but that proved a wild exaggeration and air strikes turned out to have little impact. These missions continued to split the Army leadership over doctrine, which ended up sticking with preparing for a large war with another major power even though that was not what it was doing during the 1990s. This had two impacts upon the future Iraq war. First, the Army was not ready for a long-term occupation of another country, and it took years for it to adapt and move away from dealing with the Iraqi insurgency using conventional means and tactics. Protecting its personnel, launching large military operations, and having limited contact with Iraqis was how the Army initially operated. Second, there was an oversized belief that the Air Force could subdue a country almost on its own. That contributed to the military theory called Revolution in Military Affairs which argued that new technologies like guided bombs and stealth planes could win a war instead of regular ground troops. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a fan of this idea and tried to force the army to adopt it when planning for the invasion.
Iraq went through a total transformation after the Gulf War which the United States was completely unaware of. First, Saddam Hussein turned to religion with his Faith Campaign to shore up his regime. He sent out thousands of Baathists and intelligence officers to infiltrate mosques and seminaries to spy and control them. Many of them ended up being indoctrinated into Islam, especially the extremist Salafi branch which was spreading through the Middle East at the time. Salafis began small terrorist attacks against the regime by the end of the decade. Second, Saddam turned to paramilitaries and tribes for security. The Fedayeen Saddam was created and placed under the control of Saddam’s son Uday. It recruited many poor men while draining away resources from the armed forces. Some loyal tribes were also given heavy weapons to help put down any revolts, which was Saddam’s biggest fear as happened after the Gulf War. In 1995 the Albu Nimr tribe rose up in western Anbar province and in 1999 the followers of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr rioted after his assassination by the government and troops had to be sent out to put them down. Last, U.N. sanctions completely devastated Iraqi society. Many services collapsed, oil production was controlled by the U.N., the schools broke down, literacy fell while poverty increased as the middle class declined, and many who could left the country, especially professionals. These factors would go on to shape the U.S. occupation. The Salafis would become a base for the insurgency and would rely upon the knowhow of the Baathists and military men who had joined the sect during the 1990s. The tribes and Fedayeen would also be drawn into not only the insurgency but the various militias. Many Iraqis were now poor and semi-educated and were in no mood to welcome the U.S. as liberators as the Bush administration believed. They were easily convinced by calls to oppose the Americans who were blamed for the sanctions. The U.S. also had to rebuild a country that had decaying infrastructure which would cost billions something Washington failed to plan for and actively dismissed.
In 1999 there was one drill called Desert Crossing carried out by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) which predicated some of these difficulties. It found that if America went into Iraq it would be very costly in terms of lives and money. It predicated that getting rid of Saddam might not lead to stability and the country might break apart along ethnic, religious and political lines. It also found out that America had little intelligence about what was happening inside Iraq. Finally, it believed that the U.S. might end up occupying Iraq for 10 years before it could leave. The commander of CENTCOM would be replaced, Desert Crossing would be ignored by the new one and was never known by the Bush White House. It’s one of those what if situations if the government had done a thorough job planning for the Iraq War it might have figured out it wouldn’t be a cake walk as one administration official put it.
Rayburn, Colonel Joel, Sobchak, Colonel Frank Editors, with Godfroy, Lieutenant Colonel Jeanne, Morton, Colonel Matthew, Powell, Colonel James, Zais, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew, The U.S. Army In The Iraq War: Volume I, Invasion, Insurgency, Civil War, 2003-2006, Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2019