Dissecting an Iraq dissection

Wendy James’ post What the Left Doesn’t See has provoked quite a bit of comment box activity, mostly (it appears) because the quoted author Paul Berman seems to have done a classic job of creating a straw man leftie with patently stupid ideas about the Iraq situation and the Bush administration. Although I’ve seen just about every single one of Berman’s caricatured leftie attitudes expressed by a left-leaning blogger at one time or another, I doubt that any one of them holds all these beliefs simultaneously. It’s easy to see why Chris Sheil or Tim Dunlop might dismiss Berman’s article as a worthless piece of extreme partisan polemic.

Nevertheless, although the comment box discussion under Wen’s post didn’t progress much beyond a left-right set piece slagging contest (albeit a very polite one by blogosphere standards), the volume of reaction suggests that there is significant reader interest in discussing issues surrounding Iraq. I just found (via Jack Balkin) a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows titled Blind Into Baghdad. Fallows discusses (alleged) errors in planning and implementing the US strategy for the post-war occupation and rebuilding of Iraq. It’s very long, but well worth reading.

The article’s principal hypothesis is that the US military bureaucracy and assorted thinktanks undertook vast amounts of excellent and extraordinarily detailed analysis and planning towards the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq, but that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al mostly ignored it. The ignored analyses foresaw many/most of the problems that have subsequently become evident, and plans had even been developed which (so Fallows argues) would have avoided or minimised many of those problems had the advice been heeded.

However, although Fallows makes numerous valid points, and reading his article greatly enhanced my own understanding of many aspects, I think he does Rummy and Wolfie something of an injustice. Fallows’ central criticism appears to be that Rummy was ill-advised to have ignored Pentagon advice that the minimum number of troops for a successful Iraqi deployment was around 400,000. Rumsfeld instead insisted that Tommy Franks go in with only around half that number. Fallows argues that the need for a much larger number of troops related not so much to winning the war as such, but to the demands of governing Iraq in its immediate aftermath. If there had been 400,000 or so troops on the ground, it would have been possible to secure Iraq’s borders to prevent the uncontrolled influx of external terrorists, and to prevent or minimise the looting, violence and general breakdown of civil order which in fact occurred. All those problems were foreseen by the pre-war planners, Fallows says:

The military’s fundamental argument for building up what Rumsfeld considered a wastefully large force is that it would be even more useful after Baghdad fell than during actual combat. The first few days or weeks after the fighting, in this view, were crucial in setting long-term expectations. Civilians would see that they could expect a rapid return to order, and would behave accordingly¢â¬âor they would see the opposite. This was the “shock and awe” that really mattered, in the Army’s view: the ability to make clear who was in charge. “Insights from successful occupations suggest that it is best to go in real heavy and then draw down fast,” Conrad Crane, of the Army War College, told me. That is, a larger force would be necessary during and immediately after the war, but might mean a much smaller occupation presence six months later.

My problem with Fallows’ argument is that, although he may well be correct, it’s largely irrelevant. Had Rumsfeld acceded to the conventional Pentagon view and waited until 400,000 troops were in position, the Iraq invasion would have been delayed for many months, probably until autumn 2003. That is, we would only now be entering the immediate post-invasion occupation period. The international and domestic political tensions that would have been created by such a prolonged period of troop build-up made this a totally unviable option in a political sense. Political decision-makers must necessarily consider and synthesise a wide range of political, economic and social factors in reaching decisions on whether, when and how to go to war. The fact that the Bush administration failed to accede to every aspect of Pentagon demands for an optimal strategy from a purely military viewpoint in no sense establishes that the decision was wrong.

Moreover, Fallows’ assumption that Iraq’s borders could have been much more effectively secured (or law and order achieved and terrorism minimised) with even 400,000 available troops is questionable to say the least. Israel has largely failed to achieve both those objectives for the last 30 years, despite having a much smaller territorial area to secure.

One of Fallows’ other principal criticisms of Bush administration decisions and actions was the decision to completely disband the Iraqi army in the wake of the conflict:

If the failure to stop the looting was a major sin of omission, sending the Iraqi soldiers home was, in the view of nearly everyone except those who made the decision, a catastrophic error of commission. There were two arguments for taking this step. First, the army had “already disbanded itself,” as Douglas Feith put it to me¢â¬âsoldiers had melted away, with their weapons. Second, the army had been an integral part of the Sunni-dominated Baathist security structure. Leaving it intact would be the wrong symbol for the new Iraq¢â¬âespecially for the Shiites, whom the army had oppressed. “These actions are part of a robust campaign to show the Iraqi people that the Saddam regime is gone, and will never return,” a statement from Bremer’s office said.

The case against wholesale dissolution of the army, rather than a selective purge at the top, was that it created an instant enemy class: hundreds of thousands of men who still had their weapons but no longer had a paycheck or a place to go each day. Manpower that could have helped on security patrols became part of the security threat. Studies from the Army War College, the Future of Iraq project, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name a few, had all considered exactly this problem and suggested ways of removing the noxious leadership while retaining the ordinary troops. They had all warned strongly against disbanding the Iraqi army. The Army War College, for example, said in its report, “To tear apart the Army in the war’s aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society.”

Although these seem quite powerful arguments, it doesn’t mean that accepting contrary advice (and acknowledging the equal force of the reasons for that contrary advice) was necessarily wrong. Current organised resistance to the US occupation appears largely confined to the minority Sunni heartland. As far as one can see from this distance, most of the majority Shia population remain remarkably peaceful and apparently supportive of the US occupation (at least to date). Whether that would have been the case had even a purged version of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army remained in existence is anything but obvious. The Sunni heartland would have been sullen, resentful and difficult to govern whatever decisions and actions the Americans had taken, but for US occupation forces to have appeared so early and overtly to be colluding in the continued dominance of Saddam’s existing army might well have made the entire country ungovernable.

Fallows’ article, though an interesting and detailed exercise in 20/20 hindsight, is ultimately fatally flawed by this proliferation of unjustified and unverifiable assumptions that events would necessarily have transpired more satisfactorily had different decisions been taken.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2022 years ago

Erm, generally ability at being able to understand a problem indicates an ability of being able to deal with the problem. While nobody in this affair could have guaranteed that they could do a better job, from the evidence that we do have, those doing the job at the time were not at all aware of what the job was.

As to ‘unjustified and unverifiable assumptions’, I’ll add some more to yours.
Delaying the start of the war for the buildup of troops would, I think, pushed the WMD debate out of the picture. The inspection teams in Iraq were destroying the credibility of international intelligence on Iraq, the spin would have had to been pretty oddball to counter that (OTOH it did in this timeline get into some wierd territory). The Bush admin would be pushed further into justifying the war for humanitarian reasons, which I believe, would also have helped with getting international backing of whatever war did happen, certainly with such large numbers of troops, getting other nations to share some of the burden would also be a higher priority.

For the second, from what I have read the problem of unemployed soldiers is more from general discontent, banditry, and militias, rather than direct opposition to the US forces. Which is more of a long term problem, and prolly would not affect the situation at the moment.

2022 years ago

Welcome back!
The articles in Atlantic Monthly were the first rational discussions of the real problems facing those (including myself) who supported the war ( I still do)namely;
1.How did such a serious intelligence failure occur – all the more serious given how widespread it was. Not only the US and UK believed WMD’s existed but also Germany,France ,Russia. Even the UN “strongly presumed” they were there.
2.Managing the occupation has been less than ideal though things seem to be improving. Why wasn’t the advice of the experts followed?
If the debate finally moves beyond the simple conspiratorial – Howard/Bush/Blair are evil liars and knew there were no WMD’s etc – the public might be able to push the US/UK governments into inquiries as to the efficacy of the intelligence services who seem to be “off the hook” thanks to Bush/Blair’s satanic warmongering.

2022 years ago

On the apparent supportiveness of the Iraqi Shiite population, see