Iraq: planning for war and its aftermath (Part II of two)
[The first part of this two-part series can be found here. Some of the comments on that thread were so excellent and that I almost jettisoned Part II in favor of advising you all to just read the comments and call it a day, since they were probably more informative than my post would be. But here it is anyway--although please read those comments, too.]
I mentioned that it was predicted the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk.". But I also remember hearing an awful lot of predictions made by members of the administration that the war would be rough, and explicitly disavowing the "cakewalk" designation. For example, see this one from December of 2002:
I would just say there's nobody involved in the military planning ... that would say that this sort of endeavor -- if we are asked to do it -- would be a cakewalk," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday.
Myers was joined by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference. Rumsfeld emphasized that any possible war is risky and that battlefield analogies to the 1991 Gulf War wouldn't apply this time around.
"Any war is a dangerous thing, and it puts peoples' lives at risk," Rumsfeld said. "Second, I think that it is very difficult to have good knowledge as to exactly how Iraqi forces will behave."
So, did someone actually say the war would be a "cakewalk?" Absolutely. His name was Ken Adelman--not, as so many seem to remember, Don Rumsfeld.
Who is Adelman? He does have an association with Rumsfeld; he was his assistant way back in the '70s, in the Ford administration. But at the time he wrote the "cakewalk" piece, which appeared in the Washington Post of February 2002, he was neither an official member of Bush's administration nor the Defense Department. Rather, he was one of a group of thirty policy advisors on the Defense Policy Board, an outside advisory panel charged with the task of making recommendations to the Pentagon (Adelman originally had been appointed to the Board by Rumsfeld, however).
I think Adelman's original column was offputting and almost ridiculously cocky; calling any sort of war a "cakewalk" shows a sort of creepy frivolity about the whole endeavor. My guess is that his relationship with Rumsfeld, as well as Rumsfeld's own tendency to swagger (and his own statments that the war might well be short in duration), caused many to attibute Adelman's remarks to Rumsfeld.
Of course, Adelman was wrong in his prediction--right?
Well, take a look at what he actually says in his column. If you read it, you might even come to the same conclusion I did, which is that--hold onto your hats, folks, Adelman wasn't so very far off, after all.
Please hear my explanation before you decide I've taken leave of my senses.
It has seemed to me for quite some time that the Iraq war had two distinct stages. The first was the war itself--the formal war, the conventional war--in other words, war as we traditionally know it, with armies and battles and gaining and losing ground. The other stage was what we can loosely call the "occupation"--that is, everything that came after.
The first war had to do with defeating the Iraqi army and deposing Saddam. The second war had to do with what might be called the reconstruction. And reconstructions--such as that which followed our own Civil War, or the Marshall Plan in Europe, or MacArthur in Japan after WWII--are notoriously long and difficult. They also have always (at least, so far as I can determine) been the end-point of long and vicious wars in which the enemy had fought desperately and was now depleted of men and arms with which to fight further. And the populations in those regions were, for the most part, weary and bitterly defeated.
As I read his "cakewalk" column, Ken Adelman seems only to be referring to the first part of the war, the overthrow of Saddam and the liberation of Iraq from his official reign of terror:
I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk....Gordon and O'Hanlon say we must not "assume that Hussein will quickly fall." I think that's just what is likely to happen. How would it be accomplished? By knocking out all his headquarters, communications, air defenses and fixed military facilities through precision bombing. By establishing military "no-drive zones" wherever Iraqi forces try to move. By arming the Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south and his many opponents everywhere. By using U.S. special forces and some U.S. ground forces with protective gear against chemical and biological weapons.
Well, it turns out he was right as far as his prediction went (and yes, he--like nearly everyone else--was apparently wrong about WMDs). The formal war was quick and relatively easy, as wars go; Saddam was deposed and the country was liberated from his tyrannical rule in less than one month (see this timeline to refresh your memory).
The trouble, of course (in addition to his flippant tone) was that Adelman's prediction didn't go nearly far enough. He failed to talk about the all-important second part of the equation, the difficult task of transforming a now-liberated Iraq into a functioning and free government and society.
If the first part of the war was indeed a cakewalk, it's clear that the second part most decidedly was not.
So, was the planning for this second part of the war deficient? Should the Defense Department have realized it was going to happen this way, and if so, could they have done anything to stop it? How do we judge?
Well, one way not to judge it is by the standard of perfection. The fact that things went wrong is not enough.
In an attempt to answer this question, I'm going to ask another: why did the first part of the war go so quickly and with such relative ease, and the second so slowly and sloppily? I believe that the ease of the first war was directly responsible for the difficulty of the second one.
The majority of the Iraqi people, as well as Saddam himself, made a choice in the first war--and that was to not fight hard to keep the US forces out of their country. This is highly unusual in a war, as far as I know; ordinarily the whole idea of the thing is to repel the invader. But the fact that the Iraqi people and army didn't put up much of a fight, initially, means that some of them (we don't know how many, but my impression is that it was a sizeable number) reluctantly welcomed the war as the only way to get rid of Saddam.
Another number (and Saddam was definitely among them) didn't fight because they knew they didn't stand a chance in a conventional war. So they were busy planning the next stage--the second war--and they had plenty of time in which to do so. Their only hope was to go underground and set up a postwar insurgency like the one we've faced. And, because the first part of the war was so short and relatively easy, they had plenty of men and material with which to do it, as well as fresh reinforcements from neighboring countries untouched by any war at all. This seems quite unprecendented in the annals of war, and it seems to have been a conscious strategy on their part.
I'm not sure those homegrown Baathist-type insurgents expected to be joined by so many "visitors" from other parts of the Arab world, interested not just in attacking the occupying American troops, but intent on killing many innocent Iraqis just going about their business and trying to live their lives. But I'm not sure the homegrown insurgents much cared; the more mayhem, the merrier.
At any rate, the ease of the war allowed the insurgents to create a nasty problem afterwards, because they were able to melt away into the night and implement an urban warfare based on terrorism and sabotage that had been planned for quite some time.
And it's very hard for me to see how any sort of planning on the part of the US could have prevented that. More troops? Keep the Iraqi army intact? I've read many arguments both pro and con on whether either would have made a difference, and my conclusion is: it's not at all clear that anything would have.
Strangely enough, that's the exact conclusion of this long and complex article by Tucker and Hendrickson, two professors (Johns Hopkins and Colorado College, respectively) who were against the Iraq War in the first place, and continue to be so, so they certainly can't be considered neocon Bush apologists. In summary, their position is that neither keeping the Iraqi Army intact nor having more troops, nor a host of other decisions made in the conduct of the war, would have made things better.
Of course, they consider the whole enterprise fatally flawed. But that's the part of their analysis I find flawed, and the reason is that I expected this war--and every other war--to be messy, difficult, and full of errors. There is something inherent in the act and art of war, the characteristics I discussed in Part I of this essay, that dictates that it is the rare war that isn't fraught with error and tragic miscalculations. The Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and of course Vietnam, all followed an exceptionally difficult course.
Sometimes I think the template for war that many of those opposed to this one were following was the Gulf War. That was, essentially, a war with part one, but no part two. It was easy in the same way that this war would have been easy had we not been intent on regime change, the ufinished business of the Gulf War.
But regime change and nation building was exactly and precisely what this war was about. And where Tucker/Hendrickson and I differ is that I considered this necessary, given the evidence we had before us about Saddam, and they thought it unnecessary.
It's way beyond the scope of this essay to go into detailed arguments as to why I thought this war was necessary, but suffice to say I thought (and still think) that violations of UN resolutions and weapon inspections protocols, humanitarian reasons, and the need to try to change the political face of the region all combined to make it something that needed to be done.
But, paradoxically, I always thought it would be difficult. Very very difficult, very risky, and very possibly unsuccessful. For me, the Afghan War and/or the Vietnam War were the conflicts I feared this endeavor would resemble, even before it began: years and years of terribly bloody house-to-house fighting and guerilla warfare. And when these things failed to materialize in the "first" war, I hoped they wouldn't happen in the second, but I feared they might. Therefore, in fact, what has come to pass in the second war so far is a good deal better than what I feared--and half expected--might happen, rather than worse.
Perhaps that's why I'm puzzled by the cries that this war is a terrible mess. I see it as a war that undertook something almost impossible: the rebuilding of a nation whose modern history was of sectarian strife and tyrannical dictatorship, in an area with no tradition of democracy, by an outside force with little experience of the culture and people of the region. The casualty rates are much less than I expected, not more; the speed with which the beginnings of a democracy and functioning government have been implemented has far exceeded my expectations.
I guess I'm a child of the Vietnam era after all, because to me this looks so much better in comparison that I cannot help but be cautiously optimistic. Some will say I'm not hard enough on the administration, and that my expectations were ridiculously low to begin with. But I would answer them by saying that I consider myself to be a realist.
At this point what's needed is time to combat the insurgents and terrorists, and patience, too, as well as the slowly growing cooperation of the Iraqi people in giving us intelligence and in building their own effective defense forces (as Bush stated recently in this speech).
Did the President and key members of his Administration foresee how exceedingly difficult it would actually be to accomplish this? I don't think so. Should they have? Perhaps.
But what really matters now is: do they have the patience, intelligence, will, and determination to get it right? My answer: they do--if we do.