The Iraq War: A One-Year Postmortem

So how are we doing on the War on Terrorism? Has our preemptive war against Iraq helped or hindered the situation? As my friend Frank Pierce pointed out the final answer will be left to history. But a year should be enough time to make at least a preliminary assessment. I know it is hard to appraise this last year with true Machiavellian detachment. In my case I was opposed to the war and still wish it hadn’t happened. But nonetheless I shall try my best to give an evenhanded assessment.

Let’s start with what went right. Our conventional military war against Saddam and his armies went very well. There were hiccups as there always will be some in any war. For example, we didn’t expect our army to be stuck enroot to Baghdad for a couple days while sandstorms howled. But though I knew Saddam’s army was more bluster than reality even I was surprised by how quickly we won the military war. For the most part the opposition was scattershot. The soldiers in the Iraqi army were no fools: they knew we had them outgunned in every conceivable way and our victory was inevitable. Their question was how long it would take for their command and control structure to collapse so they could safely desert.

Another thing that went pretty well has been our casualty count. About 3200 of our soldiers have been wounded, and 575 have been killed. While every casualty is a personal tragedy for the victim, friends and family by historical standards these numbers are quite low. While our troops don’t have quite all the vehicles and body armor they need, they have a lot of it. Under the circumstances they are fairly well protected. More recently many of our troops simply have withdrawn to their garrisons and refused to engage in routine patrols. That’s one way to keep the casualty numbers down. On the Iraqi side it’s hard to know the casualty count. But credible reports that I’ve read suggest at least 10,000 Iraqi deaths can be attributed to the war and its aftermath.

We are also fortunate to have such a well-trained and professional military working in and near Iraq. In retrospect it would have been better had they received more training in urban warfare, military policing and Arabic. Perhaps they needed less training in winning conventional wars. One lesson from this war should be that we need to shift military priorities. I strongly suspect that conventional war is something the United States will never engage in again. The United States can win pretty much any conventional war, as long as they don’t come too close together. Our armed forces are without peer although China’s forces pose a potential future threat. It is hard to imagine us fighting a land war with China though.

We also did a good job in capturing Saddam’s henchmen. Saddam himself took much longer but we eventually got the man. The “deck of cards” is nearly complete. It is strange that with the top leadership in custody we aren’t in better control of Iraq. Apparently there is more to removing evil than removing the leaders from power.

Perhaps my Machiavellian detachment is leaving me but I can’t think of too many things (at least at the macro level) that worked well. I know we are building roads, schools, libraries and the trying to restore Iraq’s basic infrastructure. Their infrastructure is in many ways worse than it was before the war. There may be marginally more electricity overall in Baghdad. But the blackouts are longer than they were before the war, as Riverbend frequently notes in her blog. Numerous checkpoints throughout Baghdad and indeed much of Iraq slow down commerce and make life much more frustrating for the average Iraqi than it was during Saddam’s reign.

Our postwar planning was a fiasco. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there was plenty of postwar planning, but the top leadership embraced none of it. The leadership’s planning, such as it was, assumed the rosiest possible scenario: our soldiers would be greeted as liberators and any counterinsurgency would be minimal. As bizarre as this seems in hindsight, our leadership gave no thought to the likelihood that our troops would be a police force in the country for many months. We have put in place a new Iraqi police force but it is working poorly at best. Its officers are frequent targets for those who would prefer to target our soldiers, but find the police much more accessible.

We have found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush called an urgent threat to our national security. Even Administration spokesmen have stopped parroting the line that they will be found eventually. The whole pretext for our war with Iraq proved to be bogus. In trying to assess where the failure lies, it is reasonably clear that it was not so much an intelligence failure (our intelligence agencies’ reports were full of disclaimers) as it was a failure of our leadership to look at the situation impartially. An early warning should have been Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans, set up for the specific purpose of finding the “evidence” that Rumsfeld believed our own intelligence agencies were neither finding nor forwarding.

Clearly the Iraqi people have more freedom now than they did under Saddam Hussein. Clearly his torture and death factories have been abolished. If Saddam were still in power likely these same sort of abuses would be continuing to this present day and perhaps would have been passed on to his sons after he died. We can all be glad that those days are gone.

But what is Iraq’s future? I would like to be hopeful but I personally suspect the odds of civil war hover at about 40%. Iraq has had civil war before. Arguably the war never completely ended, it just moved from a military war to a war waged through counterinsurgency. Terrorists, absent before the war, appear to number in the hundreds now. An effort to put in place a constitutional government is clearly underway; I have to credit Bush with a good effort here. But whether it will be more than words remains to be seen. I can’t imagine it happening at all without sustained United States support lasting a decade or more. And yet for our forces to remain there not only endangers them but inflames anti-American sentiments shared by likely a majority of Iraqis. I for one firmly believe our involvement spawned more terrorists to hate and kill us than prevented future acts of terrorism.

So the central question is whether the United States’ national security is safer as a result of this war. The war was justified on the basis that Iraq was an urgent threat to the national security of the United States. That we must leave to history too. But weapons of mass destruction in Iraq apparently existed only in the minds of our leadership. Meanwhile, we have 100,000 troops stationed indefinitely in Iraq, effectively unable to be used elsewhere in the war on terrorism. While it is good to have Saddam gone and for the Iraqi people to be freed from his tyranny, if he posed no threat how can 100,000 of our troops effectively taken out of the War on Terror improve our national security?

A year from now I hope to revisit this entry again. But here is what I see for the year ahead in Iraq: I see a lot more of the same. I see an earnest attempt at constitutional government and elections, but I see voting accompanied by massive intimidation and violence. I see civil war a distinct likelihood. A year from now there may be a government in place but it will be largely impotent, hobbled by start up costs, terrorism, counterinsurgency and sectarian violence. The United States will be the real power in charge, if we can call what we are doing now truly controlling the country. Really, it is more like anarchy. Sadly, I predict something resembling real peace in Iraq is at least five years away.

2 responses to “The Iraq War: A One-Year Postmortem”

  1. (Jeepers, I wrote a big long comment and hit cancel by mistake! UGH!) Anyway, thank you for sifting down a very complex issue into understandable parts. I agree especially with this sentiment: “Meanwhile, we have 100,000 troops stationed indefinitely in Iraq, effectively unable to be used elsewhere in the war on terrorism”. Your political posts really do help me understand things better as it’s hard for me to read through all the rhetoric out there and see what’s what. Good post, Mark! Thanks.


  2. On a technical note, in most browsers if you accidentally erase your comment just press Ctrl-Z (in Windows) and it will automatically reappear!


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