Despite the sanguine way George W. Bush and his chamberlains talk about a post-war Iraq, senior military officers are worried.
According to recent unpublicized U.S. Army War College studies being read with increasing interest by some Pentagon planners, "The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious."
And that's especially true if occupation force soldiers are not retrained to be "something similar to a constabulary force" and imbued with the understanding that "force is often the last resort of the occupation soldier." The War College studies explore in detail a troubling paradox: While all experts agree that stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq would be a protracted endeavor, "the longer a U.S. occupation of Iraq continues," one of the studies notes, "the more danger exists that elements of the Iraqi population will become impatient and take violent measures to hasten the departure of U.S. forces."
One study broaches the subject of suicide attacks against U.S. soldiers. "The impact of suicide bombing attacks in Israel goes beyond their numbers," it says, "and this fact will also capture the imagination of would-be Iraqi terrorists."
Yet Bush and some of his top advisers have consistently preached that laying the foundation for post-blood-and-sand Iraq really won't be that much of a chore. In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Dubya's tone was upbeat as he rattled off a succinct post-Saddam checklist for the U.S. Army: Deliver medicine to ailing Iraqis, hand out emergency rations, destroy weapons, secure Iraq from those who would "spread chaos" internally, and mind the oil fields -- but not for "a day more" than necessary.
Indeed, after the speech, a "senior administration official" told one reporter that a transition from U.S. military to U.S. civilian control over Iraq would take only a few months. Testifying before the House Budget Committee earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's suggestion that a U.S. occupation force might run to the hundreds of thousands; in a recent interview with the Voice, a senior Pentagon official dismissed General Shinseki's comments as "bullshit from a Clintonite enamored of using the army for peacekeeping and nation-building and not winning wars."
But at a time when the U.S. Army is a case study in multitasking -- fighting the Global War on Terrorism (or GWOT, in Milspeak), keeping watch on the Korean peninsula, peacekeeping in the Balkans, chasing Islamic rebels in the Philippines, saddling up for more action in Colombia, to name but a few chores -- a number of military professionals are quietly venting spleen about how disingenuous they believe the Bush administration is being with the public about post-war Iraq.
Some are merely angry at what they see as a gap between optimistic policy pronouncements and the hard realities of a by-the-numbers post-war reconstruction. But perhaps more importantly, others are angry at what they see as the administration's neoconservative ideologues playing fast and loose with soldiers' lives in an effort to realize a dubious vision for the Middle East. Because what the neocons dream of -- either an instantly democratic Iraq that begins a "domino effect" of democratic revolution and renewal across the Middle East, or an Iraq whose defining aspect of democracy is a volatility that destabilizes the Arab world -- is at odds with the lessons the army has learned about modern post-conflict stabilization. The situation has the potential to produce a slew of unintended or unforeseen consequences beyond the U.S.'s ability to handle them.
According to "The Day After: The Army in a Post-Conflict Iraq," a December 2002 paper produced by the War College's Center for Strategic Leadership, army studies have concluded that even with United Nations support, "a post-conflict Iraq requirement of 65,000 to 80,000" U.S. Army personnel is the low-end manpower requirement for a military occupation expected to last not a matter of months, but "a minimum of five years and possibly as many as ten."
Read on and you have to wonder whether the White House is just ignoring unpleasant possibilities, or reveling in a Roveian-Rumsfeldian cloud-cuckoo-land: While the paper reports that "experts disagree as to the required time frame needed to accomplish the post-conflict strategic requirements, particularly the governance and justice aspects, all agree that it won't be measured in months, but years." Part of the reason, the study explains, is that the past decade of army post-conflict stabilization operations has revealed that transitioning from immediate post-war stabilization to civil society is, for a host of practical reasons, complicated. It's one of the ironies of modern conflict: The war itself may go fast, but securing the peace is what matters, and often nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies don't have the resources to rapidly take up the slack -- which means the military must, even though it doesn't really want to. Realistically, the military will need to facilitate a gradual "measured withdrawal and handover to appropriate UN agencies and entities," and can't just toss the reconstruction ball to civil authorities.
While in one post-war scenario, according to the studies, Iraq's "second-tier technical and professional leaders remain in place and attempt to resume normalcy" and "the general populace passively cooperates as coalition forces attempt to stabilize the situation," the paper nonetheless forecasts the post-Saddam environment for U.S. troops as "very unstable." Key governance and legal functions are likely to be shaky as "police and judiciary are relatively dysfunctional due to the purging of the top leadership and no replacements." U.S. soldiers also find themselves in harm's way as "some Iraqi military units are operating at will and conducting guerrilla attacks throughout the country. Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish tribal leaders are ruling respective areas and are initiating frequent skirmishes in an effort to expand their power base."
The humanitarian undertaking is likely to be formidable as well -- a task, given the dangerous circumstances, that can't be left exclusively to the UN agencies and NGOs. "Post-conflict humanitarian requirements will increase dramatically," the paper predicts. "In many cases, the army will be the only entity capable of providing much needed assistance and the required security aspects of the relief effort."
And, as the paper notes, "if one 'peels the onion' " of tasks that fall under the main headers of several key "post-conflict strategic requirements," the illusion that the army will be a brief, temporary presence evaporates almost immediately. Take security. "Post-conflict Iraq security tasks may include control of belligerents, territorial security, protection of the populace, protection of key individuals, infrastructure and institutions, and reform of all indigenous security institutions," the report notes.
Officials at the War College wouldn't make available the authors of the studies to elaborate. But "The Day After" points out that each of those task subsets begets more subsets. "For example," the paper continues, "the control-of-belligerents task includes: Implement and maintain the ceasefire; enforce the peace agreement, and support disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Territorial security includes border and boundary control, movement, and points of entry. Protection of the populace includes non-combatants, maintaining public order, and clearance of unexploded ordnance. The protection of key individuals, infrastructure, and institutions includes private institutions and individuals, critical infrastructure, military infrastructure, and public institutions. The reform of local security institutions includes national armed forces and non-military security forces."
Army research indicates that just to address the "security" issue, there are "well over 100 essential services that the Army must provide or support." Problem is, the army may not have enough people to fulfill those and other services. Two-thirds of army combat-support functions are not, in fact, elements of the standing army, but the army reserve. "A majority of functions and services being performed by reserve component organizations in support of the Balkans and the GWOT are the same that will be required in a post-conflict Iraq scenario," the report says--further noting that there aren't enough army specialists available right now to meet GWOT requirements alone. The "resultant stress on the army mobilization function" for post-war Iraq does not, the paper suggests, look reassuring.
Yet to the Pentagon's appointed civilian leaders (increasingly the subject of derision by many officers for their combination of grand ambition and lack of military experience), the exigencies of post-war Iraq should be, according to one, "minimal." In a lengthy interview with the Voice last week, a high-ranking Defense Department political official did concede that preparation for Iraq after a war is seriously lacking. "The planning should have started much sooner," the official said. "That's hard to deny." But, the official added by way of spin, that's really nothing to be concerned about, because compared to Afghanistan, Iraq is really much easier to handle, and won't require a protracted military presence, in keeping with Donald Rumsfeld's view that the military should not be a tool for "nation building."
"It's not like there's a bunch of roving warlords and ethnic or religious differences on the same scale as Afghanistan," the official contended. "We're getting word that a large part of the military and Ba'ath are opposed to Saddam. And I think the Iraqis, the exiles who want to go back and help rebuild in particular, are getting angry with people who don't believe they can transition to democracy without the U.S. sticking around for a long time."
Yet much of this flies in the face of the Army War College's 84-page "Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario." Designed as guidance for military planners, the report provides a detailed "mission matrix" of 135 tasks essential to Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction. Its tone has been aptly described by one officer involved in post-war planning as "Here's everything you need to do to do this right and get out of Iraq as quickly and effectively as possible, but don't hold your breath."
As much a historic inventory of American occupation and post-conflict stabilization operations as it is a considered view of post-war Iraq, among other things the paper concludes that "recent American experiences with post-conflict operations have generally featured poor planning, problems with relevant military force structure, and difficulties with a handover from military to civilian responsibility." While the administration has often tried to describe a post-Saddam Iraq as something akin to post-war Germany and Japan, the paper notes that an entire army staff was dedicated to planning for post-war occupation two years before the end of World War II. In the case of Iraq, similar foresight has not been exercised.
And while General Douglas MacArthur "had the advantage of years of relative quiet to carry out his programs" in a post-war Japan that unconditionally surrendered, this occupation will be taking place in the Middle East, one of the most volatile regions in the world. In this case, "all American activities will be watched closely by the international community, and internal and external pressure to end any occupation will build quickly," and "regionally, the occupation will be viewed with great skepticism" since "the United States is deeply distrusted in the Arab world because of its strong ties to Israel and fears that it seeks to dominate Arab countries to control the region's oil." While the occupation of Iraq "will probably be characterized by an initial honeymoon period during which the United States will reap the benefits of ridding the population of a brutal dictator," the report doesn't expect that to last too long, as "most Iraqis and most other Arabs will probably assume that the United States intervened in Iraq for its own reasons and not to liberate the population." Indeed, many of the report's principal points stand in contrast to what the planning officer characterizes as the Bush team's "rosy view of how quick and easy this will be." Among those points: "The administration of an Iraqi occupation will be complicated by deep religious, ethnic and tribal differences which dominate Iraqi society."
Noting that "Iraqi political values and institutions are rooted in a tortured history that must be understood before it is possible to consider the rehabilitation of Iraqi society," the report encapsulates the history of several hundred years of recurrent violence and instability owing to tribal, religious, and occupation-related tensions. "The establishment of democracy or even some sort of rough pluralism in Iraq, where it has never really existed previously, will be a staggering challenge for any occupation force" seeking to change a political system "where anti-democratic traditions are deeply ingrained." Indeed, the report adds, "it is also reasonable to expect considerable resistance to efforts at even pluralism."
As for returning exiles, "it is doubtful that the Iraqi population would welcome the leadership of the various exile groups after Saddam's defeat. . . . Iraqi citizens who have suffered under Saddam could well resent Iraqis coming from outside the country following a war and claiming a disproportionate amount of power." And even if some form of democracy does eventually emerge, Uncle Sam shouldn't expect kisses. "U.S. policymakers sometimes assume that a democratic government will be friendly to U.S. policies in the Middle East. This cannot," the report states, "be assumed in the case of Iraq."
Especially, the report says, if the U.S. isn't well attuned to internal Iraqi concerns. Although the war has been framed in large part as a mission of "disarmament," the report notes that the Iraqi army is one of the "few national institutions that stresses national unity," and that to "tear [it] apart in the war's aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society," as well as result in demobilized soldiers' joining tribal militias. And it's a given that the U.S. "will further need to seek indigenous forces to aid in law and order functions and help prepare for a post-occupation Iraq," an "inevitable part of rehabilitating" the country.
But "by developing local allies, the United States makes itself at least partially responsible for the behavior of those allies. Hence a pro-U.S. force that attacks any other Iraqi force for private resources threatens to involve the United States in the complex web of sectarian, tribal or clan warfare." In that case, the world might see something not unlike the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, where the actions of an occupying force's proxies create tensions between the occupier and other native groups.
That, in turn, could prompt terrorists to "generate strategies to alienate Iraqis who are initially neutral toward a U.S. occupation." While any acts of terror against U.S. troops would "undoubtedly require a forceful American response," actions like that "seldom win friends among the local citizenry, [and] individuals alienated from the U.S. occupation could well have their hostility deepened or increased by these acts." It would take only a handful of terrorists, the report says, "to attack U.S. forces in the hope that they can incite an action-reaction cycle that will enhance their cause and increase their numbers."
Jason Vest is a contributor to the Nation and the Village Voice.