At Last … Endgame in Sight in Iraq?

In June 2004, in the run-up to the hand-over of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG), for the first time there were audible military mutterings of the term ‘strategic failure’ to describe the apparent collapse of the original objectives of the US-led mission in Iraq.

This assessment came on the back of a peaking in US casualty numbers during April (153 dead and 876 wounded), more than during the Iraqi war-fighting phase from 20 March until 1 May 2003 (138 and 550). This development related to the widening of the war against Ba’ath Party elements in Fallujah and against the Al-Mahdi army, the private Shi’a militia of Hojatoleslam Moqtada Al-Sadr, in Najaf and Kufa. Domestic political unease felt especially in London and Washington over these developments was compounded by the nascent cracks in coalition integrity signalled by the Spanish troop withdrawal, and perhaps most damaging of all, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

But if nothing else, the storm of international criticism and media attention should teach us how quickly things change – and could, of course, quickly change back again now that the handover of power from the CPA to the IIG has been effected.

By June, Fallujah had been stabilized, at least temporarily, using the combined efforts of the US marines establishing outer city control, and internally by the Fallujah Brigade made up principally of former Ba’ath Party elements. Moqtada al-Sadr had been for the moment neutralized through closer engagement with tribal leaders and the maintenance of pressure through what a senior British officer has described as ‘surgical kinetic actions’ avoiding holy sites, both allowing a moderate Shi’a solution led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to develop. The Spanish withdrawal has not precipitated an exodus of coalition partners, their concerns at least temporarily allayed by the ascendant political role of the United Nations and the June Security Council resolution endorsing the handover of power in Iraq.

The IIG have moreover been quick to stamp their authority on the government. Signalling a tougher line against the insurgency, Iraqi president Ghazi al-Yawar has publicly vowed to restore the death penalty, but has also promised an amnesty to Iraqis who stop fighting. In these early days, public attention has shifted – or been shifted – to the Iraqis. Though Iraq’s security forces cannot yet walk this talk, responsibility for security and media attention is increasingly also being shifted their way, abetted by the anti-crime campaign undertaken in Baghdad in early July resulting in the detention of more than 500 suspects. And perhaps most notably, the trial of Saddam Hussein and his co-accused is arguably the most visible evidence of the transfer of sovereignty, a high profile step in establishing the rule of law and due process, necessary also in remedying an intervention criticized internationally from the outset for its dishonesty.

But these events should not discount those longer-term problems that remain. These relate in part to the impact of the revelations around Abu Ghraib, including the loss of moral authority and legitimacy within Iraq of the coalition mission, and the effect on already limited regional and international consent.

More directly, much hinges on the success of the IIG and, after January 2005, from the IIG to the anticipated Iraqi Transitional Government (ITG).

This is a complicated affair. Three processes have to run simultaneously from 1 July, involving more than just signing ceremonies and photo opportunities: The transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to the IIG; leadership from the US Department of Defense to the Department of State; and the transition of coalition military headquarters from the Coalition Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF7) to the Multinational Force Iraq (MNFI) where strategic control will be located, and to the operational headquarters of the Multinational Corps Iraq (MNCI). Then, presuming all goes well, the ground has to be laid for elections for the ITG in 2005, most likely along proportional representation under the authority of a recently-constituted Independent Electoral Authority. Thereupon a Transitional National Authority (TNA) will draft a final constitution (the interim version having been agreed in March 2004), with final elections held by January 2006.

Four challenges are inherent to this transition process. First, that the current integration of the coalition effort between nations and between the military and civilian components will fragment, and many skilled CPA personnel will depart to be replaced by a form of Iraqi-US bilateralism with the new US Embassy under John Negroponte at the centre. This could have particularly negative implications for the socio-economic development effort, itself key to longer-term political success and security. Indeed, a solution to Iraq’s problems are today not only spoken of in ‘political-military’ but rather ‘political-military-economic’ terms.

A second challenge is the need to match Iraqi capability with its sovereign responsibility and profile. Ongoing security sector reform (so-called ‘SSR’) and improved effectiveness of the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army is crucial, though until now this has suffered from a lack of co-ordination and funding, with patchy results from local region-to-region.

Success will also partly depend on the disbanding of nine armed militias countrywide totalling 100,000 fighters, around 68,000 of which are supposed to be integrated into the various security forces. The bulk (75,000) is from the Kurdish Pershmerga, with the remainder made up of the Badr Brigades (15,000), along with Iraqi Hizbullah and Dawa, Iraqi National Accord, Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraqi National Congress, and the Iraqi Communist Party.

Related is the need to integrate the activities of the 20,000 or so private security guards who are carrying out functions ranging from convoy escort and installation protection to logistics, troop training (of the Iraqi army) and, as Abu Ghraib revealed, prisoner interrogation.

A third challenge is the imperative to reinforce the political ‘line’ of the operation through the UN, while recognizing the need for the continued existence of a military ‘backbone’ to the campaign. As one Pentagon official put it, ‘Without security, there will be no elections’.

There remains the related danger that the coalition sets its criteria for success so low to ensure exit by 2005, even though, like Kosovo and Afghanistan, nation- and peace-building in Iraq will take a generation to achieve. It is much easier to intervene than to sustain peacekeeping operations and meet their socio-political objectives. But it would seem as if the military, at least, are preparing themselves for the long haul. Describing the war as a ‘clash of ideas’, US Army Chief General Peter Schoonmaker said in June that he did not ‘see us going to flower-filled meadows any time soon’ in Iraq, nothing that ‘Past wars have been like having pneumonia. It may leave a bunch of scars on your lungs, but you get cured of it. This one is a little bit like having cancer. You may get in remission, but its never going to go away in our lifetime’.

A fourth risk is the variance between regional governance capacities across Iraq’s 18 provinces. The extent of the success of attempts at government decentralization will reflect this, though there are fears that tensions may result because of a desire by some in Baghdad to maintain central authority. This may explain why US military strategy appears confusingly to enmesh itself deeply in regional policy issues while disengaging its forces from key cities, even in the post-transition period. This has been enforced in part by the withdrawal of the CPA and the relinquishing of social, developmental tasks to the military.

Of course this is not the first time that a post-Saddam Iraq has faced a need ‘to transition’. These have already had to occur from the state of war until the declaration of the end of hostilities on 1 May 2003 and to the short-lived Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) under retired General Jay Garner, and from the ORHA to the CPA thereafter. The ORHA, of course, only lasted a few weeks under the hapless General Garner when it was disbanded on 12 May 2003, once it became clear that it was inadequate to the task of reconstruction and transitional government procedures and institution-building.

Reasons for Greater Optimism?
The coalition appears to have learnt many lessons from the previous fifteen months, not least the importance of possessing a ‘campaign plan’. Senior military officers have decried the absence of such a rational procedure, where the initial American planning focus was instead solely on a military victory. In the aftermath of this victory it was (wrongly) assumed that the resultant goodwill of the Iraqi population would carry things forward. This naiveté also reflected the change of the locus of influence for post-war Iraq from the US State Department, which had taken the lead in drawing up an elaborate, 2,000-page pre-war ‘Future of Iraq Project’ policy manual, to the Pentagon which then set aside these guidelines. As the military historian John Keegan observes, ‘The future of Iraq was to be decided, paradoxically, by the dictates of a military organization committed to idealistic democratic goals’, including the objective of handing over the country to Iraqis within an original 90-day timeframe. Pentagon analysts today dismiss the State Department plan, however, as ‘unwieldy, cumbersome and discursive in an academic sort of way’, but which is now ‘being cherry-picked from’.

Yet the Pentagon also set aside an earlier two-stage contingency plan developed under Marine General Anthony Zinni calling for 200,000 additional troops to be employed in a policing, ‘civil-political’ role after Saddam’s toppling. Zinni has warned that ‘If we think there is a fast solution to changing the governance of Iraq, then we don’t understand history, the nature of the country, the divisions, or the underneath passions that could rise up’. The Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld of course preferred instead a shock-and-awe, highly mobile comparatively ‘troop-lite’ operation.

The Pentagon argues, too, that the Rumsfeld/Franks plan ‘emphasized a smaller, faster force out of the fear of a nightmare scenario’ in which Saddam blew the oil wells and dams while a large coalition force ground its way to Baghdad. But while the troop-lite plan was clearly appropriate in toppling Saddam (as least in military terms), it did little to prepare dealing with the aftermath. This was exacerbated, in the Pentagon’s own admission, by the lack of intelligence on how degraded Iraq’s infrastructure had become, ‘strung together with duct-tape and bubblegum’. This lack of awareness and preparation not only misled those supporters of Saddam’s overthrow, but set the stage for an inevitable Iraqi backlash and offered the physical operating space for Al-Qa’ida operations and meddling by neighbours Syria and Iran, neither of whom would presumably be overjoyed to see the emergence of a multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq.

Ironically, the Bush administration favoured intervention over containment precisely because it could allow the US military to leave Saudi Arabia, one of Al-Qa’ida’s strongest recruitment principles. And ‘no-one’, US officials say, ‘believed that the Ba’athists would fight on as long as they have, directed and organized by Saddam’s former intelligence forces’.

Another lesson overall learnt has been the need to simultaneously conduct war-fighting, peacekeeping, peace enforcement and humanitarian missions. While the US military remains a highly-effective war-fighting machine with a culture than presumes force will ultimately win the day, this approach does not match with the more sensitive and nuanced needs of peace support missions. You cannot, as one British officer put it, ‘throw yourself at the wire all day’ in the expectation that this will ultimately prevail. And while pre-emptive operations will, by definition, likely be coalitions ‘of the few’ given the lack of widespread political support, peacekeeping requires coalitions of ‘the many’, an aspect thus lacking from Iraq.

Many problems have stemmed, in the eyes of the military, from poor political decision-making and, from a British vantage, the lack of political influence over leadership in Washington. Their cousins, said one officer, recalling Churchill’s famous epithet, ‘could be guaranteed to do the right thing but only after they had tried all other options’.

End in Sight?
President Bush has, in the face of a storm of criticism following the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iraq in July 2004, steadfastly maintained that the Iraq war was right, despite the failure to find WMD. In touring the Oak Ridge facility housing nuclear materials handed over by Libya, Bush said ‘Although we have not found stockpiles of WMD, we were right to go into Iraq. We removed a declared enemy of the United States of America who had the capability of producing WMD and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them’.

Whatever the shifting strategic rationale, there is no doubt that Iraq has not gone to plan – if, indeed, there was ever a multifaceted strategic vision integrating humanitarian, policing, development, diplomatic, and media elements along with war-fighting capabilities, each with detailed operational plan with unambiguous timeframes and deliverables. Even though the Pentagon maintains that inter-agency planning for phase four began in September 2002 focusing on ten sectors of activity, in effect all of this was instead developed ‘on the hoof’, partly the result of a expectation of a quite different (and more welcoming) post-war environment. Ironically, along with the importance of maintaining public support and motivation both in the US and in theatre, this was one of the clearest lessons of the US failure in Vietnam.

The coalition’s failings have provided much ammunition for political opponents, offered clear evidence to Cassandra’s of doom, and abundant material for academic wool gathering. Critics will argue that at best today Iraq portends an illiberal Shi’a democracy a la Iran, hardly the regional model that the Bush administration proposed before March 2003. At worst, they contend it has become both a magnet for Al-Qa’ida and trigger for Islamic radicalism. More importantly, however, what should be done to make things better?

The coalition stalled after phase-three ended in May 2003, as they, in the words of UK military analysts, ‘were unable to shift gear’ against a backdrop of high Iraqi popular expectations. If the transition to the Iraqi Interim Government is to be judged a success, the military-UN-Iraqi coalition will have to change gear and direction simultaneously, illustrating to the Iraqi people, the Middle East and the international media alike that, indeed, things have transformed for the better because of the transfer of sovereign authority. Without this, strategic failure may become a reality.

Dr Greg Mills is the National Director of the SA Institute of International Affairs who has visited Kuwait/Iraq twice since the war started, and spent June and July 2004 conducting research on lessons learned from Iraq. He is the author of the forthcoming joint RUSI-SAIIA title, The Security Intersection: The Paradox of Power in an Age of Terror.


Explore our related content