Iraq and Its Lessons

What went wrong in Iraq?  Why?  Who was to blame?  Comfortably ensconced in my armchair on Monday morning, let me tell you what happened.

First, how do we know anything went wrong?  We should not start out with the common mistake of comparing what actually happened to some impossible ideal.  The "ideal" war has zero casualties.  We need to compare what actually happened to other feasible alternatives.  That means if you are going to criticize what happened, you must present at least one other feasible alternative that would have had a better outcome.  (If you can't do that, would you please just shut up.)

I define our Iraq problem as this: make sure Iraq poses no serious threat to the US, now and in the reasonably foreseeable future, while minimizing US Coalition and Iraqi civilian casualties.  There might be some loopholes or lack of precision in this problem definition, but I think it's good enough to get the idea across.

There are two major gripes about the Iraq war.  The first is that it wasn't justified.  The second is that it was executed badly.  I have written elsewhere that military force against Saddam's Iraq was justified , based on the written law of the land, passed by large and bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress and supported by both pre-war and post-war intelligence.  But all I wish to address here is the second issue: was there some way to get to the same place of "non-threat" status with Iraq, but with fewer US coalition and Iraqi civilian casualties?

What Actually Happened.

US forces have been in Iraq for over five years.  Even if we pull out on Barack Obama's schedule, 16 months after January 2009, we will have been there over seven years.  As I write, the US military has suffered 3,393 fatalities due to hostile actions , and the Iraqi civilian death count is approximately 95,000.  Those are the costs to date.

Below is a rough timeline of how we got here.

  • March 19, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began with an air strike.
  • April 9, 2003, Baghdad was liberated.
  • April 16, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), or interim government, was established under General Tommy Franks.  In short, the regime was changed.
  • May 1, 2003, President Bush announced the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq.
  • May 13, 2003, Paul Bremer became the head of the CPA.
  • May 16, 2003, the CPA ordered De-Baathification.
  • May 23, 2003, the CPA ordered dissolution of the Iraqi army.
  • July 7, 2003, General Tommy Franks, Commander of the US Central Command, retired and was replaced by General John Abizaid.
  • July 13, 2003 the Iraqi Governing Council was created, a sort of "shadow" government advising the US-run CPA.
  • July 22, 2003, Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in Mosul by US troops.
  • December 14, 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured by US troops.  He had been hiding in a dirt hole on a farm near Tikrit.
  • March 29, 2004, four US contractors were murdered in Fallujah.
  • April 28, 2004, CBS News reported on the Abu Ghraib abuses.
  • April 2004 saw the highest Coalition fatality rate of the war, 131 due to hostile action in one month.  The next-highest would be 129 in November 2004.
  • June 28, 2004, the CPA shut down and was replaced by an Iraqi Interim Government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (a former "exile").
  • January 30, 2005, elections were held in Iraq resulting in a new Iraqi Interim Government.
  • October 15, 2005, an election was held on a permanent Iraqi Constitution.
  • December 14, 2005, elections were held to form the Iraqi National Assembly and Iraqi government, later to be headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (a former "exile"), the current Prime Minister.
  • December 18, 2006, Donald Rumsfeld resigned as Secretary of Defense, and was replaced by Robert Gates.
  • January 2007, President Bush announced the "surge."
  • February 2007, General David Petraeus assumed command of all Coalition forces in Iraq.
  • May 2007 saw the highest number of Coalition fatalities due to hostilities since 2004: 123 in one month.
  • October 2007 was the peak of the surge in terms of Coalition troops, about 183,000 troops, or 13% above the pre-surge level.
  • December 2007 saw the lowest number of Coalition fatalities since February 2004: 14 in one month.  A similar large percentage drop in Iraqi civilian fatalities occurred in the latter half of 2007.
  • July 2008 saw the lowest number of Coalition fatalities since Operation Iraqi Freedom began: 8 in one month.  Iraqi civilian fatalities also appeared to be at all-time lows.

To keep this analysis simple, let's assume we are now in the endgame, that the insurgency is failing or has failed, that casualty counts will remain near current levels or drop even further, and Iraq will soon pose "no serious threat to the US, now and in the reasonably foreseeable future."

What Went Right?

Before going on to what went wrong, let's look at what went right -- or how much worse things could have been in scenarios other than what actually happened.

First, to go from zero to Baghdad in 21 days - 21 days! - is close to a military miracle.  General Tommy Franks did that with 150,000 US troops and 135 Coalition fatalities due to hostile action.  (General Tommy Franks also commanded the troops that defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan between October 9 and the end of 2001, or less than three months, and all with a US force that never exceeded 4,000 troops.  So Iraq was his second miracle.)

General Tommy Franks is in my Hall of Saints.  Whatever else he might have done wrong, if anything, he did so much right as to make his "wrongs" pale to insignificance.  If anything went wrong, it was in the "stabilization and reconstruction" phase of the war, or after May 1, 2003.  Franks retired July 7, 2003.

Second, the war did not spiral out of control into a widespread civil war, a regional conflict, or an environmental disaster.  As bad as things seemed, most hostile actions after April of 2003 occurred in just five of the 18 provinces of Iraq, with no spread of violence into neighboring states or Israel.  Do you think General Franks just pulled that off without a plan?  His strategy of speed and surprise was exactly right on.  Saddam's minions did not even have enough time to complete the booby trapping of their oil wells as they did in 1991, although they started.

Throughout the whole five-plus years since March 2003, the core Shiite and Kurdish groups, representing over 80% of the Iraqi population, stuck with us.  If we had lost those groups, then the kinds of bad things that could have happened would make what did happen seem like overwhelming success.

The Kurds could have gone to war not only against the rest of the Iraqis, but against Turkey as well.  The Shiites could have gone to war against both Sunnis and the Coalition, and brought Iran into the game as well.  The whole thing could have blown sky high with a three-way civil war in Iraq (Shiite vs Sunni vs. Kurd), Turkey and Iran entering the fray, and Saudi Arabia and the rest of the neighbors in the region getting involved as well.

Once the dust would settle in such a scenario, do you think the players left standing would have good feelings toward the US?  Would we be safer than we are now?  How would the US Coalition and Iraqi civilian fatality counts compare to what actually happened?

In fact, Muqtada al Sadr did his best to hold up his end in this nightmare scenario.  He had a ruthless and formidable militia.  He had tons of followers.  He had Iranian support.  Attacks of Sunnis and other insurgents on Shiites and Shiite holy sites enflamed Shiite passions, even among those not aligned with Sadr.

What kept the majority Shiites under control, more or less, Sadr notwithstanding?  Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani.  Throughout this whole time he had issued advice to his followers to be patient, to not seek revenge and retribution and to cooperate with the US Coalition.  In fact, the US at one time found itself in the absurd position of resisting Sistani's insistence to hold elections!

Add Ayatollah Sistani to my Hall of Saints (with no disrespect to Islam here).  From what I can tell, Sistani's words and actions were driven by what seemed to be genuine religious belief and care for his following.  Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think he was in it for the oil money.  To anyone who thinks all Muslims are terrorists, I offer Ayatollah Sistani as one huge counter-example.

Third, our entire military, from grunt to general, has executed the tasks assigned to it almost flawlessly.  With one very notable exception (namely Abu Ghraib), any military snafus were unnoticeable from a big-picture standpoint.  We sent kids almost right out of high school and fast-food restaurants into one of the worst places on earth.  A place with 130 degree heat and blinding, days-long sandstorms.  A place with torture rooms, rape rooms, booby traps and random explosions.  A place where the bad guys behead you, slowly, and video-tape it.  A place where erring on one side will get you killed, and erring on the other side will get you court-martialed.

And those kids went from zero to Baghdad in 21 days.  They captured Saddam and killed his sons.  They kept a lid on a brewing all-out, three-way civil war for five years straight.  They killed more al-Qaida-in-Mesopotamia than I can count.  They rebuilt infrastructure, schools and hospitals.  They gave candy and soccer balls to Iraqi children.  They became close with the locals, tried to make friends, and tried to discern between people seeking safety and people trying to kill them.  Some didn't come back in one piece, and others didn't come back at all.

My Hall of Saints just got really crowded.

Fourth, as I have summarized before, Iraq has improved dramatically on multiple fronts since the end of "major combat operations."

  • Five of Iraq's provinces accounted for 87% of insurgent attacks, meaning 13 of its 18 provinces have been relatively peaceful throughout.
  • Iraq now has its own democratically approved constitution and representative government, due to a series of honest and popular elections held in 2005. And it is working.
  • Its economy has tripled. Oil production essentially matched pre-war levels by the end of 2003, and currently exceeds it. Electricity availability exceeded pre-war levels by 2004, and is now 50% to 200% above pre-war levels. Car ownership has doubled; there are more than 10 times as many telephone subscribers and 100 times as many internet subscribers, with much of that growth occurring in the first two to three years after liberation.
  • The people do not have to rely on getting all their information from Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob. Today they have dozens of commercial TV stations and hundreds radio stations, newspapers and magazines. Again, much of that growth was immediately after liberation.
  • Iraq has achieved satisfactory progress on nearly all (if not all) of the 18 political criteria defined jointly by the Democrat-led Congress and President Bush. So much so, that you don't hear Democrats even talking about the criteria any more.

Fifth, let's give some perspective to what did happen.  The US suffered more fatalities in single battles of World War II (Invasion of the Marianas, for example ) than in the entire five-plus years of the Iraq war.  If you think it fair to compare the duration of those two wars, then you ought to compare fatality counts as well.  The answer is more than 100 to 1.  And don't forget that World War II ended with two atomic bombs.

Let's also compare what actually happened to what people had feared at the beginning.  In February of 2003 The Nation and others trembled at the thought of 77,000 body bags.  I swear that some people could have accepted 20,000 or 50,000 dead US troops, if the deaths had occurred in six months or a year of "major combat operations."  Amazingly, what seems to upset people so, is that people died after "major combat operations" were declared over.

While Saddam ruled Iraq, he started two wars with his neighbors, Iran and Kuwait, resulting in about a million deaths, virtually all Muslims.  He killed large numbers of his own countrymen, primarily Kurds and Shiites, using means that included chemical weapons and nerve gas.  He filled mass graves to the tune of 400,000.  We are talking 1,400,000 deaths over 20 years, or 70,000 deaths per year on average.

As bad as the Iraqi civilian death count has been in this war, it represents a 75% reduction in Saddam's average kill rate.  And even those deaths, except for a small fraction, were not the result of direct US warfare such as missed bombs and crossfire.  They were the result of al-Qaida-on-Iraqi and Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence - suicide bombs, improvised explosives, assassinations, executions and tortures.

Summary.  Assuming we are truly in the endgame in Iraq, the final outcome of the entire enterprise could be considered quite reasonable from the perspective of previous ground wars and Saddam's previous violence.  I would certainly not call it a "fiasco".  In light of what could have gone wrong, I would almost call it a glowing success.  And no, I am not  smoking anything.

That pretty much sums up what actually happened, what went right, and how bad things could have gone.  Stay tuned for Part 2 (published tomorrow) as we look into what really did go wrong and who is to blame.

Randall Hoven can be contacted at or  via his web site,