Iraq and Its Lessons, Part 2

         See also: Iraq and Its Lessons, Part 1

What went wrong in Iraq?  Why?  Who was to blame?  Still comfortably ensconced in my armchair on Monday morning, after telling you what happened and what went right, we now get to what went wrong.

There is no way that seven years, 3,393 Coalition fatalities and 95,000 Iraqi civilian fatalities can be considered "good."  But again, the proper measure is not a comparison to zero casualties, but to the best that could have been achieved with any feasible alternative.

By what went "wrong", I mean when viewed with 20-20 hindsight.  It is two different things to say "X made a wrong decision in 2003" and "X should have known better in 2003."  No one in 2003 knew then what we know now in 2008.  Worse, what information they had was full of errors, incomplete and contradictory.  Predicting the future is tough.  It's even tougher if you can't describe the present.

And at every step, the only two choices were between bad and worse, where "worse" would be something like described above: a full-scale blow-up into a three-way civil war expanding into a full regional conflict from Turkey to Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East.  And it was never certain which choice would be more or less likely to bring about that outcome; it was all uncertainties, probabilities, guesses, judgments and hunches.

But a million things did not go wrong.  Only two things really went wrong: (1) the insurgency was more widespread, ruthless and tenacious than anyone had expected, and (2) the Iraqi armed forces and police forces were drastically more corrupt, useless and counterproductive than anyone had expected.  The result was one big single thing that went wrong: an Iraqi insurgency that could not be countered with Iraqi uniformed forces.

But even here, being worse than expected is not necessarily wrong.  It is only wrong if there is some other feasible alternative that could have been brought about by US actions that would have reduced the ferocity of the Sunni insurgency and/or strengthened the Iraqi forces to defeat the insurgency, without costing offsetting unpleasantness from the Shiite and/or Kurd side.  That is, was there really a way to reduce the impact of the insurgency without making things worse in some other way?

The Alternatives

We can speculate, and people have, on things we could have done differently to reduce the ferocity and tenaciousness of the Sunni insurgency.  But even with 20/20 hindsight, no one can claim with anything close to certainty that these actions would not have set off the Shiites or Kurds to the point of leading to a true civil war, possibly including the nightmare scenario described above.

But let's look at some of the complaints, or feasible alternatives, one by one.

  • We should have used more troops from the beginning.
  • We should not have disbanded the Iraqi army.
  • We should not have de-Baathified with such a zero-tolerance approach.
  • We should have stopped the looting.
  • We should have taken Fallujah the first time.
  • We should have killed Muqtada al Sadr early.
  • We should have run it ourselves longer, rather than turning it over to Iraqis so soon.
  • We should have turned it over to Iraqis sooner.

The Iraqi Army

There was no Iraqi army to disband.  It disbanded itself, even to the point of destroying its barracks.  We could have tried to reconstitute it, but it was not worth reconstituting.  First, it was way top-heavy (11,000 generals whereas the US army has about 300) and corrupt with Baathists.  Secondly, the top of this top-heavy army was Sunni, with Shiites doing the grunt work.  That simply would not work post-Saddam.  Third, such an army with so many Baathists in lead positions would have set off the Kurds and Shiites, likely leading to civil strife even worse than the insurgency that did occur.  In short, the Iraqi army was so broken that starting afresh was the only way to "fix" it.

Jerry Bremer informs us that "in almost every police station, there'd been a rape room, and one of the busiest had been at the Baghdad Central Police Academy."  These were the kinds of forces in place under Saddam.  Would you want to re-constitute that?  And if you did, what would be the chances of the Shiites and Kurds going along with it?

That virtually eliminated the possibility of countering a strong insurgency with Iraqi forces in any short time-frame.  It would take years to build up Iraqi forces to the levels required.  As it happened, that's essentially what we did: rope-a-dope and train Iraqis until the Iraqi forces could fill in for real.  That point was reached about when we declared the "surge."

Fallujah and Sadr

Regarding both Fallujah and Muqtada al Sadr, we probably would have lost the cooperation of the fragile and nascent Iraqi government had we used large-scale lethal force earlier.  One key player had already resigned due to Fallujah, and more would have had we gone in the first time.  Yes, we could have taken Fallujah and we could have captured or killed Sadr, maybe even with fewer casualties than we had later.    Maybe a quick "assassination" of Sadr very early on, when there was plausible deniability in the general chaos, we might have gotten away with that one.  But once that window was closed, we had to let Iraqis deal with Iraqis.  If we had lost the tenuous hold on the cooperating elements of the new Iraqi government, we would have won those battles but lost the war.

So the cost was a likely loss of cooperation of the Iraqis that were on our side.  And what benefit?  The insurgency and the militias were widespread, mobile and apparently headless.  It was not a matter of just "cutting off the head" of the snake.  We would have had to fight "Fallujahs" all over the country.  No, the solution would require something more organic.  That indeed came later with the "Sunni awakening."


De-Baathification, as a policy, was actually moderate.  It generally applied to only the top 1% of Baathists and the top 1% of the new government.  Also, there were procedures for waivers.  Apparently what happened was that the Iraqis themselves in the new government, primarily Shiites, took it further than our stated policy.

Was unemploying former Baathists enough to give critical mass to the insurgency?  Would a new government rife with former Baathists have been enough to give critical mass to the Shiite and Kurd hotheads?  In short, this was a tension that was bound to be.  I dare say no one knows, to this day, whether turning the dial to more or less de-Baathification would have caused more or less harm.


Dealing with the "looters" is the issue of how militarily dominant we should have been early on.  First, those "looters" did not sound like what we normally consider looters.  Jerry Bremer said, "the looters have AKs, some machine guns, and even RPGs."  Those sound like militias or insurgents to me, not youths looking for free TVs.  If it were your son over there, would you want him going up against the likes of those looters to keep them from stealing from Saddam's former cronies?

Law and order is a good thing.  But I see no clear boundary between these "looters" and the general insurgency or militias like that of Muqtada al Sadr.  It does not sound like a simple matter of putting a few more MPs on the corners.  Taking on these kinds of looters would have meant a whole different kind of battle.  It would have meant full-scale military occupation of Iraq by the US.  That might sound good if you can just wiggle your nose to make it happen.  But it doesn't sound so good if you're the one the RPGs are aimed at.

Troop Levels

And that gets us to a key question: should we have used more troops?  The underlying question is whether we should have had a full-scale military occupation of Iraq.  Such an operation might have been possible, and maybe we could have done such things as pacify places like Baghdad, Fallujah and the Anbar province generally, in addition to defeating militias such as Sadr's.

But let's look at the probable costs as well. 
  • A military draft would have been necessary. We used about 150,000 troops as it was, a level that has been straining our services all along, and close to the red-line of sustainability. Estimates for a full-scale occupation force were 400,000 to 500,000 troops. I do not see how we could have done such a thing without a draft. Even with a draft it is doubtful we could have reached such levels early in the war when they would have been most effective.
  • A draft probably would have caused a catastrophic loss of support on the home front. Such support atrophied as it was, but still not to the levels or virulence of, say, Vietnam. As it was, we had a volunteer army, soldiers who knew what they were in for and accepted the job, even proudly. The unwilling doing the impossible for the ungrateful sounds like a repeat of Vietnam to me.
  • The operation would have been seen as occupation and not liberation by the Iraqi elements that were otherwise cooperative. As in so many matters, we risked the loss of support of the Kurds, Ayatollah Sistani and the Shiites generally, with the possibility of a regional war spiraling out of control.
  • Had we put even more troops up against "looters", militias, armed tribes and Baathist dead-enders, soon to be joined by al Qaida and other foreigners, we likely would have had even more fatalities than we had. We might have had them earlier than we did, but we probably would have had them.

I'm an armchair strategist.  I cannot say with any certainty what would have happened with 500,000 troops instead of 150,000.  But who can?  This is the big "what if" game that can be played with any war through history.  But frankly, I have difficulty seeing how such an alternative would have led to significantly fewer fatalities than the 3,393 we actually suffered.  If we had fought it like World War II, why wouldn't our casualties be more like those of World War II, instead of fewer than many single battles of that war?

Slower "Iraqi-ization"

What if we had not turned things over to the Iraqis as soon?  Again, we would have looked even more like occupiers rather than liberators than we did and those that were cooperative with us would likely have gone their own ways.  Most of the costs mentioned above for a full-up occupation apply to this question as well.

Plus, what evidence is there that the new Iraqi government was the problem?  Casualty rates did not go up when we turned power over.  The new Iraqi authority promptly wrote a constitution and held successful elections.  The build-up and training of armed forces and police forces kept apace.  Political and administrative issues were handled - more slowly than many would have liked, but probably as fast as feasible.  How would short-changing those Iraqis who cooperated with us have led to some better outcome?

Faster "Iraqi-ization"

Which brings us to one alternative we haven't covered:  should we have turned it over to the Iraqis sooner?

Let me put the question another way.  Given that Iraqi forces could not be built up to a level capable of handling a strong insurgency until about 2007, and that we were loath to lose US troops just to bring law and order to a minority of the Iraqi provinces, was there some way we could have nipped the insurgency in the bud, or at least kept it to a "tolerable" level (one that would not threaten our whole mission of rendering Iraq a non-threat to the US)?

I dare say, turning things over to the Iraqis even sooner might have done just that.  Ironically, it was the Defense Department, especially the "neocons", who wanted to do that, and the State Department that wanted a true occupation with a US-led occupational government lasting for years.

As it was, President Bush sort of split the difference.  He let Jerry Bremer lead Iraq for one year, then we turned it over to the Iraqis.  The trouble is, that one year was the critical one.  That was the year many of the players formed their opinions of the new Iraq, and decided how much to cooperate with the US.

Here is a taste of what happened during that year, from Shadow Warriors , by Kenneth Timmerman:
"In June 2003, a group of tribal sheikhs from predominantly Sunni al-Anbar Province came to the palace.  This was before a single bullet had been fired by Sunni insurgents.  Bremer wouldn't receive them, so they spoke with an aide through one of his translators.

"Let us tell you why we supported Saddam Hussein, the sheikhs said.  It wasn't out of love.  I wasn't because we were Baathists.  It was because he paid us.  Every three months we would come here to the palace and he would give us money, and we would go back and pay the imams and tell them what to preach.  That was how the system worked.  We did it to survive.

"The tribal sheikhs said they were ready to pledge loyalty to Bremer in the same way, but they wanted three things in exchange.  The first was money they could distribute to their clans.  The second was an understanding that they would remain in charge of the tribal criminal justice system when it came to ‘honor' crimes...  The third thing they wanted was jobs."

"Bremer's aide promised that he would pass on the message.  The sheikhs agreed to return in a week's time to hear Bremer's response...  The sheikhs returned to the palace the next week, and were told that Bremer had rejected their proposed agreement."

What made the "surge" successful?  According to General Petraeus, an "important factor has been the attitudinal shift among certain elements of the Iraqi population."  And what helped bring about that attitudinal change?  Paying the sheikhs money

If the episode that Timmerman described is at all accurate and representative, we might have had that "attitudinal shift" in June of 2003.  It sure looks like the Sheikhs got the money, tribal autonomy and jobs they asked for -- just four years too late.

One reason we had Jerry Bremer run the country for a year was the belief that the Iraqis were not ready to rule themselves.  We especially feared the "exiles", or Iraqis who had fled Saddam's Iraq.  Bremer and the State Department thought the exiles would not be accepted by the Iraqis who stayed in Iraq.  Worse, we treated the exiles as none too competent.

Read Jerry Bremer's book, My Year in Iraq.  It does not take too much reading between the lines to detect Bremer's condescension for the Iraqis generally, and all but disdain for the exiles in particular.  (In Bremer's defense, he is pretty condescending to everyone on the planet.  Self-doubt is not one of his problems.)

But here's the funny thing.  When we turned things over to the Iraqis in June of 2004, we turned it over to almost exactly the same group, mostly exiles, who were just as ready to take over in June of 2003.  And that is the group that helped set up multiple successful elections and write a constitution.  When elections were held, many of the exiles, including the new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the dreaded Ahmed Chalabi, were elected by the Iraqi people.

It sure looks like nothing was gained in that year.  And much was lost.

We somehow thought Jerry Bremer had a better feel for the ground game in Iraq than Iraqis who had lived in Iraq; included Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds; had suffered under Saddam; had studied law, economics and government and led movements; had thought through the post-Saddam situation; and had already met with each other and come to some political compromises among themselves.  Also, a quick turn-over to an "exile" is exactly what the US did in Afghanistan and was considered successful there.

And by "we", I really mean our State Department.  The Defense Department wanted to turn things over to those Iraqis much sooner.  They had a plan for that.  But State disagreed and Bremer dismissed it out of hand.  President Bush was caught between differing advisors: Donald Rumsfeld on one side and Colin Powell on the other, with Condoleezza Rice leaning to Powell's side.

Colin Powell won that turf battle.  According to Bremer, Powell's reaction at the news of Jerry Bremer being appointed to head the Coalition Provisional Authority went like this:

"Don Rumsfeld called me in early May before the President announced your appointment.  I tried to keep my voice lukewarm on the phone, but when I hung up, I flat-out whooped with joy.  The people in my outer office thought I'd won the lottery."

I'm not sure why Powell is considered the hero and Rumsfeld the heel in this Iraq war, other than that the media acted like Colin Powell's PR machine.  Rumsfeld and the neocons got painted as the "nation builders" -- the exact opposite of what actually happened.

In retrospect, it looks like we could have handled al Qaida in Iraq and we could have handled the dead-ender Baathists.  What we couldn't handle was the Sunni tribes cooperating with them in total opposition to us and the new Iraqi government.  On the other hand, the tribal leaders changing their attitudes, the "Sunni awakening", was critical to the success of the "surge."  Even Saddam could not rule without their cooperation.  What made us think we could?

Had we not set up a US viceroy in the palace of Saddam Hussein, one who would not even meet with the Sunni tribal leaders, and kept him there for a year to run every aspect of Iraqi life, we might have kept those tribes on our side, or at least kept them from joining the fight against us.

It was not our military that failed; it was our diplomacy.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that means we should be blaming the State Department and Colin Powell rather than Defense and Donald Rumsfeld.

One could ask, though, why did Rumsfeld pick Jerry Bremer for the CPA job?  I can only guess, but I think it was like this: he knew he had to pick someone from the State side, since this was mostly a civilian role and a diplomat's role.  He also had to keep the peace within the bureaucracy.  Colin Powell and his capo, Richard Armitage, backed up with that leaky ship called the CIA, is no group you want against you in all-out bureaucratic war (ask Scooter Libby), especially when a real war is going on.  And Bremer was the least bad choice among the diplomats to choose from (which tells you something about our diplomatic corps).

Summary of Alternatives

In my opinion, the only real mistake in handling Iraq was not turning it over to the Iraqis quicker.  That does not mean simply "throwing it over the fence" in June of 2003.  It could have been gradual, with many cabinet-like positions held by Iraqis, but some key ones, e.g., security, being kept in US hands.  There was such a plan, developed by the Defense Department.  But as far as State and Bremer were concerned, that plan was dead on arrival.

Would that quicker hand-over have worked out wonderfully?  I doubt it - just better than what happened.  Maybe only half the fatalities.

Do I know that for sure?  Of course not.  But neither does anyone else know much for sure about any of the alternatives not tried.  All we know is what we did and what happened.  We do not know what would have happened had we done something else.  That's the way history works.

And even what I do think I know is only in hindsight.  Even Jerry Bremer did well enough, considering his circumstances.  It was not really he and his decisions; it was the fact that we had a US viceroy running the country of Iraq at all.  The Sunnis were defeated in about every respect they could be defeated, and then we kicked sand in their face.  You would think professional diplomats, of all people, would know not to do that.  While our soldiers were giving Iraqi children candy and soccer balls, our diplomats were telling senior and seasoned Iraqis to sit down and shut up.  We'd have been better off letting some Marine Captains run the place.

I am perfectly willing to shut up about this and say everyone did about as well as could be expected.  Would everyone else please do the same?


"Conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo have taken the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people since 1998 and continue to leave as many as 45,000 dead every month..."

The entire Iraq war was the equivalent of perhaps two months in the Congo, in terms of civilian deaths.  How many of the anti-Iraq war crowd even know that?  Now add in the Sudan, Somalia, Angola, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.  A Holocaust is happening in Africa right now, and has been for about the last generation.  But the only thing that even makes the TV screen, much less public opinion, is who the US or Israel killed in self-defense today.

Look at this list of numbers:

  • 405,399
  • 364,511
  • 13,283
  • 9,556
  • 7,099

What are those numbers?  US military fatalities in World War II, military fatalities in the Civil War, US military fatalities in the Mexican war, total US military deaths in the four years of peacetime of 1980-83, total US military deaths in the first four years of the Iraq War from 2003 through 2006, respectively (Source).

As the Dust Settles

It would have been nice if someone in the Republican party could have said some of this in the last five or six years.  Instead, the party's standard bearer, Senator John McCain, said this :

"We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement -- that's the kindest word I can give you -- of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war."

Did anyone ever accuse Colin Powell of "mismanaging" the diplomacy in Iraq?

I am reminded of the six phases of any project:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Disillusionment
  • Panic
  • Search for the guilty
  • Punishment of the innocent
  • Praise and honors for non-participants.

On November 4, 2008, we completed phase six.

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