Sitting on Bayonets: America's Postwar Challenges in Iraq

Sitting on Bayonets: America's Postwar Challenges in Iraq

Mini Teaser: Michael Eisenstadt reckons that the Bush Administration sees the light at the end of the.... Well, let's just say in could be worse.

by Author(s): Michael Eisenstadt

Wars are ill-judged by their military outcomes or by the political repercussions that may follow in their wake. They often unleash social and political forces the ultimate impact of which can only be discerned years on. And they frequently produce unintended consequences that can pose complex and vexing challenges of their own that may contain within them the seeds of future conflicts. Those pondering the implications of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) one year on would do well to keep that in mind.

To a great extent, OIF was supposed to take care of the unfinished business of the Gulf War. It was intended to eliminate, once and for all, the regime of Saddam Hussein and the threat it posed to regional stability, and to set the stage for the emergence of a stable, peaceful Iraq, free of weapons of mass destruction, with a legitimate, representative government on the path to democracy.

The Iraq War had several additional objectives: leveraging regime change in Iraq to deter Iranian and Syrian support for terror; enabling the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, thereby eliminating a source of friction with the kingdom and a pretext for the jihadist's war on America; establishing conditions conducive to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; and clearing the way for political reform and democratization in the region--the putative cure for the dysfunctional Arab politics that led to 9/11.

The initial phase of OIF was an outstanding success. Coalition forces took Baghdad and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in three weeks, immediately yielding substantial benefits: the Iraqi people were liberated from a tyrant, the Middle East was freed from the threat posed by an aggressive regime and the United States was able to pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia. But the occupation of Iraq has been beset by troubles. Efforts to restore basic services, quash violent insurgencies in Sunni and Shi'i regions, and establish a legitimate Iraqi government, have encountered numerous difficulties. Instability and violence in Iraq will pose a new set of challenges for the people of that country, for the Middle East and for the United States. Meanwhile, efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have foundered.

While it is still too soon to judge how all this will end, or to assess the historical significance of this war, it is possible to discern some of its near-term consequences, and to speculate about their long-term impact on the United States, Iraq and the region.

Imperiled Transition

The nature of the war and the way in which it was fought had a direct impact on the character of its aftermath--particularly the emergence of the insurgency centered in the so-called "Sunni triangle", and the transformation of Iraq into a major battleground in the jihadists' war on the West.

Although the coalition quickly took Baghdad and rapidly occupied the rest of the country, it failed to achieve a key precondition for postwar stability: ensuring that Saddam's hardcore supporters were either killed or captured and that those who survived the war emerged from it broken and defeated. This was in part a function of the decision by U.S. commanders and policymakers to favor a small force employing speed and overwhelming precision fire to bring about the rapid collapse of the regime in place of a larger, slower force designed to defeat the enemy methodically. The military planners made the right decision. The latter option would have produced higher casualties, provided opponents of the war with more time to press for a halt to the fighting before America's war aims were met, and given Baghdad time to wage a "scorched earth" campaign. This outcome was also a function of Baghdad's reliance on Saddam's Fedayeen and Quds Army thugs as cannon fodder, enabling large numbers of hardcore members of the security services, the Special Republican Guard and the Ba'ath Party to survive the war unscathed.

The United States, moreover, did not prepare adequately for "the war after the war." Insufficient effort and resources were devoted, at least initially, to the pursuit of many of the second- and third-tier regime personalities who went on to play key roles in the postwar insurgency. Likewise, because the coalition went in "light" in order to ensure surprise, it lacked (and still does) the numbers needed to secure large expanses of Iraq's borders against foreign jihadists entering the country from abroad, or to ensure security, law and order in the so-called "Sunni triangle" and elsewhere. As a result, local, tribal and party militias have proliferated to fill the security void.

The coalition now faces terrorist challenges from foreign and home-grown jihadists, and threats to stability from the militias. While the number of foreign jihadists may not be great, they often bring to bear expertise, experience, a perceptive grasp of how to cause mayhem and a commitment to die a martyr's death, all of which enable them to have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. To their ranks should be added thousands of Iraqi salafists from the villages and towns of the "Sunni triangle", whose numbers swelled in the past decade as a result of official encouragement of religion (Saddam Hussein's so-called "faith campaign") and infusions of money and religious propaganda from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The existence of the militias will likewise create a heightened potential for violence as Iraqis jostle for political advantage as the transfer of sovereignty and elections draw near.

The attitude of many Iraqis toward the coalition has been a major complicating factor. While some Iraqis are indeed staunchly pro-American (especially the Kurds), the attitudes of most range from ambivalence to open hostility, due to past betrayals, recent and ongoing humiliations and U.S. support for Israel.

Shi'a in particular remember the failure of the United States to come to their rescue after encouraging them to revolt in 1991, while many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, were humiliated by the defeat and dissolution of the Iraqi army and the heavy-handed tactics sometimes used by American occupation forces. Many Iraqis are apprehensive about U.S. plans for democracy; some Shi'a believe that the United States might eventually install a new Sunni strongman to ensure stability (the recent rehabilitation of former Ba'ath Party members have fed these fears), while many Sunnis believe that democracy will lead to their marginalization. These suspicions have been compounded by the perception that the failure to halt looting after the fall of the old regime and delays in restoring basic services are an American tactic to keep Iraqis down while it exploits Iraq's oil wealth. Recent revelations concerning abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees by American personnel deepened the hatred some Iraqis feel for the United States. Such resentments and the fear of retribution by former regime elements have almost certainly deterred many Iraqis from assisting the coalition.

The new Iraqi interim government will inherit the insurgency, the foreign terrorist threat and, most likely, the challenge of dealing with the militias, but will lack the means to deal with these problems on its own. For this reason, Coalition forces will almost certainly remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future, though this will likely be a source of friction between the Coalition and the Iraqi interim government, which will probably seek to limit the Coalition military's freedom of action. Populist politicians and extremists will likely use the issue to discredit political rivals, and the longer Coalition forces stay, the more the resentment against them is likely to grow.

Ties between Washington and Baghdad will likely be tense and difficult. A pro-American Iraq is not in the cards; the best that can be hoped for now is an uneasy partnership based on an unsentimental assessment of shared interests. Moreover, it is not impossible that an elected Iraqi government will seek the early departure of coalition forces--through peaceful or violent means. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the country's security problems will stress its fragile new institutions of governance and greatly complicate the transition from dictatorship to democracy in a country that faces numerous other problems.

American Credibility in the Aftermath

The image of American power and competence evinced by the rapid coalition military victory has been badly tarnished by the failure of the coalition rapidly to halt postwar looting, restore order, repair the country's crumbling infrastructure, face down anti-coalition insurgents and halt terror attacks. This might affect the credibility of future American deterrent and coercive threats. Likewise, flawed pre-war claims regarding Iraq's WMD have raised questions about the credibility of American intelligence.

Ironically, while the coalition has not yet found WMD in Iraq, the war may have implications for proliferation elsewhere. There are persistent reports that Iraq transferred WMD or related equipment to Syria prior to the war and that some Iraqi weapons scientists may have left the country, finding refuge and, in some cases employment, in other states of former or current proliferation concern, like Libya, Syria and Iran. For now, it remains unclear whether the WMD programs of neighboring states benefited from regime change in Baghdad, although for Iran and North Korea, the war probably confirmed the importance of a nuclear deterrent when dealing with the United States. North Korea's apparent decision to expand its nuclear arsenal in the aftermath of OIF probably reflects this concern.

Essay Types: Essay