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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

During the 2000 presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for what he called efforts at “nation building” in Somalia and Haiti: “I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war . . . to help overthrow a dictator when it’s in our best interests. But in this case, it was a nation-building exercise.” Twelve years later, many are saying that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been shorter and less costly if we had anticipated the requirements of “nation building.” But it could equally be argued that the idea of “nation building” is too ambitious and may have helped lead us into mistakes of overreaching.

Not counting Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has intervened with its own military forces some ten times in the last thirty years to wrest control of a part or all of a foreign country from those in power, twice unilaterally (Grenada and Panama) and eight times in some sort of a coalition (Kuwait, Northern Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Liberia, and Libya). In the first four and last two of those ten cases, the US made no attempt to stay for a long period or to dictate the subsequent form of governance. The local populations managed their political affairs relatively successfully on their own, albeit in the case of Liberia with the help of a very large UN peacekeeping force. Bosnia, and to a lesser degree Kosovo, are at best mixed successes despite the substantial and extended presence of international peacekeeping forces, led by the US. The notable failures were Haiti—where the US left quickly but where the country has struggled for years despite the assistance of a succession of UN peacekeeping missions—and Somalia, where the US, having succeeded at averting famine, which had been our original purpose, decided to stay in order to build democracy. It was the failure particularly of the latter effort, with the US beating a hasty retreat in the face of unexpected combat casualties, that gave nation building a bad name in the 1990s.

The experiences with Germany and Japan after World War II are often cited as demonstrations of American success at “nation building.” True, these countries were governed for many years under a military occupation, through which their political systems were completely restructured. (In Japan, General MacArthur virtually dictated the terms of the new constitution.) But that was possible because those countries had surrendered unconditionally and the previous regimes were completely discredited. Those circumstances are unlikely to be repeated again and they were not the circumstances of either Afghanistan or Iraq.

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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Americans seem to have learned very little from the Iraq invasion—not least neoconservatives, who have yet to seriously reconsider their support for military intervention abroad.

In a prescient memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in August of 2002, the late Peter Rodman, then assistant secretary of defense, cautioned that planning for Iraq should not look to Germany or Japan as examples but rather to postwar France, where the Allies fortunately abandoned plans for a military occupation. Rodman observed that if the Allies had gone ahead with the plan for an occupation government, “the Communists would have . . . taken over the countryside” while the occupation “would have neutered the Gaullists.” Instead, de Gaulle was able to build up his own movement as a counterweight. While “Iraq has no de Gaulle,” he observed, “an occupation government will only delay the process of unifying the moderate forces.”

This line of reasoning led to a recommendation that we should move as quickly as possible—perhaps even in advance of the war—to recognize a provisional Iraqi government that would take charge from the outset. The alternative viewpoint was that Iraq needed to be governed for a multi-year period, perhaps under UN auspices, by a transitional civil authority, to allow for the emergence of new leadership from inside Iraq, thus avoiding the imposition of a government composed largely of what were labeled “externals,” i.e., Iraqis who had spent the preceding years in exile or in liberated Northern Iraq.

The initial decision was to create something called the Iraqi Interim Authority, which would be more like a provisional government but which would not gain control of key ministries, particularly those controlling finances and security, until it had demonstrated in less critical ministries its ability to manage competently and honestly. However, that notion was abandoned after the Coalition Provisional Authority took upon itself the role of long-term occupier, a role codified on May 22, 2003, in UN Resolution 1483. Much debate within the US government was required before the decision was made to end the occupation earlier than the CPA had planned and transfer sovereign power to an interim Iraqi government by the end of June 2004.

We paid a serious price in the eyes of the world for that prolonged occupation, particularly in the Arab world, and most importantly in the eyes of Iraqis. Moreover, the search for capable and widely supported “internal” leaders has to be judged a failure, since the initial Iraqi government was led almost entirely by externals, a situation that continues today, even after ten years and a series of national and provincial elections and referenda. The most notable “internal” to have emerged is Moktada al-Sadr, an example that hardly commends the idea.

It was not unreasonable for people to worry about whether Iraqis could be counted upon, in the early months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, to run the new government honestly or competently. But I believe that this fear exaggerated the ability of Americans to do better, particularly where they lacked anything like a comparable knowledge of the country nor even spoke the language. Certainly Iraqis would have made mistakes, as they did when sovereignty was finally transferred after more than a year of occupation government. But they would have been Iraqi mistakes. American mistakes were more consequential, because they allowed Iraqis to turn their anger on the occupiers rather than accept responsibility for their own affairs.

Of course, one key characteristic of both Afghanistan and Iraq—one we did not have to confront in Japan, Germany, or any of the other examples mentioned above—was the existence of a virulent insurgency determined to restore the previous regime in some form. In the face of that threat, it was a critical mistake in 2003 to focus the effort of rebuilding Iraq’s own army solely on the mission of external defense.

That is a mistake that Iraqis themselves would not have made. When I met with Iraq’s soon-to-be Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in Baghdad in June of 2004, to discuss plans for security forces after the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, he stressed the importance of devoting the Iraqi army primarily to internal security. I was delighted that I had the authority to tell him that the US agreed with this idea.

Unfortunately, by that time the insurgents had more than a year’s head start, a lead that was never really overcome until, with the surge, General David Petraeus brought additional resources to the task of training and organizing Iraqis. Fortunately, that task was entrusted to an unsung American hero, Lieutenant General James Dubik, who was able roughly to double the size of the Iraqi army over the course of 2007, while at the same time improving its quality.

In Afghanistan we avoided the mistake of establishing an occupation government at the outset. And, for all of the weaknesses of the Karzai government, the effort there benefited from having an Afghan government as a partner, particularly in the early years. But, for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Taliban insurgency took some time to gather strength, we underestimated the need for Afghan security forces as well. As in Iraq, it was only with the additional resources available from the Afghan surge and with inspired leadership by another American lieutenant general, William Caldwell, that the US was finally able to build up the Afghan security forces to their present size of more than three hundred thousand, while also improving their quality.

The additional resources provided by the surges, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, were important for getting the training mission right. But more important than the relatively small increase in resources was the recognition of the importance of the mission. Although our military has developed substantial capability in the area of training indigenous military forces—the mission carries the acronym FID, for Foreign Internal Defense—that is not a mission that normally captures the attention of the most promising and ambitious fighters. It is more satisfying, both personally and professionally, to train soldiers to the very high standards of the US military and to lead them in action than to deal with the frustrations and compromises of what may dismissively be called “third-world militaries.” Yet those militaries are often the key to success and the key to minimizing our own losses. So, FID is a mission we must cultivate for the present and the future.

Already, I believe, the Obama administration seems so intent on avoiding anything that looks like what George W. Bush might have done that the US failed to do much to help a very moderate government in Libya to stand up the security forces that could stabilize the country (and which might have prevented the tragedy in Benghazi). And, by doing almost nothing to help the free Syrians strengthen their military capability, we have dangerously increased the risk of a post-Assad government falling into the hands of the most extreme armed groups.

Hopefully we will never again have to send American ground forces to assist a friendly government to resist the onslaught of a determined insurgency. But with so many important countries in such a state of turmoil, there is no way to be certain. If we ever do face such a situation, we should remember the importance of political legitimacy for our local allies. We should think long and hard before imposing another occupation government. And we should not waste any time in establishing the most capable possible indigenous security forces.

Finally, if we must send American combat troops into such a situation, they should be trained and equipped for counterinsurgency, not for peacekeeping. As we unavoidably draw down some of the marvelous counterinsurgency forces that we have developed over the past decade, it would be a mistake to abandon the capability completely. Despite our most heartfelt hopes, we may need it again some day.

Paul D. Wolfowitz served as deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005.

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