Thursday, March 19, 2009

Great Expectations

On the eve of the anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Secretary Gates sketched the failure to plan for the post-conventional phase in Iraq:

Looking back, it seems to me that almost everybody, including those who were in the administration at the time agreed that the assumptions were that this would be a very quick, largely conventional kind of conflict, Saddam would be put out of power and then the situation turned back over to the Iraqis themselves.

I think that most people would agree that there was, clearly, inadequate planning for the situation not turning out that way and for us to be involved for a protracted period of time, and I think that was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that was made.

I think that we just didn't anticipate or they didn't anticipate at the time that this could be a protracted counterinsurgency kind of challenge and it clearly turned out to be that.

I'm reasonably sure that I've explained my views on this issue (perhaps in pieces, however), but on the anniversary of OIF, let me set it all forth.

We did not have unreasonable expectations and the anti-war side was no better in predicting post-war insurgencies that would drag on. Heck, before the war many predicted the conventional phase would be a disaster for us (remember the claims that Baghdad would be our Stalingrad as the Baathists fought to the death?). Remember also that in summer 2003, after we crushed Saddam's military, that Democratic leaders argued that the next election would be fought on economics and not on the very successful war just concluded. Rather than speaking of insurgencies, the anti-war side was claiming Syria was next on the hit list.

I did not expect the insurgencies and terror campaigns to be this tough. I won't pretend otherwise. Let me explain my reasoning at the time and why I was wrong.

First, I assumed that any Baathist insurgency based on the 20% Sunni Arab population was doomed to failure in the long run against the 80% Kurd and Shia population.

Second, I did not know if the sanctions-weary Sunni Arabs were up to resisting. Remember, many of the anti-war side argued that we could overthrow the Saddam regime by supporting an uprising rather than invade. If the Sunni Arabs were truly that weak, how could they mount an insurgency?

So on the eve of invasion I didn't know if the Sunni Arabs would mount an insurgency after what I assumed would be a cake walk conventional campaign, but assumed if resistance was mounted the Sunni Arabs would lose in time.

When Saddam's Special Republican Guard failed to mount any resistance in defense of Baghdad, I discounted the idea that the Baathists had the will to resist.

Further, I assumed that Iraqi police could be counted on to stay at their posts and provide local stability in a relatively benign post-war environment, under our guidance as we built an Iraqi government based on Shia and Kurdish dominance of a de-Baathified civil service. Again, lack of Baathist resistance in Baghdad during the invasion encouraged me on this.

But Iraqi security forces collapsed and were of no use. So too did the government structure. And the Baathists did decide to resist despite failure to fight during the invasion. This resistance, however, was very low level for four months and did not alarm me at all.

The Baathists had three advantages that I did not suspect: lots of money stolen from the Oil for Food program; lots of ammunition and weapons scattered around Iraq; and a pre-war pipeline of jihadis that continued to pump fanatics from around the Arab world into Iraq via Syria after the war ended. Oh, and you might say there was a fourth advantage--the Shias were grateful we got rid of Saddam but were suspicious of us based on our betrayal of them in the 1991 uprising that President H. W. Bush encouraged. That lack of trust would not be largely erased until late summer 2004, after the Shias (aside from the pro-Iran Sadr goons, that is) saw the Baathists ally with al Qaeda and realized they needed us and that we were fighting on their side.

The insurgency only really took off in November 2003. But despite being ill-prepared for this fight, we ground down the Baathist resistance throughout the fall of 2003, capturing Saddam in December, and witnessing dwindling combat and casualties through February 2004. It looked like the war was nearly over.

But in March and April 2004, two more events that nobody expected took place: the surge of Syrian-supplied al Qaeda killers who reinforced the faltering Baathists who still retained the organization, cash, and weapons, leading to the creation of a jihadi enclave in Fallujah; and the Iranian offensive using Sadr and his goons in southern Iraq. This dual offensive led to the collapse of half of the Iraqi security forces. We held off this offensive without breaking and defeated a repeat of Sadr's uprising in August 2004 without alienating the Shia majority.

I did not expect Syria and Iran to be so bold as to wage war against us in Iraq as they did. Nor did I expect we'd let these two countries get away with this support. Maybe we had no good options to stop them once they decided to wage war, but I didn't expect it.

From then on it was a slow grinding away of the various factions waging insurgencies and terror campaigns, while we built up the Iraqi security forces and governing structure. The Iraqi government didn't want to use violence against Sadr and promised us they could take care of him quietly. Things again looked to be calming down through the winter of 2005-2006.

The bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra in February 2006 by al Qaeda in Iraq signalled the beginning of a new phase where al Qaeda and Sadrists slaughtered each other's civilian supporters in an effort to provoke civil war. Baghdad grew increasingly chaotic despite two Coalition attempts to pacify the city, and civilian casualties edged up nationwide before exploding beginnning in November 2006.

This was the first time I began to worry about winning the war. Even though our enemies were not beaten, I also knew that Iraqi forces were getting better and more numerous. I expected they could eventually defeat the enemies. But I knew the Iraqis needed our support and I didn't know if our willingness to fight would last long enough to achieve this. My worry lasted through the new Congress' attempts to lose the war in the spring and summer of 2007, and didn't ease until fall 2007.

The violence had remained high as we crafted and then executed the surge, beginning in earnest during summer 2007. This broke al Qaeda in Iraq and, more quietly, we broke apart Sadr's outfit which had reacted to quiet defeat by declaring they were on a ceasefire. Sunni Arabs also decided in large numbers to abandon hope of beating us, and to side with us to destroy the hated jihadis. Beginning in Anbar and spreading to the capital area, this was the the fourth major piece of the mosaic of enemies facing us to break.

By early 2008, the Iranian-backed Sadrist remnants were broken by Iraqi and American military action from Baghdad to Basra, and the only significant fighting remains in Mosul and Diyala province. This is being snuffed out although it is taking longer than the Iraqis hoped it would take. But we are still pulling back from combat, judging the Iraqis strong enough to beat the enemy if we stay in a mostly support role. I have braced since fall 2007 for a new surprise that would indicate a new phase of the war, but the closest we've had was the spring 2008 offensive by the Iraqi government against the Sadrists--and that worked out well for us.

The result is an insurgency (of multiple enemies, primarily Baathists, nationalist Sunni Arabs, al Qaeda in Iraq, and the pro-Iran Sadrists) that has taken six years to mostly defeat. Only the hard core remain but they lack significant sources of support right now. These thugs must be hunted down and killed or driven from Iraq.

When you consider that insurgencies often last a generation until broken (witness the final defeat this year of the 25-year long Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka), the enemies inside Iraq didn't do too well, historically speaking. But lots of Baathist money and weapons already in Iraq combined with Baathist technical expertise in bomb-making and plentiful imported jihadis to use them made the resistance far more powerful than they would otherwise have been given their numbers.

And who knows? Maybe there is a silver lining in this long insurgency and terror campaign. Perhaps the difficulty that Iraqis had in winning their freedom and defending their fledgling democracy from foreign and domestic jihadis, Baathists, and Sadrists, will make their achievement all the more dearer. Maybe a quiet Iraq in summer 2003 without the subsequent fighting would have made democracy seem like an alien concept planted by America rather than an Iraqi goal paid for with the blood of many Iraqis who wanted a better future.

I guess I still have great expectations. But even as I knew in summer 2003, the future of Iraq still depends on how Iraqis defend their gains.