The War After the War

U.S. Army Documents Warn of Occupation Hazards

Despite the sanguine way George W. Bush and his chamberlains talk about a post-war Iraq, senior military officers are worried.

According to recent unpublicized U.S. Army War College studies being read with increasing interest by some Pentagon planners, "The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious."

And that's especially true if occupation force soldiers are not retrained to be "something similar to a constabulary force" and imbued with the understanding that "force is often the last resort of the occupation soldier." The War College studies explore in detail a troubling paradox: While all experts agree that stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq would be a protracted endeavor, "the longer a U.S. occupation of Iraq continues," one of the studies notes, "the more danger exists that elements of the Iraqi population will become impatient and take violent measures to hasten the departure of U.S. forces."

After a victory in Iraq, the transition from soldier to cop may be harrowing for the U.S. military.
illustration: Roberto Parada
After a victory in Iraq, the transition from soldier to cop may be harrowing for the U.S. military.

One study broaches the subject of suicide attacks against U.S. soldiers. "The impact of suicide bombing attacks in Israel goes beyond their numbers," it says, "and this fact will also capture the imagination of would-be Iraqi terrorists."

Yet Bush and some of his top advisers have consistently preached that laying the foundation for post-blood-and-sand Iraq really won't be that much of a chore. In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Dubya's tone was upbeat as he rattled off a succinct post-Saddam checklist for the U.S. Army: Deliver medicine to ailing Iraqis, hand out emergency rations, destroy weapons, secure Iraq from those who would "spread chaos" internally, and mind the oil fields—but not for "a day more" than necessary.

Indeed, after the speech, a "senior administration official" told one reporter that a transition from U.S. military to U.S. civilian control over Iraq would take only a few months. Testifying before the House Budget Committee earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's suggestion that a U.S. occupation force might run to the hundreds of thousands; in a recent interview with the Voice, a senior Pentagon official dismissed General Shinseki's comments as "bullshit from a Clintonite enamored of using the army for peacekeeping and nation-building and not winning wars."

But at a time when the U.S. Army is a case study in multitasking—fighting the Global War on Terrorism (or GWOT, in Milspeak), keeping watch on the Korean peninsula, peacekeeping in the Balkans, chasing Islamic rebels in the Philippines, saddling up for more action in Colombia, to name but a few chores—a number of military professionals are quietly venting spleen about how disingenuous they believe the Bush administration is being with the public about post-war Iraq.

Some are merely angry at what they see as a gap between optimistic policy pronouncements and the hard realities of a by-the-numbers post-war reconstruction. But perhaps more importantly, others are angry at what they see as the administration's neoconservative ideologues' playing fast and loose with soldiers' lives in an effort to realize a dubious vision for the Middle East. Because what the neocons dream of—either an instantly democratic Iraq that begins a "domino effect" of democratic revolution and renewal across the Middle East, or an Iraq whose defining aspect of democracy is a volatility that destabilizes the Arab world—is at odds with the lessons the army has learned about modern post-conflict stabilization. The situation has the potential to produce a slew of unintended or unforeseen consequences beyond the U.S.'s ability to handle them.

According to "The Day After: The Army in a Post-Conflict Iraq," a December 2002 paper produced by the War College's Center for Strategic Leadership, army studies have concluded that even with United Nations support, "a post-conflict Iraq requirement of 65,000 to 80,000" U.S. Army personnel is the low-end manpower requirement for a military occupation expected to last not a matter of months, but "a minimum of five years and possibly as many as ten."

Read on and you have to wonder whether the White House is just ignoring unpleasant possibilities, or reveling in a Roveian-Rumsfeldian cloud-cuckoo-land: While the paper reports that "experts disagree as to the required time frame needed to accomplish the post-conflict strategic requirements, particularly the governance and justice aspects, all agree that it won't be measured in months, but years." Part of the reason, the study explains, is that the past decade of army post-conflict stabilization operations has revealed that transitioning from immediate post-war stabilization to civil society is, for a host of practical reasons, complicated. It's one of the ironies of modern conflict: The war itself may go fast, but securing the peace is what matters, and often nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies don't have the resources to rapidly take up the slack—which means the military has to, even though it doesn't really want to. Realistically, the military will need to facilitate a gradual "measured withdrawal and handover to appropriate UN agencies and entities," and can't just toss the reconstruction ball to civil authorities.

While in one post-war scenario, according to the studies, Iraq's "second-tier technical and professional leaders remain in place and attempt to resume normalcy" and "the general populace passively cooperates as coalition forces attempt to stabilize the situation," the paper nonetheless forecasts the post-Saddam environment for U.S. troops as "very unstable." Key governance and legal functions are likely to be shaky as "police and judiciary are relatively dysfunctional due to the purging of the top leadership and no replacements." U.S. soldiers also find themselves in harm's way as "some Iraqi military units are operating at will and conducting guerrilla attacks throughout the country. Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish tribal leaders are ruling respective areas and are initiating frequent skirmishes in an effort to expand their power base."

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