U.S. Army Stretched Thin in Iraq

Flashback: 2002 War College report predicted it all

"It's not like there's a bunch of roving warlords and ethnic or religious differences on the same scale as Afghanistan," the official contended. "We're getting word that a large part of the military and Ba'ath are opposed to Saddam. And I think the Iraqis, the exiles who want to go back and help rebuild in particular, are getting angry with people who don't believe they can transition to democracy without the U.S. sticking around for a long time."


Yet much of this flies in the face of the Army War College's 84-page "Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario." Designed as guidance for military planners, the report provides a detailed "mission matrix" of 135 tasks essential to Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction. Its tone has been aptly described by one officer involved in post-war planning as "Here's everything you need to do to do this right and get out of Iraq as quickly and effectively as possible, but don't hold your breath."

Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrol an area in Tal Afar, Iraq.
photo: army.mil
Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrol an area in Tal Afar, Iraq.

As much a historic inventory of American occupation and post-conflict stabilization operations as it is a considered view of post-war Iraq, among other things the paper concludes that "recent American experiences with post-conflict operations have generally featured poor planning, problems with relevant military force structure, and difficulties with a handover from military to civilian responsibility." While the administration has often tried to describe a post-Saddam Iraq as something akin to post-war Germany and Japan, the paper notes that an entire army staff was dedicated to planning for post-war occupation two years before the end of World War II. In the case of Iraq, similar foresight has not been exercised.

And while General Douglas MacArthur "had the advantage of years of relative quiet to carry out his programs" in a post-war Japan that unconditionally surrendered, this occupation will be taking place in the Middle East, one of the most volatile regions in the world. In this case, "all American activities will be watched closely by the international community, and internal and external pressure to end any occupation will build quickly," and "regionally, the occupation will be viewed with great skepticism" on account of the fact that "the United States is deeply distrusted in the Arab world because of its strong ties to Israel and fears that it seeks to dominate Arab countries to control the region's oil."

While the occupation of Iraq "will probably be characterized by an initial honeymoon period during which the United States will reap the benefits of ridding the population of a brutal dictator," the report doesn't expect that to last too long, as "most Iraqis and most other Arabs will probably assume that the United States intervened in Iraq for its own reasons and not to liberate the population." Indeed, many of the report's principal points stand in contrast to what the planning officer characterizes as the Bush team's "rosy view of how quick and easy this will be." Among those points: "The administration of an Iraqi occupation will be complicated by deep religious, ethnic and tribal differences which dominate Iraqi society."

Noting that "Iraqi political values and institutions are rooted in a tortured history that must be understood before it is possible to consider the rehabilitation of Iraqi society," the report encapsulates the history of several hundred years of recurrent violence and instability owing to tribal, religious, and occupation-related tensions. "The establishment of democracy or even some sort of rough pluralism in Iraq, where it has never really existed previously, will be a staggering challenge for any occupation force" seeking to change a political system "where anti-democratic traditions are deeply ingrained." Indeed, the report adds, "it is also reasonable to expect considerable resistance to efforts at even pluralism."

As for returning exiles, "it is doubtful that the Iraqi population would welcome the leadership of the various exile groups after Saddam's defeat. . . . Iraqi citizens who have suffered under Saddam could well resent Iraqis coming from outside the country following a war and claiming a disproportionate amount of power." And even if some form of democracy does eventually emerge, Uncle Sam shouldn't expect kisses. "U.S. policymakers sometimes assume that a democratic government will be friendly to U.S. policies in the Middle East. This cannot," the report states, "be assumed in the case of Iraq."

Especially, the report says, if the U.S. isn't well attuned to internal Iraqi concerns. Although the war has been framed in large part as a mission of "disarmament," the report notes that the Iraqi army is one of the "few national institutions that stresses national unity," and that to "tear [it] apart in the war's aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society," as well as result in demobilized soldiers' joining tribal militias. And it's a given that the U.S. "will further need to seek indigenous forces to aid in law and order functions and help prepare for a post-occupation Iraq," an "inevitable part of rehabilitating" the country.

But "by developing local allies, the United States makes itself at least partially responsible for the behavior of those allies. Hence a pro-U.S. force that attacks any other Iraqi force for private resources threatens to involve the United States in the complex web of sectarian, tribal or clan warfare." In that case, the world might see something not unlike the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, where the actions of an occupying force's proxies create tensions between the occupier and other native groups.

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