The Iraq War aftermath revisited

Guest post by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

Donald Rumsfeld’s recently published memoirs, in which he pins blame for the chaotic aftermath of the Iraq invasion primarily on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for failing to grant Iraqis ‘the right to govern themselves’ and thereby ‘fanning the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency’, are yet another example of how US officials seem more concerned with defending their reputations rather than confronting their mistakes to learn valuable lessons. Of course Rumsfeld has every right to defend his decision-making, but to deny that any U.S. failures stemmed from exceptionally poor post-war planning on the part of the Pentagon, or that Rumsfeld himself failed to provide enough troops for the aftermath of the fall of Saddam’s regime, is appalling revisionism.

Fifty years of fighting the Cold War meant that the U.S. government had over the years devoted much more money to the military budget. As a result, it was primarily the Pentagon, and not the relatively underfunded State Department or USAID agency, that was put in charge of post-war planning. The latter bodies had inadequate resources to take on the job even if they wanted to. Even so the Defence Department itself had little expertise and few qualified personnel to take on what the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has called the largest rebuilding project in American history.

Now Rumsfeld’s decision on troop numbers was not based on sinister intentions to unleash chaos on the country, but was rather rooted in a dogmatic belief that the Iraq invasion would turn out to be a best-case scenario where the Americans would be universally viewed as liberators by Iraqis and greeted with flowers on the streets. This conviction partly stemmed from a meeting in the White House with three Iraqi exiles in January 2003. Unfortunately Rumsfeld appears oblivious to the fact that insufficient troop levels meant that widespread looting, which caused far more damage to Iraq’s infrastructure than Coalition bombing, could not be controlled by U.S. forces. In addition a combination of insufficient troop levels and the lack of a counter-insurgency strategy (hitherto abandoned by military theorists since the Vietnam War) meant that even if the CPA had immediately been determined to rein in sectarian militias, it would not have been able to do so. It is this subject in particular that both Rumsfeld and the two former CPA officials who have responded to him in The Washington Post ignore, together with the problem of political reconciliation in the country after the fall of Saddam’s regime. Here, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez are glossing over very important points.

The question of whether Iraqis were given ‘the right to govern themselves’ in the period 2003-4 is not nearly as relevant as Rumsfeld thinks. Dan Senor and Roman Martinez are indeed right that ‘a sovereign Iraqi government established in the spring or summer of 2003 would have empowered the Shiite leaders of the Iraqi opposition movement in exile before the war’. What these CPA officials neglect to mention, however, is that the CPA appointed those leaders bent on ‘aggressive de-Baathification’ to the Iraqi Governing Council in the summer of 2003, including politicians like Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim of the Shiite Islamist SCIRI party and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, neither of whom enjoyed popular support amongst Iraqis. With these figures, the CPA itself went about pursuing a de-Baathification process that essentially became de-Sunnification, instead of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that could have eased tensions between Iraq’s various communities as Kanan Makiya had hoped for. Figures such as Paul Bremer himself compared Baathist Iraq to the Greater German Reich, consequently feeling a need to go along with the new Iraqi leadership to punish all those who had been involved with the regime in any meaningful way, as was initially attempted with the de-Nazification process after World War Two. It does seem to be forgotten that de-Nazification as it was first implemented was recognised to be a failure and accordingly abandoned: by the end of WWII the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had millions of members, and not all of them had membership for ideological reasons.

The most infamous decision as part of this process was undoubtedly the disbanding of the army and all other regular security forces by Bremer. These men were offered no pensions or other jobs. Not only did this put thousands of Sunnis out of work and collectively punish them, thereby fuelling the Sunni insurgency, it also paved the way for sectarian militias, whom Bremer viewed as protection for Iraq’s recently-returned exile groups, to fill the ranks of the new Iraqi army and police. Bremer, in failing to deal with the militias, allowed Moqtada al-Sadr to form his Mahdi Army and Shiite militias to create their own de facto sovereign areas. Bremer had scrapped Jay Garner’s plan for a $70 million project to demobilise the militias by integrating some into the security forces whilst offering a pension and providing civil vocational training for others. When the CPA was finally forced to pay attention to the militias in 2004, it was already too late to reverse the situation. For instance, with the creation of the new Iraqi interim government in the summer of 2004, former Badr Brigade commander Bryan Jabr Solagl became Interior Minister, firing hundreds of Sunnis, encouraging his militiamen to entrench themselves in the ranks of the police and carry out sectarian attacks on Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni insurgent operations. What’s more, the U.S. continued to go along with the disbanded CPA’s policy of hindering the possibility of political reconciliation. For example, together with SCIRI, U.S. officials put sufficient pressure on Nouri Al-Maliki to scrap a plan to grant amnesty for insurgents and reform the de-Baathification process in June 2006. It was only in 2007, with the advent of the surge, that a policy of reconciliation was finally adopted. Yet even then, only in Anbar province was the Iraqi government directly involved in political reconciliation efforts, when reintegration plans should really be conducted by the government and not a third country.

A final point worth mentioning is that the CPA also implemented a free trade and privatization program that was unsuitable for an almost totally centralised command economy, a structure that is still largely in place in Iraq today. These policies only flooded the country with cheap imports from countries such as China, putting many Iraqi enterprises out of business and aggravating the problem of unemployment. However, this was a relatively minor error compared to (i) Rumsfeld’s failure to provide adequate troop levels and have ready any detailed post-war planning in light of the ethnic and sectarian tensions Saddam had exploited in Iraq, (ii) the CPA and new Iraqi leadership’s mishandling of the de-Baathification process and (iii) the failure of all three actors to rein in the sectarian militias soon after the fall of the Baathist regime. Nonetheless Rumsfeld, the CPA officials and Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi (who is, incidentally, the first cousin of the man who married my eldest maternal aunt) actually have yet to come to terms with their mistakes.

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