Postwar Iraq: The Big Picture

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2003

News reports out of Iraq are becoming ever more pessimistic, what with guerrilla attacks continuing and a new tape purportedly of Saddam urging Iraqis to continue the campaign of deadly attacks against Coalition soldiers. However, an objective observer would have to say that these reports lack perspective. The real problem is not the short-term challenge in Iraq, but the long-term health of the U.S. military.

Yes, it is true that 26 American troops have died in Iraq since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to hostilities. Yes, guerrilla resistance appears to have become more organized and coordinated than before. Yes, Saddam appears to be alive. But before we declare Iraq a quagmire (which some have been trying to do since the fourth day of the war), let’s look at the big picture.

First, let’s recall what didn’t happen—the nightmare scenarios involving block-by-block urban warfare against an aroused Iraqi population, or the transformation of Iraq into something along the lines of the disputed West Bank territories. Many of those who were pushing these nightmare scenarios three months ago are the very experts who now complain the loudest about the lack of progress in Iraq.

Next let’s examine the track record of guerrilla war. The guerrilla fighter is, of course, a staple of left-wing romanticism. Mao, Ho, Fidel, Che—these constitute the pantheon of “peoples’ war.” But it is hard to point to a case in which guerrillas were successful without outside support and the existence of a conventional force of some sort. The guerrillas in Iraq lack both. Rooting them out will be a matter of time. Patience is the key.

Ironically, the very success of the Coalition forces during the war can be seen to be the major cause of the guerrilla resistance. By gaining the strategic objectives of the war so rapidly while minimizing Iraqi casualties, both civilian and military, the Coalition may not have convinced the Iraqis that they really had been defeated. There is little question that the devastation that Germany and Japan suffered in World War II played a major role in convincing the Germans and Japanese to cooperate with the occupiers, contributing in large measure to the relative peaceful character of postwar occupation and reconstruction. In addition, the Germans under U.S. and British occupation knew that the alternative to having to work with Americans and Brits was an inevitably more ruthless Soviet occupation. Hence, they were on their best behavior.

The Japanese case is even more complex. Yes, Japan was ruined by the war. But even in the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, many Japanese were prepared to fight on for the emperor if he had chosen to continue the fight. It was only because he acquiesced in the U.S. occupation that it became the standard against which every other occupation is measured. To ensure his cooperation, American authorities ignored the participation of prominent members of the royal family in such war crimes as the “Rape of Nanking.” (For a riveting fictional account of the U.S. occupation of Japan, read Jim Webb’s novel, The Emperor’s General, the title of which refers to Douglas MacArthur.)

What we face in Iraq is neither the romantic guerrilla of leftist lore nor the sullen, resentful populace of a country that knows it has been defeated. It is much closer to the aftermath of the 1989 revolution against the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. As Con Coughlin writes in the London Sunday Telegraph, loyalists in the Romanian Securitate, the dictator’s praetorian guard, “staged a spirited, and deadly, resistance in the hope that they might succeed in restoring Ceausescu to power. The resistance quickly evaporated after the bullet-ridden bodies [of the dictator and his wife Elena] were paraded on television.”

Which brings us to Saddam. The administration is ill served by comments such as those of Ari Fleischer who attempted to laugh off the new Saddam tape recording. “Regardless of whether it is him or not, regardless of whether he’s dead or alive, the mission, in terms of getting rid of the regime, has been achieved.”

The status of Saddam does matter when it comes to pacifying Iraq. Few Iraqis are prepared to cooperate fully with Coalition forces until the Coalition can demonstrate that Saddam no longer poses a threat to them. The capture of Saddam and his monstrous sons is critically important to the stability of postwar Iraq. Offering a substantial reward for Saddam is a good first step. After all, intelligence is the key to locating Saddam. There is reason to believe that in postwar Iraq, money might trump loyalty or fear.

What else should the Coalition do to win the ongoing guerrilla war in Iraq? The increasing use of military preemption against suspected guerrillas and their infrastructure rather than responding to attacks mirrors the policy of preemption at the national level. But again, intelligence is the key.

In terms of equipment, a young Army officer writing in the Army Times has called for replacing the ubiquitous HUMV, an unprotected wheeled utility vehicle especially vulnerable to rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), with the old M113 armored personnel carrier on ground patrols. Superseded long ago in Army mechanized and armored units by the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, these older APCs, with certain modifications, have been used effectively by the Israelis in policing trouble spots in the disputed territories.

The issue of troop strength in Iraq has been a major source of misunderstanding. When critics claim that the Army is too small to do what is necessary in Iraq, they don’t necessarily mean that the force in country is too small, but that the Army as a whole is stretched so thin to meet vastly expanded requirements, not only in Iraq but throughout the globe, that readiness problems will begin to undercut military effectiveness. The Army is especially concerned about recruiting shortfalls and the potential loss of noncommissioned officers, which are very likely to adversely affect the Army’s performance down the road.

Those who say the Army should not do peacekeeping in a reconstructed Iraq are wrong. War termination is an important objective, and a favorable outcome in Iraq requires that the United States stay the course. Prospects for success are good. Even a pessimist, as long as he was objective, would have to concede that Iraq is by no means a quagmire. The situation in Iraq is progressing, despite setbacks. But the health of the United States Army is in the balance. Today’s force is overcommitted and the strains are beginning to show.

Mackubin T. Owens, an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center, is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.