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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Snapshot of early challenges with and our hope for Iraq

In the excellent Belmont Club, an anti-war commenter referred to a wonderfully instructive snapshot from the Washington Post of the early challenges and our hope for Iraq: Occupation Forces Halt Elections Throughout Iraq by William Booth and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, June 28, 2003. (Article at commondreams.org) The article has been widely cited by anti-war people as proof that the liberal American promise for Iraq was a lie. I understood the article differently.

My reaction:
Thank you. That Washington Post article, in its entirety, is a highly worthwhile read as a snapshot of both the challenges we faced and the justification for our hopes at a critical early stage in the post-war. The WP piece agrees with stories told to me by a friend of mine who served in OIF I (as a soldier, not a CPA civilian). He was an EOD team leader whose jobs were the WMD hunt and destroying ammo stockpiles. He told me how local Iraqi leaders sought out any Americans in leadership positions - even him, an EOD SSG on a non-diplomatic mission - to start the process of building the post-Saddam Iraq. The problem was, while our soldiers were the only practical interface with Iraqis, it was not their job (as it is now) to manage the transition. It was the CPA's job, but they were absent on the ground.

It's terrific reporting by the WP. The Bush admin has been widely accused of being unaware of the conflictual complexities of Iraqi society. If anything, the record shows that the Bush admin was, perhaps, overly sensitive and cautious about those complexities (eg, Bremer's fear of Baathists and Sadrists filling the vacuum).

Given the internal conflicts, missing the right political structure, the Bush admin clearly didn't trust the Iraqi factions to avoid a civil war. In hindsight, perhaps we should have taken a step back from the outset, focused on security, and simply helped the Iraqis while they took the initiative in building their post-Saddam civil society. We would have needed to trust them that they could make that leap from their own history.

In any case, the WP piece captures the caution by Bremer over the complexities of Iraqi society, the desire to avoid the risks of local factions undermining national reconciliation, and the desire by Bremer for a deliberate controlled transition to a stable post-Saddam Iraq. He didn't want a nation-building project doomed to fracture due to a rushed transition cracked with instrinsic structural flaws.

Remember, we had recently watched Afghanistan and Yugoslavia fracture with bloody civil war. We didn't want that to happen in Iraq on our watch, and it was Bremer's job with the CPA to make sure it didn't happen.

The choice of Iraqi military leaders wasn't about creating a puppet government and keeping popularly elected leaders out of the political process, as was expressed by the disillusioned Iraqis in the article. Those generals were supposed to be interim managers who were trained to take orders, top-down, while the CPA organized a national political structure, according to a blueprint, that could incorporate democratically chosen leaders without the nation fracturing.

Sensitive tasks. On their face, Bremer's decisions made sense. In a more 'laboratory' setting, if Bremer had fewer variables, fewer destructive agents, more time, and better constructive agents, he maybe could have done his job.

Unfortunately, we know what happened. Bremer failed. He could not implement his blueprint for post-Saddam transition in Iraq in the deliberate controlled fashion he - and most of us - wanted.

The WP piece backs up my ex-EOD friend's experience that Iraqis did, in fact, trust Americans and were willing to work with us in the early post-war. Clearly, however, that trust was (understandably) conditional and it had its limits. The enemy successfully moved to exploit those limits at the same time Bremer and the CPA, while well-intentioned, were insufficiently competent to accomplish their mission.

Some say that the Iraqis had to go through the bloody turmoil of the last 5 years, a cruel learning curve, to arrive at where they are today. I can't be certain that view is wrong, but I disagree. I believe if GEN Petraeus and his COIN warriors had been in charge in Iraq immediately in the post-war, we would have a far different story in Iraq today.

As is, the Iraqis gave us a real chance to fulfill the American promise in 2003, and we failed them then. If they've given us another chance, I hope we don't fail the Iraqi people again.

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