“The Regime is Gone”–Early Lessons from Iraq

With the main fighting in Iraq ending and the Ba’ath party hold on the levers of power broken, the U.S. and UK can justly claim military success. Coalition casualties have been low, and all coalition personnel known to have been held by the Iraqis have been freed. For the second time in 18 months, governments accused of harboring and supporting terrorists have been deposed. Iraqis, like their Afghan brethren last year, have been released from an oppressive and brutal regime.

But unlike Afghanistan, where U.S. forces were relatively few and powerful warlords exercised control of and imposed order on different regions outside the capital, Iraqi security services were so pervasive that virtually no real alternate power centers ever developed inside the country. Exiled Iraqis tried to create viable opposition to Saddam’s rule, but even with Pentagon and State Department support (often for different factions), they made little progress. A number of the exiles returned under U.S. auspices, but they have had little impact to date.

Meanwhile, television commentaries and images of celebrating Iraqis quickly became images of utter chaos–unrestrained looting and even wanton destruction of property. If it could be moved, it was taken; if it couldn’t, it was smashed or burned. Whether in Basra or Baghdad, Kirkuk or Mosul, the coalition forces were simply too few to even seriously attempt regaining control of the cities without the cooperation of large segments of the population, which they did not have. The following two examples illustrate the problem:

  • In Basra, British forces (who are in division strength) designated a local Sunni tribal sheik and former brigadier general in Saddam’s army to help select and lead an interim council for the city, which suffered from massive looting. But as soon as the sheik’s identity became known, a powerful rival tribe nearly rioted while Shi’ites held a large protest march.
  • In Baghdad, some facilities, such as the UN compound and the Ministry of Petroleum, were secured by American troops, while others, notably the Museum of Antiquities with all its irreplaceable artifacts, were left exposed. Some of the more egregious looters–those who invaded hospitals and schools–were stopped and “arrested.” But additional large numbers of military police, light infantry forces, or paramilitaries (carabiniere or gendarmes) are needed to free regular forces to mop up organized resistance.

There is another reason for bringing in new units with peacekeeping or police training. Military units that have been fighting pitched battles are still psychologically oriented to kill people and destroy things. This is not the mindset conducive to policing or to reestablishing public order. The distinctions between missions and operational environment are such that U.S. (and other) military units assigned to peacekeeping duty in Bosnia and Kosovo receive special training in “peace operations” before they are deployed–and they are coming from non-combat environments. Even Marines, trained for the “three block war” (theoretically enabling a unit to switch from humanitarian assistance in one spot to more active peacekeeping in another and/or to engaging in deadly combat in a third), would expect that one of these three options was their initial primary mission. And this expectation would set their psychological outlook and inform their actions vis-à-vis the civilian population.

Obviously, it is still early days. Military forces are still dealing with remnants of Saddam’s fedayeen around Tikrit and they continue to engage small groups resisting the coalition around other towns (i.e., near Mansour). Even so, there are some lessons that can already be reaffirmed or drawn.

  • No matter how remote the possibility, never give up hope that prisoners taken by the enemy will be recovered alive. A corollary is to plan and conduct operations that minimize civilian death and destruction even if this means forgoing some military-related mobile targets placed in civilian areas in contravention of international law. Minimizing civilian deaths might be the difference between recovering prisoners alive or dead. It also can go far toward minimizing suspicions about the true motives for war.
  • Be prepared for rapid transitions in missions. When one country (or coalition of countries) occupies another, the occupying power(s) does not have the luxury of discretely segmenting its activities into, for example, full-scale war, mopping-up remaining opposition, reestablishing order and basic services, occupation duty, humanitarian relief, and re-integration into the world community. Just as there is in the military a spectrum of actions from high- to low-intensity warfare that invariably overlaps, so too is there a spectrum of post-combat military and civilian activities that must be undertaken. It is just as vital to build and then execute a highly flexible, well-resourced plan to win the post-war battle of public expectations as it is to devise and execute a highly flexible military campaign plan.
  • In reconstituting a civil administration, particularly in a country in which the previous civil administration was highly repressive and of long duration, those among the population who work with the occupying power as interim leaders must command the respect and support of significant segments of the public. It is particularly important for the occupying power to understand the make-up and status of any surviving, organized elements of civil society, for the leaders of these groups might command wide respect–or they might be prone to the same authoritarianism as the just-deposed regime. Above all, biases for or against types of organizations (e.g., religion) participating in or excluded from governance in the occupying country’s political system should not prejudice the selections made for governance in the occupied country. Whenever possible, the emerging governmental forms should be connected to indigenous traditions and previous national political experiences.
  • Do not plan on spontaneous public acclaim and a popular uprising in support of an invading power. As oppressive as a regime might be, in one sense it is tolerable if it is indigenous. To impose a regime of outsiders, whether from the occupying country or exiles from the occupied country, more often than not breeds resentment and rejection of significant reforms.
  • Anticipate civil unrest and provide sufficient resources–civil affairs units and military police–to control significant facilities of the previous regime. This was not done, even though it was clear early in the campaign that large-scale civil disorder would occur as the larger towns were captured and Ba’ath party rule collapsed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, interviewed April 13, rejected the phrasing that the U.S. “allowed” looting, defiantly declaring “that’s what happens when you go from a dictatorship with repressed order, police state to something that is going to be different. There’s a transition period, and no one is control…. We don’t allow bad things to happen. Bad things do happen in life, and people do loot.”
    Another option is to create and finance a large standing cadre of armed international police trained for early entry into a failed or defeated state. The main responsibility of this force would be the rapid restoration of civil law and order–thereby obviating any inclination by military commanders to impose martial law. A companion activity would screen for suitability in the new system policemen from the deposed regime who were not involved in human rights abuses. Once civil order is restored, additional screening, recruiting, and training (or re-training) of police candidates, and monitoring their performance against international policing standards, could proceed. A prototype for this option is the European Union’s (plus Russia, Canada, and Turkey) 512 person Bosnia-Herzegovina police training and monitoring force that assumed these duties in January 2003 from the UN.
  • Whether or not the UN sanctions a military action, it must take the lead in developing with relevant nongovernmental humanitarian aid agencies plans for both stockpiling and the “rolling” distribution of immediate humanitarian relief supplies (water, food, essential medical supplies) in the wake of military operations. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, civilian populations lost electricity, fresh water, sanitation, and access to food subsidies for days, with the lack of clean water being the most critical. Reciprocal planning by and cooperation from the occupying power will be required to minimize disease and malnutrition and to ensure that minimal substitute services are available on a predictable basis.

Organizations that might have opposed war must not adopt the position that by participating in planning for post-conflict relief efforts or for new institutions of governance, they are somehow legitimizing the war or compromising their position. What is paramount both during and after a war is the health and well-being of the civilian population. But for the UN and nongovernmental agencies to be most effective, the warring government(s) must share information and permit access to the conflict area as soon as possible. In short, the combatants must respect the independence and neutrality of these humanitarian organizations.

If people remain the focus, one other vital service that the UN and nongovernmental organizations can provide is to constantly remind the warring parties of their obligations to minimize the harm inflicted on noncombatants. If minimizing harm seems too much of a restraint, then the motives and justification for the war must be questioned–and the answers might suggest that war was not the answer.