William Perry At Home--II
Bill Long 12/18/06
Mistakes in Iraq--Only the Big Ones
I well recall the 2004 Presidential debates between John Kerry and President George Bush. The President was asked by media members what mistakes he had made in the Iraq War. Thinking for more than a moment, the President said that he couldn't recall any mistakes that he made. In spite of this claim, which was either disingenuous or ignorant, the American people re-elected him. Well, the Democrats really didn't put forward a very viable candidate, in my judgment.
But when William Perry spoke a few days ago, he calmly listed what he and the Iraq Study Group felt were six significant mistakes made by the current Administration in conducting the Iraq War. For the record, here they are: (1) Our failure to secure support from significant allies and from Iraq's neighbors before the invasion; (2) Not putting enough troops into Iraq once the decision to invade was made; (3) Disbanding the Iraqi military and other security services, thus placing approximately 500,000 young men out of work all at once; (4) Failure to recognize and take appropriate steps to combat the growing insurgency; (5) Promoting the new Iraqi constitution when we knew that 20% of the population, the Sunni minority--which had historically controlled the country--would not participate willingly in the electoral or parliamentary process at this point; and (6) Giving al-Qaeda and other terrorist cells and organizations lots of reasons to foment sectarian violence and recruit additional members.
My reaction to some of Mr. Perry's "list" was mixed. Certainly al-Qaeda would have recruited members whether or not we invaded Iraq; certainly the desire to get an Iraqi constitution written (it was approved in Oct. 2005, just two years after our attack; for point of comparison, it was 11 years between our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and another four years until the Bill of Rights was approved) hastened that process before people could fully "buy in." Because of the habits and demands of the American people, things have to be "speeded up" considerably today. We want instant victories and clean-ups. We lose interest in Katrina-ravished New Orleans if things are not put into order in a few months. So, the Bush Administration knew it was going to have to act quickly after victory was proclaimed in May 2003; but the quickness of action belies the seriousness of embedded hostility that we both discovered and stoked in that land.
You and I could have long discussions on which mistake was the worst. I can't decide whether it was our 'impatience' in invading before securing more widespread world support [the language of "coalition of the willing was misleading in the extreme from the beginning]; our disbanding the military structure in the country and not realizing that this was going to be a fertile ground for recruitment of radicals by whoever would pay these men the most; or our letting the ghosts of Viet Nam control us by putting in a fighting force that was based not on military needs but on our fear of numbers of casualties. As Mr. Perry said the other day, a rough rule-of-thumb calculation of troops needed for an operation like this is 1 per 50,000 of population. Since Iraq has a little over 20 million people, the number Perry supported after invasion became irreversible [he said he opposed invasion in 2002/03] was about 400,000. Instead, we have been "hampered" with a force of "only" about 140,000.
Where To Go From Here
As Perry went over a series of recommendations from the report (it had 79 of them, even 22 more than Heinz), I really began to feel quite hopeless. He favored talks to the radical neighboring states (Iraq and Syria) and pressuring friendly states (such as Saudi Arabia) to see if they could all be convinced that a stable Iraq benefits them or, conversely, that a fractured Iraq actually damages them. The former is probably not possible these days, and the latter is too little too late. The Iraq Study Group's suggestion that we gradually withdraw troops so that only a skeletal force remain by early 2008 seems like a pipe dream thought up by people who wished things were not as bad as they are. A consensus seems to be building that we have a sort of "surge" force of about 30,000 additional troops in and around Baghdad beginning within a few months and perhaps lasting until summer 2007. This would recognize that the "Battle for Baghdad" is the crucial battle in the War that remains, though, of course, other trouble centers persis.
The "Seniors" who heard Perry's presentation asked some significant questions three of which I will mention here.
(1) How does one protect the life of embedded American troops? Clarification and Answer: One of the ISG's recommendations was to "embed" additional American troops with Iraqi forces to hasten the training of those forces. But this would make the troops much more vulnerable. I would say that America has tolerance for losses of 100-200 troops per month, but if we began to have double-digit losses of troops several times per week, even the 25% or 30% of people who think George Bush is doing it right in Iraq would quickly run for cover. Answer: Perry doesn't know, but everyone knows that will be important, and it probably isn't as big a problem as our "horror story" imagination would suggest.
(2) To what extent are we really building an Iraqi army? Answer: a distinction needs to be made between the Iraqi police, which Perry said is almost worthless as a law enforcement power (i.e., it does legitimate police work by day and then goes home to its various militias at night), and the Iraqi army, which numbers now about 150,000 soldiers. The latter, he feels is the nucleus of an Iraqi (and not sectarian) army. I don't know about this; it seems that until sectarian violence in general declines that the Iraqi army will reflect that sectarian spirit. Division of the country into three smaller countries on sectarian lines is now opposed by almost all leaders, especially since the issue of division of oil resources is currently unsolved.
(3) To what extent is Nouri al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister, the person we must support? Answer: He was put in place by the Iraqis, and it would look very suspicious and damaging to the US interests if we were to "install" an overtly pro-US government at this point. Thus, the option of us "firing" the Iraqi government is really no option at all.
Though one can debate endlessly our steps and missteps in Iraq and how we ought to proceed, I think the deeper issue is how the United States handles itself as the world's only Superpower. The next essay discusses this subject.