Jeffrey Collins: Worrying about the day after in Iraq

“You pay attention to the day after, I’ll pay attention to the day of”. These words, spoken by General Tommy Franks, the chief architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were invoked during a conversation with his civilian counterparts in the lead-up to the war. And, in my view, they aptly sum up the failure of American strategy in Iraq.

Strategy, in the military sense of the term, is composed of two interlocking components: the military (or operational) and the political. The former deals with the actual use of force while the latter, and most important, is about the goals that one wants to achieve through the use of organized violence. The two shall never be treated separately.

But this did not happen in 2003. Instead, Franks—with the backing of the Bush administration—contented himself with the military aspects of the war. Consequently, the joint US-UK invasion force marched into Iraq with too few troops to secure the population and with practically no plan to run the country once Saddam fell.

The result was, as we know, total chaos. The political vacuum that emerged in April and May 2003 set the tone for the situation that exists on the ground today: the looting of Iraq’s public infrastructure literally crippled the state’s ability to function. Hospitals lost critical equipment, while government buildings were stripped of furnishings and wiring. Just as importantly, the looting presented an image of an uncaring America, creating a permissive environment that sectarian gangs quickly filled (once they finished robbing Saddam’s unguarded armories).

These errors, to use such a euphemism, were soon followed by more awful ad hoc decision-making: the disbanding of the Iraqi army (they could keep their AK47s); the de-Baathification policy which effectively prevented the professional classes from ever returning to work again, which disproportionately impacted the minority Sunnis; and the imposition of a democratic system on a divided, demographically uneven society, which further inflamed internal tensions (as my colleague Henry Srebrnik covered yesterday).

While the 2007-08 “surge” produced some promise of Iraqi unity through the skillful mating of counterinsurgency tactics with political goals, the Obama Administration reverted back to inept form soon after. The focus again became the military, this time building up the Iraqi army, while the political realm wavered. It is the consequences of all these mistakes that we are dealing with today.

The Hustings

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