What the US has learned (so far) in Iraq

Three years on, experts and participants are looking back to try and glean the war's lessons.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Listing things done wrong in Iraq, one veteran US policymaker put it bluntly: Pentagon leaders ignored analyses that indicated they needed more troops to keep order. The military was slow to develop a clear plan to counter the insurgency. For too long, US generals kept assuming that the day when Iraqi troops would be able to stand on their own was just around the corner.

Furthermore, neither the Americans nor the Iraqis moved fast enough to counter the rising influence of the radical Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

Is this critic a Democratic lawmaker, perhaps? A senior fellow from a liberal think-tank? No, he's Paul Bremer, President Bush's choice to head the Coalition Provisional Authority, who makes these points and more in an updated version of his book about his year in Iraq.

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"The biggest obstacle [to progress] has been the failure to provide adequate security for the Iraqi people," writes Mr. Bremer in a new afterword.

Bremer isn't despairing – he insists Iraq is (slowly) moving toward real democracy. But neither is he alone in assessing the recent past. Even as Washington looks forward to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, expected this week, many experts and policy organizations are looking back to try and glean crucial lessons from the three-plus years of the US experience in Iraq.

It's an unorganized process that involves everything from Army field manuals to the Council on Foreign Relations, and it may never reach consensus, given the range of opinions involved. But even exchanging ideas could be important, since – as hard as it is to believe now – the interests and power of the US mean that at some point it could find itself weighing new sorts of military interventions.

"If we learn from our mistakes, our next engagement to help rebuild a collapsed state might have a more successful outcome," writes Larry Diamond, a democracy expert and former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, in his book on his Iraq experience.

Military lessons

The US military, for its part, has been examining lessons learned in Iraq about tactics and operations for some time. This fall, the Army published a new field manu-al for counterinsurgency operations that draws extensively on research conducted from returning Iraq veterans.

Among its conclusions: The best counterinsurgency weapons do not shoot. Tactics that work this week might not work next week. The more force protection you use, the less effective you are. Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction. The most important decisions are not made by generals.

"Clearly, there has to be much more specific preparation for these very challenging counterinsurgency operations," said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Army Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, at a recent Brookings Institution seminar on military training.

The US reconstruction effort has undergone similar scrutiny. The special inspector general for Iraq, Stuart Bowen, has issued a series of stinging reports that both track individual projects and make recommendations for how the reconstruction process might be improved.

The scale of reconstruction needs simply overwhelmed the scanty preparations made prior to combat operations, according to Mr. Bowen. Among his suggestions: Create a cadre of reserve contracting officials, similar to the military reserve, who could be plucked from civilian life and deployed overseas in a crisis.

The White House has said less publicly what conclusions top administration officials have drawn from Iraq. However, during his stop in Vietnam last month, President Bush did say that the US involvement in the Vietnam War demonstrated something relevant to the nation's current situa-tion.

"One lesson is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while," Mr. Bush said.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has also compared Vietnam to Iraq and said that the current generation of US leaders has ignored or forgotten two things learned the hard way in southeast Asia: The White House needs the public's support to wage war, and the military needs to use overwhelming force when fighting it.

But if there is one principle that virtually every expert who reflects upon Iraq might agree on, it might be the obvious point that the US experience there has turned out to be very difficult.

To supporters of the war, it is a hard task at which the US must prevail. To opponents, it has spiraled into something beyond the American ability to influence.

"Regime change, as we've seen in Iraq, is an incredibly risky bet," said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event on the impact of Iraq on future US policies.

Personal experience

Beyond that, the lessons one draws from Iraq depend crucially on political belief and personal experience.

Thus Bremer, the civilian administrator who oversaw the development of Iraq's constitution and the beginning of its current political process, staunchly defends the overall US effort – but does criticize the military for its failure to counter the Iraqi insurgency.

"For too long the military assumed that Iraqi forces would be able to carry on the fight themselves in short order," writes Bremer in the new edition of his book "My Year in Iraq."

Mr. Diamond, the expert in democratic process who tried to jump-start Iraqi democracy in the spring of 2004, judges that Iraq may yet emerge from its current chaos, but that the costs of the US invasion and occupation will be higher than necessary and greater than US leaders had imagined.

Among the lessons learned in Iraq, writes Diamond, is that you can't construct a democratic state unless a state already exists and can control its internal security.

"We cannot get to Jefferson and Madison without going through Thomas Hobbes," writes Diamond in his book "Squandered Victory."

A second lesson is that success in circumstances such as Iraq requires a commitment of substantial human and financial resources for five to 10 years, according to Diamond. A third lesson is that the US needs to organize itself more effectively for postconflict reconstruction.

"The final, overriding lesson of Ameri-ca's misadventure in postwar Iraq is not 'don't do it' but 'don't do it alone,' and 'don't do it with an imperial approach,' " concludes Diamond.

Power no substitute for friends

The need for a more coalition-based foreign policy is something that many experts might agree with, as the US proceeds with the difficult tasks of countering Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

As great as US power is, it cannot substitute for coalitions and the effective use of international organizations, said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in his 2004 testimony to Congress on the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US now faces a generation-long period of tension and crisis in the Middle East and much of the developing world, said Mr. Cordesman – a different kind of sustained "cold war."

Given that context, one of the broader strategic lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan may be a deceptively simple-sounding one: the US needs to take the world as it is.

"Policy, analysis, and intelligence must accept the true complexity of the world, deal with it honestly and objectively, and seek 'evolution' while opposing 'revolution,' " said Cordesman in 2004.

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