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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 / December 4, 2006


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.

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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.

"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.