On Thursday, May 1, 2003, the banner that hung high over the flight deck clearly proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.” The president of the United States wearing a flight suit stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. This was just months after the invasion had commenced. Less than one year later, April 2004 became the most violent and deadly month for Americans in Iraq since the invasion and “liberation.”
The soul-searching required to discover the whys is often an exercise in futility. It is clearly more fruitful to evaluate the how’s and the what’s, focusing on the process and judgment errors and changes required to ensure success.
The past year has demonstrated a violent and growing opposition to what has become viewed by the Iraqi people as the American occupation of their country. This was not only predictable, but also inevitable based on the underestimation of the Saddam Hussein regime, the reoccurring misjudgments and miscalculations by American leadership, and the blind misguided operating policies of the United States in prosecuting this war. This opposition will continue and probably expand.
The Iraqi environment is presently one where stability worsens, confidence continues to be shaken, and efforts required for the rebuilding of Iraq are diverted due to persistent hostilities. Safety and even adequate security do not exist. At present, no place in Iraq is totally secure. All individuals (Iraqi, American, foreign, military, civilian, government official or worker, women, children) are threatened and their safety cannot be guaranteed.
How did this course of events evolve? What were the key contributing elements?
The military invasion of Iraq proceeded rapidly and more easily than expected, despite American difficulties in establishing a broad-based coalition, the inability to establish a second front of attack through Turkey in the north including bringing in important armored equipment, and misjudging the resourcefulness and cunning of the Iraqi regime as adversaries. The relative ease of the invasion process should have raised a red flag of suspicion. The virtual melting away of the elite Republican Guard units was too good to be true and should have reinforced suspicion. Where were the U.S. analysts? Where were the experienced U.S. war strategists? Where were the planners? Where were the chain of command and the leadership? The United States was being “played.” Somewhere in the U.S. administration’s zeal to be right, the lessons of past and present history were absent from consideration. The plan for the invasion and war in Iraq contained serious flaws. However, this plan was implemented, demonstrating the blind belief by American leadership that military strength would prevail and that the Iraqi people would be able to immediately cast off the limitations imposed by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive 35 year regime and welcome the American liberators with flowers. This was to be followed by the campaign for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and the quick rebuilding of Iraq’s damaged infrastructure.
The American forces (known to be undermanned from the very beginning) were expected by their commanders, from the bottom to the top, to perform multiple and diverse tasks simultaneously. American troops became constantly targeted by the insurgents. This stretched the troops to their limits resulting in fatigue, frustration, anger, and inevitable mistakes. Post-war preparedness was as insufficient and ineffective as pre-war planning.
For six months prior to the invasion the American and worldwide media was inundated with two primary justifications for this war: first, the possession of stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to be used against the rest of the world, against the invading American military, and available for transfer to terrorist groups. The second major justification floated was the existence of active relationships by the Saddam Hussein regime, with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Nothing could now stop the United States, the world’s last remaining superpower, from pursuing a unilateral, pre-emptive war leading to regime change and nation building.
Failure to discover the expected stockpiles of WMD or even their remnants sharply put into perspective the faulty pre-invasion intelligence and claims made to justify the immediacy of an invasion. The expected use of WMD against the invading U.S. troops never materialized and should have raised concerns requiring in-depth scrutiny and dynamic planning reassessment. Would this brutal, self- centered Iraqi regime, willing in the past to mass-murder its own people with chemical WMD, hesitate to use them against the Americans? Was there another Iraqi plan? Similarly, the assertion of pre-existing active relationships with terrorist organizations and direct Iraqi involvement with September 11 was also not borne out.
A litany of new justifications followed to replace those disproved, or those that became obsolete or were discarded. This process continues to date and now includes new justifications for staying. Regime change based on the assertion (even though correct) that the Iraqi government was a cruel and brutal dictatorship, part of the Axis-of-Evil, was advanced. Next were the violations by Iraq of multiple U.N. resolutions over more than a decade, including its lack of cooperation with and obstruction of weapon inspections. Others include: freedom for the Iraqi people; to protect Iraq’s neighbors; to rebuild Iraq; to establish a “democratic” form of government; the establishment of a democratic country in the midst of the Middle East would influence the course of the surrounding countries and the region as a whole; and most recently, to establish stability in Iraq, to prevent civil war, and to prevent anarchy.
The American military establishment and American leadership have to date been largely out-witted and out-maneuvered by the Iraqi resistance and insurgency. The course over the past year has been a systematic, coordinated plan to frustrate and overwhelm U.S. troops. This appears to be succeeding.
Billions of dollars were known to be at the disposal of Saddam Hussein and other high level members of his regime. An organized strategy instituted against the American occupation seems to have been planned and put in place even before the invasion was completed. A Pentagon intelligence report documents such a plan for an insurgency. The unfolding of the events and their progression including: attacks against U.S. troops; the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq and killing of U.N. personnel; violence against humanitarian aid agencies; targeting of troops of coalition nations; terrorist attacks in coalition countries (Spain); targeting contractors; targeting Iraqis working for or with the American occupation; fomenting insurrection in multiple areas of Iraq; targeting infrastructure and facilities supplying basic needs; and the current pervasive atmosphere of fear and lack of safety. This series of events were not random and should have immediately alerted the intelligence structure, the military chain of command, and the administration in Washington. Saddam Hussein, in an audio recording released just after the fall of Baghdad, warned the invaders of such a fate. Nobody in charge seems to have listened. Once again, the history of recent enemies telling the world in advance, about what they plan to do was ignored.
An unfortunate failure of leadership has emerged. This failure applies to the current administration, the Departments of State and Defense, the military chain of command, and Congress. The House of Representatives and the Senate have particularly and for too long abdicated their mandated, ongoing, non-partisan oversight responsibilities. The demonstration of effective leadership is the ability to manage crisis through maintaining credibility and trust, freely admitting mistakes and accepting responsibility, and working openly to correct the problems.
Is all lost? Some have recently suggested that the course of the conflict has reached a critical juncture with the Shiites and the Sunnis (elements in Iraq’s tribal society) pushed together by U.S. military policy into a common bond of support for the insurgency. The danger is if the enemy becomes the Iraqi people, not the followers of Saddam Hussein and the terrorists who have flocked to Iraq. Successful outcomes at this point are only possible through applying concerted efforts by effective leadership, operating in the open under scrutiny of the Iraqi people, the American people, and the people of the world. Several immediate steps should be considered.
The planned transfer of sovereignty scheduled for June 30, 2004 must be more than a token. It must include the true authority and power of a real transitional government that is charged with holding free, participatory elections for a permanent government next January. It will probably be the first opportunity for many of these individuals to experience power in government and it therefore must be a positive and real contribution, not an exercise in futility. This transitional government must actively participate and consent in the development of the institutions and economy under development.
The removal and replacement of the inept members of the U.S. chain of command all the way up to the top (if necessary) must occur. The present tunnel vision and disorganized thinking of American leadership must be eliminated. There are many qualified, retired officers who would return to active duty for the good of their country, to fill in any gaps. The performance of the United States leadership in the war in Iraq has been unworthy of America. It is time to modify the course.
A solution to the widening conflict in Iraq can be found through switching to a strategy of establishing a team/partnership approach of those nations that value the significance of creating a free, independent, and productive Iraq. The active enlistment of help from NATO and European allies, and assistance from Arab and Muslim nations around the world is necessary, and without delay. Those in the United States who would oppose such an approach because of suspicions about these nations must realize that these nations are also highly suspicious of U.S. motives, and for good reasons. It is the responsibility of the United States to convince other nations to take the risks with America for the good of all. Active participation by and through the United Nations must quickly become a reality. The cost for this may require that the American administration admit to being wrong.
There is a stark comparison between the Iraq of May 1, 2003, and the Iraq of May 2004. The progressive crumbling of the myth “Mission Accomplished,” has given way to the realities of “Mission Impossible?” The Iraq of May 2005 is at this time only speculation, but it will be shaped by the events of today and tomorrow.
Dr. Saul B. Wilen is CEO of International Horizons Unlimited (210-692-1268), a consulting and educational consortium specializing in strategic communication, systems dynamics, prevention strategies, and problem solving.