The Magazine

Why Iraq's Still a Hard Place

From the July 21, 2003 issue: The thugs are fighting, the troops are tired, and some doubt our determination--but we're winning.

Jul 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 43 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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This is the ultimate question about the condition of the U.S. Army: Is it capable of sustaining an occupation of Iraq that will be measured in years? It is possible to be hopeful, even optimistic, about the prospects for political reconstruction in Iraq, while worrying that the military means may not be sufficient to the ends. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld may have been a keen judge of just how large a force was needed to win Baghdad. But the larger victory in Iraq cannot be so quickly or cheaply won.

WHICH LEADS TO a third concern about the nature of the American commitment to the mission in Iraq. It might seem strange, at this stage, to doubt the determination of a president who took the United States to war despite so many protests, but President Bush's word has often been undercut by a curious administration hesitancy to commit resources that match the rhetoric.

The difficulty in securing the rest of Iraq after the occupation of Baghdad underscores the cheese-paring way in which forces were allocated. Indeed, much of what makes Operation Iraqi Freedom such a remarkable feat of arms is that so small a force accomplished so much. But, save for a lone Marine task force that rapidly pushed beyond Baghdad to Tikrit, the campaign's "catastrophic success"--the collapse of the regime and the lack of a coherent defense inside the city--proved too much even for this superb force to fully exploit in a timely fashion. The march on Baghdad and the destruction of the Republican Guard's combat power from the air knocked the Saddam Hussein regime flat, but not out cold. The pause before the latest round of stability sweeps also gave hope and opportunity to whatever resistance--Iranian-inspired, Saudi-fomented, or otherwise--exists beyond the diehard Baathists.

In sum, Operation Iraqi Freedom was run as a "just-in-time" campaign. That has proved both its great strength and its one significant weakness. Such an approach requires that every judgment of high command be correct and timely. Speed does kill the enemy, as Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has observed, but the fast pace of operations also pressures American commanders to make the right call, every time, on time.

Two examples: The delay in moving the 4th Infantry Division from Turkey to Kuwait while the government in Ankara dithered almost certainly was a major factor leading to the significant operational pause after Baghdad fell. And the halting, even micromanaged, flow of forces into the region also contributed to the difficulties of pushing beyond Baghdad. Preserving options and postponing decisions prior to the war limited options and precluded decisions at a crucial moment during the war.

The piecemeal commitment of military forces is echoed in the piecemeal commitment to reconstruction in Iraq. U.S. administrator Paul Bremer clearly has a larger writ than did his predecessors, but even the most straightforward reconstruction tasks take on twists in Saddam's Iraq. The Iraqi electrical grid, for example, was not wired to deliver power to people's homes efficiently, but designed as a tool for exercising political control, neighborhood by neighborhood. Saddam used it to reward or punish at his whim. Surging electricity to one part of the patchwork system can rob or overload another part of the grid. Thus, "fixing" the electricity in Baghdad, which was never "right" to begin with, is proving more difficult than anticipated.

Nor can other aspects of a Saddamized society be quickly put right. Politically rehabilitated Iraqi police officers still think it is the citizenry's job to come to the station to report crimes; their job is to hang out at the station, drinking tea, until a crime is reported. Indeed, "patrol" cars, which we are providing, are thought to be for the officers' personal and commuting purposes. Iraqi policemen are open to suggestions about how better to do their duties, but reform will be a stationhouse-by-stationhouse process that will demand more outside advisers. Likewise, one of the first acts of Iraqi media workers (government employees) has been to strike for higher pay.

Perhaps most damaging has been the ambiguity about political reconstruction in Iraq. Flip-flops in policy on de-Baathification, on the role of the Iraqi National Congress and other opposition groups, and on the power of the "interim authorities" all raise doubts about the depth of American willpower. The disparate rejectionist elements in Iraq--Saddamists, disgruntled Sunnis fearing the loss of privilege, some Shia parties, outside Islamist agitators--are in some sense jockeying for power in the event of a U.S. retreat. The Americans, they tell their fellow Iraqis, will go home, and we will still be here. It is a potent threat, especially considering uncertainty about Saddam's fate. A lot still rides on showing that the devil is dead.

The forces available to complete the Desert Scorpion tasks in Iraq seem more than sufficient for the crucial period of the next month or six weeks. What happens after that is far less certain. There is no shortcut to creating the sense of security needed to reconstruct Iraq.

Have we won yet? No. We are winning, and it seems we have again aggressively seized the initiative. Yet as the march to Baghdad was only a step toward securing the rest of Iraq and completing the task of removing the regime, so are military operations merely the price of admission to the larger tasks of reconstruction. Whether a military victory will lead to a larger political victory remains a question. There are still a lot of thugs to kill, but the real victory will come when Iraq stops producing new ones.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.