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Iraq: The New War

We see the world through the stories we tell, and until recently the story most Americans told themselves about the war in Iraq was a simple and dramatic narrative of imminent threat, daring triumph, and heroic liberation—a story neatly embodied in images of a dictator’s toppling statue and a president in full flight gear swaggering across a carrier deck. Those pictures, once so bright and clear, have now faded, giving place to a second, darker story beneath: the story of an unfinished war, undertaken for murky reasons, that has left young Americans ruling indefinitely over people who do not welcome them and who are killing more and more of them each day. As long as Saddam Hussein remains at large, as long as the weapons our leaders said were threatening us are not found, and as long as Iraqis go on killing Americans, this second, darker story may come to blot out and finally to mock the memory of the first.

As the war’s ending and, increasingly, its beginning grow more cloudy, Americans are confronted on their television screens with a violent present that day by day becomes more difficult to comprehend. That the attacks on American soldiers in Iraq “do not pose a strategic threat to the mission,” in the words of the American proconsul L. Paul Bremer, is true but meaningless. The war in Iraq—in the streets of Baghdad no less than in the halls of Congress or in the stump speeches of the campaign trail—is in its essence political, not military. Like the terrorists who hijacked American airliners and flew them into American buildings, the fighters daily ambushing American troops are attacking not American military power but American will. And thanks to the way President Bush and his colleagues chose to build the case for war, and the errors they have made in prosecuting it, American will is an increasingly vulnerable target. In the end defeat or victory in Iraq will be judged not by who controls Baghdad but by whether the war has left Americans more secure than they were before it was undertaken. All the ringing presidential pronouncements of “Mission Accomplished!” will not change the reality: America could still lose this war.

Like the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the attacks in Iraq—ambushes and assassinations of American troops; sabotage of Iraqi oil pipelines, water mains, electrical lines, and other critical infrastructure; suicide bombing of UN headquarters and other “soft” targets—are aimed not at defeating American forces directly but at creating a political spectacle that will impress, frighten, and persuade a number of audiences, among them the Iraqi people, the Arab world, and finally the American public. During a briefing on July 16, General John Abizaid, who succeeded General Tommy Franks as head of Central Command, described the authors of these attacks as

…mid-level Ba’athist, Iraqi intelligence people, Special Security Organization people, Special Republican Guard people that have organized at the regional level in cellular structure and are conducting what I would describe as a classical guerrilla-type campaign against us…. We’re seeing a cellular organization of six to eight people, armed with RPGs, machine guns, etc., attacking us at…times and places of their choosing…. There are some foreign fighters…. Remember in the early stages of capturing Baghdad, there were an awful lot of foreign fighters, and it’s possible that…they’ve reformed and reorganized.1

The enemy in Iraq, in other words, is dynamic and changeable, a shadowy and loose group of forces made up of former officers and soldiers of the vast security and intelligence organs of the ancien régime; foreign-born jihadis, or ideological commandos, who have slipped into Iraq from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other Islamic countries determined to confront and defeat the United States; and, perhaps increasingly, young, unemployed Iraqis, angry at the American occupation and the difficulties it has brought, eager to avenge a relative’s death or a personal affront, or simply desperate to earn some easy money by hiring themselves out to attack Americans. We know little of this shadowy world, and depend for what we do know on military sources, named and unnamed, and inferences drawn from the pattern, character, and frequency of the attacks; but it is likely that the relative weight and influence of its various actors, and the alliances and rivalries among them, are in a constant state of flux, as are the opposition’s political interests and the tactics it adopts to achieve them. On this, General Abizaid, in the same briefing, set out the salient point:

War is a struggle of wills. You look at the Arab press; they say, “We drove the Americans out of Beirut, we drove them out of Somalia;…we’ll drive them out of Baghdad.”

To these names of the familiar symbols of a great power’s defeat and withdrawal in the face of a determined irregular force—whether using suicide bombings (Beirut, 1983) or guerrilla warfare (Mogadishu, 1993)—General Abizaid might have added the name of Afghanistan. For the jihadis, in particular, Iraq presents the chance to do to the American empire in the Middle East what they believe they did a decade ago to the Soviet empire in Central Asia—to force on the occupier a long, bloody stalemate leading to retreat and, finally, to collapse.

By now it is clear that this campaign began long before the fall of Baghdad last April. As early as January, according to Newsweek, the Iraqi secret police issued an order instructing its forces to “do what’s necessary after the fall of the Iraqi leadership to the American-British-Zionist Coalition forces,” and setting out eleven steps, among them, “looting and burning all the government institutions that belong to our Directorates and other ones,” and sowing chaos in the country by sabotaging power plants and assassinating imams and other public figures.2

It now seems likely that much of the looting and plundering that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld dismissed as mere “untidiness,” the inevitable concomitant of the coming of democracy, constituted the first stage of a carefully planned “war beyond the war.” Secretary Rumsfeld’s strategy of “going in light”—of conquering Iraq with a quick, highly focused attack employing a minimum of troops—left the Americans uniquely vulnerable to this kind of planned chaos and the widespread feeling of insecurity it fostered. As the military commentator Anthony Cordesman put it,

The same strategy designed to deliver a carefully focused attack on the regime did not provide enough manpower to simultaneously occupy and secure the areas that the Coalition liberated…and deal with the wide range of local, regional, ethnic and religious divisions [the Coalition] encountered.3

The weeks of looting and disorder that followed not only continued the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, preventing the Americans from supplying the country with electricity and other basic services. More important, the looting and mayhem destroyed American political authority even before it could be established; such political authority is rooted in the monopoly of legitimate violence, which the Americans, after standing by during weeks of chaos and insecurity, were never able to attain.

During the last four months, the tactics of those opposing or defying the occupation have steadily evolved, as General Abizaid acknowledged, “getting more organized…learning… adapting to our tactics, techniques and procedures…. They’re better coordinated…less amateurish…more sophisticated.” As the tactics of the Iraqis have changed—from the intensive looting and mayhem of the first weeks, to the hit-and-run small-arms attacks of late spring and early summer, to the more sophisticated use of radio-controlled and timed explosives of July and August, and finally to the suicide truck bombings of late summer—the American forces, adapting in their turn, have responded by launching a series of large-scale raids against opposition strongholds in the so-called “Sunni Triangle” of central Iraq. These raids netted a large haul of weapons and explosives and hundreds of prisoners; they also further alienated from the occupation many Iraqis who might have been disposed to welcome it, or at least to tolerate it.

This is the dynamic that various opponents of the occupation must try to sustain. By whatever means, they aim to produce in Iraq growing political anger and discontent and to focus that anger and discontent on the occupiers, thus alienating more and more Iraqis, who might join the anti-occupation forces, actively support them, or at least count themselves sympathetic to the cause. Since the numbers of the armed opposition, as Paul Bremer noted, are far too small to defeat the Americans militarily, their strategy relies on provoking the Americans to take actions that will create among Iraqis the broader support needed to sustain a guerrilla war.

By launching paramilitary attacks almost daily, the opponents hope to force the Americans to adopt increasingly aggressive and intrusive tactics that will further alienate a citizenry already frustrated by their failure to bring order to the country. By blowing up electrical pylons, sabotaging water mains, destroying oil pipelines, and staging attacks on the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations, they hope to further degrade the quality of life of ordinary Iraqis, who are increasingly shocked and angered by the Americans’ failure to provide basic services. By threatening and assassinating Iraqis who collaborate with the Americans, they hope to show Iraqis that the occupiers cannot protect them, further slowing the rate of reconstruction, deepening the country’s bitter political divisions, and making the daunting task of building a stable politics friendly to America all the more difficult.

That Iraqis loyal to a security-obsessed totalitarian regime of three decades would seek to fight the Americans who have overthrown it is not surprising. Nor should it be surprising that jihadis from outside and inside Iraq should seize the opportunity to attack infidels occupying an Islamic country. What is surprising is the degree to which the Americans, through their own lack of attention to the critical political tasks of the war’s aftermath, have in effect assisted their efforts. The civilian leadership of the Pentagon remains in thrall to fashionable concepts of war-fighting such as “Shock and Awe” and “Network-Centric Warfare,” which emphasize information, speed, and the use of light forces, but which leave out, in the words of the military historian Kenneth W. Kagan, “the most important component of war,” which is to provide “a reliable recipe for translating the destruction of the enemy’s ability to continue to fight into the accomplishment of the political objectives of the conflict.”4

The obligation to provide such a “reliable recipe” in Iraq falls in the end to US political leaders, but they have largely abdicated this responsibility. Shortly before the war, the President, discarding many months of effort by the State Department, handed over control of occupation planning to Pentagon officials, who hastily constructed a plan based largely on optimistic assumptions about the warmth of the Iraqis’ attitude toward the Americans, and about the ease with which new leaders could be imposed on the existing governing institutions. Many of these expectations, which were encouraged by favored Iraqi expatriates, dovetailed perfectly with the Pentagon’s own reluctance to provide sufficient military police and dirty its hands with other distasteful “nation-building” tasks. When their assumptions proved unfounded, administration officials were excruciatingly slow to admit reality and make adjustments. These first weeks of the occupation, in which security in Baghdad collapsed, chaos ruled the streets, and the fledgling occupation authority daily issued conflicting statements and made promises it did not keep, were a fiasco. They proved an enormous boon to violent opponents, providing them, in the lawless streets of postwar Iraq, the political equivalent of a warm petri dish in which to grow.5

As near as one can tell, the Bush administration launched its war against Iraq for three broad reasons:

  1. Weapons of Mass Destruction: To disarm Iraq of its alleged chemical and biological weapons and eliminate its nuclear program.

  2. National Security: To remove Iraq as a threat to American dominance of the Persian gulf and to Israel, and make it America’s central ally and base in the region, replacing an increasingly unstable and Islamicist Saudi Arabia, from which American troops could be withdrawn.6

  3. Regional Transformation: To make Iraq an example of Arab democracy as the first step in “the transformation of the Middle East” which, in the words of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, “is the only guarantee that it will no longer produce ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington.”7

Nearly six months after the war was launched, these three rationales for America’s first preemptive war have been stood on their heads.

Different officials clearly lent different weight to these arguments, but we know, thanks to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, that “bureaucratic reasons”—“because it was the one reason everyone could agree on”—at least in part led the administration to focus on the first. More important, in the wake of September 11, the argument that Saddam might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists who would attack the US, or might use them to attack Persian Gulf nations and Israel, was clearly the most politically potent—the principal argument likely to convince the broad mass of Americans to support a preemptive war. (It was also the only argument that, as embodied in a number of United Nations resolutions, had some degree of international legitimacy.)

By now, however, the argument that Iraq threatened vital US interests with weapons of mass destruction seems to have been disproved: no weapons have been found, and even if some are eventually uncovered it seems highly implausible that they could have posed an imminent threat.8 The collapse of the case for weapons of mass destruction and the revelations about how the administration relentlessly and recklessly exaggerated the evidence of the threat have left the occupation of Iraq with a singularly fragile foundation of public support.

That support is likely to be further eroded by the continuing violence and combat deaths in Iraq, for which the President did nothing to prepare the country. President Bush’s approval ratings have declined steadily since his triumphant landing on the USS Lincoln last May and in some polls have now dipped below his pre-September 11 lows. With a lackluster economic record—he looks to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to see the total number of jobs decline during his term—President Bush has relied on his aggressive foreign policy and his claimed competence in national security to sustain his political strength. He has used the war on terror politically with great skill and ruthlessness and apparently plans to make it the heart of his reelection effort, scheduling the 2004 Republican convention in New York so as to recall the 9/11 anniversary.

All of this ensures that the Democratic candidates will make the war in Iraq—the exaggerations about weapons of mass destruction that led to it, the Americans who continue to die in a war advertised to the public as “a cakewalk,” the billion dollars a week the country is paying for a war that has no visible conclusion—a central issue in the campaign. The controversy this July over “the sixteen words” in the President’s State of the Union speech, which claimed falsely that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium oxide from Africa, and the damage this controversy did to the President’s popularity, suggest that Bush, far from launching his reelection campaign energized by a triumphant war, may find Iraq to be a political albatross around his neck.

However good this news may be for Democrats and their supporters, it is unlikely to be good for the Iraqis. The Bush administration has proved unwilling so far to provide the protection and resources necessary to rebuild the country. At the same time, the administration, holding to a policy that poisoned international relations before the war, is doggedly refusing to grant the modicum of authority to the United Nations that would be necessary to bring in anything more than a token number of troops from other countries, particularly from India, Pakistan, and Turkey. Whether in one month or three, this attitude may well change. Indeed, faced with the prospect of running for reelection on the record of an increasingly unpopular and inconclusive war, the administration, shielded by as many international forces as it can muster, may be tempted to take the equivalent of Senator George Aitken’s long-ago advice about Vietnam: Declare victory and go home.

As one who argued strenuously against invading Iraq, I find this prospect particularly troubling to contemplate. Having invaded and occupied Iraq, and unleashed a horde of political demons there, the United States faces a number of extremely difficult choices, one of the worst of which is precipitous withdrawal. Already Secretary Wolfowitz’s notion that the invasion would “demonstrate especially to the Arab and Muslim world that there is a better way than the way of the terrorist” has acquired a grimly ironic cast.9 For all its grandiose talk about establishing in Iraq “a shining example for the Arab world,” the administration has so far not been willing to devote the necessary troops or resources to the task. The recent influx of jihadis hoping to take advantage of the chaos in Iraq in order to make of it “the new Afghanistan” suggests another possibility: that Iraq, far from becoming a symbol of the promise of democracy in the Middle East, may become afflicted with a low-level and prolonged nationalist war which the Islamists would use to attract recruits and build their movement politically, while they use terror and other guerrilla tactics to bleed and diminish the United States and weaken its position in the Middle East.

That, of course—like “the war after the war” itself—is a political project, not a military one. Not for the first time, the United States has shown itself to be a strange, hybrid creature, military giant and political dwarf. But Iraq is not Lebanon, from which the US could sail away and invade Gre-nada; the stakes are much higher. “You can’t just get up and walk away from Iraq like you did Lebanon,” said Ghassan Salame, the former Lebanese government minister and scholar, who was working for the UN headquarters in Baghdad when it was bombed. “No matter how bad it gets. If Iraq turns into anarchy, it’s likely to spill into the rest of the Gulf. It would be a catastrophe.”10

This is the national security argument, stood on its head: Saddam Hussein, it was said, with his weapons of mass destruction and his reckless ambitions, would inevitably acquire nuclear weapons and threaten both the established order in the Middle East and US access to its oil supplies in the Persian Gulf. Since he posed a lingering threat to the US, why not eliminate that threat now, when the American people, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, could be persuaded to support a preemptive war?

The irony, nearly six months after the US launched this war, is that while Saddam Hussein has been unseated, the threat that Iraq posed to the Gulf has not been removed. Indeed, it may be that the United States, with its overwhelming military power, has succeeded only in transforming an eventual and speculative threat into a concrete and immediate one. Now the Bush administration finds itself trying to perform the tightrope walk of building a stable and friendly government beneath the shadow of escalating violence and a growing and inevitable nationalism—and it does so in the face of an impatient and bewildered public and an approaching election campaign. The administration began its Iraq venture with an air of absolute determination, taking a kind of grim pride in defying the United Nations and “doing what is right.” America, and Iraq, will need a different kind of determination now—and a new-found honesty to go with it.

—August 28, 2003

  1. 1

    Department of Defense news briefing, July 16, 2003.

  2. 2

    See Scott Johnson and Evan Thomas, “Still Fighting Saddam,” Newsweek, July 21, 2003, p. 22.

  3. 3

    Anthony Cordesman, “Iraq and Conflict Termination: The Road to Guerrilla War?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 28, 2003.

  4. 4

    See “War and Aftermath,” Policy Review, August and September 2003, p. 9.

  5. 5

    See Mark Fineman, Robin Wright, and Doyle McManus, “Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2003.

  6. 6

    See Jeffrey Sachs, “The Real Target of the War in Iraq Was Saudi Arabia,” Financial Times, August 23, 2003, and Robert Badinter, “La vraie raison de la guerre qui s’annonce,” Le Nouvel Observateur, February 20, 2003. As both authors make clear, the administration was reluctant to discuss publicly the displacement of the Saudis as a motive for the war.

  7. 7

    See Dana Milbank, “Patience on Iraq Policies Urged,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2003, p. 1.

  8. 8

    See Rolf Ekeus, “Iraq’s Real Weapons Threat,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2003, p. B7, who argues convincingly that Iraq destroyed its remaining weapons and focused “on design and engineering, with the purpose of activating production” in the event of war with Iran.

  9. 9

    See “Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview on PBS with Charlie Rose,” August 4, 2003, Department of Defense transcript.

  10. 10

    Quoted in Robert Baer, “Will Lebanon’s Horror Become Iraq’s?” The Washington Post, August 24, 2003.

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