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What Went Wrong in Iraq?

By       Message Rachel Neuwirth       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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This is perhaps the most difficult column that we have had to write, because we have no choice but to rehearse facts that will be painful and unwelcome to many people with whom we are in general agreement and who are generally in the same political “camp” as us.  

This includes fellow Americans who believe as we do that the threat to America posed by radical, militant Islamism is real, and that it must be met on the battlefield and defeated, and not appeased by addressing the Islamists’ perceived or professed grievances, as some other Americans tend to think.  But as John Adams wisely said, “facts are stubborn things,” and will not go away when they do not correspond with our hopes and aspirations.  The facts must be faced.

Americans had a just cause when our forces invaded Iraq four years ago.  We sought the overthrow of a hideous, hateful dictator who had cruelly oppressed and even murdered large numbers of Iraqi citizens: who had wantonly invaded Iran and Kuwait; and who had violated numerous U.N. resolutions ordering him to disarm dangerous weapons in his possession, and to enable the international community to direct, witness and document this disarmament.  The claims from left-leaning political activists in this country that the war is an imperialist venture, and that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed no danger to the United States, are not true.

Nevertheless, winning a war requires more than a just cause alone.  It also requires intelligence--both in the military sense of accurate information about the enemy forces, and in the sense of what in the Yiddish language is called sechel-- a mixture of common sense, realism, experience and a certain shrewdness in sizing up other people and how to deal with them effectively.  

Unfortunately, the United States government, as it prepared the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, lacked the thorough, in-depth information about the enemy, or rather enemies, that our soldiers would soon be facing on the battlefields there.  In addition, even more sadly, perhaps, many of the officials in charge of preparations for the war lacked the sechel to make the best possible use of the limited and flawed intelligence resources that were available to them.

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The U.S. government officials drastically underestimated the intensity of the opposition that American forces would face in Iraq.*  They also seriously underestimated the opposition that the United States invasion would encounter throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and the degree to which the American presence in Iraq would serve as a rallying cry and recruiting poster for the forces of international jihad.

U.S. officials anticipated a pushover in Iraq--a quick, decisive victory against a tyrant hated by the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, including many high-ranking Iraqi Army officers.  They believed that the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans with open arms as liberators.  The U.S. occupation would then have the time and the peaceful, stable conditions necessary to help the Iraqi people organize a post-Saddam, democratic future for their country.

Instead, American forces have faced a prolonged, tough fight with determined enemies who had at their disposal good intelligence, highly motivated fanatics, support throughout the Muslim world, and the extreme ruthlessness to employ the cruelest tactics against both our soldiers and all Iraqis willing to work with them.  Our military leaders say that as of the time of writing (late September, 2007) progress is being made in the war.  We devoutly hope that they will be proved right.  But victory is certainly not yet in plain sight.  The light at the end of the tunnel has yet to be glimpsed.

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Why did our political and military leaders so drastically underestimate the enemy?  Our intelligence services have for a long time lacked the “human intelligence”--in effect, the highly skilled and loyal spies--needed to know what was really going on in a closed society like Iraq.  Such skilled undercover agents and skilled human intelligence analysts and handlers as we did possess were mostly experts on Eastern Europe, not the Middle East or the Muslim world.  In other words, they were still geared to fighting the Cold War rather than the world jihad that came into view as the Cold War ended in 1991.

In the absence of skilled undercover agents whose loyalty to America and accurate sources of information inside Iraq could be relied upon, the U.S. intelligence services were forced to rely on Iraqi opposition organizations and exiles for information.  It was very much in the interest of these opposition leaders to portray the Saddam Hussein regime as weak and tottering, to claim that they had extensive contacts high up in the Iraqi military that were ready to come over to the American side, and to claim that the Iraqi people would welcome American forces and offer them no opposition. 

These optimistic reports made the Americans more likely to invade, which in turn would give the Iraqi opposition organizations their chance to gain power.  They also helped the Iraqi oppositionists to gain financial support from the U.S. government.  But the biggest inducement to the Iraqi opposition leaders to make optimistic predictions about the easy success that an American invasion force could expect was that they sensed that this was what their American interlocutors wanted to hear.   The favorable response that greeted their optimistic assessments, of course, encouraged them to feed still more such reports to the Americans.

The Americans were also deceived by a group of very skillful counterintelligence operatives working for the Saddam regime.  These people claimed to represent high-ranking military officers whom they said were willing to come over to the American side.  These phony Iraq “opponents” of the regime persuaded the Americans to send only a minimum number of troops to Iraq, and to be very selective in their bombing of military targets.  The Americans were even persuaded not to bomb the Iraqi Defense Department headquarters with the claim that high-ranking officers who favored the American expedition, and who were prepared to stage a coup against the Saddam regime, were inside this building.  As a result, Saddam was able to maintain communications with his soldiers in the field until the Americans captured Baghdad.

When the Americans finally captured Baghdad, U.S. intelligence officers were surprised that none of these supposed anti-Saddam underground fifth columnists appeared to greet the American forces.  None of them even claimed a place for themselves in the post-Saddam government.  They turned out to be Saddam loyalists playing a cat-and-mouse game with American intelligence.  When their leader went underground to hide from the Americans, so did they.

When the senior national security officials of the U.S. government did receive more realistic, sobering assessments of the resistance likely to be encountered by our soldiers, they tended to dismiss or ignore them, because they did not fit in with their own optimistic views.  The senior officials in the Department of Defense and the Vice President’s office believed the reports that were most pleasing and encouraging to them, rather than the warnings of some knowledgeable and experienced American military officers that American soldiers were in for a tough, prolonged fight.

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Another major error of the American government was the way in which it broadcast its intention to invade Iraq for months, indeed for two years, in advance.  Details of the U.S. invasion plans were even published in the New York Times weeks before the invasion actually got under way.  Had nobody in Washington ever heard about the value of surprise in war?  Since the Bush administration had broadcast its desire for “regime change” for nearly two years before American soldiers moved across the Kuwaiti border into Iraq, Saddam had plenty of time to plan a prolonged guerillas campaign, and to train and prepare his” fedayeen Saddam” force, his dreaded intelligence services, his Special Republican Guards, and other elite units, to wage it once the Americans finally arrived.

The Ba’athist regimes’ forces, initially led by, but not dependent upon, Saddam, began to reorganize and started to function as an underground guerilla resistance immediately following the American occupation of Baghdad.  A small detachment of American soldiers stood by helplessly while large numbers of men with trucks systematically removed huge stores of arms and ammunition from an arms depot north of Baghdad, and carted them off to unknown destinations.  The Americans were outnumbered, and in any case received no orders from central command in Baghdad to take action against the ''looters.” 

In Baghdad itself, “looters” removed vast numbers of priceless antiquities from the national museum. At an ancient Assyrian archeological site in the vicinity of Mosul, an armed force of over a hundred men systematically removed priceless Assyrian bas reliefs as the handful of American soldiers assigned to guard the site were easily shunted aside and looked on in horror.  These and hundreds of similar actions all across Iraq, which American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld misinterpreted as disorganized looting by Iraqis newly freed from Saddam’s tyranny, were actually part of a “scorched earth” campaign aimed at stripping everything that could be used to wage and finance a guerilla campaign from public buildings and storage sites and taking them underground with the Ba’athist soldiers and paramilitary operatives, who removed their uniforms, but did not cease to resist.

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Rachel Neuwirth, an internationally recognized, political commentator and analyst. She specializes in Middle Eastern Affairs with particular emphasis on Militant Islam and Israeli foreign policy. She has been published in prominent news papers of (more...)

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