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Column: What lessons have been learned from the Iraq War?

Ten years ago this week the United States-led “coalition of the willing” launched the Iraq War. If we’ve learned anything from the Iraq experience it’s that governments should refrain from biting off more than they can chew, says Scott Fitzsimmons.

Scott Fitzsimmons

TEN YEARS ago this week, the United States-led “coalition of the willing” launched the Iraq War with a spectacular campaign of “shock and awe”. After a month of fighting, during which American, British, Australian, and Polish troops won battle-after-battle against the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard, it appeared like the war might end in a rapid and overwhelming coalition victory.

The war soon, however, evolved from a conventional conflict into an insurgency, which raged unrestrained for another half-decade before gradually abating. Despite costing the lives of well-over 100,000 Iraqis, almost 5,000 coalition soldiers, and at least 1,500 civilian contractors and private security personnel, the war failed to accomplish the coalition’s primary objective: locating and seizing the elements of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme. Given this record, and the United States’ recent sabre rattling over a suspected Iranian WMD programme, this is a fitting time to draw cautionary lessons from the Iraq experience.

Weapons of mass destruction

First and foremost, the Iraq experience demonstrates that pursuing ambitious policy objectives warrants an equally ambitious allocation of resources. Even if weapons of mass destruction and affiliated infrastructure had been present in Iraq in March 2003, capturing them would not have been the coalition forces’ only objective, nor their most challenging one. Indeed, US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair also sought to topple the Hussein regime and rapidly transform Iraq into a democracy in the hopes that this would help maintain international peace and security over the long term, since democracies, as a rule, do not fight wars against other democracies.

Unfortunately, neither of these leaders, nor their successors devoted sufficient resources to shepherd Iraq through the literal minefield that lay between authoritarianism and democracy. This, of course, seems obvious in hindsight, but the issue of resources was actually raised before the invasion ever took place.

When asked, in February 2003, by a member of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee to gauge how many troops the coalition would need to maintain security and order in Iraq, General Eric Shinseki, the then-US Army Chief of Staff, responded that the task warranted “several hundred thousand soldiers”. He justified his answer by noting that Iraq was a large country, and wracked with deeply-rooted ethno-religious tensions. Even if a well-organised insurgency had not developed, the coalition would likely still have faced numerous acts of sectarian violence across a vast geographic area.

Lack of resources

However, Shinseki’s prescient call for additional resources was ignored, and the coalition invaded with only about 200,000 troops. Moreover, in the face of rising violence and disorder, the coalition rapidly shed tens of thousands of combat personnel by early 2004 and never returned to its peak strength.

The Iraq experience also demonstrates that attempting to use technology to compensate for inadequate troop contributions can be problematic. Advanced armoured vehicles that could deflect the blast from the insurgents’ weapons of choice – improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – have been rightly credited with helping to keep the number of deaths suffered by coalition troops during the Iraq War far below the levels seen during lengthy twentieth century conflicts.

For example, the British Army suffered almost four times as many deaths during a single day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 than coalition forces did during eight years of combat operations in Iraq. These vehicles also allowed over-tasked units to patrol much larger areas of the country than they ever could on foot.

On the other hand, patrolling Iraq’s streets and highways in armoured vehicles not only angered Iraqi civilians, but also made it difficult for civilians to exchange information with coalition personnel. Studies of intelligence gathering efforts during the war concluded that Iraqi civilians were much more willing to furtively pass a note or exchange a few quiet words with a soldier patrolling a neighbourhood on foot than to risk the insurgents’ wrath by flagging down a convoy of armoured vehicles and knocking on hatch covers. The number of civilian lives lost to IEDs that went unreported to the coalition will probably never be known.

Paltry troop contribution

Finally, the Iraq experience also demonstrates the central importance of the public sphere in modern war. The United States’ paltry troop contribution – less than a third the size of its contribution to the Gulf War in 1990 – was due, in some measure, to the hollowing out of the American armed forces during the intervening decade, as this organisation shed hundreds of thousands of full-time soldiers and reservists.

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To be sure, the coalition partners still could have deployed a much larger initial invasion and stabilisation force, but they could not have sustained it for more than one or two years, let alone eight, without substantially expanding their armed forces. Then again, deploying a larger invasion force might have prevented Iraq from spiralling into disorder and, thus, allowed the coalition partners to remove their combat forces far sooner.

Furthermore, during much of the war, the Iraqi public sphere was in a shambles, in part because the coalition partners failed to deploy sufficient engineers, trainers, and advisors to help the Iraqi people rebuild this vital element of their society. Years after the invasion, the Iraqi army, police, and other public security forces, along with most schools, hospitals, the electrical, water, and sewage systems, and basic transportation infrastructure functioned poorly, if at all, in many parts of the country.

Deficiencies

These deficiencies in the public sphere played into the insurgents’ hands by making the coalition and the democratically-elected Government of Iraq appear out of touch and incompetent in the eyes of Iraqi civilians and also by providing insurgents with opportunities to develop grassroots support by offering civilians everything from neighbourhood security forces to healthcare and other social services.

Drawing attention to these lessons from the Iraq experience should not be viewed as a call for boosting spending on defence and foreign assistance in an era of global economic uncertainty. Rather, above all, the Iraq experience suggests that governments should refrain from biting off more than they can chew when they have spent years pulling out many of their own teeth.

Dr Scott Fitzsimmons is a Lecturer in International Relations in the University of Limerick’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. He specialises in the behaviour of armed forces and the use of force in contemporary conflicts. His most recent book, Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.

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