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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Iraq 20 Years Later: Lessons Learned?

It is now twenty years since our ill-fated invasion of Iraq, a decent amount of time to begin seriously studying the events and outcomes. In those twenty years there has been a lot of finger-pointing, including on my part, attempts to lay the blame on individuals, and debates on what went wrong and why. Within all of this disagreement, recent books on our invasion have the details pretty much correct. One might quibble with the analysis and interpretations, but the facts are generally accurate. To add to these discussions I would like to focus on the lessons we can learn from the lead-up to the war. It is generally accepted that this war was a mess from many aspects but I learned throughout my career that you can learn a lot from mistakes. I believe the US invasion of Iraq can teach us valuable lessons for future US policy and maybe help us avoid another Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Sidenote, I am not going to deal with the morality of the invasion. The US is not unique in its use of power. Every nation that has had the ability to project power in the defense of what it sees as its national interests has done the same or similar to the US. It doesn't make it right, but it is a fact and not the sole purview of the US. Besides, morality in the execution of national security policy requires at least a book to discuss and I don't have a book in me. So let us see what lessons we can take away from Iraq 2003.

Lesson 1: Listen To All Opinions And Ideas.

From what I witnessed firsthand, the decision-making process leading up to the US invasion functioned as a closed system. A senior group of policymakers centered around the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Defense (DOD) decided on regime change for Iraq fairly early on. Any voices that spoke against regime change or pointed out problems with the plan were shunted aside and excluded from many of the important decisions. These individuals, departments, and agencies were deemed disloyal. This siloing deprived policymakers of important expertise. It prevented a healthy discussion of the dangers and pitfalls of the plan, removing a space where potential problems could be discussed and resolved. No contrary opinions were allowed, only groupthink and yes men.

If you cannot convince people of the wisdom or necessity of your plan, the invasion in this case, you might have a problem with the plan. If you are resistant to contrary views or will not consider other options, you have a problem with your plan. You don't have to agree with all the contrary ideas, but you should consider them if only to rule out all other possibilities. It could even generate new ideas and identify flaws in your thinking that need to be corrected. When senior policymakers were informed that there was little support in the region for an invasion of Iraq they refused to listen. They believed they could convince the regional government to support the invasion. This was particularly important regarding Turkey, where the US wanted to deploy a mechanized division to attack from the north. When confronted with resistance on the part of our regional partners, the senior policymakers continued to believe these governments would come on board.

Policy should be formulated with as much input from as many different perspectives as possible. The more input you have, especially contrarian input, the more likely you are to identify potential future problems and the better you can prepare to address them. It is the red team concept—create a team of people that will tear your ideas apart to see where the weaknesses lie. The administration overseeing OIF never did. This leads to our second lesson.

Lesson 2: Don’t Engage In Wishful Thinking.

The military has a saying, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." This applies to many things in life. You make plans with the intention of certain outcomes, but variables get in the way and change the outcomes. Wishful thinking happens when one plans to commit an action and expects a certain result, but does not entertain the possibility that there could be other results as well. Wishful thinking was very much involved in decision-making with regard to Iraq. Many senior policymakers expected their intentions, their actions, and plans to lead to certain outcomes. As an example, it was expected that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, which they did for the first few weeks, and that Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) would sort of magically organize Iraq for the US. This never happened.

Too often wishful thinking is coupled with officials who believe they are the smartest person in the room and they know everything, especially after years of working in national security. You don't know everything. You are not the smartest person in the room. You are not infallible. No one is. Wishful thinking goes hand in hand with mirror imaging. This is where we believe that since we would do something or behave in a certain way the other side will as well. This is seldom the case, especially when dealing with foreign adversaries or with an enemy that is outmatched by US power and must adapt in asymmetric ways to counter that American power.

Plans should be developed with the understanding that things might not work out as we wish. There should be contingency plans to deal with conditions getting worse, not better. Policymakers should be ready to deal with situations that deteriorate.

Wishful thinking absolved the administration, especially the DOD who took control of Iraq, from the requirement to develop a detailed plan for the occupation. It wasn't necessary since things would work out as planned, well not planned because there wasn't really a plan for occupying Iraq. Which will take us to the next lesson.

Lesson 3: Set Clear, Attainable Goals, Along With An Exit Strategy.

The goals in Iraq were sort of amorphous. The plan was to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Beyond that, there was little detail. The neocons were keen to prove their theory. The US found itself as the sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Neocons believed the US could now act unilaterally to shape events and do it using limited US forces, and a relatively small footprint. Their end game was the actual intervention. There was little realistic planning for the day after victory. There was an idea, not fully fleshed out, that we wanted Iraq to become a democracy, an example in the Middle East, but accomplishing that was not fleshed out. We worked on it on the fly. There was no clear outline as to what success in democratizing Iraq looked like. Frankly, the US government did not have the stomach for nation-building. Wishful thinking led us to believe it would work out in the end. It didn't.

Goals need to be clearly articulated and understood by everyone. In an open and full dialogue, not present for Iraq, goals would be reviewed, critiqued, and decided upon before any action is taken. There also needs to be an exit strategy to allow for the withdrawal of the US when the goals are met. Otherwise, we are left with open-ended conflicts that never seem to be resolved. Mission creep becomes the order of the day.

Lesson 4: Use your resources according to their capabilities.

After conventional operations ended with President Bush announcing "mission accomplished," we were left with a mess of our own creation. We sent hundreds of thousands of armed military personnel home, without employment. We destroyed basic infrastructure in Iraq—electricity, water, oil production, and security—and dismissed the technocrats who knew how to get services back up and running. For a variety of bureaucratic reasons, the DOD ran the show in Iraq and more or less kept out the rest of the US government. Rebuilding Iraq fell to the military forces occupying Iraq. My admiration for the US military is second to none, but the US military is not trained to rebuild a nation, it is trained to destroy a nation.

We find it easy to assign numerous tasks to the military because they have the resources. They have the manpower, equipment, and logistics to move anything anywhere in the world. At one point before the actual invasion, US Central Command, only one component of the US military, had more personnel assigned to preparing PowerPoint slides than the CIA had working on Iraq. That said, they are not trained and equipped for nation-building, nor should they be.

There are numerous federal government agencies with the experience and expertise at rebuilding nations, the State Department, the Agency for International Development (AID), etc. Resources should be used according to their capabilities.

It was amazing witnessing how the US prepared for and went to war. What I saw was every individual part of OIF working as they should, accomplishing the mission, while at the same time, the overarching policy failed. The courage of American soldiers and CIA officers, as well as our British allies in Iraq, was exemplary and a credit to both nations. They all performed as expected. It was the civilian leadership, the national security experts, that failed. But hopefully, by reviewing our mistakes and learning our lessons, we can prevent something similar in the future.

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