Beyond "Mission Accomplished"

News Abroad
tags: Iraq, anniversaries, military history, Iraq War, Andrew Wiest


Andrew Wiest is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and is also the founding director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. He is the author of numerous books, especially on the Vietnam War. His most recent publication is "Vietnam: A View From the Frontlines."

Aftermath of a car bombing in Iraq on April 14, 2005. Credit: Wiki Commons.

The bluster and buildup necessary to almost any war began early, following fast on the heels of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that shook America to its very core. Striking back at Afghanistan, the rogue nation that harbored Al Qaeda, seemed only just and proper. But military action against Iraq was much harder to justify.  Aided by the rosy fantasy pictures painted by Iraqi expatriates, including Ahmed Chalabi, and spurred forward by neoconservative zeal for the violent exportation of Western democracy, championed by Deputy Secretary for Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the George W. Bush White House, though, quickly began to lay the groundwork for an expansion of the conflict.  During Bush’s 2002 State of the Union message, Iraq was labeled part of the “Axis of Evil,” the members of which were “arming to threaten the peace of the world,” to which American indifference “would be catastrophic.”

The rationales employed to justify the invasion of Iraq were varied. Some reasons, including removing a brutal dictator from the world scene, were valid. Others, ranging from a desire for finishing a job undone from the Persian Gulf War to cooked intelligence that vastly overestimated Saddam Hussein’s store of weapons of mass destruction, were tragically misguided. Historically, messy questions of legitimacy of cause and morality of purpose in wartime, though, are muted by ease of cathartic victory. Short, sharp wars that end with parades rarely call for deep national self-reflection. And almost everyone in the Bush White House knew that any war in Iraq would be a cakewalk. 

The mighty U.S. military, which had retooled for the Information Age under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, would cut through Iraqi resistance like butter, as it had in its recent majestic victory in Afghanistan. Convenient intellectual structures, tinged with wishful thinking, championed by the likes of Wolfowitz and Chalabi, allowed the administration to believe that the Iraqis would welcome the invasion, and that democracy would bloom almost effortlessly after our military passing. Peace following the war essentially would take care of itself -- the grateful, liberated population might even go so far as to pay for the war out of Iraqi oil revenue.  The stage was being set for a potential disaster.

Whether out of timidity or out of a sense of political self-preservation, few stood in the way of the gathering momentum toward war. Secretary of State Colin Powell and several military leaders, from Eric Shinseki to David McKiernan, fretted over planning but at best only nibbled at the edges of administration resolve for a preemptive war.

The collection of naysayers had little doubt concerning the outcome of what was going to be a classic military mismatch. The United States fielded a technologically superior armed juggernaut, while Saddam’s force was a sad, dispirited relic of a bygone military age. Victory on the battlefield was assured; what worried Powell and the generals was what came after. Who would rule a defeated Iraq? What would happen when the Iraqi ruling structure was destroyed, unleashing pent up societal rage decades in the making? What would happen when Iraq’s troublesome neighbor, Iran, decided to stick its nose into Iraqi sectarian affairs? 

Military leaders advocated for higher force levels and for more time devoted to planning for the security of post war Iraq, but they ran into a stone wall. Secure in their flawed reasoning, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the Bush White House brushed off the military’s fears, with Wolfowitz publically telling Congress:

It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army. Hard to imagine.

With few exceptions the naysayers saw the writing on the wall and got in line, ready to do their professional duty now that the die had been cast. Should they have fought harder for what they felt to be right? Perhaps. Military history is littered with the reputations of those who could have taken a stand against impending disaster and didn’t.  Iraq is no exception.

After a series of public pronouncements and threats, on March 19, 2003 the invasion of Iraq began. Approximately 148,000 U.S. troops, aided by an international contingent led by our traditional allies the United Kingdom and Australia, swept to a series of tactical victories that seemed stunning to outsiders – Baghdad fell by the beginning of April -- but were fully expected by most who were in the military know.

Tragically, though, wishful thinking and over-optimism had led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq intellectually being based on and force tasked at the level of a military best-case scenario. The tactical victories were epic, but the troop levels were too low and the planning too rudimentary to face the myriad problems created by victory -- law and order, control of weapons sites, border security, rebuilding of infrastructure, and rural population security to name but a few. 

The hoped-for Iraqi welcome dissipated; Iraqi political will evaporated and gave way to a host of squabbling groups armed with weapons from Saddam’s now unguarded caches. The already difficult situation only worsened when Paul Bremer arrived on the Iraqi scene and attempted to extemporize solutions to what were often age-old problems. 

A war that the United States arguably did not need was left to lurch on uncontrollably as undermanned U.S. forces found themselves reacting to the quick-developing situation instead of controlling the tempo of events. Victory, such as it was, slipped away and transformed into a tortuous insurgency. Pride, overconfidence, a dysfunctional national security system, and a deep lack of vision had mired the United States in a long war of nation building -- a war it had never planned to fight.

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