2003 April 22 Tuesday
Unanswered Questions About The Iraq War

Writing in Slate Fred Kaplan lists a number of unanswered questions about the recent war in Iraq.

On the 29th, an unnamed officer told the Washington Post that the war would last through the summer. On the 30th, Gen. Myers said the assault on Baghdad would have to await the arrival of reinforcements. Then, suddenly, on April 1, U.S. troops were on the outskirts of Baghdad. Two days later, they were occupying the airport. Next day, they were inside the capital. What happened? Did the Fedayeen simply stop attacking the supply lines? Why? When a few U.S. battalions broke away on "seek and destroy" missions in Nasiriyah and Najif, going door to door and block to block, did they kill all the Fedayeen guerrillas who were taking refuge in those cities? And was that all the guerrillas there were? Did that finish off the threat?

What would be most interesting to know is that as the war progressed what was the evaluation of Tommy Franks and his top officers of the progress and problems encountered? Certainly they had legitimate military motives for hiding both unexpected problems and some positive aspects of their progress. For instance, if the enemy believed US forces were making slower progress then that enemy would not expect US forces to show up as soon and the enemy would not be as prepared for them and sudden arrival of US forces dealt psychological blows to the Iraqi forces.

The huge pessimism in the Western press that preceded the arrival of US troops in Baghdad is reminiscent of the conduct of the war in Afghanistan where the press was calling it a big quagmire shortly before the Taliban forces began a rapid collapse. The press coverage focused on when the US forces encountered resistance from some quarters (e.g. the Fedayeen) that was greater than they expected. The unexpected resistance was portrayed as a major failure in intelligence and war planning. But intelligence is always going to be less than perfectly precise and it is likely the case that in other areas the intelligence assessment overestimated the amount of resisistance. Overall the difficulty of the fighting may have been no greater than some expected.

It is possible that the Pentagon war planners expected the Iraqis themselves to turn on Saddam's regime and fight it more. Hence, the battle for Basra was probably more difficult than expected. But what is important for the long term is why didn't the Iraqis rise up? Did the Iraqis not feel that much hostility toward the regime? This seems unlikely given the uprising in Basra after Gulf War I. Or did they not trust the coalition forces to go thru with an overthrow of Saddam's regime? This seems plausible given the events after Gulf War I where the US forces stood by while Saddam's forces suppressed the rebellion in the south of Iraq. Given that US and British forces were busily fighting Saddam's forces it seems likely that the Iraqis in the south just decided to let the coalition do the work. If I'd been in their shoes I'd have done the same.

There's one aspect of war planning that media reports tend to miss: It is unlikely that the war plan had a single time table and a single set of most-likely-to-happen events for the conduct of the war. US military officers who plan wars certainly know that they are dealing with a lot of unknowables and that they therefore can not plan according to strict timetables. A good war plan should be written more along the lines "If X happens then we have Y and Z ready to respond to it and if A happens we can shift B and change C to deal with it".

Still, it would be interesting to know what turns of events were truly surprises to the CENTCOM staff around General Tommy Franks and which problems were really unforeseen by the military officers planning the war. Many civilian advocates of the war, including officials in the Bush Administration, painted rosy scenarios of how the war would go. But we can not assume that just because those folks didn't expect various problems (e.g. the Fedayeen or the foriegn Arab fighters) that the military officers planning the war didn't either.

What I'd most like to see explained is how the war planners envisioned the battle for Baghdad and its immediate aftermath. My guess is that the war planners did not think that Baghdad would fall as easily as it did and therefore were not prepared to take over policing of the city as rapidly as turned out to be needed. But possibly they did not plan to be prepared to take over policing of the city very quickly even if Baghdad had fallen later and more slowly. Was the failure to initially maintain order a result of the unexpected speed of the fall of the regime, an underestimation of the number of people who would join in looting, or a lack of importance attached to preventing that looting?

The Bush Administration has come in for some harsh criticism for not preventing the looting and destruction of the Iraq Museum, the National Library and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Lots of critics claim that the military was in a position to stop the looting at that point if it had really wanted to. Is that really the case? There are military officers who were there who say they were not in a position to stop the looting.

The military perspective is that it did all it could to protect the museum at the time. During the looting, ``the fighting was still going on. The Republican Guard headquarters are across the street, and they were far from secure,'' Army Maj. Michael Donovan said.

Jim Miller has more on whether the military was in a position to stop the looting.

Suppose you hold the view that the military should have been in a position to stop the looting. I've made an argument that the rapid restoration of order would have supported other war aims. Yet a lot of looting happened. Where was the mistake? My own suspicion is that the war goals were not defined expansively enough to justify the use of a ground force large enough to allow a rapid assertion of order in each captured area. I also suspect that the bulk of the complainers who think the US military forces that were in Baghdad could have done a lot more to stop the looting do not understand military affairs well enough to form an opinion. If they are right it is probably an accident.

A related question on the restoration of order issue is this: how big were the intelligence losses that came from the lack of ability to more rapidly and effectively secure all regime installations that had valuable files and other intelligence assets?

Another set of unanswered questions relates to the non-Iraqi Arabs who fought the coalition forces. How many were there? How hard did most of them fight? Was the size of their presence a surprise to Pentagon war planners?

``Everyone who fought us hard was an Arab,'' said the Marine intelligence officer, meaning both that the non-Iraqis fought well and that U.S. ground forces tended to think that anyone who fought well was not Iraqi.

It would also be interesting to know how many of the fanatics were supported by the Syrian or Iranian governments and how many were sent to Iraq by terrorist organizations. The ones that had organizational backing of some sort are more likely to be a problem in the longer run.

Update: While the artifacts from the museum have gotten more attention in the press I think the fires set in the National Library and in the Islamic library represented a greater loss. A lot of the most valuable artifacts in the museum were just stolen and will turn up elsewhere. But the documents that were burned up are gone forever. I wonder whether any Western scholars had at least taken pictures of all the pages of those documents. What motivated Iraqi arsonists to torch these places?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 22 04:34 PM  Military War, Rumours Of War

Patrick said at April 23, 2003 1:26 AM:

A suspicious person could also suspect that, in a lot of the looting, there was reason for the Americans to JOIN IN. If I was CIA, and I wanted the documents in the French and German embassies, and I knew very well that American troops would not be allowed to get them... well popping a towel on your head and joining in the "looting" would be an ideal situation.

Once you start thinking that way, all sorts of doors open. Any chinese operatives in the area would have the same motivation. And how many priceless artifacts ended up in some Iraqi's living room, compared to being deliberately targeted by groups that already had buyer waiting in Russia/Taiwan/New Zealand.

I mean there is ALWAYS looting after a war. Anyone with the manpower and lack of morals could have been organised months in advance.

No idea if I'm right or not, it's just an idea.

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