Most Americans didn’t need much encouragement to support an invasion of Iraq. Even if they weren't persuaded by assertions that Saddam Hussein was trying to secure nuclear weapons, nearly all agreed that he was a thoroughly disagreeable tyrant with a documented history of slaughtering innocents.
That — and the invasion — were the easy parts. However, four years after Saddam and his odious henchmen were shown the door, we seem to be no closer to stopping the deaths of innocent people.
What went wrong? Hindshight, of course, is 20-20, but there are some painful lessons that should have been clear from the start:
Lesson 1: Select an attainable objective
While the Administration tried to build a case against Saddam on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, a principal motivation, ironically, was to take a short-cut to peace in the Middle East. Troubled by the theocracy in Iran and by Muslim revolutionaries who have sworn to destroy all of the regimes in the region, the Bush administration tried to inoculate the Middle East with democracy.
The site of inoculation? Iraq. A comparitively cosmopolitan nation terrorized by an odious despot ought to welcome his overthrow. And he should be easy to defeat militarily — after all, we’d done it a decade before.
But the objective itself was inherently out of reach in the first place. Although it’s hard to disagree with President Bush’s assertion that everybody wants to live in a democracy, achieving it is a very different thing. This is especially true in a region where there are only two genuine democracies, Israel and Turkey.
It’s not enough to want democracy. Iraqis have to be willing to fight for it.
Lesson 2: Use overwhelming force
With a relatively small military required to fulfill many important missions around the world, including a shooting war in Afghanistan, taking over an entire country was a tall order. The Defense Department’s solution was to rely heavily on technology. Precision-guided munitions were expected to compensate for being light on the ground. We dropped a billion leaflets on Iraq, advising the Iraqi army to avoid confronting the American force, to go home instead. Many did exactly that, and while the fight for Baghdad was no picnic, it could have been much more difficult if the Iraqis had defended with more vigor. Another irony: A tougher fight would have yielded a control that eludes us still.
The operation plan itself was very poorly conceived. At one point, our thin lines were stretched over a distance of more than 400 miles. As a military professional, I find it difficult to envision how a general officer with any sense would countenance such a situation. It was indicative of inadequate tactical thinking and was an ominous portent of things to come.
We didn’t defeat the Iraqi army as much as disperse it, and the small force we used, while successful initially, was to face predictable obstacles later.
Lesson 3: Reinforce success
It always takes more resources to hold an objective than it does to take it in the first place.
In 1944, we invaded France with a force of something like 10 divisions. By the end of the war, we had about 120 divisions in Europe. In Iraq, we started with an insufficient force and then made it smaller yet, guaranteeing poor performance.
Inadequate force on the ground meant that our tactics were incompatible with the mission. Although we knew very well that political control depended on military control, we never committed enough troops to ensure success. From the beginning, we would enter areas, fight the enemy, and then withdraw to fight elsewhere. The bad guys would merely return to terrorize the people. Perhaps too late, we are finally beginning to make progress in some areas, but only because we are clearing the enemy and staying there.
You can’t fight a war on the cheap.
Lesson 4: Never give the enemy a break
If we didn’t know better, we would conclude that officials were going out of their way to do the wrong thing in Iraq. The initial attack was audacious, to be sure, but the overall plan was incomplete, betraying an astounding and unforgivable complacency and ignorance. Disbanding the Iraqi army was one foolish decision. Nearly four years later, we are still trying to reconstitute it, and in the interim we lost control of the security situation in many crucial areas. Playing catch-up is a tough game.
But perhaps the strongest evidence that the war was run by amateurs was the incomprehensible decision by Ambassador Paul Bremer to avoid disarming and disbanding the militias. Rather than neutralize our enemies, he gave them a pass. The results have been bloody sectarian violence and a mission teetering on the edge of failure.
Perhaps just as regrettable, our poorly executed projection of power has produced one of the things we were trying to neutralize in the first place: Iran is now emboldened and more dangerous than it was four years ago.
The sad truth is that we didn’t have to make mistakes to learn these lessons. We know the principles of war and have used them with unqualified success in the past. We teach them to our young leaders and reinforce them in military schooling throughout their careers. But it doesn’t do any good if the very principles we teach our magnificent troops are ignored by our leaders.
Col. Jack Jacobs (U.S. Army, retired) is a military analyst for MSNBC.