The seeds of insurgency: American mistakes, hubris feed the postwar violence
One year ago, one of the most audacious overseas endeavors in modern American history drew to a partial close. June 28, 2004, the American...
Knight Ridder Newspapers
One year ago, one of the most audacious overseas endeavors in modern American history drew to a partial close. June 28, 2004, the American political occupation of Iraq ended in a hasty and quiet ceremony with the transfer of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by an American, to an Iraqi interim government led by a longtime U.S. ally.
For me, the event had personal meaning. From January to April of 2004, I served as a senior adviser to the coalition government. Operating out of the "governance" office in the kitchen of Saddam Hussein's former palace, I participated in several aspects of the political transition, including drafting an interim constitution. I saw the American occupation from the inside — the good, the bad and the ugly.
The hand-over of power was achieved on schedule — in fact, two days early — and has been one positive note in a succession of American mistakes and setbacks. In fact, the seeds of the insurgency — which claims 100 Iraqi lives a week — were sown during the early postwar days, when America displayed more hubris than sense.
Even though the Bush administration now is trying to dig out, most notably by supporting the incorporation of Sunnis into the political process, it will take years to terminate the violence and build a viable democracy. Moreover, if America is to regain the trust of Iraqis and cultivate a true partnership, we must demonstrate that it really is democracy we care about in Iraq — not permanent American military bases.
The hand-over wasn't the only early milestone after America's quick military success. In March 2004, Iraq got a new interim constitution that protected individual freedoms and struck a historic bargain between Iraq's minority Kurds and its Arab majority. And more than half of eligible Iraqis courageously voted in January for a transitional parliament that will adopt a permanent constitution. Once that is achieved, elections for a new government will come.
Beyond the political achievements, by the time of the hand-over, Saddam was in prison, along with many of his henchmen. Mass graves were exposed and historical accountability for terrible crimes was beginning to be established. During the 15 months of American occupation, more than 3,500 schools were refurbished and more than 70 health-care facilities built. Commerce began to revive, a new currency was issued and education resumed with new textbooks freed of the stifling impositions of Saddam's Baathist Party ideology. A wide array of political parties and civil society organizations began to emerge.
But all this was overwhelmed by the relentless guerrilla attacks, kidnappings and assassinations, roadside bombings and ambushes, suicide car bombings, and other terrorist and insurgent violence. From the moment that Baghdad fell in April 2003 and much of the public infrastructure was systematically destroyed, the United States failed to fulfill the first overriding obligation of an occupying power: to establish and maintain order. Coalition (mainly American) forces failed to secure Iraq's cities, roads, electricity grids, oil pipelines and borders. The tenacious insurgency, fed and emboldened by an escalating influx of foreign jihadist terrorists, sabotaged roads and crucial facilities as rapidly as they were repaired.
Not surprisingly, Iraqis quickly lost confidence in the Americans. They now had to face, instead of Saddam, a new but still paralyzing fear — of chaos, and of various possible forms of violent assault and sudden death.
Why did this happen? Both the military and civilian aspects of the postwar mission were astonishingly short of resources. Not only did the coalition forces not have nearly enough troops, but America also never had enough armored Humvees and other vehicles, including helicopters, or high-quality body armor. We never had nearly enough translators and interpreters, nor enough civilians who knew Iraq's culture, history and language.
The coalition government relied heavily on a revolving door of diplomats and other personnel who would leave just as they had begun to develop local knowledge and ties, and on a large cadre of eager young neophytes whose brashness often gave offense in a very age- and status-conscious society. One young political appointee (a 24-year-old Ivy League graduate) argued that Iraq should not enshrine judicial review in its constitution because it might lead to the legalization of abortion. A much more senior Iraqi interlocutor (a widely experienced Iraqi-American lawyer) became so exasperated with the young man's audacity that he finally challenged him:
"You must have thoroughly studied the history of the British occupation of Iraq."
"Yes, I did," the young American replied proudly.
"I thought so," said the Iraqi, "because you seem determined to repeat every one of their mistakes."
Throughout the occupation, there was a profound tension between the idealistic goal of building democracy and the desire on the part of the Americans to retain control, to shape a particular kind of Iraqi democracy.
The dilemma struck me almost immediately after my arrival, when one of our colleagues stormed into the office after a late-night meeting of the Iraqi Gov-erning Council, uttering: "We have a problem. And no one wants to deal with it. The Governing Council is issuing orders and the ministers are starting to execute them." Several of us burst out laughing. We were fostering a transition to sovereignty and democracy. We had established the Iraqi Governing Council. But God forbid it should actually seek to start governing!
Of course, it would be hard to imagine a more overbearing and presumptuous means for one country to relate to another than to occupy it and remake its political system. That's one reason many experts on Iraq warned the United States that establishing itself as an occupying power there would be met with sustained violent resistance. But America occupied anyway, in a way that was often filled with an ill-informed hubris, leading it for many months to misread the importance of Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani; to underestimate the depth of Iraqi resentment of American military and political dominance; to marginalize the United Nations' mission in postwar Iraq, despite its considerable knowledge and expertise; and to impose 100 colonial-like decrees.
It was hubris — and worse — that led one retired general to dismiss the disastrous April 2003 murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei (Iraq's most outspoken democratic Shiite cleric, and a man we had just brought back from London) with the disdainful quip, "Oh, it's just them killing each other." It was hubris that led the United States to simply dismiss the insurgents as a bunch of bad losers and "evildoers" who would be quickly consigned to the dustbin of history. Thus President Bush defiantly invited them to "bring it on."
And then there were major policy miscalculations, the most serious of which were the decisions in May 2003, upon the arrival of the American head of the occupation, L. Paul Bremer III, to disband the 400,000-member Iraqi army and disqualify from public employment a wide swath of Baath Party members. Both of these decisions flew in the face of numerous expert warnings that moving too precipitously in these ways would humiliate many Iraqis, alienate the Sunnis and destabilize the country, providing political fuel — and a large number of recruits with weapons — for an insurgency.
Since spring 2004, the Bush administration has been modifying these mistakes — restoring some of the lower-level Baathists (like schoolteachers and technical personnel) to their government jobs, while recruiting back on a selective basis, after vetting, some of the former army officers. And it has made other pragmatic adjustments, including bringing in the U.N. mission in 2004 and agreeing to direct elections for an Iraqi parliament.
The most important adjustment has been the ongoing effort to bring Sunni tribal, political and religious forces into the transitional process, to try to give them a stake in the new political order. Sunnis, only 20 percent of the country, have dominated it for most of the past century, including Saddam's rulership.
Still, adjustments have tended to be too modest, too late, and have never been able to get out in front of the suspicions that have helped to drive the insurgency.
Clearly, if Iraq is going to become a democracy, or even a reasonably stable and effective state, it must get control of the insurgency, which is based largely among Iraq's Sunnis. Defeating it will require a sophisticated, patient and incremental effort for many years, combining military, intelligence, policing and political efforts.
There is no magic solution, because the insurgency consists of multiple social strands, and some of these — especially the foreign fighters (such as al-Qaida) and the surviving Saddam loyalists — can only be defeated and killed in combat, arrested, or expelled.
However, other elements — Sunni tribal groups, nationalist forces, political parties, even some of the fundamentalist religious networks and some former Baathists who are glad to be rid of Saddam — appear eager to negotiate with the United States. Some have been seeking, through international intermediaries, to do so for more than a year. They have signaled a willingness (yet to be clearly tested) to suspend or end the violent struggle in exchange for certain concessions.
Fortunately, a dialogue has been under way between the elected Iraqi transitional government, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and some of these Sunni forces sympathetic to the resistance. Also positive is that the Bush administration (including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her recent visit to Iraq) has been encouraging this dialogue, which recently led to an agreement to enlarge the constitutional drafting committee to include more Sunni voting members and advisers.
To achieve lasting peace in Iraq, America will have to make concessions, including an explicit commitment not to seek permanent military bases in Iraq. Perhaps no issue in the coming years will more clearly expose the real purpose of the Bush administration's postwar mission in Iraq: to build democracy or to obtain a new, regional military platform in the heart of the Arab world.
Make no mistake about it: While Iraqis are glad to be rid of Saddam, they also want their country back. Only if we make it clear that we will withdraw our military forces when Iraq is stable will we create the political context in which Iraq can once again become secure. The alternative would leave us mired indefinitely in a violent quagmire in Iraq.
Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His book, "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq," was published this month. He wrote this commentary for the San Jose Mercury News.