Iraq and the consequences of an ill-conceived war

American troops are still in Iraq on the 15th anniversary of an invasion, the pretext for which was the entirely trumped-up claim that America’s iconic foe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The failure of the 2003 invasion and continuing presence of American troops illustrate the importance of aligning ends with means.

The stated objectives of the invasion were to end the Hussein regime; eliminate the weapons of mass destruction; drive out Islamist militants; secure Iraq’s petroleum infrastructure, which was to cover the cost of the war; and create a liberal, representative government that would spark a new age of freedom in the Middle East.

The invasion did change the region; it made things worse. It began on March 19, 2003 and the military campaign was quick and decisive. Baghdad fell on April 9.

But unlike in Las Vegas, what happened in Iraq did not stay in Iraq. The war opened a Pandora’s Box in the Middle East, releasing many demons.

The abrupt fall of Baghdad was accompanied by a full-scale collapse of public order and helped incubate and reinvigorate radical Islamist militants in the region. The invasion contributed to the civil war in Syria, helped create a vacuum that ISIS filled and caused massive refugee flows to Syria, Jordan, and Europe, other than that it was a complete success.

In retrospect, it is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did to America’s global prestige, badly damaging America’s Godzilla-like unipolar credentials, and offering the world a pitiless example of the limits to American power. The magnitude of this disaster can also be measured in lives and money.

From 2003 until the formal withdrawal of troops in 2011, the war took the lives of 4,500 Americans and over 150,000 Iraqi civilians. Its direct cost has been estimated to be almost $1.7 trillion, with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans.

The Ronald Reagan question is appropriate here: Is the Middle East better off today than it was before the Iraq war? Is the United States in a better place than before the invasion? In short, unintended consequences resulted in a shattered Iraq, an emboldened Iran, and a Middle East where many regional and international powers are engaged in a number of deadly conflicts.

Then there is the question of opportunity cost – the extent to which the war distracted America from a slew of other challenges, such as emerging nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, China flexing its muscles in East Asia, completing the Afghanistan operation and other global trouble spots.

Fundamentally, the cleavage between the invasion’s ambitious goals and its actual results boils down to the fact that President Bush and his hawkish advisors failed to establish a proper relationship between end and means in their prosecution of the war. The year before the invasion, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki made the point that American troops were already stretched too thin around the world. In February 2003, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers” to secure and pacify Iraq.

Two days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the post-war troop commitment would be less than the number of troops required to win the war, and the “idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far off the mark.” The Bush administration sent 150,000 American troops into Iraq.

Successful strategy in military affairs and business requires the proper alignment between potentially goals and resources. The Bush team aroused sky-high expectations without sufficient resources to meet them.

President Bush and his advisors failed to understand the words of Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, who wrote, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” Even great powers operate in a world in which resources are not always sufficient to exploit all opportunities and neutralize all threats. There is never enough of anything to go around.

Originally Published: May 5, 2018



A LESSON OF WAR: Iraq, Afghanistan and from a century past

The Battle of the Somme was a meat grinder. The centenary of this battle, fought mid-way through World War I, will be commemorated on July 1 in Great Britain, France and other countries that lost men in one of the largest and bloodiest battles in the history of human warfare.

Between July 1 and Nov. 18, 1916, the British suffered about 420,000 casualties, the French about 200,000 and the Germans about 465,000. All told, 300,000 soldiers died and little was achieved. Somme was like America’s recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan writ large.

After two years of relative stalemate, allied forces decided to make a big push to break through the German lines and hopefully achieve a quick and decisive victory on the Western Front, much like politicians and generals assumed quick victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. The offensive was designed to relieve pressure on the French as a result of the German offensive against French forces at Verdun, and take control of a 20-mile stretch of the meandering River Somme.

The first day of that battle was the bloodiest in the history of the British army . Of the 120,000 troops who went into battle, the British suffered about 60,000 casualties, as many as 20,000 of whom died before the day was over.

The plan drawn up by generals in their chateau headquarters miles behind the battlefield was for an artillery barrage to pound the German defenses to an extent that the attacking British could just walk in and occupy the opposing trenches with minimal opposition. Cavalry units would then gloriously pour through the German lines, pursue the fleeing Germans and turn the tide of a war that had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years.

Before the battle started, the British fired over a million and a half shells at the German soldiers, many of which either did not explode or completely missed their targets.

During seven days and nights of bombardment that removed the element of surprise, German troops simply moved into their deep underground concrete bunkers and waited. When the artillery pounding stopped, scores of British soldiers walked in a row uphill in successive waves across no-man’s-land and were mowed down, easy targets for swarms of German machine gun nests. By nightfall, few of the objectives had been taken despite massive loss of life.

The offensive would continue for another 4 1/2 months in a similar vein. After July 1, a long stalemate settled in as the British employed the same hopeless method of attack conforming to a prefabricated interpretation of events on the ground, despite assault after assault turning into a killing ground. Somme became a bloody battle of attrition.

By the end of the battle, a massive loss of human life had netted the allies roughly six miles of German­ held territory.

The battle helped cement the reputation of World War I as a war of terrible slaughter caused by poor decisions on the part of high commanders. The troubled British offensive resulted in the epithet “lions led by donkeys.”

Today, revisionist historians contend that the battle, while costly and flawed, put an end to German hopes at Verdun, badly weakened the German army and helped the British learn new tactics for successfully prosecuting future offensives.

Traditionalists believe this interpretation airbrushes reality. They say the battle achieved nothing but untold misery and loss. It was an unjustified bloodbath and evidence of the British high command’s incompetence. They argue that British military leaders failed in the fashion of Pyrrhus, who lamented after the battle at Asculum: “another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”

Having just lived through two conflicts, Americans can relate to this quote. Iraq and Afghanistan, which is ongoing, both created more problems than they solved. Optimistic miscalculations led to unintended consequences and bloody inconclusiveness. And so it goes.

Originally Published: Jun 25, 2016