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The War in Iraq and its Aftermath

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By Stuart Schaar

Talk delivered October 27, 2004 at Hofstra University.

            The U.S-lead invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003 is largely the product of blowback, or the unexpected byproduct of what policy-makers might have originally viewed as wise planning. Historian William H. McNeill in his 1992 book The Global Condition (pp. vii-viii and xiv), reminds us “how ignorant we are about the consequences of our actions” and that “the best laid plans and most carefully prepared actions…regularly produce unforeseen consequences – sometimes disastrous….” For example, from 1980 to 1988, the U.S. armed Saddam Hussein’s military, as did the Soviet Union. They did this in order to help Iraq, a country 2/3 the size of Texas, with a population of 23 million, gain advantages over neighboring and much larger Muslim Shi’ite revolutionary Iran in a long war. As a result, Washington and Moscow clearly encouraged Saddam’s megalomania.  The United States also coaxed its allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to help bankroll Hussein’s fantasies of conquest. That eight-year war cost Baghdad nearly a half a trillion dollars.

             Yet a closer examination shows that President Ronald Reagan actually seesawed in his support for the belligerents. The U.S. and some of its allies supplied Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime with arms whenever it appeared that Iraqi forces might actually defeat Iran. One set of weapons sales, by Israel to Iran, and the discovery that Reagan  had secretly sent the Iranian leader a birthday cake, lead to what’s known as “Irangate,” an embarrassment for the U.S. administration. Washington in the 1980s helped both protagonists kill each other, hoping to gain from their mutual slaughter. It’s estimated that about 1 million people lost their lives in that eight-year face off. Whatever the damage done, Saddam Hussein emerged from that conflict as a regional power broker.

            About the same time that the United States alternated between supporting Baghdad and Tehran, C.I.A. operatives in Pakistan hired, armed, and liberally paid holy warriors from all over the Muslim world. These volunteers included multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden, who recruited many of the fighters. These men converged on Afghanistan to topple a Soviet installed regime and dislodge hundreds of thousands of Russian troops. When the Mujahidiin won that war the world paid a heavy price for their victory. In the western euphoria over the fall of the Soviet Union, to which the Afghanistan war contributed, most people ignored some lethal byproducts of that conflict. Most of the Muslim fighters returned to their homes with U.S. money, arms and know-how about overthrowing regimes, and organized or participated in local insurrections. One of them broke out in Algeria in the 1990s, killing some 200,000 people over eight years. Other veterans of the Afghan war, caught up in the jihadi spirit, moved to war-torn Bosnia, Chechniya and most recently Iraq and have intensified the violence in those battle zones. U.S. officials should have recognized that blowback exacts a heavy toll.

            If we return to Iraq, the pumped up Saddam Hussein saw a new vulnerable target on his southern frontier. At the beginning of the 1990s he turned to Kuwait and demanded that it forgive Iraq’s debts, telling its rulers that he had saved Sunni Arabs from Shi’ite Iranian domination and conquest. Faced with refusal from the Kuwaitis, and coveting its large oil reserves, his armies marched into the sandy kingdom while Kuwait’s military folded and ran, and its royals rushed into exile. The first Persian Gulf War of 1991, ended when a U.S.-lead coalition of 500,000 troops defeated the Iraqi army and liberated Kuwait.

            President Bush, the elder, then refused to allow U.S. soldiers to conquer Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Instead the U.S. called for popular uprisings in the northern Kurdish zone and in the south where mostly Shi’ites live. When regional allies of the U.S. in the anti-Iraq coalition balked at this turn of events and Washington policy-makers began fearing the negative consequences of these rebellions, the U.S informed Iraqi officials that the U.S. would not oppose their efforts to keep the country united. Armed with what they construed as a green light from the victors, remnants of the Iraqi army acted with impunity and slaughtered Kurds and Shi’ites by the tens of thousands. Some 2.5 million refugees fled. International pressures over the plight of these victims lead the U.S. to establish no-fly zone s over northern and southern Iraq in 1991 and 1992, which American war-planes thereafter enforced.

            Can we consider the U.S. saving of Hussein after his Kuwaiti fiasco another form of blowback?  After all, the United States kept him in power even when it had the wherewithal to overthrow his regime. The elder Bush argued, legalistically, and correctly, that UN resolutions gave no authority to overthrow the Iraqi state. They merely provided for the removal of the Iraqis from conquered Kuwait. But the way the war ended left an opening for Bush Jr. to accomplish what his father had failed to achieve, the removal of the tyrant Saddam Hussein. But achieving that goal meant that the U.S. would have to act without most of its allies from the First Persian Gulf War, including some Arab states. If we can believe ex-Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill cited in Ron Suskin d’s book The Price of Loyalty (2004), the National Security Council immediately after George W. Bush’s term began in January 2001 laid down plans for the war in Iraq.

Before the U.S. could forcibly remove Saddam Hussein from power, the events of September 11, 2001 transpired. Extremists, presumed to have worked with Osama bin Laden’s al-Queda organization, drove two commandeered U.S. civilian jets into twin World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan, plowed one more plane into the Pentagon, while a fourth aircraft crashed in rural Pennsylvania after its passengers fought their hijackers and saved the country from a larger disaster. Al-Queda seems also to have masterminded the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es-Salam, Tanzania, in retribution for the U.S. having sent cruise missiles against its headquarters in Afghanistan. Bin Laden may also have organized a 1996 attack on U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia and the bombing in October 2000 of the U.S. Destroyer Cole at anchor off of the coast of Aden, in s outhern Yemen. Bin Laden had responded with fury to the U.S. sending into the holy land of Arabia tens of thousands of American troops in 1991. This was worse, bin Laden probably thought, than the Soviet’s earlier invasion of Afghanistan.

By 9/11, bin Laden’s al-Queda, in return for paying an annual rent of more than ten million dollars, enjoyed the hospitality of the Afghan Taliban. This organization of Islamic radical students had coalesced as an armed force in 1994 and three years later had conquered 95% of Afghanistan. Nine days after 9/11 U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the Taliban to turn over bin Laden to Washington. They responded that before doing so they needed incontrovertible evidence of al-Queda’s involvement in the attacks. The U.S. presented no such evidence and began bombing Taliban positions in Afghanistan in preparation for an invasion.

With the aid of the Northern Alliance, anti-Taliban Afghan forces in control of a small area in northern Afghanistan, the U.S. coalition quickly defeated the Taliban and al-Queda, although thousands of those fighters melted into the larger population, or took refuge in neighboring Pakistan’s lawless Northwest Frontier. Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden apparently survived. Since then, Taliban forces and their al-Queda allies have regrouped and control inaccessible mountainous regions in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Some 11,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan stay close to their quarters out of fear of stepping on land mines, or being targeted by Afghan sharpshooters and mortar-bearing irregulars. Elections in October 2004, which Hamid Karzai, the U.S. hand-picked presidential candidate won with over 55% of the vote, and not the landslide he expected, see m to represent a lull in an otherwise chaotic situation. Several warlords, in the areas that voted against Karzai, each with larger militias than the national army, plus al-Queda-backed Taliban forces, contest power throughout the country.

The second Persian Gulf War of 2003 finally followed in the wake of the previous year’s defeat of al-Queda and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. Twelve years of United Nations Security Council-backed sanctions against Iraq had significantly weakened the country. The framers of the sanction regime, spearheaded by the United States, initially intended them as a mechanism to weaken Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial hold over Kuwait and the Iraqi people. After the defeat of Iraq’s military in 1991, it became apparent to the Security Council that sanctions should continue. The U.N. restricted the amount of petroleum the country could export, and only in 1997 did it allow Iraq to sell enough oil to pay for food and medicine. By limiting Iraq’s petroleum trading and by controlling how the country spent it’s earnings, the Security Council intended to prevent Saddam’s regime from developing weapo ns of mass destruction.

            The first aim of the sanctions, to weaken Hussein’s stranglehold over Iraqis, never materialized. Instead the Iraqi state became more centralized and intervened in all aspects of its citizen’s lives. The ruling Baath party organized a rationing system, under which they distributed food essentials to nearly the entire population. Before the war began in 2003, nearly every Iraqi received an allotment of about $5.00/month of rice, beans, cooking oil and other necessities, which just kept them alive. Per capita income had fallen dramatically because of wars and sanctions from a high point of  $9,000 in 1979, the year that Saddam Hussein took over the country, to about $1100 in 2001.

            The sanctions succeeded, however, in eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and actually produced the results desired by the Security Council. The October 2004  report of President Bush’s hand picked investigator, Charles Duelfer, the head of the Iraq Survey Group,  concluded that U.N.-sponsored weapons inspectors, working within the sanctions regime, actually forced the Iraqis to stop its chemical and biological weapons production between 1991 and 1996. The regime unilaterally destroyed all of its stockpiles of illicit weapons during that period.  The report also found that even after the inspectors left Iraq in 1998 Hussein’s regime made no attempts to produce weapons of mass destruction. After 1997 Hussein successfully made some gains by surreptitiously trading oil for goods or money, and he, his entourage and family squirreled away some billions of dollars in Syria and elsewhere to use for rainy days, but there are no indications that those illegal profits had translated into worrisome arms purchases from abroad. Continued sanctions, with cruel consequences for the Iraqi population, clearly could have stifled any of Saddam’s future WMD ambitions.

            The U.S. “coalition of the willing,” consisted of over 250,000 U.S. troops (soon reduced to an occupation force of 138,000), 45,000 British soldiers (reduced at present to nearly 8,000), as  well as Australians, Poles, Danes, Spaniards and Italians plus other token fighters from  very small countries. They attacked on March 19, 2003 and easily dispatched the Iraqi forces after three weeks of fighting. The Baathist state crumbled and opponents seemed to have melted away into the general population. In recent months, under pressures from terrorists and growing violence in Iraq, Spain, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Norway, Dominican Republic, and Thailand have withdrawn their troops. In addition to the regular U.S. m ilitary, the Bush administration hired about 20,000 private military contractors who work with little legal accountability, making them especially feared and unpopular with the Iraqi population.

In the heat of the battle, U.S. troops secured the oil ministry, petroleum wells, some hospitals, and water storage facilities. As soon as fighting stopped, Iraqis looted factories, schools, unprotected hospitals and museums in an orgy of anarchy. Looting contributed to the disintegration of the statist regime. Bush Republicans favored privatization of some 200 state-owned factories and the outsourcing of services to private U.S. companies. Washington hoped to auction off looted factories to American corporations at bargain prices. Lt. General Jay Garner the first U.S. Administrator in Iraq, who wanted to convert the place into a large military base for U.S. forces and had no clear economic agenda, was quickly replaced by Republican counter-terrorist and homeland security expert,  Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, III.  ; Bremer molded legislation to speed up privatization and prepared the groundwork for U.S. corporate ownership of Iraqi properties.

An assessment of the Iraq Crisis Group, composed of mainstream foreign policy professionals, in September 2004 summed up the situation succinctly:

For the most part, the occupation forces came without a plan. What strategy they had benefited from little if any Iraqi input, [and] was heavily shaped by ideology….[They]…originally fixated on large-scale privatisation but, facing Iraqi hostility, [they] neither privatised nor relinquished the objective. As a result…[they] failed to devise an alternative approach that might have revived ailing state companies so they could be used to find temporary jobs for the unemployed.

The U.S. also had little prior intelligence to assess how unusable Iraq’s infrastructure had become. American bombs had avoided hitting the country’s electrical grids and dams, out of concern that they would have to continue functioning. The fighting frightened off Iraqi technicians who had learned, almost magically,the ways to patch up the electrical system and water pipes and pumps over the life of the sanctions, so as to keep them working. As soon as the Americans arrived, they sent in U.S. technicians to replace Iraqis. These, applying American know-how, attempted to streamline the old system, which turned out to be hopelessly dysfunctional and resistant to U.S. upgrading and repairs. The electrical grid more or less collapsed and water supplies dwindled. And as security deteriorated, repairing electrical lines, generating plants and water distribution systems took second place to preserving U.S. and allies’ lives. Nearly 3 1/2billion dollars originally earmarked for reconstruction had to be used for security purposes by September 2004.

The sanctions regime therefore had its own form of blowback, producing the unforeseen near-total collapse of a critical part of Iraq’s infrastructure after the initial period of fighting had ended, which even the most well-intentioned U.S. technicians could not fix. Lack of critical services and massive unemployment created by the purging of Baath party members from their jobs, the closing of many state-run factories, the initial abolition and disintegration of the Iraqi police and army, lead many Iraqis to turn against the occupation. Later U.S. authorities rehired some Baath officials and began training police and military, but that process may have started too late for the U.S. to gain much support. Instead, most Iraqis could not understand how technologically advanced Americans could not make the country work again and why so many of them found themselves unemployed.

            While each conflict zone has its own unique context in which events unfold, we can learn much from the mistakes made in the past by the U.S. and other governments when they intervened militarily in other countries. Two significant conflicts, which took place during the second half of the twentieth century, the Vietnam and Algerian wars, offer some sober lessons. From both, we learn, firstly, that if an insurgency takes root and lasts for more than a year, it may become impossible to dislodge it. Any investments made by the intervening power thereafter to improve the population’s condition resound to the credit of the insurgents, who claim that they forced those investments by their armed opposition to occupation. Winning hearts and minds does not come from the  bar rels of  occupiers guns. Instead, raids, aerial bombing and killing of civilians as collateral damage intensifies popular resistance and widens insurgencies. Cultural and social differences breed contempt on all sides. Linguistic inadequacies of the occupiers cause misinterpretations and errors, sometimes with fatal consequences. While the U.S. so far has suffered over 1100 military dead and about 8,000 wounded, the war has killed a minimum of 13,000 Iraqis, with one recent estimate reaching as high as 100,000.

Secondly, insurgents always target collaborators working for and with the intervening power. It should not surprise anyone knowing comparative nationalist reactions to interventions that the largest numbers of targeted deaths among Iraqi forces are U.S.-appointed government officials and men signing up to work as policemen and soldiers, as well as those already recruited and on duty. Nationalist insurgents save their vengeance for collaborators, who they believe have to pay a high price for their choices. Foreign non-governmental agency employees and private contractors, whose numbers have increased considerably in this war, have also come under attack. Several have been kidnapped and beheaded, mostly by foreign extremist groups. Such terror is meant to discourage aid workers from staying in the country. Suicide bombings also have indiscriminately killed many civilian bystanders.

Thirdly, the intervening power always thinks in conspiratorial terms and claims that external forces manipulate and control the insurgency. In the case of Iraq, the U.S. blames infiltrated al-Queda operatives crossing over porous borders working in tandem with an organized force of former Baath officials possessing large amounts of money, for the worst violence. They find it difficult to acknowledge the presence of a growing number of Iraqi nationalists who also oppose occupation. To acknowledge that fact, implies the existence of a mass movement opposed to occupation, rather than a handful of evil people intent on fulfilling a larger agenda. Wipe out the cancer, according to this reasoning, and you win. In reality, Iraqi nationalism, as contributor to the insurgency, cannot be discounted. It has roots in the early 1920s when an anti-colonial struggle started, culminating in the force ful removal of the British-imposed Iraqi monarchy in 1958. The Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s intensified that nationalism. U.S. occupation of the country in 2003 has only made it stronger.

Fourthly, the presence of significant quantities of oil in Iraq makes it harder for the United States to establish a timetable for withdrawal. France in 1960 offered the National Liberation Front independence in the northern third of Algeria, but not the southern Saharan oil fields, which it intended to keep indefinitely. The FLN fought on for another two years to win control of the Sahara. The north and south of Iraq contain the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia. Further large reserves probably exist in the extensive unexplored eastern desert of the country. Discovered Iraqi oil can supply all U.S. imported needs in petroleum for nearly 100 years if present rates of U.S. consumption continue. However, some oil specialists foresee the United States depleting their own reserves by as early as 2010.

Breaking Iraq into three separate zones to control the oil better, as some analysts have suggested, won’t work either. The Sunni-dominated center, without exploitable energy resources, could not survive over the short term and would only become more unstable than at present. The oil-rich northern Kurdish zone would surely face war with neighboring Turkey and the Southern Shi’ites and their oil fields would most likely fall under the influence of a potentially nuclear Iran. Given growing instability in Saudi Arabia, which contains the largest oil reserves in the world, power-holders in the U.S. may wish to control Iraq indefinitely.

Fifthly, as a legacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime, large-scale arms depots in schools, hospitals and mosques, throughout Iraq have provided ample weapons for the ongoing insurrection. Vietnamese and Algerian nationalists bought all the arms they needed on the open market, or confiscated them when possible from their enemy’s armies. There are so many arms floating around Iraq that private militias can afford to cash in some of  their guns and mortars, enrich themselves, and still hold on to enough weapons to continue the insurrection.

Sixth, alternate sources of news, beyond the propaganda offered by the state, undermine the credibility of official policy. The Vietnam and Algerian struggles generated alternative news outlets, which informed the metropolitan population. Today wide-spread use of the internet and its access to an assortment of foreign and critical reporting, undercuts intensified media concentration, news programs increasingly conceived as propaganda, and embedded reporting in war zones. It also provides counter-information, which opponents of the war can use.

Lastly, large-scale and long modern wars cause havoc with national finances. The US borrowed to paid for its Vietnam venture; France received subventions from the U.S. through NATO to fight its war in Algeria, but that conflict nevertheless kept France’s economy on shaky grounds for decades after. The Bush administration has spent an estimated $155 billion on the Iraqi war. The Washington Post (October 26, 2004) reported that the Bush administration plans to ask Congress in February 2005 for $70 billion more. Iraqi insecurity has kept oil production at a flat 2 million barrels/day, contrasted to output of 3 million barrels/day before the introduction of sanctions. A low volume of energy exports from Iraq contributes to diminished world supplies and higher prices. U.S. tax hikes of any sort to pay for the war seem out of the question for a Bush White House, which means that if the pres ident wins re-election next month, war costs will most probably continue to come from borrowed funds. I also expect continued higher oil prices. They reached $56/barrel last Friday. Specialists project price hikes to $60/barrel in time for the winter heating season. That, plus rising interest rates, and a further devaluation of the dollar in response to our growing deficits and negative balances of trade, caused in part by continued high energy import costs, leave much to worry about.

Does the U.S. have an alternative to hanging on and escalating the fighting in Iraq?  I think it does. Looking at past conflicts and how protagonists resolved them gives us some clues for action. Vietnam provides a negative example. After the Tet offensive the U.S. position deteriorated and lead to the evacuation of U.S. troops in early 1973, leaving hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese collaborators of the U.S. stranded. In Algeria, Charles de Gaulle offered the Algerians a “Peace of the Brave” wherein he set a timetable for ending the war after staging a referendum, which allowed a choice for independence. The French resettled in their own country only 50,000 Algerians, fighting men and their families, out of the million estimated collaborators (including families)  who sided openly with France.

The U.S. needs to set a timetable for withdrawal, the sooner the better. The president should announce the date in a prominent public forum, for example, during his State of the Union Address. That will force Iraqis to form political coalitions to prepare for the transition. Interim elections, with candidates vetted and chosen by the United States, will not buy peace. The political forces of the country, defined in terms of secular,  ethnic, religious and tribal groups, will have to make the decisions for themselves and participate fully in reestablishing their sovereignty. Once they know that true independence is at hand, the givens on the ground will change. There is always a risk of civil war in Iraq, but with a guided transition, following a timetable, and with the cooperation of both secular and religious leaders that can be avoided. If the U. S. wishes to purchase Iraqi oil from a sovereign state or companies allowed by an independent  Iraq to exploit those resources, I am sure that the country’s new leaders will be more than happy to sell their energy at world market prices.  If we believe in democracy, that seems the best way to proceed.

George W. Bush, in a fit of premature exuberance, announced from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 that the United States and its allies had won the Iraq war. Little did he know then that blowback from victory would cause havoc in Iraq and growing opposition within the United States to that same war and perhaps even to his presidency, causing his popularity to plummet from soaring heights. Modern wars in distant lands take on a logic of their own and sometimes have the capacity to dislodge from power those who embark on such adventures.

Stuart Schaar is Professor of Middle East and Global History at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He co-edited The Middle East and Islamic World Reader with Marvin E. Gettleman (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2003). His latest book, “Fired Up In New York: The Life and Times of Three Global Citizens” will be published in 2005.