The Iraqi Cauldron

The Pentagon’s senior civilian hierarchy has some armchair warriors who have never heard a bullet fired in anger, they were right about the war being over in a short time, very wrong about the "the war after the war". As senior a person as battle-experienced US Army Chief Gen Shinseki kept on insisting, even when he was vindictively declared a "lame duck" by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld more than a year before he was to retire, that the invasion (and occupation thereof) of Iraq needed "more boots on the ground". The senior military hierarchy united against Rumsfeld as much as their predecessors did against McNamara and his whiz-kids during Vietnam. Frustrated with the inherent caution counselled and keen to put into practice the new high-tech concept of lightning IT warfare that could not be tried out against the Talibaan in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld found a kindred spirit in Gen Tommy Franks, the overall US Commander in the region. Rumsfeld and Franks had reason to feel confident about a quick victory in contrast to the informed military assessment that victory would take some time, even against a dilapidated and obsolete Iraqi military machine. However, they knew something that we didn’t even though it was certainly a matter of speculation, critical decision-making personnel in Saddam Hussain’s military hierarchy had been bought off even before the first shot was fired, many of them trusted blood relatives of the dictator.

The "shock and awe" strategy followed by the rolling "blitzkrieg" northwest along the Basra-Baghdad approach roads was spectacular. With "imbedded journalists" traveling with the advancing tank and mechanical infantry columns, this was real-life "made for TV" war. Except in some key nodal points, eg Nasiryah, where it seems that the local Iraqi commanders could not be bought off and refused to abandon their defensive positions, the offensive was really a rapid "flag march" across the desert plains. No obstacles were prepared, natural or artificial, very few anti-personnel and/or anti-tank mines were laid. This must be the first full-fledged war in modern history where not a single bridge, for that matter not even a single culvert, was set for demolition by the defending forces. The Iraqi Army regulars were told by their compromised leaders that their dispersal, rather than fighting the advancing enemy, was part of the overall strategy of fighting a guerilla war. Small arms, rocket launchers, grenades were hidden in hundreds of caches in pursuance of such tactics. Small units of Saddam loyalists and Baa’th Party irregulars, not aware that their senior field commanders had no intention to fight, carried out sporadic "hit and run" and suicide-bombing attacks along the Lines of Communications (L of Cs). Dust storms affecting the entire battle area temporarily halted the advance short of Baghdad and gave heart to the military cynics who gave vent to their worst fears on prime TV. Everyone braced for "Fortress Baghdad", but instead of giving battle in the streets of Baghdad, the vaunted Republican Guard melted into the night. Rumsfeld was proved right, the war was effectively over. Or was it?

Lt Gen (Retd) Jay Garner, an old Iraqi hand (he was liaison with the Kurds during the last Gulf War) who was appointed the overall US Administrator, soon found the bureaucratic-going way beyond his capabilities to handle and Paul Bremer 2 replaced him. Paul Bremer has done reasonably well as a civilian administrator under the circumstances, restoring socio-economic and civic facilities on a priority basis as well as inducting Iraqis into the mainstream of civil administration. He forced through a governing Iraqi Council drawn from all ethnicities and religious factions, a skeptic Iraqi population (and the Arab world) is giving them grudging acceptance. A functioning cabinet has also been put in place. However Paul Bremer’s major mistake was disbanding the Iraqi Armed Forces and the entire civilian bureaucracy, thereby putting more than a million able-bodied men out of jobs. In retrospect, the US will look back on this major "faux pas" as the defining moment when optimistic planning overcame ground reality and put their well-made plans for a long Iraqi occupation on the road to potential disaster. The men should have been made to report to their parent units and formations, and given life-sustaining monthly allowances for the survival of their families. During a period of between 6 months to a year they should have been duly screened for their loyalties to the old guard as well as their suitability for employment. Those verified as being purely professional should have been inducted into the civil bureaucracy and a civil armed forces doubling as a law enforcement agency. By literally putting trained manpower into the streets without future hope for the survival of their families. Paul Bremer ensured that a vast silent majority of professionals were forced to join a strong nucleus of an anti-US guerilla force consisting of die-hard Saddam loyalists and Baath Party regulars as well as Arab and muslim volunteers.

Stray operational setbacks like car bombs exploding and casualties due to stray guerilla activity cannot be labelled as "defeats" as much as the killing of Uday and Qusay and capture of many of Saddam’s inner circles cannot be called "victories". These are simply incidents in the overall mosaic of war and post-war. However the car-bomb killings of UN Administrator Victor de Mello and Imam Baker al Hakim, were major public relations (PR) disasters, they showed up US ineffectiveness in policing Iraq. Though the majority Shia population blamed this as the work of Saddam’s handymen’s, they were unanimities in anti-US protest. The US has ordered the Shia militias be disarmed, just as vocally the militias are defying this order. In the absence of adequate policing by the thinly-stretched US forces they say they need weapons for self-protection. With Iran already supporting an anti-US proxy war in Afghanistan, what is to stop this neighboring country from interceding in the Shia majority areas in Iraq?

Only six months or so after he had scornfully brushed aside any possible UN role in Iraq before, during or after the war, US President Bush is now asking for UN support in a major reversal of US Iraqi policy. To get such a mandate the US will have to make compromises, it is highly unlikely that EU countries like Germany and France, or for that matter Russia and China, will accept a commanding US dominance over the UN in Iraq. While the military command should stay with the US, given the large number of their forces on the ground in Iraq and the need for having a workable operations HQs staff, the military has to be under a UN-appointed Administrator answerable to the UN and not to Washington. This UN-Protectorate idea may presently be a non-starter but with an election year approaching and combat deaths already more than those suffered during the war, the Republicans will be subject to extensive media exposure duly orchestrated by a whole coterie of Democratic Party Presidential candidates. The cost of "the war after the war" is also escalating as evidenced from the additional US$ 87 billion Bush has asked for from US Congress, in the current polarized political environment will the legislators bail the US President out?

The US has repeatedly asked for two brigades of Pakistani troops for Iraq, while President Musharraf was initially amenable to the idea he had put a UN or OIC mandate (and participation by other muslim countries) as a caveat. In the present political environment there will be strong domestic political reaction against the sending of any troops to Iraq. We must play a role in bringing peace to the people of Iraq but the political and human cost may be too high a price to pay. Any attack on Pakistani troops will invoke self-defence, the retaliation thereof could escalate and before you know it a blood-cycle will be in the offing, making the entire Middle East anti-Pakistani. With our luck this is more a probability than a possibility. Are we prepared to take the risk in the face of what one knows is a moral duty of providing succour for the Iraqi people? In the circumstances the sending of Pakistani troops into the Iraqi cauldron is a major non-starter.