Monday, April 19, 2004

Don’t Shit In Your Mess Kit

The Faithful Correspondent sent me this long and very detailed report from the Wall Street Journal on how decisions made a year ago about how to implement the occupation of Iraq are now coming back to haunt both the occupying forces and the Iraqi people.

Early U.S. Decisions on Iraq Now Haunt American Efforts

By FARNAZ FASSIHI, GREG JAFFE, YAROSLAV TROFIMOV, CARLA ANNE ROBBINS and YOCHI J. DREAZEN

Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

April 19, 2004; Page A1

As soon as U.S. troops occupied Iraq a year ago, an orgy of looting erupted. Telephone wires were pulled out of the ground, while hospitals, schools and government buildings were stripped bare of windows, door frames and faucets.

The crime wave seemed a passing embarrassment at the time, so the U.S. made a conscious decision not to use military might to stop it.

It’s now clear that decision led to lasting problems that have reverberated through this month’s wave of violence in Iraq. The looting alienated Iraqis who questioned the intentions of their new U.S. protectors. It made the job of rebuilding Iraq much harder, delaying improvements that would have lessened the appeal of radicals. It even allowed a then-obscure cleric named Muqtada al Sadr to build up goodwill among the country’s downtrodden by collecting and redistributing some looted merchandise.

The battles U.S. forces are waging, against Sunni insurgents around the town of Fallujah and Shiite forces loyal to Mr. Sadr across the south, may have seemed to erupt suddenly. In reality, they have been long in the making, fed by a year’s worth of decisions and calculations about the Iraqi army and security, about the depth of popular tolerance for occupation and about the role of the country’s important Shiite leaders.

The problems are rooted most firmly in one basic but faulty assumption about the level of postwar stability. In prewar days, the U.S. planned to administer Iraq for two years or more, as the country’s Baath party was purged, war-crimes trials held, a new constitution written and new democratic institutions built from the ground up.

But the luxury of that long and quiet occupation never materialized. Iraq’s infrastructure and its economy were in far worse shape than the U.S. had calculated, meaning public patience with the occupation wasn’t as extensive as imagined. Difficulties in establishing a respected media network undercut U.S. efforts to turn around opinions.

The failure quickly to find and lock down the huge stocks of weaponry in Iraq meant insurgents could quietly arm themselves without much trouble. An early decision to disband the Iraqi army — and a long debate over which of three new security forces to build up — left the U.S. without any sizable Iraqi force to help quell the unrest. The security situation grew more troublesome yesterday when Spain’s new prime minister announced he would withdraw his country’s troops from Iraq as soon as possible. And in Baghdad, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said Iraqi forces won’t be able on their own to deal with security threats by the time the U.S. hands power to an Iraqi government on June 30.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is still scrambling to recover from a key political miscalculation. When launching an accelerated plan to create an Iraqi government, U.S. officials assumed, incorrectly, that they would have the tacit support of the nation’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. An agreement with him would have left Mr. Sadr little room to maneuver among Shiites.

The Bush administration says the political situation is being sorted out with help from the United Nations and that this month’s violence obscures a much brighter overall picture. “It’s not a popular uprising,” President Bush said last week. “Most of Iraq is relatively stable. Most Iraqis by far reject violence and oppose dictatorship.”

Read the rest of it here (PDF). It is a tale of short-sighted and hubristic planning – if you can call it that – and a complete lack of understanding of what we were getting into, and we will be paying for this for a long, long time.

What is most interesting is that this story appears in one of the most editorially conservative papers in the country – I usually refer to it as Der Volkischer Beobachter. For the Wall Street Journal to run a story like this on Page A1 should tell us something. Perhaps even the intellectual right wing is beginning to see that we failed to learn the first lesson of boot camp: plan for the worst and know how to deal with it before it happens.

[Update: Changed article file from Word document to PDF.]