Talking Points: 25 Key Questions on the War in Iraq by David C. Unger - New York Times:
Here are 25 of the most important questions about the Iraq invasion — 10 that policy makers should have asked before invading, 10 that they should have asked as it unfolded, and 5 that they should be asking themselves now.
I. 10 Questions That Should Have Been Asked Before the Invasion
1. What would Iraq look like without Saddam Hussein?
Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but he was also just about the only thing holding Iraq together. The people planning this war should have foreseen that once the repressive lid of Baathist rule was lifted, just about everything would be up for grabs in Iraq, including national unity and the balance of power among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. Mr. Hussein had spent much of the preceding 35 years systematically reshaping Iraq and its institutions around his personal will. No one who had bothered to look at and understood that history could have seriously imagined that things would have fallen simply and peacefully into place by merely removing him and dissolving his army.
2. Regime change or nation-building?
Once American forces invaded Iraq, it was obvious that Washington would find itself hip-deep in some pretty arduous and long-term nation-building. Obvious, that is, to everyone but the Pentagon.
3. How many American troops would be needed, and for how long?
The best time to have asked this question was before the invasion, the timing of which was completely a matter of Washington's choice. If the administration had asked the right questions, it would have understood that defeating Mr. Hussein's army was only the beginning of the mission, to be followed by an extended period of peacekeeping and rebuilding political institutions.
There was at least one person who was asking the right questions at the right time — the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki. Based on the army's experiences in the Balkans and elsewhere, he publicly called for sending "several hundred thousand troops" into Iraq. But this view faced sharp opposition from higher-ups, notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had rejected an initial war plan that called for using 380,000 troops. General Shinseki was publicly slapped down by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and his military career lost traction from then on. He retired from the Army in 2003.
4. What about safeguarding Iraqi weapons arsenals?
For a war that was supposed to be about weapons, it is remarkable how little planning went into locking down Iraqi arsenals. But such a lockdown would have required not only better planning, but more troops.
5. And what about sealing the borders?
If anybody in Washington was really worried about Al Qaeda getting its hands on Iraqi weapons, a top military priority should have been sealing Iraq's borders with Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sealing those borders also would have helped prevent the infiltration of Al Qaeda fighters into chaotic post-war Iraq. This too would have required more American troops.
6. Would Iraq hold together as a unified state?
For decades before the American invasion, the only glue holding Iraq's three pieces together seemed to be Baathist terror. Mr. Hussein ruthlessly persecuted the millions of Shiites and Kurds who opposed his rule, while co-opting the few who were willing to do his bidding. To the extent that any real Iraqi national identity emerged during those decades, it did so under Baathist tutelage. In contrast, among those Kurds and Shiites who resisted Mr. Hussein, separatist regional and sectarian identities grew stronger. None of this was exactly a secret. It should have been easy to foresee that once the Baathist regime was gone, demands for regional autonomy would surge forth.
7. What could the British experience teach us?
Either Washington didn't bother studying the British experience, or somehow could not imagine the same thing could happen to the United States. Clearly, it could happen and it did.
8. How do we get and keep the Iraqi people on our side?
The best insurance against repeating Britain's unhappy experience would have been a serious strategy for showing Iraqis that the American presence would improve their lives. This should not have been impossible. Mr. Hussein was widely unpopular. Twelve years of punishing economic sanctions had reduced the Iraqi middle class to misery. After years of dictatorship and suffering, popular expectations were fairly modest. Safe streets, longer hours of electric power, and a reviving economy, helped along by new jobs for former soldiers and the idle young men of the slums, could have gone a long way. Instead, Washington simply assumed that Iraqis would be so grateful for the end of Mr. Hussein's rule that they would rally around their American liberators, even if their lives did not get better in all the other ways that mattered.
9. Once a post-Baathist Iraq took shape, how would it fit into the map of the Middle East?
10. More specifically, would invading Iraq make Iran more or less of a regional threat?
Some Bush administration hawks once gleefully imagined that the presence of American troops on Iran's eastern flank, in Afghanistan, and its western flank, in Iraq, would greatly reinforce America's quarter-century effort to contain Tehran's adventurist clerical regime. The reality has been just the opposite.
Iran has benefited enormously from America's military intervention in Iraq and continues to do so. The Shiite fundamentalist parties that America helped bring to power in Baghdad are deeply indebted to Iran for the years of sanctuary, training and aid they received there during Mr. Hussein's dictatorship. Now those parties are well positioned to repay those debts, while America, with much of its military tied down and its multilateral credibility in tatters, is poorly positioned to thwart Iran's advancing drive to arm itself with nuclear weapons.
II. 10 Questions That Should Have Been Asked Since the Invasion
It was bad enough to ignore so many of these seemingly obvious strategic questions before the invasion. But we've now had almost three years to learn from these and other early mistakes. Here are 10 more questions we should have started asking ourselves once things started going so unexpectedly wrong. A few timely mid-course corrections could still have made things a lot better than they are today.
Let's start with the first unpleasant surprise, which was evident by the spring of 2003.
1. Where were the flowers?
Vice President Dick Cheney predicted on television before the war that American troops in Iraq "will be greeted as liberators." Kanan Makiya, an expatriate Iraqi intellectual, personally told President Bush that American soldiers would be welcomed with "sweets and flowers." But within just a few weeks of the invasion, it was becoming clear that many Iraqis were less than delighted with the presence of a foreign occupying army.
2. Where were the Chalabi voters?
Pentagon neoconservatives believed the secular Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi when he assured them that Iraqis of all persuasions would rally to him as the democratic leader of a new Iraq. But the smooth talking Mr. Chalabi, who had last lived in Iraq in 1958, proved badly out of touch with contemporary Iraqi reality. He attracted little political support after returning to Baghdad on the heels of the American invasion. Another secular exile favored by Washington, Ayad Allawi, also never won as large a following as his American backers expected.
The only exile politicians who succeeded in winning a large following were those associated with the two disciplined Shiite fundamentalist parties that spent the Hussein era based in Iran — S.C.I.R.I. and Dawa.
3. What can stop the looting (and the erosion of American credibility that accompanied it)?
Nothing more fatally undermined American reconstruction and transition plans than the weeks of unchecked looting that followed the toppling of the Baathist regime. Iraqis, who were used to an all-powerful police state, watched in horrified amazement as vandals stripped everything of value from hospitals, schools, museums and ministries and destroyed the critical infrastructure that brought water and electricity into homes and oil to foreign and domestic markets.
Mr. Rumsfeld dismissively declared at the time that freedom was untidy and that "stuff happens." That sent precisely the wrong message to Iraqis, who were starting to conclude that the American authorities were not all that powerful or competent — and that their lives had gotten worse since the invasion. Halting the looting should have been a top priority for the Pentagon. But that would have required sending more troops.
4. Once the original game plan for political transition collapsed amid the looting and growing Iraqi ill-will , what might have been a more realistic Plan B?
Plan A was the ill-fated Garner plan for a fast-paced hand-over to Iraqi administrators and an early American withdrawal. That strategy was in ruins by May, 2003 and the White House dispatched L. Paul Bremer to take over and organize a new transition. But while the Garner timetable had been unrealistically short, and not backed up by enough troops, the timetable that Mr. Bremer produced in July 2003 was unrealistically long and backed up by too few American troops.
5. What's more important, on-time elections or inclusive elections?
Once the new electoral timetable was announced, based more on Washington politics than Iraqi preparedness, it quickly became untouchable. Firm deadlines can sometimes be helpful at forcing compromise. But as Iraq's first free elections approached, in Jan. 2005, the only hope for coaxing estranged Sunni Arab parties and voters to take part would have required reaching a consensus agreement between all groups, and that the only realistic chance for achieving this would have involved delaying the vote for a few months. Washington stood firm against any delay. The result was a badly skewed constitutional assembly and a badly skewed constitution that has contributed to the alarming drift toward civil war. Iraqis had waited all their lives for free elections. Why was Washington so unwilling to think about waiting a few months more for elections that were not only free, but inclusive enough to build a nation around?
6. Who are America's natural allies in Iraq?
Faced with a political map as complicated as Iraq's, Washington should have tried to figure out early on which Iraqi constituencies had a self-interest in building an inclusive, secular democracy. Washington early on allied itself with the Shiites and the Kurds, who suffered most at the hands of Mr. Hussein. But the main Shiite parties turned out to be far more interested in imposing fundamentalism and carrying out vendettas against their former oppressors than in building a free and united nation. And the Kurdish parties have so far shown themselves to be almost exclusively interested in autonomy for the Kurdish northeast and almost indifferent to what goes on in the Arab areas of Iraq.
Obviously, Washington should not have turned its back on the Shiites and Kurds, who together constitute more than three-quarters of the Iraqi population. But it could have done a better job, early on, of convincing Sunni Arabs that they could benefit from American protection against Shiite vengeance.
7. What would it take to get more international support?
Incredibly, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon seemed to have assumed at first that America's Western and Arab allies, and the United Nations, would practically trip over each other to get right with the new order by sending peacekeeping troops and conferring international legitimacy on the political transition. By late 2003, it was increasingly evident that wasn't about to happen. To those not hypnotized by blind self-righteousness, it was no surprise.8. What could be done to minimize the damage from the Abu Ghraib torture scandal?
Every top business executive learns about damage control strategies, and every good one learns that a successful strategy has to go beyond managing the bad news to managing the problem itself. Yet in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, President Bush, the first business school graduate to occupy the White House, did just about everything wrong.
Although the Pentagon first learned about the abuses by early November 2003, it took no serious steps to get out in front of the problem until graphic photographs from Abu Ghraib were published in the New Yorker nearly six months later, in its April 30, 2004 issue. The president never demanded accountability from the cabinet official ultimately in charge — Mr. Rumsfeld — or from the senior commanders and officials responsible for the brutal interrogation policies at the prison. Instead, the administration kept repeating that all the blame belonged to a few bad apples, and only pursued court-martials or serious punishments against low ranking soldiers.
That struck at the core principle of command responsibility on which the professionalism of any military force depends. It also encouraged Iraqis, and the rest of the world, to see the United States as a country that practiced and tolerated torture — and as all too similar to Mr. Hussein, the man who first made Abu Ghraib famous for torturing innocent Iraqis.
9. What kind of Iraqi security forces should we be building?
The theory of the current occupation is that the United States army has to remain in place until the Iraqis develop the capacity to preserve order themselves. As early as 2003, the Pentagon was regularly reporting rapid progress in building the necessary Iraqi security forces. But anyone who looked at the details could see that the Pentagon's numbers were puffed up by including security guards hired to protect building sites along with actual soldiers and police.10. Again — how many United States troops will be needed, and for how long?
First, American troops were supposed to be withdrawn within three months. Then, as the insurgency exploded, the target became early 2005, as Iraqi forces became large enough and capable enough to take over. Then, American troops were temporarily increased for the recent elections, with promises of significant withdrawals later this year.
Clearly, what is driving this timetable is American politics, not Iraqi progress. And the American people clearly seem to be running out of patience. In a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll this week 67 percent of those asked felt that President Bush "does not have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq," an all-time high. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces now look less capable than ever of holding the country together. And American forces are still too thin on the ground, which forces them to put their own security first, and keeping Iraqi civilians out of the crossfire second.
III. 5 Questions That Should Be Asked Now
Now it's your turn.
Just as there were vital questions that weren't adequately thought through before the invasion and vital questions that haven't been adequately thought through over the past three years, there are also vital questions that are not being adequately thought through today. Here are five that Americans ought to be deliberating right now.
There are no obviously "right" or "wrong" answers. This time we are talking about an uncertain and largely unpredictable future, not a known past. Still, how America chooses to answer these questions will have enormous effects on its future role in Iraq, in the Middle East, and beyond.