American Military Performance in Iraq

By West, F. J. Bing | Military Review, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

American Military Performance in Iraq


West, F. J. Bing, Military Review


IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE to blame the neoconservatives in the Bush administration for the confusion and continued bloodshed in Iraq. But as we enter the fourth year of the Iraq war, it is not too early to stand back and review our military performance in order to maintain some perspective. Below are several observations.

1 The insurgency in Iraq was based on the Sunni rejection of democracy. Saddam did not rule alone. His enforcers--and those who shared in the plunder--were predominantly Sunni. American and British troops liberated the Kurds and Shiites from their Sunni oppressors. The essential confusion about Iraq stems from a lack of candor by American leaders in acknowledging that democracy stripped the Sunnis of their power. Were it not for the American occupation of the Sunni areas north and west of Iraq, the fragile Shiite-based democracy stood no chance of taking root. Most Sunnis viewed as illegitimate the presence of the American troops, whom they call "occupiers," which by definition they are.

Accustomed to dominating and oppressing the Kurds and Shiites, the Sunni population sympathized with, and were intimidated by, the insurgents who freely mixed with them in the marketplaces. Yet instead of being forthright about the Sunni bedrock of the insurgency, American officials too often suggested that most Surmis also supported democracy, but were intimidated by shadowy insurgents.

True, the insurgents are deadly intimidators. Beyond that, however, deeply held religious beliefs and tribal patterns of social behavior take decades to change. Efforts to include Sunnis in the Iraqi Army are laudable. In addition, for years there have been negotiations to coax the insurgent Sunni "rejectionist" leaders to stop fighting, much as the British encouraged the Irish Republican Army to cease attacks in northern Ireland. Unfortunately, these political talks have not yet yielded results.

2 The major intelligence failure was deeming culture an illegitimate subject of analysis. Virtually all Western intelligence agencies believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; the reasons for being misled were understandable. The real failure was not seeing that Iraq had fallen apart as a cohesive society. The evidence was widespread. The British engineers and Marines who seized the "Crown Jewel" in March of 2003--the pumping station north of Basra that facilitated a multibillion dollar flow of oil--were appalled to see scrubby grass, broken windows, open cesspools, and vital equipment deteriorating into junk.

Common eyesores in Iraqi cities are the heaps of garbage outside the walls of the houses. Inside the courtyards, tiny patches of grass are as well tended as the putting greens on golf courses. A generation of oppression had taught the society to take care only of its own, to enrich the family, and to avoid

Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright [C] 2006 U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.

F.J. Bing West is a former assistant secretary of defense and Marine Vietnam veteran. Currently a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, West has been to Iraq ten times, embedded with 24 different battalions, He is the author of The Village, a 485-day chronicle of a Combined Action Platoon that lost seven of its 15 Marines; The March Up; and No True Glory: a Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. West appears frequently on The News Hour and is currently writing a history of the Iraqi insurgency. He is also doing a major piece on Iraq for The Atlantic Monthly.

any communal activity that attracted attention and charges of deviant political behavior. The society fell apart, with each family and subtribe caring only for itself.

The civilian neoconservatives in the Bush administration were convinced that Iraq's educated middle class, so in evidence a half-century ago, would reemerge as the enlightened, moderate leadership. The intelligence community, trained to report only on technical, quantitative "hard data" and to regard cultural and societal variables as the province of novelists, ignored the critical deficiency in Iraq: the dearth of leadership caused by decades of tyrannical greed. …

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