By Anthony H. Cordesman

It is all too clear that most Americans want the war in Iraq to be over. A Gallup poll in October found that 75% approved of President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops, although Americans divide sharply by party: 96% Democrats, 77% independents, and 43% Republicans. There are good reasons for such feelings. In spite of U.S. military successes in reducing the level of internal violence in Iraq, the war has been a strategic failure when its costs are compared to its benefits.

Tactical Victory and Strategic Failure

The United States went to war for the wrong reasons: there was no threat from Iraqi missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq was not linked to Al Qa’ida or other terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies. The United States did not prepare properly for what would happen after Saddam fell. It tied itself to exiles whose claims and ambitions were not in line with the hopes and needs of the Iraq people and were often linked to Iran. It destroyed Iraq’s military forces and ability to deter and contain Iran. It had no plan to restore Iraqi governance and alienated Iraq’s Sunnis. It had to improvise an aid and development plan after it had already let Iraq’s government effectively collapse, and it never was able to make those aid efforts more than marginally effective.

Source: SIGIR, Quarterly Report, October 30, 2011, p. 58.

In the years following 2003, the U.S. military adapted and created an exceptionally effective counterinsurgency capability. This partially compensated for the fact that U.S. actions let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and but the United States only created the shell of an ineffective democracy that has left Iraqi governance weak and may lead Iraq back to governance by strong man.

As the reports of the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction (SIGIR) make all too clear, some $61.8 billion in U.S. aid, and $107.4 billion in Iraqi funds overseen by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the Iraqi capital budget, have all failed to produce any clear measures of effectiveness. Iraq remains one of the poorest countries in the world in spite of its oil wealth—ranking 161st in per capita income according to CIA estimates. It is striking that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—which seems determined to compete for the title of the most ineffective part of the federal government—has never produced a meaningful report on the impact and effectiveness of U.S. aid after more than seven years of war. But then, it has never produced a meaningful report on aid to Afghanistan after more than a decade.

The U.S. military was able to recreate Iraqi security forces capable of supporting U.S. forces in winning major victories in 2007–2008. The Iraqi budget crisis that began in 2008, however, crippled both the qualitative development of Iraq’s forces and its ability to implement its own development plan. The political crisis that began in 2009 has gravely weakened the efforts of both Iraq’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior. The Iraqi armed forces are getting steadily better in spite of these problems, but at a much slower rate than planned, and they are becoming more politicized with key elements effectively under the personal control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Read more…

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

As published in www.csis.org on December 12, 2011.


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