Winning the wrong war
3 Dec 2015|

Operation Catalyst

Graeme Dobell has written two posts (here and here) on what the government could have known and asked before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I should start my response by clarifying that I’m not trying to justify the invasion of Iraq, but I do try to understand it. I was an invited member of the ADF’s Strategic Command Group at the time but these views don’t rely on that experience. Later I fought in Iraq as Chief of Operations for the Coalition in 2004/05

Graeme refers to the ‘blunder that is the Iraq war’. There were three Iraq wars that followed one after the other, and the uninitiated assume that they’re the same war. But each is substantially different; the only undisputed commonality is the location. If you consider them one war, you run the risk of confusing the lessons. If ‘winning’ is defined as ‘achieving the war aim’, then the coalitions won both the first and second Iraq wars, albeit in the second over an unnecessarily long time, with the third still being contested.

Graeme identifies the US alliance as much of our basis for going to war. He claims it was ‘the overriding reason’ but offers no proof, despite later quoting Howard as saying it was both WMD and the alliance. Like most things, the reasons are likely complex, and Graeme should give some weight to Howard’s view or explain why he rejects it. Also, it may be a totally legitimate reason.

Graeme also touches on the issue of evidence to justify an invasion several times in the post, saying that ‘the WMD intelligence was thin’. But he then quotes Howard who says that the evidence ‘painted a circumstantial picture’ rather than being ‘a single piece of irrefutable evidence.’ Although Graeme seems to find this unsatisfactory, I would suggest that few wars have ever been fought on a single piece of irrefutable evidence. As someone who has both generated and used intelligence, it is normally ‘thin’. It’s not the nature of intelligence to be irrefutable.

There are two issues that get confused in Graeme’s posts: first, whether certain issues such as the nature and future of Iraq and the geopolitics of the Middle East were considered at all and second, whether they were considered within a cabinet submission. Graeme says the government ‘could have focused on’ those issues, but it’s not exactly clear that the government didn’t focus on them. Another forum could have examined those matters in some detail. Perhaps they were focused on and the conclusion was that participation was correct—a point with which Graeme disagrees.

Over the last few years I’ve heard many parties make statements similar to Graeme’s: ‘You’d have to have drunk some powerful Washington neocon Kool-Aid to think those bayonets would quickly transform Iraq into a peaceful, thriving democracy.’ But in a period in Iraq under both the occupying force and Coalition Provisional Authority, and under a UN Charter, I never once heard anyone on the ground actually state that as an idea or an objective. Neocons will say strange things, but never by those who were actually doing it. As someone who played a role in the first Iraqi election that claimed some degree of fairness, what struck me was that Iraqis had a strong desire for a say in their country through some form of democratic process, unrelated to Kool-Aid, and we gave it to them starting in January 2005.

But my major criticism of Graeme’s posts is that, by concentrating on the decision to invade, he hasn’t considered what happened after the invasion. It would be a hard case to make that the invasion pre-determined failure in every area: military, social and political. There’s blame that can be allocated in regards to the second Iraq war, but not all stems from the decision to invade, not least Australia’s decision. My view is that the invasion may not have been all that smart but having invaded, the Coalition couldn’t walk away. Graeme quotes Howard as saying: ‘It was inevitable that after Saddam had been toppled a degree of revenge would be exacted, but a stronger security presence would have constrained this’. Perhaps this failure was at least as blameworthy as the decision to invade in the first place.

Howard’s comments are the key to understanding the second Iraq war. As big a controversy at the time as intelligence, occupation, or regime change was the size of the force that would be sent, a shorthand way of addressing the effectiveness of a military intervention policy. Graeme doesn’t address this.

Before the invasion, Rumsfeld ignored the best military advice that three times the number of troops would be needed for the occupation as was finally allocated. This deficiency was overcome by two surges and extending the war to build up the required number of Iraqi troops, with all the suffering and instability that caused. In the end, a conflict that could probably have been settled within two years continued for eight.

Ironically, you can get into the wrong war for the wrong reason, and still win—that is, achieve the war aim. Had the military intervention been effective far earlier and Iraq stabilized by 2005, would we be concentrating on the decision to go to war in 2002–03? Over the next eight years 150,000 Iraqis died. If that’s expecting too much of any country’s ability to make strategy, then we have a problem. But it’s a problem that isn’t helped by continuing to concentrate on decisions in the months before a war that, in the end, lasted eight years.

Remember, by 2011 Iraq was reasonably stable, had an elected government and a military that although not mature, was capable of handing the situation that was left to them. Only after that came the second Maliki government, President Obama, the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

And then the third Iraq war.