Learning From the Iraq War

Liu Mi Ru, Singapore, Raffles Institution Junior College, 11th Grade, 1st Place Winner.

Democracy is government in which rights and freedoms of citizens are fully protected. Citizens in a democracy not only have the rights, but also the civic responsibility to participate in the election of their representatives. This prevents the authoritarian domination of a central government by ensuring that government is decentralized and accessible to people from both local and regional levels.

Democracy is an ideal state of government, which is unfortunately found absent in many states today. To achieve democracy when diplomacy has failed, it is often inevitable for external military interventions to aid in the demolition of the present authoritarian regime. Despite the appeal of its fruition, the process of abolishing authoritarianism can be arduous. Unnecessary bloodshed and atrocities may occur if the military intervention is not properly managed or ill-adapted to the socio-economic and political foundations of the target country.

How then can we reduce the potential harm of future military intervention?

Firstly, it is essential to reflect upon past examples of military intervention which have spiraled out of control away from their initial objectives, leading to unforeseen consequences in target countries. Careful perusal of such examples will aid in the construction of recommendations for national leaders to prevent conflicts and reduce the risk of military intervention in the future.

One example of a supposedly flawed military intervention would be the involvement of coalition forces, headed mainly by the US, during the Iraq war. The invasion began on March 20, 2003, with three main objectives: 1) to disarm Iraq from weapons of mass destruction which posed as a potential threat to Iraq’s neighbors and to US interests in the region 2) to severe Saddam Hussein’s supposed ties to Al Qaeda and to remove him as part of the War on Terrorism 3) to introduce Western democracy into Iraq while liberalizing the Iraqis from the harsh dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Although benevolent in nature, the liberty and democracy promised by the Iraq occupation had transformed into deaths of civilians, destruction of infrastructures and violations of human rights. The one-month long invasion and the dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime led to the debellatio of Iraq. Once ranked 50th out of 130 countries on the 1990 UNDP Human Development Index, its ranking had plummeted to an unflattering 127 in 2003, this being one of the most drastic declines in human welfare in recent history. Remains of ruined education institutes, medical infrastructures and sanitary facilities lied in the wake of war. As a result, diseases and malnutrition ran rampant. According to the UNDP Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004, 23% of children under the age of 5 suffered from chronic malnutrition, 26% of the youths (aged 15-24) were illiterate, 46% of households drank from unsafe water sources, 78% of households experienced unstable electrical supply and 100% of hospitals needed rehabilitations. In addition, damage to sanitation led to diseases like typhoid and cholera which were great threats to the already declining health status of the population. A disruption in incomes and a dysfunctional economy, coupled with deaths of income earners in the family, resulted in a sharp rise in poverty, with 27% of the population living on less than $2 a day, in a country with one of the richest oil reserves in the world. Conditions were worsened and deaths tolls were increased by insurgency and infighting during the period of power vacuum. In total, the Iraq Body Count Project estimated the Iraq war to have caused 150726 civilian and combatant deaths between March 2003 and October 2010. It is shocking to find such alarming statistics come from a nation where people once had one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East made available through sublime social infrastructure and top notch medical facilities.

Despite the harrowing immediate aftermath of war, we must be careful not to make any premature judgment about the invasion. The overthrow of a government has always been bloody and violent throughout history. Elation over democracy or fear of colonialism, societal stability or social disorder, success or failure? Will Iraq ultimately rise into a pluralistic state from the rubbles of its debellatio? Currently we cannot be sure of the long term impact of the invasion. It will only be through the passage of time that will ultimately guide us to see the light.

Nevertheless, what we can do at present is to investigate the flaws of the Iraq war so as to generate possible recommendations for nations in order to reduce the risks and mishaps of future military intervention.

One of the leading factors that caused the Iraq occupation to crumble into debacle was the ignorance of the US administration, resulting in spurious prewar thinking about postwar reconstruction. With little experience at handling postwar affairs, senior leaders from the administration held the false conception that only little reconstruction efforts would be needed. Without taking into account the cultural peculiarities of Iraq, the belief that the invasion would be met with little resistance and that the economic and political foundations would still remain intact after the war led to inadequate planning and negligence of security requirements in the postwar situation. Having torn down Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, there was a state of power vacuum and chaos. Helpless coalition forces did not know how to combat the increasing crime rates because they were no instructions. The outcome of lawlessness was physical destruction, disrupting basic services like sanitation and electricity. Discontent fuelled insurgencies from various tribes which further magnified social disorder. To make matters worse, the Administration disbanded the Iraqi military without considering what would happen to the thousands of disbanded soldiers. This was a gross blunder made as a result of inadequate understanding of the peculiarities of Iraq. Iraq, unlike many other countries, did not have a Disarm, Demobilize and Retrain (DDR) program installed to reintegrate former soldiers into society. With no vocational training, these men could not find jobs to support their families and many instead joined the burgeoning maelstrom of insurgency.

Another grave error committed by the US Administration was the refusal for external guidance. It maintained that the top seniors heading the military intervention had to be from the US, although there was a dire lack of candidates truly experienced in managing Middle Eastern affairs. In its stubbornness, the Administration designed very uninviting conditions for external cooperation. This deterred the active participation of the UN and other international NGOs which had potential personnel who were capable of handling the Middle Eastern crisis.

As a result, social problems and civil unrest persisted from inefficient management. This would lead to the next causal factor of flawed military intervention ― panic. In a panicky haste to ameliorate the Iraqi situation, insufficient time was given to materialize ideas, thus resulting in the generation of ill-adapted, ill-prepared solutions incapable of curbing the chaos. One example was the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) formed at a breakneck speed within 4 weeks. The initial objective of the ICDC was to aid local militia forces in fighting insurgency but the haphazard training churned out a unit completely futile in combating insurgency. Another monster product from panic and haste was the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), put together by the Administration, to guide reconstruction efforts. Because of the lack of time, leaders of the IGC were chosen by the Administration without an election from the masses. Unfortunately, most of the leaders were not genuinely keen in cooperatively rebuilding Iraq and instead used the IGC as a means for personal political or material gains. Corruption and embezzlement infested the IGC, greatly hampering reconstruction efforts and further fuelling discontent. In addition, the US Administration failed to consider the balance in the ratio of representatives from different tribes while choosing its representatives for the IGC. With only one Sunni representative out of 25 seats in the IGC, the insensitivity of the Administration fed the Sunni-based insurgency.

In retrospect, the flaws of the Iraq military intervention were mainly a hapless by-product of ignorance, haste and stubbornness on the part of the US Administration which in turn produced a lawless state with an inefficient government. Therefore, when introducing recommendations to reduce the harm of military intervention, we should mainly target on expertise guidance, efficient reconstruction and security measures.

A successful military intervention is defined as one which 1) serves the national interests of both the country providing intervention and the target country receiving intervention 2) is acknowledged by the international community and the people of both countries 3) creates a postwar environment that surpasses prewar environment in terms of advancements in democracy, social conditions and political stability. In order to achieve these, sufficient insights about the target country is pivotal during the planning and execution of military intervention. The geopolitical and cultural peculiarities of the target country must be taken into account during reconstruction so as to eliminate insensitivities and minimize postwar complexities such as insurgency and civil unrest, as seen in the case study of the Iraq war. A panel of 5 to 10 erudite advisors with knowledge about the target country, chosen by the international community such as the UN, can be assigned to oversee the progress of military intervention. Their presence is greatly required especially during postwar reconstruction periods because they are the ones most familiarized with the conditions of the target country and are capable of directing the most efficient reconstruction strategies. Having efficient reconstruction strategies like organizing a governing council, requesting for aid and rebuilding infrastructures is crucial in mollifying public discontent, installing confidence into citizens and ultimately preventing postwar insurgency.

From the example of Iraq, we can see that increasing insurgency from military intervention impeded reconstruction by destroying physical properties and disrupting support channels. Therefore, one of the most important methods to reduce harm caused by military intervention is by minimizing insurgency. Administrators of military intervention can consider enforcing stringent arms control in the target country to restrict the public’s access to weapons. Robust regulations and surveillance should be put on ammunition transfers within the country in order to ensure arms do not fall into the hands of criminals capable of insurgency. The black market, a source that sustains the illicit flow of ammunitions, should be snuffed out as quickly as possible. Soldiers should be assigned to frequent border patrols to detect cross border illegal ammunition trading. A database should be setup by the Administration to record the number of insurgency attacks in each region for reference while deploying troops. As such, manpower within the army can be efficiently maximized as more troops are sent to areas with a surge in attacks and fewer troops can remain in relatively peaceful areas.

Another obstacle to overcome will be the potential risks of corruption in a newly elected government after the abolishment of the previous authoritarian regime. As generally known, the process of nation building after an authoritarian regime is especially painstaking because the nation has to undergo a transition whereby responsibilities and stewardship of the country is transferred from the previous dictator to the formerly oppressed population. Time will be required as citizens accustom themselves to the new duty of responsible election. It is necessary for the interfering administration to temporarily oversee such political reconstruction while citizens identify and vote for popular political figures that possess a genuine fervency and leadership in directing nation building. A group of well-trained investigative reporters and a developed media system should be put in place to raise political awareness amongst the general population as well as to increase the transparency of election and government bodies.

We should understand that democracy is an ideology that is not easily achieved without a struggle. Countries already enjoying democracy should not take their well-being for granted. Countries suppressed by authority should continue to fight for democracy. International bodies should strive to aid such struggling countries in terms of giving pressure or directing military intervention. Successful military intervention requires the coordination between both foreign and local parties. Foreign troops should be responsible for their actions and locals should give support in order for democracy to bear fruit.

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