STRATFOR's War: Five Years Later
By George Friedman
Five years have now passed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney, in Iraq with Sen. John McCain — the presumptive Republican nominee for president — summarized the five years by saying, "If you reflect back on those five years, it's been a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor. We've come a long way in five years, and it's been well worth the effort." Democratic presidential aspirant Sen. Hillary Clinton called the war a failure.
It is the role of political leaders to make such declarations, not ours. Nevertheless, after five years, it is a moment to reflect less on where we are and more on where we are going. As we have argued in the past, the actual distinctions between McCain’s position at one end (reduce forces in Iraq only as conditions permit) and Barack Obama’s position (reduce them over 16 months unless al Qaeda is shown to be in Iraq) are in practice much less distinct than either believes. Rhetoric aside — and this is a political season — there is in fact a general, but hardly universal, belief that goes as follows: The invasion of Iraq probably was a mistake, and certainly its execution was disastrous. But a unilateral and precipitous withdrawal by the United States at this point would not be in anyone’s interest. The debate is over whether the invasion was a mistake in the first place, while the divisions over ongoing policy are much less real than apparent.
STRATFOR tries not to get involved in this sort of debate. Our role is to try to predict what nations and leaders will do, and to explain their reasoning and the forces that impel them to behave as they do. Many times, this analysis gets confused with advocacy. But our goal actually is to try to understand what is happening, why it is happening and what will happen next. We note the consensus. We neither approve nor disapprove of it as a company. As individuals, we all have opinions. Opinions are cheap and everyone gets to have one for free. But we ask that our staff check them — along with their personal ideologies — at the door. Our opinions focus not on what ought to happen, but rather on what we think will happen — and here we are passionate.
Public Justifications and Private Motivations
We have lived with the Iraq war for more than five years. It was our view in early 2002 that a U.S. invasion of Iraq was inevitable. We did not believe the invasion had anything to do with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — which with others we believed were under development in Iraq. The motivation for the war, as we wrote, had to do with forcing Saudi Arabia to become more cooperative in the fight against al Qaeda by demonstrating that the United States actually was prepared to go to extreme measures. The United States invaded to change the psychology of the region, which had a low regard for American power. It also invaded to occupy the most strategic country in the Middle East, one that bordered seven other key countries.
Our view was that the Bush administration would go to war in Iraq not because it saw it as a great idea, but because its options were to go on the defensive against al Qaeda and wait for the next attack or take the best of a bad lot of offensive actions. The second option consisted of trying to create what we called the "coalition of the coerced," Islamic countries prepared to cooperate in the covert war against al Qaeda. Fighting in Afghanistan was merely a holding action that alone would solve nothing. So lacking good options, the administration chose the best of a bad lot.
The administration certainly lied about its reasons for going into Iraq. But then FDR certainly lied about planning for involvement in World War II, John Kennedy lied about whether he had traded missiles in Turkey for missiles in Cuba and so on. Leaders cannot conduct foreign policy without deception, and frequently the people they deceive are their own publics. This is simply the way things are.
We believed at the time of the invasion that it might prove to be much more difficult and dangerous than proponents expected. Our concern was not about a guerrilla war. Instead, it was about how Saddam Hussein would make a stand in Baghdad, a city of 5 million, forcing the United States into a Stalingrad-style urban meat grinder. That didn’t happen. We underestimated Iraqi thinking. Knowing they could not fight a conventional war against the Americans, they opted instead to decline conventional combat and move to guerrilla warfare instead. We did not expect that.
A Bigger Challenge Than Expected
That this was planned is obvious to us. On April 13, 2003, we noted what appeared to be an organized resistance group carrying out bombings. Organizing such attacks so quickly indicated to us that the operations were planned. Explosives and weapons had been hidden, command and control established, attacks and publicity coordinated. These things don’t just happen. Soon after the war, we recognized that the Sunnis in fact had planned a protracted war — just not a conventional one.
Our focus then turned to Washington. Washington had come into the war with a clear expectation that the destruction of the Iraqi army would give the United States a clean slate on which to redraw Iraqi society. Before the war was fought, comparisons were being drawn with the occupation of Japan. The beginnings of the guerrilla operation did not fit into these expectations, so U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the guerrillas as merely the remnants of the Iraqi army — criminals and "dead-enders" — in their last throes. We noted the gap between Washington’s perception of Iraq and what we thought was actually going on.
A perfect storm arose in this gulf. First, no WMD were found. We were as surprised by this as anybody. But for us, this was an intellectual exercise; for the administration, it meant the justification for the war — albeit not the real motive — was very publicly negated. Then, resistance in Iraq to the United States increased after the U.S. president declared final victory. And finally, attempts at redrawing Iraqi society as a symbol of American power in the Islamic world came apart, a combination of the guerrilla war and lack of preparation plus purging the Baathists. In sum, reshaping a society proved more daunting than expected just as the administration's credibility cracked over the WMD issue.
A More Complex Game
By 2004, the United States had entered a new phase. Rather than simply allowing the Shia to create a national government, the United States began playing a complex and not always clear game of trying to bring the Sunnis into the political process while simultaneously waging war against them. The Iranians used their influence among the Shia to further destabilize the U.S. position. Having encouraged the United States to depose its enemy, Saddam Hussein, Tehran now wanted Washington to leave and allow Iran to dominate Iraq.
The United States couldn’t leave Iraq but had no strategy for staying. STRATFOR’s view from 2004 was that the military option in Iraq had failed. The United States did not have the force to impose its will on the various parties in Iraq. The only solution was a political accommodation with Iran. We noted a range of conversations with Iran, but also noted that the Iranians were not convinced that they had to deal with the Americans. Given the military circumstance, the Americans would leave anyway and Iran would inherit Iraq.
STRATFOR became more and more pessimistic about the American position in 2006, believing that no military solution was possible, and that a political solution — particularly following the Democratic victory in 2006 congressional elections — would further convince the Iranians to be intransigent. The deal that we had seen emerging over the summer of 2006 after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, was collapsing.
We were taken by surprise by U.S. President George W. Bush's response to the elections. Rather than beginning a withdrawal, he initiated the surge. While the number of troops committed to Iraq was relatively small, and its military impact minimal, the psychological shock was enormous. The Iranian assumption about the withdrawal of U.S. forces collapsed, forcing Tehran to reconsider its position. An essential part of the surge — not fully visible at the beginning — was that it was more a political plan than a military one. While increased operations took place, the Americans reached out to the Sunni leadership, splitting them off from foreign jihadists and strengthening them against the Shia.
Coupled with increasingly bellicose threats against Iran, this created a sense of increasing concern in Tehran. The Iranians responded by taking Muqtada al-Sadr to Iran and fragmenting his army. This led to a dramatic decline in the civil war between Shia and Sunni and in turn led to the current decline in violence.
The war — or at least STRATFOR’s view of it — thus went through four phases:
- Winter 2002-March 2003: The period that began with the run-up to invasion, in which the administration chose the best of a bad set of choices and then became overly optimistic about the war's outcome.
- April 2003-Summer 2003: The period in which the insurgency developed and the administration failed to respond.
- Fall 2003-late 2006: The period in which the United States fought a multisided war with insufficient forces and a parallel political process that didn’t match the reality on the ground.
- Late 2006 to the present: The period known as the surge, in which military operations and political processes were aligned, leading to a working alliance with the Sunnis and the fragmentation of the Shia. This period included the Iranians restraining their Shiite supporters and the United States removing the threat of war against Iran through the National Intelligence Estimate.
The key moment in the war occurred between May 2003 and July 2003. This consisted of the U.S. failure to recognize that an insurgency in the Sunni community had begun and its delay in developing a rapid and effective response, creating the third phase — namely, the long, grueling period in which combat operations were launched, casualties were incurred and imposed, but the ability to move toward a resolution was completely absent. It is unclear whether a more prompt response by the Bush administration during the second period could have avoided the third period, but the second period certainly was the only point during which the war could have been brought under control.
The operation carried out under Gen. David Petraeus, combining military and political processes, has been a surprise, at least to us. Meanwhile, the U.S. rapprochement with the Sunnis that began quietly in Anbar province spiraled into something far more effective than we had imagined. It has been much more successful than we had imagined in part because we did not believe Washington was prepared for such a systematic and complex operation that was primarily political in nature. It is also unclear if the operation will succeed. Its future still depends on the actions of the Iraqi Shia, and these actions in turn depend on Iran.
We have been focused on the U.S.-Iranian talks for quite awhile. We continue to believe this is a critical piece in any endgame. The United States is now providing an alternative scenario designed to be utterly frightening to the Iranians. They are arming and training the Iranians' mortal enemies: the Sunnis who led the war against Iran from 1980 to 1988. That rearming is getting very serious indeed. Sunni units outside the aegis of the Iraqi military are now some of the most heavily armed Iraqis in Anbar, thanks to the Sunni relationship with U.S. forces there. It should be remembered that the Sunnis ruled Iraq because the Iraqi Shia were fragmented, fighting among themselves and therefore weak. That underlying reality remains true. A cohesive Sunni community armed and backed by the Americans will be a formidable force. That threat is the best way to bring the Iranians to the table.
The irony is that the war is now focused on empowering the very people the war was fought against: the Iraqi Sunnis. In a sense, it is at least a partial return to the status quo ante bellum. In that sense, one could argue the war was a massive mistake. At the same time, we constantly return to this question: We know what everyone would not have done in 2003; we are curious about what everyone would have done then. Afghanistan was an illusory option. The real choices were to try to block al Qaeda defensively or to coerce Islamic intelligence services to provide the United States with needed intelligence. By appearing to be a dangerous and uncontrolled power rampaging in the most strategic country in the region, the United States reshaped the political decisions countries like Saudi Arabia were making.
This all came at a price that few of us would have imagined five years ago. Cheney is saying it was worth it. Clinton is saying it was not. STRATFOR’s view is that what happened had to happen given the lack of choices. But Rumsfeld's unwillingness to recognize that a guerrilla war had broken out and provide more and appropriate forces to wage that war did not have to happen. There alone we think history might have changed. Perhaps.