James Dobbins Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Let's take this analysis and look again at Iraq, and ask what accounts for the way things went wrong. You've argued in Foreign Affairs that we lacked the legitimacy of a multinational consensus about what to do, and you pointed out our vulnerability because of a lack of regional support. Clearly there was a failure, which we've already talked about, to ensure security on the ground, which might be something that a UN component could do in a better way than we can.
Iraq was always going to be more challenging, more difficult, and more demanding than some of the nineties operations because it's a larger country, in some ways it's more deeply conflicted internally, [and] it's in a highly sensitive region. So it was never going to be easy, and neither was it going to be possible to replicate exactly the arrangements we had worked out in the 1990s, particularly after the United States decided to intervene even having failed to get a UN Security Council resolution. It was never going to be possible to simply turn this over to the United Nations after the conventional stage of the conflict was over.
Nevertheless, I think that the administration, in its planning for Iraq, failed to take account of lessons that could have been drawn from the previous decade. They failed to anticipate that the Saddam regime would collapse from one day to the next. They failed to anticipate that the Iraqi security institutions, the army and the police, would either be destroyed, dispersed, or in any case so discredited by the experience that they would not be usable. They failed to anticipate that a combination of criminal and extremist elements would arise literally overnight to fill that security vacuum. They failed to anticipate that the Iraqi security forces would not be available to challenge those criminal and extremist elements. They failed to anticipate that if those criminal and extremist elements had an opportunity to fill the security gap, to consolidate their power, to intimidate the population, to begin to gain confidence, then they would become very, very difficult to displace.
Finally, they failed to anticipate that American armed forces and coalition armed forces would, from one day to the next, the day the regime collapsed, have to turn from a conventional military conflict to a policing operation, in which they would become responsible for public security because there would be no other institutions. And they failed to anticipate that that would impose manpower requirements far in excess of the number of men that were required to overthrow the regime.
In testimony before Congress just a few weeks before the war, the administration spokesman said he could not imagine that it would take more men to stabilize Iraq than it would to conquer it. Well, this failure of imagination flew against the experience of the previous decade, wherein it always took more men to stabilize the society than it did to conquer it or gain entry into it.
It was air power alone that allowed the United States to put men into Bosnia and Kosovo, and yet we had to put 50,000 and 60,000 men respectively in those two countries in order to stabilize them. In Afghanistan the war was over, there were only 250 American soldiers in the country, it was air power and the indigenous forces that had won the war, and yet we have 20,000 troops in Afghanistan today, trying to stabilize that country.
The experience has always been that it takes more men to stabilize a divided, fractured, failed state than it does to actually gain entry into the country. It was those failures to anticipate that caused the initial loss of control and a loss of ground that we are still trying to make up.
How do we politically explain this failure to imagine a big chunk of the problem that we were going to have on our table once we intervened? Was this about the debate? Do we partly account for this because of the debate within the Pentagon between Rumsfeld and his generals about what the military should look like, so that he was so focused on winning with a force that was small, in order to show that this was the wave of the future?
The debate over transformation may have had a role in this. Certainly this administration has been eager to demonstrate, to argue that small, agile, highly equipped forces could win victories more quickly at lower cost and with a fewer number of troops, provided they had the right communications and other networks, and sophisticated systems that could find, track, and destroy targets. They demonstrated that quite effectively, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. That may have been an element in this, but I think that there were probably other strands as well.
The disinclination to look to the lessons of the nineties, because they had been so critical of those activities when they'd been in opposition, also made it difficult for them to draw positive lessons from those experiences. It's a natural human phenomenon.
Also, quite frankly, if one had objectively looked at the likely costs of the Iraq operation and had acknowledged those costs, it would have been very difficult to secure Congressional and public support for the operation. Our first volume, which was written as the buildup to the war took place, suggested that it might take as many as 400,000 troops and $18 billion a year to stabilize Iraq, numbers which seemed astronomical at the time, and we ourselves wondered whether you could sustain an argument. Now it turns out that, for instance, the $18 billion we predicted, which seemed staggering, was exactly the amount of money the administration asked for the first year. It was almost unbelievable that we hit the nail on the head quite so precisely. The 400,000? Well, if you look at the number of Iraqi troops we're trying to train at the moment, and you add the number of American and coalition troops there, you do get the 400,000. So, it is ultimately going to take 400,000 men to stabilize Iraq.
So, the numbers in retrospect don't seem that far off, but they seemed very big at the time. Even to us as authors of the volume they seemed pretty staggering. I think if there had been an acknowledgement that these were indeed the figures, it would have made people much more cautious about the enterprise.
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