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Iraq: the wrong war

About the author

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics.

“In the images of falling statues we have witnessed the arrival of a new era”, said George W Bush on 1 May 1 2003, as – dressed in military fatigues – he announced the end of hostilities in Iraq on the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush claimed to have discovered a new form of warfare, one that made use of information technology to make war rapid, precise and low in casualties.

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, military commentators were jubilant. Bush himself described the invasion as “one of the swiftest advances in history”. Max Boot in Foreign Affairs described the war as “dazzling”: “That the United States and its allies won anyway – and won so quickly – must rank as one of the signal achievements of military history.”

The ongoing war in Iraq is, indeed, a new type of war, in which all kinds of new technologies ranging from sophisticated satellite based systems to mobile phones and internet are used. But if we are to understand the war in ways that are useful to policy-makers, then its novel character should not be defined in terms of technology. What is new about the war needs to be analysed in terms of the disintegration of states and the changes in social relations under the impact of globalisation.

A distinction between “old” and “new” wars is vital. “Old wars” are wars between states where the aim is the military capture of territory and the decisive encounter is battle between armed forces. “New wars”, in contrast, take place in the context of failing states. They are wars fought by networks of state and non-state actors, where battles are rare and violence is directed mainly against civilians, and which are characterised by a new type of political economy that combines extremist politics and criminality.

More than two years and 20,000 casualties (mostly Iraqi civilians) later, any assessment of the American war is bound to be sober. I argue in this article that the United States viewed its invasion of Iraq as an updated version of “old war” that made use of new technology. The US failure to understand the reality on the ground in Iraq and the tendency to impose its own view of what war should be like is immensely dangerous and carries the risk of being self-perpetuating.

It does not have to be this way.

New military strategy, old assumptions

Over the last two decades, successive US administrations developed the notion that the United States could use advanced technology to fight long-distance wars in such a way as to retain US military predominance and thus reassure US citizens that their government can defend them and preserve American security, without risking US casualties and without additional taxation.

The origins of this idea can be traced back to the cold war, when deterrence could be understood as imaginary war with military build-ups, technological competition, espionage and counter-espionage, war games and exercises on both sides. This helped on the US side to sustain a belief in the American mission to defend the world against evil through superior technology. Technological developments responded to what planners imagined the Soviet Union might acquire – the “worst-case scenario”.

The advent of information technologies generated a debate about the future of military strategy in the 1970s and 1980s between the “military reform school” and advocates of traditional American strategy. The outcome was the air-land battle strategy of the 1980s, whose centrepiece was “deep strike” to be carried out by the then new Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

This thinking was taken a stage further in the 1990s by the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). For RMA enthusiasts, information technology is as revolutionary as the invention of the internal combustion engine. RMA is spectacle war, carried out at long distance using computers and new communications technologies. An important aspect is the improvement in virtual war gaming, which underscores the imaginary nature of contemporary conceptions of war. General William Wallace, commander of the Army’s V Corps and in charge of all US army units in Iraq, said that “the enemy we’re fighting (in Iraq) is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against.”

For the Bush administration, the term “defence transformation” has come to supplant RMA as the new jargon. Donald Rumsfeld claims that defence transformation “is about more than building new high-tech weapons –although that is certainly part of it. It is also about new ways of thinking and new ways of fighting”, and he champions “overmatching power” as opposed to “overwhelming” power.

Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that information technology is being grafted on to traditional assumptions about military forces and to traditional institutional defence structures. The methods have not changed much since 1945. They involve a combination of aerial bombardment at long distance and rapid offensive manoeuvres. The very use of video gaming feeds on the assumptions of the gamers who were schooled in the cold-war framework.

Iraq: war or exercise?

The Iraq war is a prime example of how information technology is being grafted onto traditional ways of thinking about war – in ways that obscured what was actually happening in Iraq. It was showy and dramatic. With the help of accurately targeted air power, the coalition forces were able to claim that they had toppled the Iraqi regime “with a combination of precision, speed, and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before.” Much was made of the American information advantage; coalition forces were able to process information received both from satellite pictures and from reports from the ground so that at any one moment, the wireless internet system could show the deployment of troops with enemy forces in red and friendly forces in blue.

The war was also portrayed as a powerful moral crusade. There was always an idealist strain in American cold-war thinking, which Anatol Lieven and John Mearsheimer discuss in recent articles on openDemocracy. There is continuity in rhetoric between Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” and Bush’s “axis of evil”. The argument is that America is a cause not a nation, with a mission to convert the rest of the world to the American dream and to rid the world of enemies.

The war in Iraq was represented as one victory in the “war on terror” – a global conflict as far-reaching and ambitious as the cold war, one designed to establish a new world order. In fact, there was almost no resistance on the ground. The Iraqi army and the Republican Guard melted away. The Americans dropped leaflets in Arabic telling soldiers to take off their uniforms and go home and most of them obeyed.

The situation appeared initially calm in the weeks following 9 April 2003 not because the US-led coalition controlled the country but because the Iraqi people were ready to give the coalition the benefit of the doubt. When I visited Iraq in November 2003, Iraqis were still referring to the invasion as liberation/occupation. Now, the only areas the American actually occupy are their own protected bases (and even many of these are not completely secure) – everywhere else in Iraq is extremely dangerous for them.

In other words, the invasion of Iraq was not really a war; it was more like an exercise. Nor was it the victory against the Iraqi regime that American policy-makers still portray it as. The post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority behaved more as a victorious occupier, many of whose steps – like the dissolution of the army and sweeping de-Ba’athification – infuriated and humiliated those very people who had allowed the invasion to take place with minimal resistance.

A regime in decay

Yahia Said points out that both President Bush and Saddam Hussein had a common interest in portraying the Iraqi regime as a classic totalitarian system, controlling every aspect of society and only removable by force. In fact by spring 2003 the regime exhibited characteristics that are typical of the last phases of totalitarianism – a system that is breaking up under the impact of globalisation, unable to sustain its closed, autarchic, tightly-controlled character.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Ba’athist regime had organised society along the lines of a command economy: its main features were centralised administration and planning, large expenditure on security, an atmosphere of fear combined with a secular populist Arab nationalist ideology, and socialist elements deriving from land reform and a social welfare system.

In order to maintain control and prevent coups, security agencies proliferated. The senior levels of the security agencies were frequently purged, and clans, kinship networks, ideological indoctrination, and family ties were used to ensure the loyalty of different units. In effect, a complex system of overlapping commands was created.

By the early 1990s this system was in deep trouble. Oil revenues were insufficient to cover the costs of the devastating war with Iran from 1980-88. The 1991 war and the years of sanctions that followed had ruinous consequences for the economy. Many educated people left the country, state institutions decayed and fragmented, and the northern Kurdish region consolidated its autonomy.

In response, Saddam Hussein gave more emphasis to identity politics (including tribalism and Islam) and patronage networks to fill the vacuum. This could not prevent a rise in criminality, especially when the oil-for-food programme after 1996 increased opportunities for patronage, smuggling, and manipulation of funds.

Hence, on the eve of the invasion, Iraq was showing all the signs of incipient state failure – lack of legal revenue sources, decline of state services, loss of legitimacy, erosion and proliferation of military and security agencies, the rise of sectarian identity politics and of criminality. The invasion simply condensed that process into a short three-week period. In the aftermath, the growing political violence exhibits all the characteristics of what I call a “new war”.

A kaleidoscope of insurgency

The new war in Iraq is defined by the way it is fought by loose networks of state and non-state actors, more like a social movement than the typical vertically organised guerrilla insurgency of earlier wars.

No one knows the true size of the insurgency. Until October 2003, American officials insisted that there were no more than 5,000 insurgents consisting primarily of remnants of the former regime. In October 2004, the New York Times reported that senior officials believe that the “hard core resistance” comprises between 8,000 and 12,000 fighters, with numbers jumping to 20,000 if “active sympathisers or covert accomplices” are included.

Most reliable reports suggest that the bulk of the insurgency is Iraqi nationalist and Sunni Islamist and arose more or less spontaneously, starting in the summer of 2003. The most important recruits are former military personnel – many of them former senior army officers based in Fallujah, Mosul, and parts of Baghdad.

Many of the nationalist and Sunni Islamist cells – with names like the Iraqi National Islamic Resistance, “The 1920”s Revolution Brigades”, the National Front for the Liberation of Iraq, and the Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Iraq – oppose Saddam Hussein as well as the occupation.

Former Ba’athists seem to constitute a quite separate group, their activities mainly consisting of financing resistance operations – although there are a few fighting factions, such as the Snake’s Head Movement, and Al-Adawh (the Return). There are also some Shi’a resistance groups, such as the Mehdi army (led by the populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr) which played a critical role in the summer of 2004 before many Shi’a turned their attention to contesting the January 2005 elections.

There are also some extreme Islamist groups that seem to specialise in kidnapping, hostage-taking and assassination. They include groups with such names as the Islamic Anger Brigades, or the Black Banners group, and the Mujahadeen of the Victorious Sect. Some of these groups are linked to al-Qaida, such as the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the Kurdistan-based Ansar al-Islam. In addition there are various organised crime groups, which operate under the cover of the insurgency and include many criminals who were released from prison by Saddam Hussein just before the invasion.

What all these groups have in common is their opposition to the American occupation. Like the movements that have emerged in other “new wars”, they can be understood in terms of the conditions thrown up by globalisation. Some are fighting to defend former power positions; others are reacting against the insecurity of the contemporary situation, both physical and material.

Although both Islam and Iraqi nationalism are important ideological currents, it would be wrong to attribute a sectarian identity to the insurgency, even though a majority of the insurgents are Sunni. Rather, as the violence intensifies, the insurgency seems to give to substance to the notion of a struggle against the west, which mirrors the American idea of a “war on terror”. Those who couch this struggle in Islamic terms, as a global jihad, appear to gain in credibility the longer the struggle continues.

This range of groups directs the vast majority of attacks against forces of the United States and its allies in Iraq. The insurgents also attack Iraqi security forces, especially the police; members of the Iraqi government, administration and others considered to be collaborators; critical infrastructure, especially pipelines and power stations; international agencies and NGOs; foreign contractors; and ordinary civilians. The cells involved are highly decentralised; they often do not know their leaders or their sources of finance. They have developed sophisticated ways of bypassing coalition intelligence through human contacts, the use of messengers, or coded internet messages.

As the insurgency spread from late 2003 so has its capacity for intelligence and penetration of Iraqi government and security agencies. This has led to increasingly effective attacks. In October 2004, for example, guerrillas dressed as police officers executed forty-nine newly trained Iraqi soldiers on a remote road in eastern Iraq. The victims had stopped at a fake checkpoint when returning home after completing their training.

It has proved difficult to establish a clear pattern to the Iraqi insurgent attacks. But what is clear is that the very diversity and fragmentation of the campaign against United States occupation is an asset in enabling militants to sustain their operations. Moreover, since the insurgents are able to disappear before these attacks and are able apparently to hide or even exist openly in large parts of Iraq, the main effect of their campaign is to increase the sense of insecurity and injustice and to substantiate claims that this is a war of the west against Iraq and/or Islam.

Americans and their others

Effectively, what is happening in Iraq is that the United States is being drawn into a genuinely new type of war. The American belief that they are fighting an old war, adapted and improved by the advent of new technology, actually prevents any strategy towards Iraq that might lead to stability. As in other new wars, the warring parties are both caught up in their own narratives about what they are trying to achieve and their respective narratives feed on each other.

The Americans believe that they are leading a struggle for democracy and the more they confront resistance, especially of the more spectacular type, the more they are convinced of the rightness of what they are doing. As long as they and others believe in the narrative, it does not matter that the insurgency grows. On the contrary it perpetuates and substantiates the idea of a long war. At the same time, the more that American behaviour exacerbates the sense of insecurity and humiliation, the more the insurgency grows and the more those that promulgate an idea of war of the west against Islam gain the upper hand.

As in other new wars, the victims are the civilians who suffer 80% of the casualties – those detained by the Americans, taken hostage by the insurgents, or displaced from their homes as a consequence of the fighting. Despite the level of violence, the warring parties rarely directly engage each other – instead the victims are Iraqi civilians or those associated with the Iraqi security forces.

Each stage of the conflict accelerates the process of unravelling state institutions, and shared norms and rules, both inside Iraq and, indeed, within an increasingly polarised United States. In particular, it is the prospect of Iraqi democracy that is being defeated in this war. Those who hope for peaceful ways of managing disagreements through elections and debates have to choose between association with the insurgents, dominated both by repressive Ba’athism and conservative Islam, or associating with the Americans, which discredits them in the eyes of many of their fellow citizens.

The real logic of war

Those in the west who favoured the war claimed that the war was intended to get rid of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) accumulated by Iraq, to defeat terrorism, or to bring democracy to Iraq. Those who opposed the war claimed that this was an imperial war designed to expand American power and, in particular, to control sources of oil.

The argument I propose here is that the technique of “old war” was a very bad way to achieve any of these goals. Indeed, the war may have achieved the opposite of all of them. No one has found any WMD nor evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida – but since the war, sensitive military material has gone missing and there have been many attacks by al-Qaida-related groups now present in Iraq.

As for democracy, the “new war” is slowly destroying whatever prospects there might have been. And if the American goal had been to expand bases and to secure oil supplies, surely a deal with Saddam Hussein would have been an easier and safer option; for now the oil infrastructure has been run down and destroyed and it will be a long time before oil production regains its pre-war levels, if ever, and the American bases are surrounded by hostile territory.

Thus, my argument is that the purpose of the war was war; it was designed to keep alive an idea of old war on which American identity is based, to show that old war could be upgraded and relatively pain-free in the 21st century. I do not want to suggest that this was cynical manipulation; on the contrary the conservatives in the Bush administration believe in American power and their mission to spread the American idea. My point is rather that they are caught up in a narrative of their own making, which resonates well with the American public with the help of the American media. And it can be argued that this belief is mirrored by a similar belief among some elements of the insurgency, particularly those who espouse the idea of a global jihad of Islam against the west.

Was there an alternative?

Was and is there an alternative to war in Iraq? The most important strategy in the new type of war is the restoration of legitimate political authority. This is no less true in Iraq than in other new wars, both before and after the invasion.

In the period before the invasion, the best justification for war was regime change. Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the most brutal in the world – millions had died from his maniacal foreign adventures, from the suppression of uprisings in the north and south, from purges and repression, as well as economic devastation. So was there another way to achieve regime change? From discussions with the opposition inside Iraq, I believe that there was a real possibility of “opening up” the regime rather in the way that happened in east-central Europe in the 1980s as a result of a combination of pressure both from outside based on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and from below.

There was much more going on inside Iraq than was realised. Indeed the expatriate opposition and Saddam Hussein had a shared interest in suppressing this reality. There were underground movements and parties – including the Da’wa party (Shi’a Islamist), the Communist Party, the General Union of Students, and the League of Iraqi Women. There were also various efforts to create public spaces by artists and intellectuals.

Most interestingly perhaps was the way in which the mosques, both Sunni and Shi’a, were leveraging Saddam’s new emphasis on religion to create more open space within the mosques, in a strategy reminiscent of the Catholic church in Poland. In language that reminded me of east-central Europe, members of the Council of Sunni Clerics I met in May 2004 told me that they realised they could never defeat Saddam Hussein through a coup; instead, from 1999 onwards they developed a strategy, together with their Shi’a counterparts, of slow strangulation.

This opening up “from below” could have been supported from outside, along lines that were actually proposed by underground groups before the war. These favoured the lifting of overall sanctions to be replaced by targeted sanctions, as well as pressure on Saddam Hussein to respect those provisions in the ceasefire resolution after the 1991 war, which involved respect for human rights and political pluralism. They argued that an international presence did improve the domestic situation and that human rights monitors could have augmented the weapons inspections, according to the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 689. At the time such proposals were accused of naiveté but that was also true of efforts to bring change to Soviet-bloc Europe in the 1980s.

There have also been moments in the aftermath of the invasion when there were genuine opportunities to establish a legitimate Iraqi government. Immediately after the invasion, if the coalition had:

  • not dissolved the army
  • rapidly introduced a system of transitional justice so that the criminals of the previous regime could have been separated from ordinary Ba’athists
  • consulted with different political, civil, religious and tribal groups on the ground instead of relying primarily on a collection of expatriate consultants and advisors
  • allowed the Interim Governing Council to exercise real power.

Then, there was a chance that the insurgency might have been avoided. In the aftermath of the invasion, there was a myriad of civic initiatives – neighbourhood watch groups protecting their communities against looting, museum employees protecting valuable artefacts, various forms of social and humanitarian initiatives. Subsequently, debate and dialogue among students, women’s groups, newly formed democracy groups, or religious institutions blossomed but many of those engaged in this debate felt marginalised and neglected by the coalition authorities.

Another moment was in the spring of 2004, when the United Nations special representative Lakhtar Brahimi produced a set of proposals for the transfer of power that had a real chance of mobilising widespread support. In the event, under American pressure, pro-American expatriates and the new American embassy came to dominate the new interim government appointed in late June 2004.

A serious political strategy would have required a serious security and economic strategy. Military forces are needed but they have to be used in a way that is neither classic war-fighting nor classic peacekeeping, but as a form of law enforcement. In new wars, all sides violate the laws of war and human-rights law. The task of legitimate security forces is to protect people, provide public security so a political process can get going, and act in support of the rule of law. For this role, forces are needed that combine soldiers, police, and civilians with the capacity to undertake various humanitarian and legal activities.

In the period preceding the Iraq war, forces of this kind should have been available to protect people in the event of an uprising similar to that which occurred in 1991.In the period after the war, the primary task should have been the provision of public security. This is the lesson of all recent international interventions – from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan. In Iraq, the failure to provide public security allowed widespread looting, which, along with the dissolution of the army and the de-Ba’athification policy, was one of the disastrous mistakes the United States-led coalition made.

The primary task after the war should have been the protection of individuals and communities and the restoration of law and order, rather than the hunt for war criminals and insurgents. Of course, the latter was necessary, but as a means to protect people rather than as a main goal. To some extent, the British forces in the south did adopt such an approach and this, in part, explains the relative quiescence of that region. Even so, such an approach has to be accompanied by efforts to restore political legitimacy and British forces remain relatively isolated and vulnerable to the spread of the insurgency because of the lack of legitimacy in Iraq as a whole.

There should also have been an economic strategy, whose priority is to create legitimate ways for individuals and families to make a living – both as a basis for democratic empowerment and to provide a material alternative to criminality and collaboration with violence.

Iraq’s lessons for new war

In early June 2005, it is hard to be optimistic. The insurgency is escalating – more attacks, more casualties, more groups and more names are reported daily. The idea of Bush as a successful wartime leader, pioneering the new technology-intensive form of warfare, helped contribute to his November 2004 election victory; the more hawkish elements of his first administration have been reappointed and promoted. The American pursuit of a moral crusade reinforces the insurgents’ notion of a global jihad. Indeed, the new war in Iraq can increasingly be viewed as the stage for a global new war, which will be hard to contain as the ideas and experiences spread and hard to end because of the bitterness, fear and hate that are mobilised in war.

But how long can the narrative of imagined old war be sustained in the context of a real new war? American casualties are mounting daily. The dollar is falling and it is not evident that deficit financing of the war can be kept up indefinitely; already Americans will have to tighten their belts as a result of cuts in social security. The military is overstretched and disillusion and dissatisfaction among servicemen and women, especially reservists, who have been called up for much longer than they expected, is growing.

Will reality bring about a questioning of the story of old war and its contemporary relevance? Are other actors – the United Nations, the European Union, together with Iraqi civil society – able, even at this late stage, to develop an alternative strategy: one based on constructive, democratic, forward-thinking principles that could offer a convincing way forward for Iraq’s people, and might help to avert a global new war?


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