Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts American Challenges in Post-Conflict Iraq

American Challenges in Post-Conflict Iraq

The post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq being undertaken by the U.S. and its Coalition partners is a monumental task, with numerous factors complicating American efforts and contributing to unrest in the country. Two of the most important of these are (1) the American military’s lack of training and experience in the Middle East, which is leading to U.S. practices that are alienating broad elements of the Iraqi population; and (2) our failure to take into account historical and regional factors such as the 1991 Shia Revolt.

Military Training

The U.S. military participated in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia in recent years, but it invaded Iraq with no recent experience in governing a post-conflict nation across the full spectrum of administrative functions. More important, the U.S. has had no experience governing an Islamic or Middle Eastern nation. Peacekeeping, let alone actually governing, requires the military to make significant adjustments. Military forces have some advantages in this, such as a centralized chain of command and a flexible decision-making apparatus. But they are also disadvantaged by, for instance, their focus on combat operations, sometimes to the exclusion of an understanding of indigenous power structures and cultural considerations. This disadvantage was magnified in Iraq by the military’s lack of training in both the Arabic language and support activities, including local law enforcement, administration, and post-conflict reconstruction tasks ranging from maintaining irrigation systems to rebuilding factories.

American soldiers were not specifically trained for the unique requirements of post-conflict Iraq. By contrast, for the Bosnian peacekeeping mission, the 1st Armored Division began training as early as 1993, almost two years before it deployed forces. This included rotations at the Combined Maneuver Training Center in Hohensfels specifically tailored to anticipated scenarios in Bosnia. That training continued to be updated and improved for future rotations of U.S. forces.

In Iraq, the primary focus for training was military combat. There was little awareness of the different factions within the Shiite population or about how to establish community relations and resolve misunderstandings, much less on how to establish local and regional governments. This is perhaps understandable for the first wave of combat troops, considering the need to invade and defeat another country militarily. It is less understandable for the majority of troops, who arrived after the May 1st declaration of the end of major combat. Training for operations in lower intensity operations occurred only with the forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, many of which attended training at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, which has designed scenarios to replicate conditions in Iraq. These scenarios include Arabic-speaking role players, villages patterned after those in Iraq, and interplay with religious and tribal leaders. This is a vital step forward.

At present, military combat commanders also serve as the civil authorities outside of the Kurdish zone. The U.S. military’s institutional mechanism for advising on cultural considerations and for establishing guidelines for interaction with the civil population rests with U.S. Army Civil Affairs forces. Civil Affairs forces are regionally focused. However, due to the overwhelming requirements of the invasion, Civil Affairs forces specializing in Europe and Latin America were deployed with no training in the Middle East or introduction to Arabic. This is significant: the role of advising ground commanders on how to deal with community and municipal organizations fell on the shoulders of people with no training in the Middle East. As a result, both military operations and reconstruction miss the variables that depend on local and regional factors.

Furthermore, military organization and the chain of command in Iraq are not geared towards coordinated civil-military operations. Civil Affairs units are divided piecemeal among the combat units. Their actions are not synchronized in a nation-wide setting. Structurally, this subordinates Civil Military Operations to ground combat operations. Targeting insurgents takes precedence over working with the people.

It is not uncommon to hear American soldiers explain that the only thing the Iraqis understand is “force.” Oftentimes, however, these soldiers do not speak Arabic and have had little or no interaction with Iraqis. Force as a means of communication is certainly understood, but it can engender a reaction that undermines the Coalition’s goals. The highly-publicized inhumane treatment of prisoners by U.S. forces is but an extreme example of common U.S. military practices that serve to alienate much of the population. Some of these less well-publicized activities are perhaps more alarming, because they are condoned by the chain of command. These include “test firing” weapons from moving vehicles in urban areas, shooting at Iraqi vehicles on major highways, destroying walls that have anti-American graffiti painted on them, collectively detaining all males in a given area or village for up to several weeks or months, and detaining preadolescent family members of suspects in an effort to force suspects to turn themselves in.

American forces have even left notes stating that the suspect must turn himself in to gain the release of his family members. An American field grade officer responsible for a recent operation of this nature told me that this was an extremely effective practice. However, they have undermined America’s most powerful weapon in Iraq: public perceptions of legitimacy and honor. This impact on public sentiment has gone largely unnoticed due to the lack of formal survey mechanisms outside of the British sector. The British Operational Analysis section at Multinational Division (Southeast) conducts continuous surveys administered by locally hired Iraqis throughout the whole of its sector. British Brigadier Nick Carter says that maintaining the goodwill of local Shia Muslim leader Sayid Ali al-Safi al-Musawi is vital. “The moment that Sayid Ali says, ‘We don’t want the Coalition here’, we might as well go home,” Brig Carter said. (Telegraph, April 18, 2004)

Training for the transition from open combat to peacekeeping/occupation duties needs to include cultural and socioeconomic factors. Dr. Wahid al-Hilli, deputy of Iraq’s Dawa Party, stated in June that “if the cultural insensitivity displayed by the U.S. military continues, then moderate Iraqis are likely to oppose the Coalition.” He cited examples including the British use of dogs to search homes and male American soldiers’ searching females. These sentiments were echoed by Marco Calamai, an Italian diplomatic representative in the CPA who resigned in protest. He stated that the Coalition’s failure to understand Iraqi society has resulted in “delusion, social discontent and anger” and allowed terrorism “to easily take root.” (Robert Reid, “Italian Quits U.S. Coalition in Protest,” AP, November 18, 2003)

The balance between ensuring freedom of speech and perceived tactical imperatives is a current source of conflict in Iraq, highlighted by the closing of Muqtada Sadr’s Al Hawza newspaper. Many security and military personnel in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Combined Joint Task Force 7, for example, felt that any anti-American rhetoric by religious leaders was a threat to peace and stability. They advocated the arrest of any religious leader believed to be preaching against the Coalition. In fact, religious rhetoric should be viewed less as a cause and more as a symptom of public discontent, which should therefore be monitored carefully. The arrest of religious leaders, too, is likely to aggravate the situation and reinforce Iraqi sentiment that Americans do not believe in freedom of speech, despite their rhetoric.

From a practical standpoint, this is reinforced by the fact that multiple alternate forms of locally produced mass media— CDs, cassettes, pamphlets, books and videotapes— are readily available. Thus, eliminating a commonly known (and easy to monitor) source of information only encourages equally effective forms of communication that are inflamed by appearances of lack of free speech and are significantly more difficult to monitor.

Religious leaders in Iraq have significant influence, and the U.S. military must work with them. In the aftermath of the rioting that occurred in April 2003, Shia religious leaders and militias took control of libraries, hospitals, and residential areas in order to safeguard them, given the inability or unwillingness of the U.S. military to provide security. Shia clerical leaders issued several fatwas calling for the cessation of looting and the return of looted items. These decrees had a significant impact in curbing the looting.

In the Shia ghetto of Saddam City (now Sadr City), where it was thought that rioting would be worst, looting was actually limited compared to the rest of Baghdad, owing to efforts by the Shia religious leadership and the armed militia of Muqtada Sadr. Then in April and May 2003, CPA ministerial advisors and their U.S. Army counterparts made a concerted effort to take control of these facilities, in some cases using armed force to remove Shia militia occupants and replace them with administrators appointed under Saddam Hussein. The opportunity was lost to establish good relations with the Shia communities that could have integrated them into Coalition efforts.

U.S. reconstruction efforts have been significantly undermined by Shias’ distrust. In June 2003, a local American commander in Tikrit expressed to me his concern about “Shiite fingers of influence” that he feared were making their way into Tikrit, which is virtually entirely Sunni and heavily armed. American forces were undergoing almost daily attacks in the area from increasingly sophisticated networks of Saddam supporters. The chance of Shiite networks implanting themselves in the Tikrit area, much less being a threat to American forces, was slim. However, this attitude was prevalent among military forces, and it alienated significant portions of the population.

Occupation or Liberation

Iraqi Governing Council president Massoud Barzani stated in April that the U.S. “has only itself to blame for the military deadlock at Najaf and Fallujah because it allowed its troops to change from an army of liberation to an army of occupation.” (AP, Apr. 26, 2004). The terms “occupation” and “liberation” have different legal and political meanings. What happened in Iraq was not technically speaking a “liberation” under international law or UN mandate, since there was no expatriate government capable of assuming control of the country. In October 2002, the Defense Department’s general counsel ruled that the U.S. would have the responsibilities of an occupying force in Iraq. (See DeBlasio, “The War: What We’re Missing,” Washington Post, 4/18/04). CPA lawyers also objected to calling the American presence a liberation, given liberators’ obligations under Security Council Resolution 1483.

To many Iraqis, however, the word “occupation” has a negative connotation that is incompatible with Coalition intentions. The American “occupation” is likened to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, an often contentious issue in much of the Middle East. Sheik Abood, a Shia tribal leader in Amara, told the CPA at a Council meeting in May 2003 that “if America came to Iraq as a liberator, then America was welcome indefinitely as guests and that he would use all his resources to defend and be hospitable to his guests. [But] if the U.S. was an occupier, then he and his descendents would ’die resisting us.’ This met with energetic applause from the audience of roughly 270 tribal leaders.”

When the ambassador responded that the U.S. was neither a liberator nor an occupier, but somewhere in between, shouting erupted among the assembly, and a quarter of tribal the leaders walking out. However, CPA information operations did not incorporate the distinction into its planning and operations. And within a month, six British soldiers were killed near Amara.

In much of the Arab world, the values of honor, shame, and dignity play a critical role in social systems (see Pat K. Chew, ed.,Conflict and Culture Reader, 2001). American soldiers are trained in how to fight and how to handle opponents taken prisoner where there is a clear distinction between combatant and noncombatant. In Iraq, no such distinction exists. The people attacking Coalition forces are wearing civilian clothes and concealing their weapons. Consequently, in the valid interests of their own security, Coalition military have come to treat the entire population as enemy combatants. Human Rights Watch has criticized the U.S. military for its practice of placing feet on top of prisoners’ heads while subduing them, a common U.S. Army practice.

Recently, insurgents beyond the former members of the Baath Party have been reacting negatively to the idea of U.S. occupation of Muslim lands. The challenge becomes eliminating the insurgents at a rate quicker than that at which new insurgents can be recruited from among average Iraqis, most of whom initially had either neutral or pro- Coalition attitudes. And yet one brigade commander told me, the forces were there to “kill the enemy, not win their hearts or minds.” It is therefore no surprise that Iraqi acceptance of the Coalition has not been widespread or consistent and has frustrated Iraqis who want the Coalition to be successful.

Acts of violence are rarely, if ever, isolated incidents, but the culmination of frustrations that begin a cycle of retaliations. The American killing of thirteen protesters in Fallujah at the end of April 2003 was an important spark in the cycle of violence that occurred there notwithstanding U.S. efforts to circumvent military regulations and pay “blood money” in accordance with local custom. Without the good will of the people, the forces’ inevitable mistakes received no benefit of the doubt. The Coalition lacks both credibility and a far-reaching information campaign to counter hostile or uninformed local press reports and convey basic facts about the Coalition and reconstruction plans.

The British military arguably has even less recent institutional experience in the Middle East than the U.S. military and has no civil-military assets specifically trained for the Middle East. This is reflected in the attitudes of Iraqis towards British forces in southern Iraq, as well as in the frequent riots in Basra and the killing of British soldiers in June 2003 near Amara. In that case, British soldiers looking for weapons had searched houses with dogs in the area in the village of Majat al-Kabir. In the Koran, the dog is specifically mentioned as an unclean animal. The use of dogs in Arab homes and the harem (women’s quarters) was perceived as an insulting act meant to demonstrate British dominance. This population, which clearly opposed Saddam Hussein, and with apparently no political or economic incentive, conducted a deadly attack against Coalition forces within two months of being “liberated,” storming a police station and killing six British soldiers. (Two weeks earlier, I had visited four towns near Amara, where the British military had a base. Local leaders, clerics, and residents indicated strong support for the American intervention but viewed the British “occupation” as a demeaning repeat of the earlier British occupation following World War I. They also complained that British soldiers were not sensitive to the local customs. )

Regional and Historical Factors

Even before the release of photos showing prisoner abuse, the United States’ actions in the Middle East have not garnered a high degree of Iraqi trust. American officers planning for the reconstruction in Iraq were commonly advised to read Embracing Defeat(2000), John Dower’s analysis of America’s postwar occupation of Japan. The book was described as a “model” for Iraq that had been read by senior defense and administration officials. Dower writes that in Japan the Americans encountered “a populace sick of war” who “wished both to forget the past and to transcend it.” In February 2003, when Dower cautioned that his comments should not be applied indiscriminately to Iraq, the administration backed off from using it as a metaphor. (Dower, “A Warning From History: Don’t Expect Democracy in Iraq,” Boston Review Feb./Mar. 2003)

However, the military continued to consult his work, notwithstanding that the Japan model had little or no application. Japan was clearly defeated and formally surrendered. The Iraqi ruling regime neither admitted defeat nor formally surrendered. A more relevant case study might have been Okinawa, the first U.S. occupation of Japan, where the U.S. faced a determined enemy and hostile civilian populace. The post-conflict phase was marked by guerilla warfare and a civil-military administration that was unable to function effectively due to the lack of security.

After the 1991 Shia uprising in southern Iraq, mass executions completely destroyed the Shia leadership base and led to a general distrust of Americans, who stood by as the Shias were defeated, with strict non-engagement orders. In several cases, the Americans prohibited the Shia from taking captured and abandoned weapons from Iraqi military positions. (Andrew Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: the Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, 1999) Whatever the rationale, surviving Shias and their families have not forgotten this. And yet many in Washington still believed in 2003 that the southern Shias would assist the U.S. against the Iraqi military. This calculation was one reason for the small size of forces used for the invasion.

America’s perceived need for oil is another factor that cannot be understated. In the run-up to the war, Khaled Batarfi, a Saudi newspaper editor, stated that “I doubt you could find one person who would agree that the Americans are coming just for the sake of the region and they want to bring democracy. We think it is oil. We think it is Israel. We think it is control.” (Jack Beatty, “Politics and Prose,” New York Times, from Atlantic Unbound, February 6, 2003) While the Ministry of Oil was not initially secured against the widespread post-invasion looting, the myth that it was has taken hold and is hard to overcome.

Coalition forces entered Iraq with no coherent plan and few mechanisms in place for assessing changing conditions throughout the country. Rather, it fell back on more familiar combat operations and peacetime engagement activities, such as humanitarian demining. In May, the State Department flew in a “quick-reaction demining force” from Mozambique. Humanitarian demining may seem like a beneficial effort, but the mine problem in heavily populated and agricultural areas in south and central Iraq is minimal, and in the north, where there is a significant mine problem, the UN already had significant resources dedicated to demining. But the U.S. military commonly executes demining even if this consumes resources and funding that could be applied more productively elsewhere.

In contrast, date palms represent a major livelihood for Iraqis. Although date palms require annual fumigation in the summer, this was not conducted, causing a significant economic loss to growers. There was simply a lack of qualified and resourced personnel to take timely action. Similar observations can be made in areas such as the Ministry of Irrigation.


U.S. strength and power is highly regarded in the Middle East. The survival and continued resistance of insurgents in the face of this strength only increases their prestige and power base. The fact that even some southern Shias have judged the timing appropriate to engage in hostilities with U.S. forces is telling of wider Iraqi perceptions of the Coalition. It is therefore crucial that Iraqi systems of law and government be emplaced and administered by Iraqis. But the actions of Coalition forces remain an important component of a lasting peace. Success rests with our ability to understand the history and regional factors, and improve the training of our soldiers to foster a sense of liberation— i.e., a psychological state if not a legal state. Ultimately, this must lead to a self-governing Iraq which respects human rights and is at least perceived to be better off than it was before we invaded.