What Chilcot report got right -- and wrong

This week, the British government released the Chilcot report on British involvement in the Iraq war. As the person who headed up the post-war transition and reconstruction efforts, I agree with much of it.

John Chilcot, who was tasked with producing the report, notes that British prewar planning was "inadequate" and blames many post-conflict difficulties on this lack of preparation.

The same can be said of American planning.

Our planners assumed that after Saddam Hussein's overthrow, we would face the same problems we faced after the first Gulf War in 1991 -- large-scale refugee movements, destroyed oil facilities. This left us unprepared for the different challenges we faced.

Chilcot says that British post-conflict military and civilian efforts were "under-resourced." The British government was driven by "a consistent desire" to reduce its military presence in Iraq. Moreover, "bad tidings" tended not to be heard in London.

The American military and civilian efforts were also understaffed. Before the war, a few American military officers had suggested the need for a substantial post-conflict military presence. They were not heard.

Before leaving for Iraq, I read a report by the non-partisan think tank RAND on previous post-conflict experiences. It concluded that to provide adequate security the coalition would need 480,000 troops. We had less than half that number. I sent the report to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and raised it with the President George W. Bush. Rampant looting in all major Iraqi cities proved the point.

Throughout my 14 months in Iraq, I repeatedly drew attention to the under-resourcing of military forces and to their restrictive rules of engagement. I reported to Washington that we lacked an appropriate counterinsurgency strategy, a failure which was not corrected until 2007.

Unfortunately, the coalition gave the impression that we were not serious in the most important goal of any government -- to provide security. Doubtless this failure encouraged some members of what became the resistance.

But although I agree with much of what Chilcot writes, I disagree with two points in the report.

Chilcot claims it was a mistake to disband Saddam's army and that this led directly to the insurgency. But he underestimates the vicious history of the army under Saddam and the devastating impact using that army would have had.

The State Department's prewar plans concluded that "the Iraqi army of the future cannot be an extension of the present army." The army had an overwhelmingly Sunni officer corps; its draftees were almost entirely Shia. That army had conducted a decade-long genocidal war on Kurdish civilians. It had brutally suppressed Shias when they rose up against Saddam in 1991.

After the fall of Baghdad not a single unit of the army was standing to arms anywhere. The army had "self-demobilized." The coalition had to decide how best to establish a new Iraqi army.

Some coalition officers thought we should recall Saddam's army. The political arguments against this course were decisive. When rumors of a recall circulated, the Kurds, staunch military allies in overthrowing Saddam, threatened to secede from Iraq; the Shia, cooperating with the coalition under guidance from Grand Ayatollah Ali-al-Sistani, told me they could not accept our reimposing "Saddamism without Saddam."

Instead, we trained a new all-volunteer Iraqi army. We paid a "separation" stipend to all former enlisted members and a pension to all but the most senior army officers. That pension -- double what the officers would have received under Saddam -- was paid through the occupation and by subsequent elected Iraqi governments.

We also provided that any enlisted man or officer up to colonel could apply for the new army. When I left Iraq, 80% of the army was made of up former members. That army, with American help, defeated al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Some members of the former military may have joined either AQI or its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). If they did, though, it was not because they were not paid or given a role in post-Saddam Iraq. It is because they did not share the vision of a democratic Iraq.

Finally, I do not share Chilcot's assumption that the "strategy of containment" was adequate to the challenges posed by Saddam's Iraq and that therefore the war was unnecessary.

Context is essential. The September 11, 2001, attacks had brought home the reality that terrorists want to kill us by the thousands. No American president could ignore the possibility that terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and use them against the American homeland.

Iraq -- designated a state sponsor of terror by successive American presidents of both parties -- had programs for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Saddam had used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Since 1991, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) had passed 17 resolutions, with the force of law, demanding that Saddam come clean about his WMD programs. He didn't.

Intelligence evidence -- not just from American agencies, but also from the French, German, Russian and British services -- concluded Saddam was continuing his WMD programs. International sanctions imposed by the UNSC were beginning to erode. Containment was no longer a viable option.

Later, it turned out the intelligence was wrong. But when the decision for war was made, neither Bush nor Tony Blair knew that. Moreover, after his capture, Saddam admitted that he fully intended to restart the programs.

I believe history will agree that it was a correct, but difficult, decision to remove Saddam Hussein. Had we not, today we would likely confront a nuclear armed Iraq facing off against a nuclear armed Iran. Troubled as the region is, that outcome would be worse.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III was Ambassador at Large for Counter Terrorism, Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism and Presidential Envoy to Iraq 2003-2004. The views expressed are his own.

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