Look, I never really got all that military science stuff. Talk to me about flanking attacks and enfilading fire, and my eyes glaze over. I’m a Civil War politics buff, but I couldn’t actually pick out Little Round Top from Seminary Ridge on a battle map. So I don’t claim any independent judgment about how well things are going, or not going, in Iraq.
But it seems to me — speaking under correction — that an enormous amount of fearful (or in some cases perhaps wishful) nonsense is being written about how we’re bogged down, how the Administration’s strategy has failed, how this is going to be a quagmire.
There were two very optimistic scenarios. One had SH decamping, along with the loot, to a retirement villa somewhere in Libya. I was slightly more optimistic than most about that prospect, but at best it was no more than a 5% shot, and there was no real way to find out whether SH would scamper without committing to war if he didn’t. Obviously, that outcome didn’t come out.
The other was the Richard Perle “paper tiger” scenario, where the regime turned out to have a glass jaw. [Kieran Healy awards this sentence the “mixed metaphor of the month” prize. Guilty as charged. No excuse, sir! Won’t happen again, sir!] That involved some of the generals defecting, the troops refusing to fight, and the civilians rising up (once the promise of liberation was clear) and hanging the Ba’athists from the lampposts. That, too, was possible, though (as suggested here earlier) not really consistent with the description of the regime as “totalitarian” or “Stalinist.” [Someone should write an alternative history in which Beria has Khruschev taken out and shot rather than the other way around, and the Soviet Union lasts for hundreds of years.]
Then there was the “this is like Gulf War I all the way to Baghdad” scenario, where actual fighting took place but so lopsidedly that the Iraqi military simply collapsed and left us to work our will on the country without taking or inflicting any large number of casualties. (Our battle plan was designed to encourage surrender, which would have avoided the enormous cost in Iraqi soldiers killed and wounded that resulted from the Gulf War I rout.) The very rapid advance of the Third Infantry to the outskirts of Baghdad (someone calculated that the head of the column was moving forward at an average of 20 miles per hour from Kuwait to the current location) gave a sample of what that scenario would have looked like.
“Shock and awe” bombing was supposed to help generate this result, which was the most plausible of the really good scenarios. But that relied on our being able to clobber Baghdad in a way that toppled the regime without killing lots of the people who live there. As far as I can tell, the bombing in Baghdad so far hasn’t been nearly as intense as it was in the first Gulf War; it certainly hasn’t been as prolonged (remember, our planes hammered Baghdad for a month before the ground fighting started in earnest).
My understanding is that we have deliberately been sparing the infrastructure (power, water, telephone) to limit civilian suffering — improving the likely political outcome afterwards — and reduce the cost of rebuilding. Whether more intense bombing would create a regime collapse, and how great the human cost would be, remain unknown.
But so far, contrary to this rosy scenario, we’re running into real fighting on the ground, including real dirty fighting: false surrenders, civilian dress, and suicide missions (which aren’t themselves against the rules, but are if done in civilian guise). It shouldn’t have been surprising that Iraq could generate such activity: combine a Stalinist machine with national feeling and religious passion, and you have to expect something more than a paper tiger that falls over once you push it.
The fact of resistance now, in addition to causing losses for us and for Iraqis, makes the post-war situation harder in two ways. First, everyone we kill or injure has relatives, and the relatives of the dead and wounded aren’t going to love us. Second, the level of resistance now tells us something about the likely level of resistance to an occupation. Anyone giving odds on the rate of suicide bombings six months into an occupation has to be giving grimmer odds now than would have been the case before the war started.
But let’s not get carried away. Just exactly how much of today’s resistance activity is created by the regime itself (as opposed to pure national spirit and religious fervor) can’t be judged from outside. The Japanese military in World War II fought us furiously — there’s a reason every English-speaker knows the otherwise obscure Japanese word “kamikaze” — and civilian resistance had we invaded the home islands was expected to be fierce; that was one of the reasons given for using nuclear weapons. Yet I’m not aware of any significant resistance to the post-war occupation.
Yes, Japan had an emperor whose decision to surrender the Japanese accepted as final; Saddam Hussein can’t and won’t play the same role, even if we were prepared to let him. But there was no significant resistance to the occupation of Germany, either, though in the dying days of the Third Reich adolescent boys were firing at our tanks and the Fuerer wasn’t around to ask Germans to do what that nice Mr. Patton told them to do.
Surely there will be attempts to organize Iraqis for guerilla action in resistance to an Anglo-American occupation, and to whatever successor government takes shape. And surely, given the situation in the Middle East and the existence of organized terrorist groups of various stripes with open or covert state sponsorship (Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda), the expected level of terrorist and guerrilla activity in post-war Iraq is higher than that in post-war Germany.
But all that doesn’t add up to “quagmire.” So far, Cheney’s “weeks, not months” seems like the best prediction in terms of actual warfare. I started out guesstimating the fall of Baghdad at six weeks from the start of fighting, and nothing that’s happened since seems to me to contradict that guess. It’s still open whether there will still be significant organized fighting after Baghdad falls, and how that might blend into endemic low-level resistance to an occupation.
The degree of resistance to an occupation will depend in part on how much occupying we actually intend to do. One possible result if the resistance gets stiff is what might loosely be called an “Afghanistan outcome,” where the government in Baghdad mostly rules Baghdad and the rest of the place is more or less controlled by local political leaders and warlords, with not many Americans around either to help or to get shot at.
That won’t satisfy fantasies about a democratic Iraq leading the way to a great renaissance of the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but those were always pretty hard to listen to with a straight face. (See Josh Marshall’s thoughts on this in the Washington Monthly.) It would probably be somewhat better for most Iraqis than what they have had to endure, from their rulers and our sanctions, for the past decade. And it would remove Iraq as a threat to its neighbors and (potentially) to us, which in my view was most of the point of the exercise in the first place.
No doubt the oil companies will be able to deal with whatever they find.