Our Biggest Mistake in Iraq

Strategy teaches that you get the best information from listening to real live people, not reading and not watching the news. This lesson gets strengthened for me every time I get a chance to spend a few minutes discussing the War on Terror with someone from the Middle East. While I have read (and written) a lot about the area, culture, and history, it seems like I get a lot more insight from even a few minutes of conversation. The reason? Because I can ask question to clarify things that are fuzzy for me. We can’t ask questions of a book or a television. As Sun Tzu said, by questioning and getting information from the outside, we move toward understanding. I bring this up because I recently had an interesting discussion with an Iraqi about the war. Since he was Shi'ite, he was very supportive of the war. He considered Hussein a butcher who kept power for decades because of his willingness to slash the throats of babies. He recognized that the Sunnis wouldn't feel the same because they had basically ruled the country during Saddam's period, but since Iraq was now a democracy, their disatisfaction with the loss of power didn't matter: they did have the votes and would never have them. At this point in the conversation, he said something great. He said that if America wasn't going to fight for freedom in places like, what was America for? He was very grateful for the American sacrifices there. He said, and I am not making this up, that this is what makes America different from someplace like France that only cares about itself. (Note to anti-war fanatics: the world doesn't buy the "America building an empire for the evil corporations" meme. Just thought you would like to know. Interestingly enough, however, he felt that America's biggest mistake was in decommissioning Saddam's primarily Sunni army. He pointed out, as I have many times in this blog (and Sun Tzu did 2,500 years ago) that the issue is primarily economics. Depriving the Sunni leadership of the oil wealth was one thing, but America created a lot of problems for itself when it deprived 550,000 trained fighting men of their jobs. What he said was the all America needed to do was to eliminate the officers at major or colonel and above. Those people were the Saddam loyalists. The rest of the army were basically people who needed income. The economic dislocation in the country from taking away that income from them, both Sunni and Shi'ite created a lot of problems that we are still paying for. The philosophy that united the Iraqi army wasn't their love of Baathism, but their love of having a job. When we took away that job, we passed up a big opportunity. If we hadn't decommissioned the army and had, instead, just found new officers loyal to the new order (to which they would owe their new positions), we would be having much less trouble there now. Sun Tzu taught that you must get your resources from the enemy. When we decommission the whole Iraqi army, we did the opposite: we gave resources to the enemy. He also taught that when you captured an enemy force you mixed it into your own. You didn't kill opposing troops and you didn't turn them loose. You kill their leaders and then you give your enemy’s troops a chance to join the winning team. This is what we are trying to do in Iraq in a political sense, but we also need to do it in a military sense. One of the reasons that Afghanistan has gone more smoothly than Iraq is that in Afghanistan, we left the “war lords” in place to fight with us. The great lesson from Western history here is Alexander the Great. He conquered one army after another, continually absorbing them into his own while retiring his original troops. He conquered Greece with a Macedonian army, conquered Persia with a Greek army, and conquered Egypt with a Persian army, and conquered India with a Egyptian and Persian army. Hey, this is the way you fight a world war, especially against terror. Like most strategic decisions, our decommissioning the army has implications for the future. All strategic actions come down to sending a message to the world (and you potential rivals) in the final stage of the Progress Cycle, when you make your claim. What message did we send to the other armies of the region when we decommissioned the Iraqi army? We told the Syrian and Iranian troops that, if they fight us, they are fighting for their jobs. What we should have told them (and still can if we admit what a mistake this was), is that when you DON'T fight us, you are fighting for your officers' jobs, because if we win, your officers will get fired and you will get promoted. Which message is more likely to win on the battlefield? Which message is more likely to minimize death and destruction?