July 1, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Making the Occupation Work

The torch was being passed. Speeches were made. The United States transferred sovereignty from the occupation authorities to the new postwar government. Critics railed, saying the day meant nothing _ that nothing had changed. American troops, they said, were stuck in a quagmire. The enemy was getting stronger. Disaster loomed.

It was Sept. 21, 1949, in Bonn, West Germany. Today's critics seem to think it applies to June 28, 2004, in Baghdad, Iraq.

Handing sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government will do little to quell the debate. Critics are right when say June 28 isn't a terribly significant day. There may be more violence to come.

But they're wrong when they claim that, at best, America needs a different strategy to succeed in Iraq or, at worst, that U.S. efforts are doomed to failure. They have forgotten about Sept. 21, 1949, and the burden of doing the right thing during tough times.

There are four reasons why things haven't gone as well in Iraq as we had hoped.

First, the enemy gets a vote. In postwar Germany, poor organization and the collapse of planned Nazi opposition simplified the Allies task of reinstituting civil order. It was estimated, for example, that the Allies would face a guerrilla army of upwards of 40,000, an assessment that proved wildly inaccurate. The Germans had had enough of war. In Iraq, a witch's brew of ethnic extremists, foreign terrorists and unrepentant Baathists have not. It's not hard for a determined enemy with even a modicum of resources to undertake a protracted terrorist campaign.

Second, expectations were wildly unrealistic. Occupations are rarely easy. Yet as conditions in occupied Iraq worsened and administration officials tried to draw parallels to the difficulties of the postwar occupation of Europe, critics excoriated them for being unhistorical. In fact, conditions in Germany were quite bad. Terrorism wasn't a major threat, but the displaced populations in postwar Europe (nearly 14 million by some counts), along with shortages of food and suitable housing, ethnic and racial tensions and a scarcity of domestic police forces, left many fearful of the future.

Third, the U.S. military's record as an occupying force has always been sketchy. The most important tradition governing how the Army undertakes these tasks is a "tradition of forgetting." The official report on the U.S. participation in the Rhineland occupation after World War I noted that "despite the precedents of military governments in Mexico, California, the Southern States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere, the lesson seemingly has not been learned."

As the Army prepared for the occupation of Germany after World War II, they didn't even have a field manual on the subject, and staff officers scoured the Pentagon library for the after action report from the Rhineland mission. In Iraq, the Army is relearning its lessons and "ad hocing" its way to success.

Fourth, mistakes were made. Planning was inadequate. Splitting responsibilities between the military and Jay Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs was a mistake. The plan for fielding Iraqi domestic security forces was flawed.

Yet operations in Iraq are as likely to succeed as fail _ because the United States is getting the most critical things right. There are three essential tasks for an occupying power: 1) avert a humanitarian crisis; 2) establish a legitimate government; and 3) field domestic security forces. In Iraq, the United States is making progress on all three fronts.

Coalition forces have achieved the first goal. Iraqis aren't starving or dying from plagues. Weeks before the handover, it was clear that a new government was going to take hold backed by a solid interim constitution. Even prospects for fielding an adequate military and police forces are starting to look good, with new U.S. military leadership, more realistic plans and sincere cooperation from Iraqi leaders.

So the critics are right. June 28 was just another day. But they're right for the wrong reasons. U.S. strategy for the occupation is already back on track.

Much remains to be done. And there are no guarantees. When FDR planned for the occupation of Europe, he believed all U.S. troops would be home within two years. The outbreak of the Cold War presented unexpected challenges, but U.S. commitment remained resolute. Similar resolve will see us through today's challenges.

The terrorists aren't strong enough to stop democracy if the Iraq leaders remain committed to living together in a united country and if coalition support remains strong. Absent the Soviet empire, history may take a new course this time _ and the troops won't have to wait 50 years to come home.

(James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). He served 25 years of active duty in the U.S. Army.)

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

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