One year after Coalition forces began the liberation of Iraq, there is a rush to judge how the U.S.-led project of creating a democratic society is faring. Too many commentators set unfair standards, refusing to acknowledge that Iraq is a failed state with little record of successful government, located in the intolerant and repressive Islamic Middle East, not democratic Scandinavia. Viewed in context, Iraq is a success, although not an unqualified one. Above all, nobody who has seen the torture chambers and the destroyed Kurdish villages, can call the war a “catastrophic mistake.”
Whatever one’s view of the case for war, the case for continuing to assist the people of Iraq in their attempt to build a truly free society is all but unanswerable. For those who supported the war, and who understood the immensity of the task ahead, the next step must be to convince their electorates in the Coalition countries that we must persevere. Those who opposed the war, claiming that the U.S. case was simply lies, should be at the forefront arguing for a long-term commitment to ensure that innocent Iraqis are compensated for the alleged follies of the U.S. and its allies.
The most-impressive achievement of the last year was the destruction of the Iraqi army, the vehicle for Saddam’s ambitions. The army, the sword that Saddam wielded to intimidate the region and his unfortunate subjects, has been broken. The Arab nationalist fantasy of the Iraqi army as the Prussia of the Middle East was buried by General Tommy Franks. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer then abolished the Iraqi army with the stroke of a pen.
Many pundits have wrongly bemoaned Bremer’s decree closing down the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army had long been an obstacle to any hope for democratic change in Iraq, providing Iraq with dictators and undermining legitimate governments long before Saddam came to power. The Iraqi army’s first independent combat mission, in 1933, was to murder Assyrian Christians. Less a fighting force than a criminal organization, the Iraqi army then went on to invade four other countries–Iran, Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia–and conducted campaigns of genocide within Iraq against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.
The other great unreported success story is the economy and, in particular, the new Iraqi currency. The economy, freed from Saddam Hussein’s program of plunder and the corrupt U.N. Oil for Food program, is booming. The Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimani is a building site and the abundance of goods in Baghdad is striking.
The economic revival of Iraq bears favorable comparison with the faltering transition that took place in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism. Currency reform in many former Soviet republics was an administrative and economic fiasco, with the thrifty robbed of their savings and widespread confusion all round. By contrast, between October 15, 2003, and January 15, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) replaced not one, but two currencies in Iraq. The worthless “Saddam” dinar, an inflationary currency that circulated in Arab areas, and the “Kurdish” dinar, an overly strong currency used in the Kurdish areas free from Saddam’s control, were replaced by the so-called “Bremer” dinar with little fuss. What is more, the new Iraqi currency was brought in despite near-daily terrorist violence in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle that has claimed hundreds of Iraqi lives and 165 Coalition dead.
Similarly underestimated has been the postwar performance of the U.S. military. The controversy over how many U.S. troops are needed in Iraq has overshadowed the fact that no other army could have performed so many missions–counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, policing, economic and political reconstruction–so well. What is striking is not how many troops are needed, but how much they manage to accomplish. There are just 200 U.S. soldiers from a civil-affairs battalion in the whole of Iraq Kurdistan. The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, equipped with the new U.S. Army combat vehicle, the Stryker, has replaced the entire 101st Airborne in the Arab nationalist stronghold of Mosul, a unit four times its size. But then, the critics of the U.S. military have learned nothing since Vietnam. By contrast, the U.S. military cannot stop learning since Vietnam and is ever keen to adapt and change.
The conduct of U.S. troops in a strange and sometimes-menacing country has been a model of restraint. Not one Iraqi from any community–Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, or Kurd–encountered on a recent visit to the country wanted the U.S. troops to leave. Quite the contrary, Iraqis fear the departure of the Americans, who presence is now unobtrusive.
Iraqis now overwhelmingly manage their own security. For some months, the security forces of the new Iraq have outnumbered Coalition soldiers. Many Iraqis have as little desire to be dependent on the U.S. as the U.S. has to become the overprotective parent of the new Iraq. A security success is the well-trained, well-equipped Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), an Iraqi volunteer force created by the Coalition that serves under Coalition command. The ICDC know how to operate roadblocks, cover cars with their weapons and check identity papers. By contrast, the Iraqi police, a sorry remnant of the old era, inspire little confidence. The Iraqi police are a mixture of poorly trained, rapidly inducted, but earnest postwar recruits serving along side thousands of inadequately purged officers from Saddam’s era.
A year ago, most Iraqi soldiers fled rather than fight advancing Coalition forces. Today, however, Iraq is a country that Iraqis are willing to voluntarily defend and die for.
–Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has just returned from Iraq.