How Iran Won Our Iraq War

A new Army analysis, co-authored by a Fletcher student, details U.S. military and political mistakes
Frank Sobchak standing near the Fletcher School at Tufts
“If you hold an election on the cusp of regime change where a minority has horrifically oppressed other ethno-sectarian elements of the population, that’s not necessarily the best environment to hold an election,” said Frank Sobchak. Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 26, 2019

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Iran was the only real winner in the Iraq War, according to a new study of the conflict, which concludes that U.S. efforts were hampered by inadequate ground forces and misjudgments by military officers and politicians. The unvarnished two-volume analysis, published by the U.S. Army, pinpoints errors made by American leaders in hopes that future commanders can learn from them.  

The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, which examines U.S. military operations in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, was commissioned by now-retired General Raymond T. Odierno. He told its authors, “We never wrote an operational history of the lessons learned from the Vietnam War, and we spent the first years of the Iraq War re-learning many of the same lessons. We cannot do that again,” recalled retired Colonel Frank Sobchak, a co-editor of the study who is now a Ph.D. student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.

A Green Beret who served in Iraq in 2005, Sobchak spent five years on The U.S. Army in the Iraq War before his 2018 retirement closed his twenty-six-year Army career. The study involved examining tens of thousands of pages of classified documents and conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, including conversations with President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and every theater commander for the war.

Ironically, despite Odierno’s call for a no-holds-barred investigation of what had happened, the publication was almost shelved by the military following Odierno’s retirement, Sobchak said. After two years of delays, it was published by the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute this January—in part, he said, because of an October 2018 article in the Wall Street Journal that asked why the Army was stymying its own study.

“All of a sudden I started getting phone calls from the Army, and it was ‘How soon can you finish?’” Sobchak said. “The beauty of the First Amendment and a free press is in action right there.”

While the missteps of the Iraq War cannot be undone, Sobchak found analyzing them cathartic, and believes the lessons learned have value for the future. “There’s a debate going on right now, particularly with the Trump administration, which has signaled that they believe fighting irregular wars, counterinsurgencies, is a thing of the past,” he said. “I think it’s naïve to put blinders on and think we’re not going to do this again.”

Tufts Now recently spoke with Sobchak to understand what went wrong in Iraq and how the U.S could do better.

Tufts Now: In your concluding chapter, you write that as of 2018, “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” in the Iraq War. Can you elaborate on that?

Frank Sobchak: In early 2003, when we were effective in dismantling the Saddam regime quickly, I think Iran was worried. But quickly they realized, “The U.S. is stuck; they’re having some problems.” At that phase, they looked at it as an opportunity: “We fought an eight-and-a-half-year war with Iraq. It’s been the regional bulwark against us that both the U.S. and other Sunni states have used as a barrier against our expansionism and our regional goals. We now have an opportunity to change that calculus.” I think they were effective in changing that calculus.

Is that because they now have a great deal of influence with the Iraqi government? When did that start?

It’s important to make sure that other regional actors are not manipulating elections. We didn’t really do that. Iran had a motive to toy with the elections of their arch enemy, who killed hundreds of thousands of their people. There were clear instances of Iranian interference in elections, from destroying ballot boxes to voter intimidation. It was bad in 2006 and it got worse in 2010. As we got closer to our withdrawal date and our involvement decreased, Iranian adventurism increased. Iraq had been a counterbalance to Iran, and now we don’t have that really. In many ways, elements of the political class in Iraq are beholden to the Iranians. Some members of insurgent groups who trained in Iran are elected to Iraq’s Parliament now.

U.S. commanders believed that the 2005 Iraqi elections would have a “calming effect,” but instead they made ethnic and sectarian tensions worse. Were the military leaders naïve to think that democracy would bring stability?

There’s this assumption that if you just have free and fair elections, that will tamp down an insurgency, because the people will say, “We elected them.” If it’s a unified nationalist insurgency, it logically makes sense an election would have some calming effect, but particularly by late 2004, early 2005, there were signals of a latent sectarian conflict, if not low-grade civil war, already apparent.

One element of that ethno-sectarian competition—the Sunnis—chose to boycott the first election. They ended up winning 3 or 4 percent of the vote, under-represented by an order of five. Consequently, when the constitution was written, there were almost no Sunnis in the constitutional convention, so that further inflamed sectarian tensions.

“Trump is a clear byproduct of the isolationist fervor that I think is partially a byproduct of the Iraq War,” said Frank Sobchak. “The war will have a residual impact that is quasi-isolationist, as well as this desire not to be involved in long-term experiments in nation-building.” Photo: Alonso NicholsThe next election, which was a parliamentary referendum, the Sunnis came out in droves, because the constitution had effectively been written against them. The U.S. was like, “Look, voter participation is up. This is awesome! The Sunnis are finally participating. They figured out democracy!” The problem was that they voted 95 percent against the constitution. Then when the constitution was approved, they were like, “Well, OK, that means I pick up the rifle again, because elections aren’t working for me, I’m not being represented.” Each event ended up being more of an irritant than a salve.

Iraq held three elections in 2005: the parliamentary election to create a transitional government to write the constitution in January; the referendum on the constitution in October; and the election for a permanent four-year government in December. Should the U.S. have slowed down this process?

Originally the transfer of sovereignty and elections were going to happen a lot later. But somewhere in 2004, it was moved up. Many generals told us that partially the decision was made because of the November 2004 election that President Bush was facing, to show progress. I personally think that while it would have been very difficult, we probably should have done our best to delay the elections to allow more of a grassroots effort of democracy. That would also have given time for reconciliation potentially.

If you hold an election right on the cusp of regime change where a minority has horrifically oppressed other ethno-sectarian elements of the population, that’s not necessarily the best environment to hold an election in, unless you get really lucky and you get someone like a Mandela or a Martin Luther King, Jr. Iraq ended up with sectarians who won the elections, who used power to cudgel and get revenge against those who had oppressed them previously.

In that postponement of the elections, we should have grown democracy from the bottom up, starting at the city and town level, then moving up to the provinces and the national level. That is an important lesson to take for other traumatized, post-conflict societies—that the end goal needs to be free and fair elections, but what is critical as part of those elections are minority rights and minority protections, as well as enough time to reconcile the horrific things that have occurred during the period of oppression.

The Iraq War broke with U.S. political traditions, because it was pre-emptive. How do you think that has affected American politics and public support of future potential foreign intervention by U.S. forces?

I think it makes us a lot more leery of interventions, especially anything that is pre-emptive or even has the sense of pre-emption. Given what has transpired—in terms of the sense of losses, financial costs, and international prestige, the sense of waste, all the Iraqi losses—it is going to serve as a cautionary tale for American politics. Trump is a clear byproduct of the isolationist fervor that I think is partially a byproduct of the Iraq War. The war will have a residual impact that is quasi-isolationist, as well as this desire not to be involved in long-term experiments in nation-building.

The U.S. military was in such need of troops during the Iraq War that the National Guard had to deploy in a large-scale conflict for the first time since the Korean War. In fact, half of all brigades in Iraq at the time of the 2005 elections were Guard units. Was that effective?

In 2005 the Guard had significant challenges. At the tactical level, the very ground troop level, they performed admirably. When they had to integrate at the battalion, brigade, and higher level, things really came unglued. The insurgency was in high swing and areas of the country were horrifically dangerous. In a couple cases, you ended up throwing Guard brigades into buzz saws, and they did not perform well.

What would have been better than relying on the National Guard?

2005 was a particular challenge—that year the Marines and the Army literally ran out of troops, given the commitments in Afghanistan, Korea, Kosovo, and other locations around the globe. At the same time, the Army was going through a process called transformation, which fundamentally changed the Army brigade, which is anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people.

To do that transformation took a year and they had to take three brigades off line and put three Guard brigades into Iraq. The problem was, that was the year that three elections took place, as well as the year that Al-Qaeda in Iraq ramped up the sectarian conflict. There were car bomb attacks on Sunni civilians to incite civil war. I wholeheartedly believe we would have been better served by pushing off transformation and deploying active brigades during that time period instead.

Why didn’t—or couldn’t—the U.S. develop self-reliant Iraqi forces who could effectively take over security in Iraq?

That is one of the worst train wrecks of the entire conflict. It happened for a variety of reasons, some of our own causing and some frankly caused by the Iraqis. On our side, one of the challenges was that we constantly fought the war as if it was going to end or as if we were going to be drawing down significantly our boots on the ground within eighteen to twenty-four months. You don’t build an army overnight. It is a multi-decade project. If you’re constantly trying these short-term solutions, you’re not going to end up with a viable force.

We also resourced it poorly. We sent military transition teams of ten to twelve Americans who had never worked with each other before, who were not specially selected. We kind of threw people together ad hoc, thinking it was going to work.

What were the challenges on the Iraqi side?

In many cases, but not all, we created ethno-sectarian units. We’d create a unit that was 90 percent Kurdish, 5 percent Sunni and 5 percent Shia, even though the demographic makeup of Iraq is roughly 20 percent Kurd. We would create other units that were almost all ethnically Shia. They were not a true national army.

The Iraqis contributed to that because they looked at the conflict as a competition between the various ethno-sectarian groups for power. They saw the army and security forces—ministry of the interior, federal police forces—as part of that competition. So when they started creating units, they’d be effectively militias who then went out and contributed to sectarian conflict.

Also there was a culture of corruption. It was rampant. By 2010, there were some viable Iraqi army units that were capable, but when Prime Minister al-Maliki won the disputed election in 2010, he effectively purged all the senior leadership of the Iraqi army and removed anyone who had been perceived as working with the Americans and replaced them almost exclusively with Shia, except for a token Sunni here or there. He also replaced experienced battlefield commanders with sycophants and political supporters. He cut the guts out of units that had finally been starting to get their legs.

Would the solution be not to hand over sovereignty, and say we are going to retain control for a decades-long process of security sector reform?

Politically it would have been untenable to retain control for decades. We recommended to push the transfer of sovereignty as far as politically tenable to allow institutions that have minimal corruption to grow under the protection of international oversight. What we did in Iraq—transferring sovereignty in April of 2004, one year after we did regime change and disbanded the army and the Baath Party, basically tore the guts out of an authoritarian state—that’s not the way to do it.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.