The Assumptions that Undermined the Iraq War

U.S. Marine Maj. Bull Gurfein pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein March 21, 2003 in Safwan, Iraq. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Iraq in what the George W. Bush administration expected to be a short, sharp war to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, eliminate his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, and turn Iraq into a democracy that would become a beacon of hope for people across the Middle East. The first objective was achieved, the second proved unnecessary, and the third is still a work in progress. After the fall of Baghdad in just three weeks, U.S. and coalition forces struggled to rebuild a government, leading to more than eight years of military operations until the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. The inability of U.S. and coalition forces to stabilize Iraq after the fall of the Baathist regime is not a reflection of their expertise, combat effectiveness, or courage, but rather a result of the planning assumptions made by senior administration political and military leaders in the runup to the war.

Every military plan rests on certain assumptions, either explicitly understood or implicitly made by its creators. The Bush administration rested its Iraq war plan on three assumptions, all of which turned out to be flawed. The first assumption was that the Iraqi people would freely cooperate with coalition forces in rebuilding Iraq after Saddam was ousted from power. He was, after all, a vicious dictator who had killed tens of thousands of Iraqis during his quarter-century in power. A corollary was that the Iraqi people would accept the installation of a democratic form of government and a capitalist market economy. Since in the view of Americans these were the best political and economic systems the world has ever known, it did not occur to administration leaders that Iraqis might have different opinions on the subject.

While many Iraqis rejoiced at Saddam’s downfall, there was a significant minority who had benefited from his rule. The head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, set the political conditions for an insurgency by ousting these Iraqis (mostly Sunni Arabs, but some others as well) from their positions with a draconian de-Baathification decree enacted five weeks after the fall of Baghdad. Bremer compounded this misstep by disbanding the Iraqi army, thus invalidating the second planning assumption, which was that the Iraqi army would help to secure the country in the invasion’s aftermath. This order left hundreds of thousands of armed, unemployed men in limbo, and it dishonored the officer corps, many of whom took their not inconsiderable skills with them into the insurgency.

The third assumption was that the international community would step up in the aftermath of conflict to help stabilize Iraq. Given the international outcry over the administration’s rush to war, President Bush and his advisers should have seen problems with this assumption from the outset. But invalidating it would have required a much more robust force structure for the invasion and a longer period of occupation duty, which would have created domestic political difficulties for the administration. So instead of facing reality, Bush and his advisers assumed away the problem.

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