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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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Thomas E Ricks, Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in
Iraq (Penguin, London, 2006).

One of the most significant and controversial wars of our time is the Iraq war. The war is notable for the failure of the US military to install a Western-style democracy in Iraq instead finding itself faced with a in a quagmire similar to the one it had left in Vietnam thirty years previously. real question is: why? Thomas E Ricks, author of the excellent and well researched book Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq looks thoroughly into this question, doing research to look at how and why Iraq went wrong.

The story begins with grossly inadequate planning before the invasion. The war was launched based not only on inaccurate intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but also the incorrect assumption that the US would be greeted as liberators once it got into Iraq. The result is that the US went into Iraq with too few troops to stabilise Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion.

Even with these mistakes, Iraq could have turned out very differently. There was a lot of goodwill in Iraq toward the US in the immediate postinvasion aftermath. But this was lost through deeply misguided policies that alienated much of the Iraqi population. Two particularly notable cases being the de-Baa’athication order, which removed all those who were members in the Ba’ath Party (Iraq’s ruling political party under Saddam) from their jobs in the public service, and the abolition of the Iraqi Army, which forced thousands of (now angry) young men, often with weapons (formally abolishing an army is not the same as disarming it), out of work and into the streets.

When the predictable insurgency did occur, the Army reacted with counterproductive tactics, which helped recruit many people for the insurgency. These included the use of excessive force, rounding up many innocent suspects indiscriminately, who were turned into militants by their imprisonment, and in one extreme case, building a barbed wire fence around a village, giving all its inhabitants identity cards, which they would need to enter or leave it. These tactics above all showed a complete lack of respect for the Iraqi civilian population, which leads Special Forces Captain Estrada to “think of … the children who burst into tears when we point weapons into their cars, … The need to smash their cars and shoot their cows and point our weapons at them and detain them without concern for notifying their families. But how would I feel in their shoes? Would I be able to offer my heart and mind?” The stated goal of the tactics in the words of Colonel David Hogg, was to “kill the enemy, not to win their hearts or minds”. The basic counterinsurgency concept of trying to win the support of the local population, instead of alienate them, had been forgotten.

The book finishes by looking at the US Army learning its lessons and trying to change its ways. Two years after the book was written, with the surge of an extra 30,000 troops now in place, Iraq has calmed down (May saw the lowest monthly number of US troop deaths in Iraq ever, which deaths of civilians in last month reached a four year low according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health), but the book asks, is it too little, too late?

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