Making it up as you go along
The Educated Soldier recalls the calm days after the fall of Baghdad.
The level of calm that immediately followed the downfall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad was remarkable. It now seems asinine to suggest that the following events occurred, but they did. My unit used to travel to city center Baghdad, abandon our Humvees but to a couple rotating guards, drop all of our protective gear, enter restaurants and eat full-service meals. Imagine this: I used to travel to this same area of the city and receive a haircut from an Iraqi barber who would wield a straight-edged blade without so much of a raised eyebrow from my compatriots. There was even an instance that our Humvee, by its lonesome, left the Baghdad International Airport after escorting an official and traversed the streets of Baghdad in search of pirated DVDs. Occasionally, I will tell stories of complacency, of soldiers asleep while behind the gun atop a Humvee, that occurred during this period and then wonder how I ever let one partake in such lazy and dangerous activity. And then it occurs to me that this sort of activity was a product of the environment that we then knew. ...
So this raises many questions that I have yet to hear quality answers. The answers lack, in part, because this is now a forgotten part of Iraq history. But this soldier, nonetheless, wonders, “What happened?” There was a notable period of time in Iraq between the fall of the government in Baghdad and the beginning of the greater insurgency conflict as we now understand it, which was void of violence. Why was this? Did the “bag guys” really need a month to two to regroup and retaliate? Or was it the case that, during this two month gap, combatants from outside the country were being filtered in?
I have no good answers. I hope, however, that by continuing to spread the experiences that I remember, some may come to pass. And, hopefully, these answers can go a long way in helping us understand the enemy that we currently face.
My own guess is that the subsequent violence was the result of two things. As soon as Saddam fell, forces opposed to the US began to plan and execute their riposte with remarkable speed. Ex-regime elements, Islamists etc. began to make their move. In contrast, the Coalition was unable to both take control of the post-Saddam situation and respond to enemy countermoves. There followed a period in which the Coalition was forced on the defensive all across Iraq. And that continued until the Coalition was eventually able to learn, adapt and regain some initiative.
The stories related by the Educated Soldier illustrate the lack of continuity in the script. Having defeated the Iraqi Army, the idea was that it was "over". In retrospect things had only just begun. But not only was the force mentally unprepared for what came next, it was physically and organizationally unready. There were inadequate numbers of interpreters; I suspect that intelligence networks were underdeveloped; probably most importantly, the force was unfamiliar with Iraq. When the trouble began, much of the attention focused on the "armor" gap. The striking difference between 2003 and 2007 is not the lack of steel plate on the Humvees -- something which obsessed the media for a long time -- but the difference in attitude and doctrine between that era and Gen Petraeus' force.
The fateful decision of Paul Bremer to dismantle Saddam's Army may have saved Iraq from a continuation of the fallen regime under other color; it might have avoided a Shi'ite insurgency that may have developed in response; it might had many things to commend it in the long run. But off-handedly dismantling the ancien regime without the Coalition capability to take up the slack meant that for some years it would be operating in a debatable void. It was as if the forces on the ground had to jump out of an airplane without a parachute and only a bale of silk from which they were expected to knit their own as they plummeted through the air and hopefully finish before they hit the ground. Policy makers may not have been aware they were doing it, but therein lies a tale.
Yet fundamentally, I don't know the answer to Educated Soldier's questions. And apart from the few facile speculations I've sketched out it remains a stark and valid challenge, not simply to historians, but to operators and policy makers. The parachute isn't finished yet.