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Victory Is Just the Beginning

October 28, 2002|Daniel Serwer

Imagine the day after victory in Iraq. The U.S. Army will be in charge of 23 million people, a few of whom have ruled brutally over most of the rest for more than 20 years. The Shiite Arab majority will feel liberated from their Sunni Arab oppressors, Kurds will have their own armies and territory in the north, and other minorities will want to regain property and status. All will claim a share of the world's second-largest oil reserves.

Is the U.S. ready for that chaotic day? Hardly.

The world has seen power vacuums before: in Bosnia in 1996, when a weak civilian international representative struggled to implement the Dayton peace accords; in Kosovo in 1999, when NATO ground forces entered before the U.N. could name a civilian head of its administration; in Afghanistan, where the national government's authority hardly extends past the capital.

What has the U.S. learned from these previous interventions, and what should it do to avoid future mistakes?

The first lesson is that power after war grows from the barrel of a gun. The U.S. military will own Iraq, like it or not. It needs to behave like an owner: Gradualism and half-measures do not work in a post-conflict situation.

Everything the military does in the first days after a victory will resonate for years to come. When a U.S. colonel marches into a municipality in central Iraq, an English-speaking Iraqi in a suit and tie will greet him, claiming to be an enemy of Saddam Hussein and offering all the help his liberators require. Does the colonel accept, empowering his new friend, or does he arrest the fellow because another Iraqi has whispered that he is a Hussein crony and murderer?

In Bosnia, the international community ignored this conundrum and empowered ethnic nationalists who are still winning elections six years later. In Kosovo, the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army became the legitimate authority in most municipalities, a decision that is being belatedly reversed three years later by elections and indictments. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is battling its own contradictions, the military and CIA having found it necessary to employ warlords who reject the designated political leader.

Governing is an unavoidable burden on the day after victory, but the burden should be lifted from the military as quickly as possible. This requires detailed civilian-military planning, executed with firm unity of command and purpose.

The U.S. military needs a realistic schedule by which it will turn over authority to civilians, whether internationals or Iraqis or some combination.

In Bosnia, the plan -- one year of military presence and then withdraw -- was clear but unrealistic, and not coordinated with the buildup of civilian authority. In Kosovo, it took a year just to get international police in place, allowing criminals to entrench themselves.

Law enforcement has to arrive with the troops, not months later. Post-conflict chaos and revenge lead to protection rackets and organized crime.

Rule of law also requires governing authority. One approach would be to accept the existing institutions as legitimate, once the leadership loyal to Hussein has been booted out. The U.S. might use Iraqi expatriates as advisors, helping to get rid of Hussein's cronies and to identify technocrats within state structures who are not excessively compromised by the crimes of the old regime.

Municipal and provincial authorities should be elected first. This will allow political forces to form around issues that directly affect people's lives. It was a mistake to hold national elections first in Bosnia -- it froze the country in a pattern of ethnic division that is hard to overcome. The international community did better in Kosovo, where unhurried municipal elections provided a first test and allowed relative moderates to win.

The U.S. also will need to take on conflict prevention. It should be working now to avoid violence among Iraq's ethnic groups and to prevent its neighbors from trying to impose their wills. Success will require that the U.S. play a strong role in protecting Iraq's territorial integrity and in developing its new democracy.


Daniel Serwer is director of the Balkans Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace. These views are his own.

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