After the Fall of Baghdad

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

April 10, 2003

Coalition forces are likely to find the post-war challenges more complex than those inherent to defeating Saddam’s army. Iraq is at risk of civil strife, regional meddling, a military coup by anti-democratic forces, and a host of other complex problems. Without sustained and significant outside military intervention, these dangers could create a humanitarian nightmare and jeopardize democratization.

The end of Saddam’s regime should lead to a dramatic transformation of Iraq’s existing security and military forces. Iraq’s intelligence and security forces are fundamentally undemocratic: they currently exist to perpetuate one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. At the very least, most of Iraq’s intelligence services, elite military units such as the Republican Guard, and praetorian elements such as the Special Republican Guard, must be scrapped. Iraq’s justice system is also fundamentally unjust. Judges are political hacks for whom the rule of law is an alien concept.

Purging and reforming the military and the justice system, however, will put Iraq at risk of civil strife. Iraq’s national identity was weak at best historically, and the country’s myriad ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups have often fought one another. Indeed, Saddam has deliberately pitted different groups against each other, often transforming small grievances into major disputes. Even if communal tension does not rise, banditry and revenge killings are likely with no government to keep order.

The risk of violence goes beyond the human carnage of the aftermath, and could undermine Iraq’s hope for democracy over the long-term. Democratization is far more difficult without security. There is a particular danger that petty or local disputes over property or personal revenge may escalate, as fearful communities turn to their tribe or ethnic group to defend them in a situation of lawlessness.

A number of tasks will confront peacekeepers in the weeks after Saddam’s regime falls. Establishing order is the first priority. To prevent revenge killings, intervening forces must rapidly deploy throughout Iraq—not just in the major cities.

Coalition forces also must move quickly to gain control over Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs. Although the extent of Iraq’s remaining programs is disputed, in any event coalition forces must ensure that these capabilities do not go to any would-be Iraqi warlords or are passed to interested foreign governments or terrorist groups.

Ironically, coalition forces also will have to guard against the misdeeds of current allies. Kurdish fighters could easily take areas that historically had large Kurdish populations in much of Iraq’s north, including the city of Kirkuk. In addition, Kurds may seek to reclaim areas forcibly seized by the Baath regime and subsequently given to Arab Iraqis.

Despite the Kurds’ many legitimate grievances, such a land-grab could lay the groundwork for a future conflict with the central government in Baghdad once it has recovered its strength.

Once the dust settles in the first few weeks, outside forces will face several additional tasks that, while less urgent than those required immediately after Saddam’s fall, may be more complex and demanding. If Iraq’s elite military units, particularly the Republican Guard, are to be disbanded and purged, they must first be disarmed. Intervening forces will have to set up collection points, inventory weapons, and perhaps destroy selected systems. As the size of Iraq’s army and reserves (which currently number almost 700,000 men) is cut, these forces must be peacefully reintegrated into Iraqi society.

After some semblance of order is established in the first few weeks, the United States and its allies also should begin training Iraqis to serve in the new Iraqi government’s police and security services. Reforms must go beyond cutting Iraq’s forces. Iraq’s military requires dramatic changes in its command structure, order of battle, and fundamental mission.

Even after the dust settles, continuing to provide order is necessary to prevent local thugs or warlords from pre-empting the democratic process. Iraq’s current elite was chosen because of its loyalty to Saddam’s regime. It is highly likely that genuine popular elections would sweep away many of the leaders associated with the Baath regime. Left unchecked, however, even small numbers of thugs employed by current leaders could disrupt fair elections. Intervening forces will have to work with election monitors to ensure that elections are held without coercion.

Such an effort may involve, in essence, taking sides in local and national disputes by backing one set of candidates against those who use violence. As international forces have done in Afghanistan, they must recognize that strict neutrality or impartiality is misguided in the event that one side is using violence and is committed to illiberal practices.

The United States also should prepare for a lasting military presence in Iraq. Such a presence will help deter meddling from Iran and other neighbors and reassure Iraqis that they do not need to build weapons of mass destruction. A lasting presence will cost billions and risk additional American lives, but the price of allowing Iraq to collapse into chaos would be even higher.