Coalitions in Iraq: ’91 vs. Now

During their Oct. 5 debate, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Sen. John Edwards for suggesting that the current international coalition in Iraq is small. Of course, the two men engaged in a snippy—and largely semantic—exchange over whether the term “coalition” should be interpreted to include Iraqi security forces. But the more interesting issue was raised by Cheney when he argued that, not even counting Iraqi forces, today’s coalition is in fact quite strong. As he put it, the Desert Storm Operation that evicted Saddam’s forces from Kuwait in 1991 included 34 countries, whereas the current multinational presence in Iraq includes 30—nearly as many.

But on this point, the vice president’s argument was very weak. Admittedly, today’s coalition does include almost as many participating countries as the war effort 13 years ago. However, the symbolic benefit of such a coalition is belied by the fact that so many of the world’s major players—including France, Germany, Russia, China, and all Arab states—are sitting this operation out. So are all the South Asian countries, usually so committed to international peacekeeping and stabilization missions.

And where it matters most to our troops, on the issue of raw numbers, today’s coalition is far smaller than was the case in Desert Storm. Our international partners have about 24,000 troops in Iraq today. That is just one-sixth the number they sent to fight in 1991. By contrast, the United States has about 140,000 troops in Iraq right now and another 30,000 to 40,000 in other parts of the region.

Our friends and allies did have more forces in Iraq last year, at the peak of the invasion effort. But even then, their total strength was only one-third the comparable Desert Storm number — and 95 percent of it was British. (By contrast, the U.S. force deployed to the theater was half as large as in 1991.)

To put it differently, today our foreign partners are providing some 12 percent of the forces in and around Iraq. Last spring they provided about 16 percent of the total invasion force. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, by contrast, they provided some 22 percent of a much larger force.

For those who like specifics, here are a few more. The 24,000 foreign forces that our friends and allies have in Iraq today are dominated by the United Kingdom (with 8,300 troops), as well as South Korea (3,600), Italy (2,700), Poland (2,500), Ukraine (1,600), and the Netherlands (1,300). Between them they provide 20,000 of the total foreign forces; no other country has more than 1,000 in Iraq.

In Desert Storm, things were much different—without even counting the 125,000 Turkish troops near that country’s border with Iraq, or the 125,000 additional troops that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia had on alert, or the 20,000 forces that Syria kept on its own territory but adjacent to the Iraqi border. The international community directly committed about 150,000 military personnel to the operation, all of which had important roles in Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s war plan.

Start with Europe. The British again led the way, with some 35,000 troops, followed by France with about 15,000, Italy with 1,500, and the Netherlands with 1,000. Germany sent 1,000 personnel to help defend Turkey against any possible reprisals.

Canada deployed 1,700 troops; Australia sent 500; smaller NATO allies another couple thousand. All in all, major western allies deployed almost 60,000 personnel to the war effort. And a few other close friends such as Argentina sent modest numbers of troops as well.

But what was most striking was the participation of Muslim states. Egypt led the way with 40,000 soldiers. Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Arabian peninsula deployed about 20,000 troops to the effort. Syria, despite its Baathist links to Saddam’s regime, also sent 20,000 troops to operate from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan and Bangladesh deployed at least 5,000 and 3,000 respectively. Morocco and Senegal contributed as well.

Cheney could have made several arguments to explain why today’s coalition in Iraq is rather small. For example, he might have pointed out that it was obviously easier to find allies to reverse a blatant act of aggression across international borders, as in 1991, than to wage a “preventive war” as we did last year.

But the claim that today’s coalition is comparable to what the first President Bush assembled to conduct Operation Desert Storm in 1991 does not begin to hold water.