The Bush administration is now debating a postwar occupation of Iraq modeled on the United States occupation of Japan after World War II. Under this approach, Iraq would initially be ruled by an American military officer while a new Iraqi government is formed. Coalition military forces would perhaps remain in Iraq for years to make good on President Bush’s promise of a post-Saddam Iraq where “the oppression of Kurds, of Assyrians, Turkomans, Shia, Sunnis and others will be lifted” and in which “the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy and create the institutions of liberty.”
War is not yet inevitable, but if there is a war, rebuilding Iraq will have to be part of the planning. A prolonged occupation is reportedly unpopular with some Pentagon officials who prefer a quicker option by which the United States would invade Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein, pass power to a government-in-exile that would be brought back to Baghdad, and then withdraw its forces.
One view put forward by Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is that a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq might resemble Romania after the fall of another tyrant, Nicolae Ceausescu, at the end of the cold war. Under this model, Iraq would gradually struggle toward democracy on its own, remaining relatively stable in the process without the help of occupying forces.
However, the Romania analogy is highly optimistic given that country’s relative ethnic homogeneity and the cohesion of the resistance movement that overthrew the Communist regime. For every Ceausescu, there is a Mobutu or a Tito whose death has contributed to the disintegration of his country.
If we overthrow Saddam Hussein and then quickly leave Iraq, civil war is likely. Some will seek retribution against elements of the old regime, like Republican Guard troops and Saddam Hussein’s kinsmen from the Tikrit region. Those loyal to Mr. Hussein may try to reconstitute their power base once American forces leave. The Kurds might try to secede; Kurds and Sunni Muslims may fight for oil-rich Kirkuk in the north of the country. Such chaos could entice Iran into pursuing territorial gains in Iraq’s oil-rich and Shiite south and make it possible for terrorist groups to find refuge and even gain access to some chemical or biological weapons in the ensuing chaos.
So making plans for a postwar occupation makes sense, though it would be wiser to have the United Nations administer the government rather than an American officer. But what level of military effort would such an occupation require? The United States has almost one million law enforcement officers for a population of just under 300 million. It used a comparable density of forces to police postwar Germany in the American occupation zone. Protecting and resettling refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, as well as searching for weapons of mass destruction, will also be labor intensive.
Based on past experience, stabilizing a country the size of Iraq with a population of more than 20 million people would require an occupation lasting several years and at least 100,000 foreign troops in the initial phase. Perhaps a quarter to a third of that force strength would be American troops, depending on how much allied help we could recruit, in which case annual costs to the United States might be $5 billion to $10 billion or more (on top of war costs likely to be in the vicinity of $50 billion). Costs could be even greater if the military has to increase its size to carry out this mission.
The good news is that most of the labor-intensive tasks could probably be completed within one to two years. Just as NATO’s forces in Bosnia have declined to less than 20,000 from 50,000, an occupation force for Iraq might be reduced to 50,000 from 100,000 within a few years, with the American presence cut proportionately.
Even so, costs will be substantial and higher than anything publicly acknowledged by the administration so far. Until we face up to the very real possibility that a multiyear occupation will be needed, we have not yet accepted the reality of what war to overthrow Saddam Hussein could entail.