The looting and lawlessness in Iraq’s major cities have presented the U.S. military with a predictable but unwelcome challenge: to perform as police and peacekeepers. Rarely if ever have thousands of U.S. forces had to make the transition from war fighters to peacekeepers in less than 24 hours. It is no easy feat, either psychologically or practically, to go from using overwhelming force to defeat an enemy to saving civilian lives through the provision of critical humanitarian assistance such as water and electricity. Most U.S. forces have been ordered to stop killing. Now they are guarding the injured in hospitals emptied of virtually all supplies, securing key infrastructure that days before they might have been targeting, policing neighborhoods and disarming rogue elements until an Iraqi police force can be reconstituted.
U.S. forces are embarked on their largest and most ambitious peacekeeping and nation-building operation in 50 years. Having taken a mere 21 days to dispose of Saddam Hussein’s regime, they will now spend months, and perhaps years, keeping the peace and trying to build democracy. Our forces were superbly trained and equipped to perform their war-fighting mission. But how prepared are they for the much longer and arguably more complex tasks of peacekeeping and nation-building?
In fact, it seems the Pentagon has done little to ready our forces for these roles, perhaps because senior officials are loath to contemplate these tasks as integral elements of the modern-day tool kit of U.S. forces. Yet the Bush administration, which has repeatedly disparaged peacekeeping and nation-building, has now, in Afghanistan and Iraq, committed far more U.S. forces to such missions than any of its predecessors since World War II. If the United States is going to undertake these roles, which it must, whether in the aftermath of regime change or as part of U.N. missions, we need to ensure that our forces have the training, doctrine and institutional support they need to perform at their best.
U.S. forces in Baghdad and elsewhere are now actively engaged in policing Iraq. But at the outset, they appeared ill-prepared and were slow to assume the law- and-order and civil affairs roles thrust upon them as soon as Hussein’s statue was toppled. They lacked not only the manpower to do the job effectively but also the training. Few of the forces deployed for the combat stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom had substantial peacekeeping training for this mission. Our soldiers and Marines are having to make it up as they go along. Those units from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and 4th Infantry Division that will follow in the “stabilization” phase do normally have a peacekeeping segment in their long-term training schedules, but it is not clear whether the soldiers who are on their way to Iraq ever received this training.
Moreover, the administration has in recent months closed its only Peacekeeping Institute, at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. At the same time, the former Office of Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense has been renamed “Stability Operations,” and its peacekeeping component has been substantially reduced. The Defense Department seems to be dismantling or, at least dispersing, what little institutional knowledge and capacity had been built to support peace operations, arguably just at the time when they are needed most.
Whether one hates or loves the United Nations, accepts or rejects the requirement of nation-building in post-conflict situations, or leans politically to the left or the right, it is hard to deny that peacekeeping and nation-building tasks are facts of life for today’s U.S. military. We would be wise to train, equip and support our forces accordingly rather than approach these responsibilities in an ad hoc, case-by-case fashion that serves neither our interests nor those of our servicemen and women.
To address these new requirements, the Defense Department should give greater priority and resources to offices in the Pentagon that support contingency operations—peacekeeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian and nation-building functions. It should establish a successor to the Army’s Peacekeeping Institute that involves all the services and focuses on the full spectrum of peace and humanitarian operations. It should update U.S. doctrine and training and ensure that all appropriate U.S. forces have frequent, regular training in these skills. Forces that are deployed for missions of which post-conflict stabilization is a part should also have adequate specific training for that mission. Finally, the United States should help establish, as a priority, a rapidly deployable international civilian police force that can move in quickly to minimize the risks and burdens for American and other forces as they make the necessary transition from war-fighting to peacekeeping in post-conflict situations.