It takes more to occupy a country than just military efficiency, argues journalist, author, and former correspondent for The Independent, Justin Huggler.
Ten years on, it is clear that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a disaster – but it was not a military disaster. This was a war that was lost not on the battlefield, but in the total collapse of everyday life in Iraq.
When I arrived in Baghdad as a reporter in the summer of 2003, the initial invasion had been a stunning success. But it was clear from the moment you crossed the border that things were not right. There were armed bandits on the road to Baghdad. The capital was terrifyingly lawless. If you forgot to lock your car doors, carjackers would get in at a red light, shoot you dead and push your body out.
The US occupation administration had disbanded the Iraqi police, relying on bewildered American military patrols to police the city – a job they were not trained for, and were ill-suited to.
Amid the lawlessness a huge quantity of weaponry disappeared from Iraqi army stores and was distributed among the insurgents. The borders were unsecured and foreign fighters streamed in. Soon, soldiers from the US-led coalition were too busy fighting off insurgent attacks to do much about the lawlessness around them. Under American rule, Iraq was collapsing into anarchy.
The first clash between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians was in Fallujah, when locals demanded the re-opening of a school that was being used as a base. Ordinary Iraqis wanted law and order, schools and hospitals, but the occupation was providing none for them.
Ten months after the invasion I found sewage dripping from leaking pipes and flooding the leukaemia ward in Iraq’s biggest children’s hospital. There was no fuel for generators and a severe shortage of medicine. No one from the occupation administration had even visited to enquire about the hospital’s needs.
There is more to occupying a country than winning battles. The US was trying to run the civilian administration of Iraq with a staff of interns fresh out of university, and an overstretched and undermanned military force was being asked to shoulder the burden of an occupation that needed different resources.
The most visible sign of the failure of law and order was the hostage-taking crisis that began in 2004. The US was in control of Iraq, but it could not protect Westerners from being snatched off the streets and beheaded on video.
When the Americans decided to take action against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, the bungling head of the civilian administration, Paul Bremer, provoked a simultaneous confrontation with the Shia. The military found itself facing a war on two fronts.
Even then it was able to prevail on the battlefield. The problem was that as soon as the battle ended, the relentless daily attacks resumed. The insurgents could not defeat the coalition troops in battle, but there was no need to. They could make Iraq ungovernable for the Americans.
All the while the battle lines were being drawn for a civil war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities, both sides having become battle-hardened from fighting coalition troops. By the time the civil war broke out in earnest, all the Americans were looking for was an exit strategy.
Eventually US troops retreated into their bases. This left the streets to rival factions who set up their own roadblocks, dragged people from their cars, and set about sectarian cleansing.
The US presided over a civil war it was powerless to prevent in a country it controlled. Its troops could defeat their enemies in battle, but it could not bring stability to Iraq, it could not impose law and order, and it failed to reconstruct the shattered country.
More than 100,000 civilians are believed to have been killed between the 2003 invasion and the withdrawal of combat troops in 2010, and around 4 million people forced from their homes by the civil war.
By any measure the American occupation of Iraq was a failure. And yet its military never suffered a serious defeat.