The Wars After Iraq


The U.S. military buildup, now nearing completion in the Persian Gulf area, looks a lot like the buildup that preceded the Gulf War. Indeed, many of the same air, ground, and sea units that participated in Operation Desert Storm are once again deployed in the region or on their way there. But there will be one vast difference between the two wars. American troops were quickly withdrawn at the end of the 1991 war; this time, they will stay right where they are -- possibly for a very long time.

The reason for this difference lies in the contrasting aims of the first President Bush and the second. In 1991, Bush the elder sought to expel Iraqi forces in Kuwait and eliminate the threat to Saudi Arabia. Once that goal was accomplished, American troops were free to return home -- which they did with remarkable dispatch.

But this President Bush has a much larger and more demanding agenda: to eradicate the Saddam Hussein regime alongwith the Baath Party; to put top Iraqis on trial for war crimes; to disarm Iraq of all major weapons systems; to reconstruct the Iraqi government and military along U.S.-approved lines; to rebuild the Iraqi oil industry with American help; to keep all of Iraq under one multi-ethnic roof; and to spread the blessings of democracy to the greater Middle East. All of this, and a whole lot more, is encapsulated in the Administration's long-stated goal of "regime change."

No doubt some Iraqis will welcome the U.S. effort to disassemble their country and rebuild it in line with a made-in-Washington blueprint. But others can be expected to resist this effort. The Kurds will fight any plan that gives Turkey a presence in the country or leaves the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul under non-Kurdish rule. The Shiites will contest any government headed by Sunnis (and vice-versa). Finally, office-holders in the old regime will resist being replaced by exiles brought in by the United States. The list of would-be dissenters is a long one.

It is to contain this internal disorder that U.S. military authorities anticipate the need for a large, long-term military presence in Iraq. Asked in February how many troops would be required for this purpose, the Army's Chief of Staff, General Eric K. Shinseki, was unequivocal in responding: "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers."

General Shinseki's estimate of several hundred thousand soldiers was later disputed by top civilian officers at the Department of Defense, who say the job can be done with fewer U.S. troops. But his figure is in tune with the estimates of other analysts in the field. For example, experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington public policy organization, estimate that at least 150,000 U.S. soldiers will be needed in Iraq until some degree of order is established -- a task that will take many months, and probably years to achieve (and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars).

American troops will be needed not just to maintain order, but to also deal with the inevitable Muslim backlash. Once U.S. forces occupy Baghdad and assume the role of an occupying force, there will be an upsurge of anger throughout the Muslim world, where age-old resentment of colonialism and growing anti-Americanism constitute an explosive mix. There will be the inevitable massive demonstrations against the U.S. occupation in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and a half-dozen other countries, possibly accompanied by angry riots and violence against American embassies, consulates, businesses, and so on.

In some cases, these riots could prove so persistent and violent as to threaten the survival of key pro-U.S. governments, such as that of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Under these circumstances, it is not unlikely that the United States will send forces to these countries, either to protect the oil fields (in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms) or to prevent the takeover of a friendly state by anti-American regimes.

Then there is the unfinished business of destroying the "Axis of Evil" and punishing other "rogue states" that have defied the United States in the past. A quick look at a map shows several potential candidates for U.S. military action in the region, notably Iran and Syria. Can we not expect President Bush to be tempted by the United States' powerful position in Iraq (once Hussein is removed) to put military intense pressure on these countries? Although Mr. Bush has never explicitly stated such an intention, he certainly has hinted at such plans. "By defeating this threat," he said on Feb. 20, "we will show other dictators that the path of aggression will lead to their own ruin."

Where this strategy will lead is anyone's guess, but it is unlikely to entail the swift withdrawal of American forces from the Gulf region. But we can expect a large U.S. military presence to remain in the region for a long time to come. In judging the merits of an attack on Iraq, therefore, it is necessary to talk not only about this war but also about the war after next: the open-ended U.S. occupation of Iraq and the struggle to dominate the region. It is this war, and not the impending encounter with Iraq, that is likely to prove most costly and dangerous over the long run.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Owl Books / Henry Holt & Co., 2002).

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