The High Price of Reconstructing Iraq

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The High Price of Reconstructing Iraq  (2003) 
by Robert Byrd
Delivered on March 13, 2003.

There is an axiom in military planning that countries tend to prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. Some historians blamed the incredible death toll of World War I on military commanders who failed to realize that the days of set-piece battles, as in the days of the American Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars, were over. Some have also pointed out that the countries that were overrun in the opening months of World War II were those that were best prepared to engage in trench warfare.

As our own Republic continues to ready for war in Iraq, there has been the alarming tendency to see this next war as a replay of our 1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait. Some have taken to calling the impending conflict "Gulf War II," as if we could win this conflict in 2003 by rewinding the tapes of smart bombs dropping on their targets in 1991. I fear that many have succumbed to an intellectual and moral laziness that views the coming war through the lens of our victory in 1991.

This next war in Iraq will not be like the last. Twelve years ago, there was a war in one act with an extensive list of players opposing an aggressive antagonist. Now, the curtain is about to rise on a war with the same lead character, Saddam Hussein, but only one great power opposing him, the United States. Many countries who played supporting roles in the last war look as though they will, this time, serve more as extras, seen only in the crowd scenes without supporting roles. Most ominously, we do not know how long this costly drama might last. But this conflict will be played out in many acts.

As in the last war, the coming battles will draw heavily on U.S. air power, followed by the use of our ground troops to destroy the Iraqi army. That is where the similarities between 1991 and 2003 begin and end. The ultimate goal in the coming war is not to roll back an invasion of a small, oil-rich corner of desert that borders the Persian Gulf. This time, the goal is to conquer the despotic government of Saddam Hussein.

In the 1991 Gulf War, our victory was followed by an orderly withdrawal of our troops, so that they may return to their hometowns to march in ticker-tape parades and be honored with twenty-one gun salutes to acknowledge a resounding American victory on the battlefield.

It may not be the same in 2003. Our forces do not have the straightforward task of pushing the Iraqi military out of Kuwait. The aim is to push Saddam and his associates from power. This could involve house-to-house fighting or laying siege to Baghdad and other urban centers, where seven out of ten Iraqis live. The United States will have to manage religious, ethnic, and tribal rifts that may seek to tear the country apart. According to a declassified CIA estimate, we must contend with the increasing chance that Saddam Hussein will use weapons of mass destruction against our troops as they march toward Baghdad.

After all of this, more work awaits. A U.S. invasion of Iraq with only token support from other countries will leave us with the burden of occupying and rebuilding Iraq. The United States will find itself thrust into the position of undertaking the most radical and ambitious reconstruction of a country since the occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II.

The likely first step in a post-war occupation would be to establish security. No rebuilding mission could possibly occur if the Iraqi army still has fight left in it or if Iraq's cities are in chaos. Establishing security could well prove to be more difficult than defeating Iraq's military. Saddam Hussein could go on the lam, forcing our military into a wild goose chase. Surely Iraq could not be considered secure if its evil dictator were to be on the loose.

Creating a secure environment in Iraq also means dealing with difficult situations. How will our military deal with hungry Iraqis taking to the street in mobs? What are we going to do about civilians exacting revenge on those who had oppressed them for so long? How will we prevent violence within and among Iraq's multitude of tribes, ethnic groups, and religions? I am not convinced that, right now, the Administration has any idea of how to deal with these scenarios, or the dozens of other contingencies that might arise while the United States serves as caretaker to a Middle Eastern country.

The United States will then be faced with the task of providing for the humanitarian needs of 23 million Iraqis, 60 percent of whom are fully dependent on international food aid. We will have to make sure that roads and bridges are rebuilt so that humanitarian assistance can get through to where it will be needed. Electrical systems will have to be repaired so that doctors can operate in their hospitals. Water systems must be maintained to provide drinking water to the country as it enters the scorching summer months and to provide sanitation to prevent the spread of disease. Telephone systems will also be needed to communicate with the distant parts of a country that is the size of France, or seven times the size of West Virginia.

Protecting or rebuilding this critical infrastructure may become a huge task in itself, as Saddam is apparently planning a "scorched earth" defense of his regime. Such a strategy could involve setting oil fields ablaze, blowing up dams and bridges, sabotaging water supplies, or destroying food stores. U.S. military officers are now reporting that Iraqi troops, dressed as U.S. soldiers, may seek to attack innocent Iraqi civilians in an effort to blame the West as being responsible for war atrocities.

If we are successful in deposing Saddam Hussein and limiting the loss of life among our troops and those of Iraqi civilians, the United States will have to reform the government of Iraq. According to an article that appeared in The Washington Post on February 21, the post-Saddam plan crafted by the Administration calls for the U.S. military to take complete, unilateral control of Iraq after a war, followed by a transition to an interim administration by an American civilian. This interim administration would purge Iraq of Saddam Hussein's cronies and lay the groundwork for a representative government. General Barry McCaffrey, who commanded ground troops during the 1991 war, estimated in the article that the occupation would take five years.

Let us remember that Iraq once had a colonial government under the flag of Great Britain from 1920 to 1932. Iraqis revolted against British troops, leading Winston Churchill to refer to the country as "these thankless deserts." If the United States is to administer Iraq for a period of years, we will run the risk of being viewed as a new colonial power, no matter how pure our intentions. Those who may greet us as liberators in 2003 may increasingly view us as interlopers in 2004, 2005, 2006, and beyond.

The United States will also face the task of reforming Iraq's military. Fearful that a weak Iraq could fuel the ambitions of other regional powers, the Department of Defense is now considering how to take apart Iraq's million-man army and rebuild it into a smaller, more professional force. While details are still wrapped in secrecy, it appears that the United States will have a major hand in retraining and re-equipping the post-Saddam Iraqi army. We are already trying to build an Afghan national army of perhaps 70,000 troops, but a new military for Iraq would have be several times that size. One thing is for sure, the arms industries must be salivating at the profits that could be made from building a new, modern Iraqi army from scratch.

These occupation and reconstruction missions are all difficult tasks. No wonder that the ranking general in the British military, General Sir Mike Jackson, said in an interview published in a London newspaper on February 23, "In my view, the post-conflict situation will be more demanding and challenging than the conflict itself." In other words, the war we may soon face in the Persian Gulf will be an entirely different campaign than the war in 1991.

Congress and the American people need to know how long we can expect to occupy post-war Iraq. Last month, Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman estimated that a military occupation of Iraq would take two years. That estimate is hard to believe. General Douglas MacArthur believed that the occupation of Japan after World War II would take no more than three years. It lasted six years and eight months. The first U.S. Military Governor in Germany, General Dwight Eisenhower, anticipated that the U.S. military would "provide a garrison, not a government, except for a few weeks." Instead, the first phase of the occupation of Germany lasted four years.

These types of missions have their own momentum. We have had U.S. troops in Bosnia for seven years, and the U.S. soldiers in Kosovo for three and a half years. Let us not forget that Governor George Bush, as a presidential candidate in 2000, said that he would work to find an end to those peacekeeping missions. The United States is now looking at a peacekeeping mission in Iraq that dwarfs our deployment to the Balkans in every respect.

I find it confounding that a president so opposed to nation-building would launch into military scenarios that so clearly culminate in that very outcome. I have to wonder if this president is simply so driven to act that he cannot see that action itself is not the goal. How far along was this Administration in planning military action in Afghanistan before the question of what post-war Afghanistan would look like even came up? There seems to be at least some forethought about post-war Iraq, but how thoroughly has it been scrutinized? The information given Congress and the people is sketchy, at best.

Congress and the American people should also know how much it will cost to occupy Iraq. The Army Chief of Staff, General Shinseki, is standing by his estimate given to the Armed Services Committee that "several hundred thousand" troops would be required to occupy Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office has provided estimates based on an occupation force of 75,000 to 200,000 American troops would cost $1 billion to $4 billion per month. Mr. President, I said that right: the cost of occupying Iraq has been estimated to be $1 billion to $4 billion per month. That is $12 billion to $48 billion per year, $33 million to $133 million per day, $23,000 to $93,000 per minute.

And these enormous amounts do not include the cost of rebuilding Iraq. One estimate by the United Nations Development Program says that at least $30 billion will be needed for reconstruction in the first three years after a war. The actual cost, of course, could be much higher.

If the United States initiates war against Iraq in the coming days, we would be hard pressed to share these staggering costs with our allies. We have foolishly engaged in a war of words with some of our most powerful European allies, countries which could have been valuable partners in rebuilding Iraq if war were proven inevitable. Instead, it looks like the American taxpayer will be alone in shelling out billions for new foreign aid spending.

Some have suggested that Iraqi oil might take care of the post-war costs. According to the United Nations, if Iraq's oil production reached all-time highs, about $16 billion in revenue could be generated each year. Right now, Iraq's legitimate oil sales are supposed to buy food and medicine for the starving and ill. After a war, however, those funds could be subject to claims by Iraq's creditors, who are owed at least $60 billion in commercial and official debt. There is also the issue of $170 billion in unpaid reparations to Kuwait.

The big, black, endless pit we will find in Iraq after a war will not be filled with cheap oil for our gas-guzzling cars. The pit that we will find in Iraq will have to be fed with enormous amounts of American dollars, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

The irony of investing huge amounts of money to rebuild Iraq when we have urgent needs here at home has not been lost on late-night comedians. One talk-show host commented that if President Bush's plan to provide Iraqis with food, medicine, supplies, housing, and education proves to be a success, it could eventually be tried in the United States, too.

If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we will face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict.

Despite all these risks and costs, it seems that the Administration continues to move our country closer to war. It seems that we have already lost patience for a regime of arms inspections that might take months to play out, but going to war will require our commitment to Iraq to last years and years.

The problems with Iraq are not going to be solved when 700 cruise missiles and 3,000 bombs land on that country in the opening days of a war. Assuming victory, we will be on the hook to rehabilitate Iraq, and I fear that the rebuilding of that ancient country will have to be another act of U.S. unilateralism for which the American people are ill-prepared.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).