Reflecting on Postwar Iraq

War is fast, action-packed, made for television viewing. Even the lulls are filled with the tension and terror that action might suddenly, dangerously, resume. Never a dull moment.

Postwar is slow, and often a subtle weave of dozens of tiny, undramatic movements and moments. This is hard to fill a TV screen with and hope to hook eyeballs.

Each individual action in war is its own story, with a beginning, middle, and definable end (victory/defeat, survival/death). Postwar, single actions spatter across a crowded playing field that will take long, slow years to register even a partial score. Many of the life-and-death actions, which TV focuses on most, will have little influence on the outcome of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.

Ten thoughts I'd like to share after spending the month of June covering the postwar in Iraq.

1. The End: The point to the American investment in Iraq from now forward is to launch a state of Iraq that is sufficiently civil, stable, and secure to survive and prosper.

2. The Key: The last word above tells it all: "prosper." With its great oil riches, Iraq, (unlike, say, Somalia, Afghanistan, Serbia and Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina), has real prospects for prosperity.

Iraq is a place America wants to do large-scale, long-term future business with. Iraq also has strategic importance in two regional contexts: the Persian Gulf oil world and in the Arab political world.

Iraq can influence the price of oil and everything else, and the chances for peace or bloodshed elsewhere in the Middle East. That's why the American government, which went to war or on a peacekeeping mission in all those other places, and then tried to quietly abandon each and every one of them to fate, is deeply committed to a viable, politically acceptable future Iraq. Getting there is going to take awhile, but the potential payoff at the end will make for deep pockets and patience.

3. The Pace: Slow and slower. Slow because creating civility, stability and security in a state that has rarely enjoyed one out of those three, much less "the hat trick," in its more than 5,000 years of recorded history, is a long and difficult project. Slower because the Bush administration is undertaking this massive exercise in inventing and executing governance in the traditional Republican way: more focused on restraining expenditures than with achieving fast, widespread public services.

4. The Death of the Powell Doctrine: Overwhelming force was successfully withheld from the Iraq war, and the idea of smothering adversaries in numbers of men and weapons is not being applied to peacekeeping there, either. Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki tried to sound the Powellian alarm that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to pacify postwar Iraq, but he was emphatically rebuffed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Today's force of 156,000 is having trouble simultaneously hunting down the last remnants of a now guerrilla-ized resistance force, while standing in for a still largely nonexistent national criminal justice system. American authority and credibility are being undermined by the temporary government's inability to contain a petty crime wave or prevent attacks on troops and the continuing sabotage of infrastructure. Right now, there are not enough forces on the ground to snuff out armed resistance and stave off attacks on pipelines and the power grid.

5. The Big Change: During the month of June, it was the radical upgrade in tactics followed by American forces in striking against the anti-American resistance. This was signaled by the start of Operation Desert Scorpion, which left behind the hit-every-house, arrest-every male-between-15-and-50, "bust-and-release" sweeps that alienated whole towns and usually netted few "keepers" from hundreds of detainees.

The difference was the development of trustable Iraqi informants, who directed troops to a few selected targets, almost always caught containing contraband guns, ammunition, explosives and the men who planned to use them. The informants themselves were testimony that military "policing" was producing "snitches" who could be "squeezed," and citizens who would take the risk of "telling" to advance an American-subsidized future against the oppressive Saddamite past.

6. Two Small Changes: The price: two dead Iraqis, and the grief their deaths spread among Iraqis. For weeks, the Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq's temporary government run by U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer, ignored advice from American military officers in contact with their former adversaries from the old Iraqi National Army to pay them some money for back salaries and pensions.

Demonstrations by former Iraqi soldiers (people not from the Republican Guard or Special Republican Guard or any of Saddam's irregular forces, but conscripts and career officers from the regular army) produced only temporizing statements, and no money. Then, when stones flew at some American military police keeping a rally away from coalition headquarters, one soldier fired, witnesses said, one burst, not over the heads of the demonstrators as were her instructions, but into two men in the crowd, who later died of their wounds.

Within two days, two policies had been changed. Back pay and pension money for Iraqi army veterans was firmly promised for July 14, and troops were finally to be equipped with nonlethal riot-control gear (pepper spray, shields, batons) to supplement their M-16s.

7. One Blown Opportunity: Democracy denied. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, two hours or so south of Baghdad, the local U.S. Marine commander felt that the seeming stability of civil behavior and the high level of local cooperation with his troops merited the reward of local elections. Bremer disagreed and canceled the promised vote, stirring a lot of disappointment in Najaf.

Worry about premature invocation of the forms of democracy while the reality on the ground threatens to corrupt or manipulate them is never misplaced. Furthermore, in Najaf, at least two different Shiite political parties owe allegiance to the most retrograde mullahs in Iran, and promise constant challenge to American plans for Iraq. One of them likely would have won the election. But unlike, say, Bosnia, where corrupt, nationalist parties have been allowed to twist elections and misrule again, in Iraq the Provisional Authority could keep local governments under every kind of audit and supervision, make them learn how to walk the democratic walk as they all already talk the talk.

The Najaf elections could have provided a standard of civility and cooperation that other towns could shoot for. They could have verified the reward for coming up to snuff: supervised democratic empowerment. Instead, the lesson learned in Iraq is, when the Americans say democracy they mean "only as free as we want you to be, and only when we say so."

8. WMD: The real threat seems not to have been dangerous stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The real weapon (which did constitute a real threat) was a body of knowledge, and a group of scientists, who could within a few years of relaxation of U.N. surveillance, have produced a lethal load of chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps, a limited nuclear capability. Assembling the intellectual and industrial base for WMD delivery systems, either home-built or bought internationally, also seems to have been something an unfettered Saddam could have done. So, tossing Saddam out probably was the best, maybe only, way to eliminate this threat. But, the evidence suggests, U.N. monitoring was containing it.

9. The Next Big Crisis: Right now, the paramilitary forces of the two Kurdish political factions outnumber and outgun the proposed "first stage" of the Iraqi National Army. Sometime, sooner rather than later for the credibility and the survivability of any Iraqi government, the Kurdish component is going to have be downsized, and integrated with, and subordinated to, the national military. No one knows how or when that transformation will take place, but until it does, none of Iraq's neighbors and few of its citizens will draw a secure breath about the country or the region's future.

10. The Only Answer: Patience. Rebuilding and reforming Iraq are both big jobs. They will take a while, and many pitfalls, much less outcomes, are still unknowable. My guess: It will be at least two years before most American troops can come home, and five years before a truly almost-independent Iraqi government is launched. I think it will be months before the almost one-a-day casualty count goes down. But nothing that has happened so far precludes a successful American mission in Iraq.