What If Iraq Had Been Involved in 9-11? How Would We Have Managed the Occupation?

This is a question I used to ask a lot about five years ago, at the point where it had already long become clear that Iraq was a fiasco. I want to bring it up again apropos of an exceptionally frightening post by Matt Yglesias about how we should reorganize our force structure.

Matt starts out saying that having a robust COIN capability is dangerous, because having the capability will encourage policymakers to use it, and COIN (a) doesn’t work very well when it works at all; (b) has massive collateral costs diplomatically and in terms of readiness for “real” war; and © is hugely expensive.

But then, correctly, he points out:

That said, wars undertaken for perfectly good reasons of collective self-defense can swiftly turn into situations that require post-conflict stabilization. North Korea might attack South Korea in a way that demands response, and the response could well lead to the collapse of the DPRK state requiring the victorious allies to administer former DPRK territory. So it’s not smart to just say “COIN is bad, so let’s make sure we can’t do it and then hope for the best.”

So, what do we do? Apparently, in Matt’s opinion, we should develop a kind of “national gendarmie” that sounds like a cross between the FBI and the National Guard, filled with military police that could be deployed domestically as well as internationally.

The idea of such a force for domestic deployment is pretty clearly a solution – and a patently dangerous one – in search of a problem. We’ve already got a quasi-military domestic police force, called the DEA. How’s that been working out, lately? In those terms, I file this under “latest Matt Yglesias brainstorm for re-colonizing Detroit” and leave it at that.

But it’s not obvious that it’s relevant internationally either. Which is why I bring up my hypothetical question.

Before that, let’s turn to North Korea. There are a number of big problems associated with planning for the demise of the Hermit Kingdom. What happens if the Kim family doesn’t go quietly, and the regime ends by launching an attack on South Korea? Who will maintain order in the North post-collapse? How will humanitarian assistance to the North be delivered post-collapse? How will economic and political integration with the South be managed? For none of these problems is a massive infusion of American military police a terribly useful solution. Obviously, they would neither prevent nor fight a war. Neither could they be helpful in managing the political and economic integration of North and South. Maintaining order and delivering humanitarian assistance, meanwhile, would require two things that an American police force would not have: massive numbers and intimate knowledge of the country. The two powers best-suited to provide these are China and South Korea.

None of this is to say that America has no role to play. China’s primary goal right now is to assure the continued viability of their North Korean ally, and their secondary goal is to be sure they don’t create more trouble than they are worth. Assuming the Chinese come to accept the inevitability of collapse of the North (and all this discussion is academic until that happens), China’s goals would shift to assuring that a reunited Korea would be free of American troops and free of nuclear weapons. American diplomacy could be extremely helpful in reassuring China that we would not intend to station troops in a united Korea, and in reassuring South Korea that we would continue to guarantee their independence as part of collective security arrangements, so that they would not need an independent nuclear deterrent. In the event of an unfolding humanitarian disaster, the American navy is vastly better-placed to deliver pretty much whatever is needed more rapidly and efficiently than anybody else, and there may be other logistical assistance that would be optimal for America to provide. But Yglesias’s assumption that America either needs to or is ideally positioned to provide large numbers of people to perform routine police functions strikes me as peculiar – unless, that is, the underlying assumption is that America must run any effort to manage a post-collapse North Korea, in which case, yes, providing most of the boots will turn out to be critical. But why should we make that assumption unless we haven’t changed our security doctrine in any fundamental way, and still believe that if there’s a problem somewhere we have to be in charge of solving it? Or unless we do intend to station troops in a post-unification Korea, the only purpose of which would be to threaten China?

So now we’ll return to Iraq. Suppose Saddam Hussein had been involved in the 9-11 plot. In that case, the Iraq War would have been as necessary as the Afghan War, and would have enjoyed similar across-the-board support domestically, and at least very broad acquiescence internationally. But then what? That domestic and international support would have essentially no significance for our ability to manage the post-war order within Iraq?

Would a massive gendarmie have helped? Only if you believe that the problems we ran into in Iraq were primarily a matter of maintaining public order rather than a problem of political conflict. And I think the preponderance of evidence points to the latter rather than the former (though the former didn’t help, obviously).

America’s problem in Afghanistan is not fundamentally that we didn’t have enough troops to maintain order for many years (thought that also didn’t help). Our problem is that we’re backing a weak central government identified with a coalition of minority ethnic groups, and the majority ethnic group is fighting against that government. That’s a likely losing hand, even if we played it better than we did. Our problem in Iraq was that although we were backing the majority ethnic/religious group, that group was dominated by political factions allied with another country that we didn’t want to see dominate the country – Iran. Had we reconciled ourselves to an Iran-dominated Iraq earlier, it would have been much easier for us to extricate ourselves from that conflict. But a huge influx of military police will not win the Afghan War now, and it would not have won the Iraq War had they been deployed in 2004.

Matt starts out by asking the right questions. We want to avoid counter-insurgency situations. But sometimes they are “thrust upon us” – and then what do we do? It seems to me, the right answer has two parts. First, be very careful about concluding that such a situation has actually been thrust upon us. Are we actually obliged to become an occupying power? Is there any other entity, national or supra-national, who might be more appropriate to serve that function, assuming someone has to? How much would it cost us, in terms of achieving concrete policy objectives, to decline the part? Second, assuming there really is no alternative, how can we effectively thrust that situation onto somebody else in rapid fashion?

That sounds callous, but I don’t think it needs to be. Is there any reason to assume that we would handle an occupation of North Korea better than South Korea would? Is there any reason, assuming South Korea needs more boots on the ground to provide basic order than they can provide, to assume that the United States would be a less-provocative provider of said boots than some combination of friendly countries like Canada and the Philippines?

If our interests are genuinely aligned with a variety of other participants in the international arena with regard to a particular situation, then we can save ourselves a great deal of money and manpower if America doesn’t behave as if it needs to run everything, but instead tries to leverage our strongest assets for mutual benefit. If our interests are not genuinely aligned, then behaving as if we expect to run everything is certainly going to be provocative, and may blind us to the need to manage conflicts between our interests and other actors’, to our mutual detriment.