Leaving Iraq Too Soon Leads to Failure


Dec 10, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on December 10, 2003.

If the United States wants to succeed in rebuilding Iraq, history shows it will need to keep forces stationed there for at least five to seven years—maybe longer. This duration is critical for rebuilding civil society and the political system, holding local and national elections, revamping the infrastructure, and improving the justice and education systems.

American forces have left clear failures behind in recent nation-building efforts, such as Somalia and Haiti. But the U.S. military is present in every country where post-World War II nation-building efforts have succeeded or where a final determination of success has not been made. American troops have been in Germany and Japan since 1945, Bosnia since 1995, Kosovo since 1999 and Afghanistan since 2001.

The historical lesson for today's nation-building effort in Iraq: While stationing American troops for many years in a country that we are trying to rebuild does not guarantee success, leaving early has always ensured failure.

Up to now, the United States has not performed as well in Iraq as it has in most other efforts since 1945 to rebuild and transform nations following war.

Several benchmarks are useful for comparing U.S. post-conflict efforts in Iraq with those in past operations such as Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Four key measurements are: the level of casualties; the number of military forces; the amount of external assistance; and progress on democratization.

Since President George W. Bush declared on May 1 that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," the U.S. armed forces have suffered more than 300 post-conflict deaths. This is three times greater than the number of U.S. deaths suffered in post-conflict Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan combined, which totaled fewer than 100.

The level of U.S. troops in Iraq is relatively low. With approximately 130,000 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq with its population of 25 million, this works out to roughly five U.S. soldiers per 1,000 Iraqis. This is significantly smaller than such operations as Germany, Bosnia and Kosovo, which had 100, 20 and 18.6 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants respectively. The Iraq troop level is on par with such failed U.S. efforts as Somalia and Haiti. Using the Bosnia and Kosovo ratios, between 450,000 and 500,000 total forces would be necessary in Iraq.

Foreign aid to Iraq—90 percent of it coming from the United States —is quite high. Assuming that roughly $30 billion in international reconstruction assistance will be spent during the first two post-conflict years, this works out to $1,200 per Iraqi. The proportion for Bosnia was slightly higher at $1,390 per person, but external assistance was notably smaller in all other cases after the first two post-conflict years.

The generous level of external assistance in Iraq is an indication that the United States is serious about reconstruction and has made progress in such areas as building bridges, repairing water treatment facilities, restoring electricity and revamping the Iraqi oil sector. But the deteriorating security environment could make it difficult to translate much of this new assistance into concrete programs because numerous non-governmental organizations have pulled most of their staff out of Iraq.

Democratization has been one of the core objectives of most U.S.-led nation-building operations. Central to this process has been the planning and conduct of democratic elections. Past nation-building cases suggest the desirability of holding local elections first, and allowing time for new local leaders to emerge and political parties to develop before holding national elections.

In Iraq, the U.S. government's recent decision to speed up the process of returning power to Iraqis wisely delayed holding full national elections until 2005. History suggests that a decision by the United States to allow national elections sooner could be dangerous. The early national elections in Bosnia were counterproductive because they placed in power the nationalists responsible for the civil war in the first place. National elections were held 52 months after the war in Germany, 29 months after the war in Kosovo, and nine months after the wars in Haiti and Bosnia.

What does a look back at other nation-building operations tell us about the future of U.S. efforts to transform Iraq from a dictatorship into a democracy? First, that America has succeeded in nation-building before and is capable of succeeding again. Second, that speedy success is impossible.

If American forces leave Iraq before security is restored and a new government and institutions are firmly established, there will be little hope of transforming Iraqi society. Many people will then legitimately wonder why America went into Iraq in the first place.

Seth G. Jones is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation and co-author of "America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq."

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