Risk Intelligence and the Iraq War: Part II

How do you tell whether your adversary’s experience is more relevant than yours?

September 14, 2006

How do you tell whether your adversary's experience is more relevant than yours?

Iraq's enemies of the peace all shared the vivid experience — either personal or through hundreds of stories — of failed reconciliation in Afghanistan. And it's not just about the refusal of the Taliban to help build a democratic state. It's about the failure of the country's better-off Persian and Uzbek groups to come to terms with their poorer Pashtun neighbors for two decades.

Which experience of national reconciliation is more germane to Iraq today — Eastern Europe's or Afghanistan's? The Afghan example is uppermost in the minds of Iraq's fighters — and, sadly, fits Iraq's demographics best.

The third risk was that an Iraqi majority craving peace and stability could suppress opportunistic violence by small numbers of foreign jihadists and domestic extremists. Again, the U.S. government had a formative experience suggesting the risk was worth taking — the relative post-conflict stability of Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia in the Balkans.

The most impressive part of the Balkan experience was the rejection of Slobodan Milosevic's territorial ambitions in a democratic vote just after NATO turned Serbian forces out of its majority-Albanian province, Kosovo. It seemed to validate the belief that democratic majorities will rein in violent leaders — if you give them a chance.

The Balkans would not, however, be the example of a violent minority agenda arrayed against a peace-craving majority most familiar to Iraq's rejectionists, jihadists and militants. Iraq's rebels would have much more intimate experience with Lebanon and Kashmir.

The lesson of Lebanon was that a few well-placed terrorist attacks will cause occupying forces to flee. This is just what happened when Hezbollah sent bombers to attack U.S. and French barracks in Beirut in 1983.

The United States and France quietly withdrew their forces — even though Iranian Revolutionary Guards were training Hezbollah militants in the Beqaa Valley. In other words, Lebanon taught Iraq's growing insurgents that violence works.

The experience of Islamic jihadists in Kashmir reinforced the lesson of Lebanon. While there are plenty of Muslims in Kashmir who want independence from India, most commentators think violence in the northern Indian state would die out — if it were not for continuous attacks by Pakistani militants.

Violence in Kashmir resumed in 1989 and has been a constant of life in the mountainous state in the 17 years since. Kashmir taught that even a few determined foreigners can destabilize a region.

Which base of experience was more valuable for determining whether a peace-loving majority could hope to quiet post-conflict violence in Iraq — the Balkans, or Lebanon and Kashmir? The answer has to be Lebanon and Kashmir.

The ability of peaceful majorities to suppress violence in some ways went untested in the Balkans. It may have seemed that European occupying forces enabled local majorities to enforce calm. But in fact, they separated the disputants into seven splinter countries — every group had its own corner of the old Yugoslavia to rebuild.

In Lebanon and Kashmir, populations that have periodically fought with one another remain within the same borders. That doesn't necessarily consign every polyglot country to violence. But it makes Lebanon and Kashmir more relevant than the fissile successors of Yugoslavia to peacekeeping in Iraq.

To say there are reasons to doubt the relevance of the first Iraq war, Eastern Europe and the Balkans to today's Iraq is one thing. To say that the United States should have known its experience put it at a competitive disadvantage is another.

But realizing your experience will put you at a disadvantage is the right conclusion if you can tell your experience is not as relevant as your adversary's experience to the risks in a conflict. Compared with the experience of Iraq's insurgents, for example, U.S. experiences in the first Iraq war, Eastern Europe and the Balkans would have failed a simple test for relevance to the risks of Iraq dissolving in civil war after an invasion.

This isn't 20-20 hindsight. U.S. policymakers could have determined that our risk intelligence for the prospects of post-conflict Iraqi stability was low before going in.

How do you tell whether an experience is relevant to a risk you face? First, ask what you are assuming about the risk. Then ask whether you would have expected a different outcome if your assumptions were wrong. Experience is relevant to assumptions if they affect your expectations.

And when it comes to assumptions about security or military affairs, the question becomes whose experience is more relevant. Ask whose experience would have been more surprising if their assumptions were wrong.

This is a question one can ask before one knows how a risk will turn out. For example, one could have seen in 2003 that the three key experiences shaping U.S. expectations about invading Iraq were less relevant than those of potential adversaries.

In the case of the first risk, the U.S. assumption was that an overwhelming invasion force would ensure cooperation. The most compelling U.S. experience was the Iraqi army's quick capitulation and withdrawal from Kuwait after the U.S.-led invasion.

But potential Iraqi insurgents would focus on the fact that normal life still hadn't resumed in Chechnya despite an equally heavy Russian intervention. So let's ask whose experience would have been more surprising if their assumptions were wrong.

Chechnya really tested the deterrent power of a forceful invasion — the thesis predicted much calmer conditions than Chechens were enduring. But the first Iraq war did not test it because the strongman's retention of power discouraged post-war dissent regardless of the effect of the 1991 invasion force.

In the case of the second risk, the U.S. assumption was that the prospect of an Iraqi election would quickly reconcile sectarian differences. The swiftness and success of post-communist transition in Eastern Europe seemed to support it.

But Afghanistan, with which Iraq's insurgents were much more familiar, enjoyed no such national reconciliation. Whose experience would have been more surprising if their assumptions were wrong?

The Eastern European experience didn't really test democracy's power to overcome sectarian conflict because the countries weren’t too fragmented. Afghanistan really did test it — democratic optimists expected Taliban participation in Afghan life, not sullen military camps over the Pakistani border.

In the case of the third risk, the U.S. assumption was that peaceful majorities would successfully resist violence by small numbers of foreign jihadists and local insurgents. U.S. experience in the Balkans supported it.

In Lebanon and Kashmir, as Iraq's rebels knew well, small numbers of Iranian-trained Hezbollah fighters and Pakistani jihadists caused peace keepers to flee and peace talks to fail. Once again, it's the insurgents' experience that best tested assumptions.

Post-conflict stability in the Balkans didn't test when and where majorities could enforce a peace because the dissolution of Yugoslavia separated combatants. The Lebanese and Kashmiri experience, on the other hand, would have surprised anyone with faith in the power of people to resist extremist provocation.

In other words, the most powerful reasons to expect post-conflict stability in Iraq were irrelevant compared to the experience of the very adversaries that the invasion indirectly targeted. And that was something anyone could have concluded at the time of invasion.

The risks Iraq posed were an unknown. But they were a known unknown.