As the U.S. withdraws from Syria and Afghanistan, here are lessons from the Iraq War

Jan 7 '19
President Trump speaks to members of the  military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 26, his first visit to U.S. troops deployed in a war zone since his election two years ago. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and roughly halve the number deployed in Afghanistan may set the stage for the return of the Islamic State, which some commentators warn is already underway.

In December 2011, U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, formally ending Operation Iraqi Freedom, after they and partner forces had reduced terrorist and insurgent violence there. Islamic State militants that they had driven into hiding took advantage of the civil war in neighboring Syria and reemerged as the organization against which U.S. and other forces have most recently been engaged.

Preparing for the future

If the United States withdraws from Syria, Afghanistan and potentially Iraq, its planning for potential future engagements with the Islamic State or some splinter organization should include a robust strategy for collecting intelligence from locals, lest it repeat its experience during the early months of the Iraq War.

That’s what we concluded after evaluating emails recently released by the U.S. government from the first year of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

The emails consist primarily of “tips” that Iraqis sent to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — the country’s transitional government — from December 2003 to May 2004. They offer a rare, unfiltered look into the shadowy world of human intelligence collection. And they help piece together the historical record of America’s knowledge of and response to the growing insurgency in Iraq.

These and other wartime documents suggest that the CPA did not lack intelligence during this early war period. Rather, it probably had difficulty determining the credibility and relative importance of potentially competing information. Its tips program had too few resources and ran into trouble coordinating with various U.S. entities deployed in Iraq.

What challenges did the United States’ early “tips” efforts face?

The CPA originally launched the tips program to help root out corruption and track down senior Baathists, including Saddam Hussein himself. But Iraqi citizens responded with a much broader range of information. While we now know that some of the tips were inaccurate or irrelevant, at the time these were potentially considered serious.

Much of the information received may have distracted U.S. officials from the growing insurgency. For instance, the CPA received a number of tips about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which may help explain why the United States kept searching for WMD for more than 18 months after the invasion had  begun. Several informants claimed to personally know where these weapons were hidden and who was handling them.

As you can see in the email below, one writer even referred directly to the U.N. inspections that immediately preceded the invasion, describing a “large campaign” to hide WMD evidence beforehand.

Other emails describe kidnappings, hostage situations, black market gasoline sales, the theft of gold from Saddam Hussein’s family, and even Russian intelligence activity. Iraqis also emailed in tips on alleged Baathist activities, which may have reinforced U.S. analysts’ expectations that Saddam loyalists were the most likely to organize violent resistance.

However, a number of the emails also pointed to the growing threat from al-Qaeda and Shiite militancy. These tips varied considerably in quality and the types of actions they might have prompted. Some reported on particulars about the insurgency, including both weapons and terrorists coming into the country from Syria, and where to find weapons caches and safe houses, as you can see below.

Still other emails warned U.S. officials that Shiite militias were growing, referencing weapons sales in Baghdad’s Sadr City and indicating that Iraqis were awaiting orders from Ayatollah Sistani to attack American forces.

It’s not clear that such reports were reliable. For instance, the intelligence report above notes that the information’s source was “untested.” Other intelligence documents refer to cases of disinformation.

What did the CPA do with information it received?

Investigators acted on a number of tips, leading to the confiscation of hundreds of AK-47s, hand and rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons and the arrests of suspects. One of these early tips even led to the discovery of an Iraqi Air Force plane that had been hidden.

However, as the internal report below shows, only one team was generally available to investigate tips. Furthermore, roughly a dozen armed U.S. and Iraqi entities were unavailable to the tips programs. As a result, they had to discard some of the usable tips.

Other internal messages reference constraints on the tips program’s email and telephone hotline. As shown in the email below from February 2004, only two personnel and one translator were available to run the lines, and members of the tips program were given little feedback on the tips that were sent along. The writer of this message warned of a loss of credibility with Iraqis.

A lesson for future counterinsurgency efforts

As the coalition increased its focus on counterinsurgency as the war progressed, its “tips” collection programs became more sophisticated. Iraqis eventually sent in thousands of quality “tips,” leading to the arrests of “key former Baathists and al-Qaeda members, and the bombings that finally killed Zarqawi,” according to U.S. Army Maj. Daniel Castro, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Iraq’s insurgents clearly thought the programs were important; they went to great lengths to disrupt them with such efforts as placing malicious calls designed to tie up hotlines, as one of the author’s research finds.

There is no simple way to know whether the early implementation of a more developed tips collection program would have slowed or limited the deterioration of Iraq’s security. Some scholars argue that other factors made insurgency inevitable, including the limited number of U.S. troops deployed and the de-Baathification policy and its decision to disband Iraq’s military.

But the United States appears to have gone into Iraq with few plans for how to solicit and evaluate critical information from civilians taking advantage of their access to cellular telephones and the Internet. Planning for future counterinsurgency operations may wish to include a more thorough approach to collecting tips and disseminating the information within them among U.S. forces.

Andrew Shaver is a postdoctoral scholar in political science at Stanford University and the founding director of Dartmouth College’s Political Violence Lab at the John Sloan Dickey Center. He has served as a Pentagon analyst and foreign affairs fellow with the U.S. Senate. 

Debora Hyemin Han is an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, where she studies government, philosophy  and history and serves as the chief executive assistant of the Dickey Center’s Political Violence Lab.

 The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.