Remaking Mistakes in Gaza


I led a special forces company outside Mosul in 2005 training Iraqi soldiers and hunting insurgents, an exercise in futility that left me pondering what brought me there. A decade later, I helped write the U.S. Army’s history of the war, a cathartic experience that provided me with many of the answers I sought. Our research spanned five years, and we declassified more than 30,000 pages of documents and conducted more than 300 interviews with individuals ranging from privates to presidents to understand what went wrong. Worried about the dirty laundry that we aired, the Army initially tried to block its publication, and only relented when the Wall Street Journal prepared an expose about its intransigence. Among the most important factors that we concluded caused the American defeat was the failure to plan for what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein. 

Now nearly another decade removed, I feel sadness and frustration as it appears that Israel, one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, is making that same central mistake. Fearing that history is about to rhyme, if not repeat, I feel compelled to offer painful advice that I wish the United States had known before the invasion of Iraq. While I have no doubt that Israel will defeat Hamas, if it does not quickly develop a plan for the post-war environment, it could win the war but lose the peace just like the United States did in Iraq. Sharing such advice with a friend is never easy. Genuine differences in objectives, frustration against others who don’t completely understand the situation, and even national pride often get in the way of being able to accept counsel, whether it be good or bad. The nightmarish depravity of the Oct. 7 massacre makes taking outside advice about the war against Hamas even harder. Domestic politics, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s precarious governing coalition and personal legal troubles, further complicates the situation and makes strategic planning difficult. But the topic of how wars end is of utmost importance. And America certainly knows what not to do.  



A Costly Lesson

The war in Iraq provides a case study for what happens when a powerful nation carries out regime change without properly planning and preparing for what happens after combat operations end. American planners chose not to develop a concrete post-war plan for a variety of reasons. One line of thought held that extensive planning was unnecessary because Iraq could be liberated rather than occupied, with Iraqis, aided by expatriates, rising up against Saddam. Others believed that it would be too difficult to guess what would be needed during reconstruction, so it would be more effective to wait until Iraqi forces were defeated to make plans. Another perspective held that the Iraqi government and infrastructure would still be largely functioning, so a sizeable effort would be unnecessary. With those assumptions, U.S. Central Command leaders extensively focused their efforts on taking Baghdad and showed little interest about what would come next. When the State Department attempted to compensate for the lack of attention on post-conflict planning by forming the Future of Iraq Project, the George W. Bush administration largely ignored its findings and decided to give the lead for reconstruction to the Department of Defense.

In the chaos that ensued, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs, which the Defense Department slated to take charge, began standing up barely weeks before it would bear responsibility for 25 million Iraqis. Before it had even become fully functional, the Bush administration abolished that organization and replaced it with yet another agency, the Coalition Provisional Authority. With little preparation for the mission and minimal coordination, Ambassador Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, issued two of the most fateful orders of the war: disbanding the Iraqi military and commanding the de-baathification of the Iraqi state. Nearly overnight, those orders put hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of work and caused key government functions to vanish. 

The consequences of American failures to create a viable post-conflict plan were an extended insurgency, a vicious civil war, and an expansion of Iranian power — one that now threatens Israel more than ever before. The Islamic State, which grew from the embers of the feeble militant group Tawhid wal-Jihad, killed tens of thousands across Iraq and Syria, and still threatens the region. Pro-Iranian militias, part of the Hashd al-Shaabi, have nearly a numeric parity with Iraqi government forces. To achieve these disastrous results, 4,492 American servicemembers gave their lives, and the United States spent more than $2.1 trillion, not counting future costs from debts taken out to cover war expenses or veterans’ health benefits. The estimate of Iraqi deaths varies widely, in part due to the brutality of the civil war and the mayhem of the war with the Islamic State, but reliable estimates range from 186,000 to 3.4 million. Failure has a massive price tag in bodies and dollars.

Despite such clear evidence of the danger of waging war by a strategy of “ready, fire, aim,” some Israelis have proposed simply leaving Gaza after Hamas has been destroyed. If American experiences over the last 30 years are instructional, such a strategy is only likely to allow the group to metastasize into something even worse. As difficult as it is to conceive, someone will have to manage, govern, and reconstruct Gaza, most likely while battling some degree of an insurgency. Israel and its allies should be talking about who will do that and how they will be funded. And they should be talking about it right now. 

Planning Is Paramount

Like American officials before the Iraq war, Israeli leaders have been coy about Gaza’s future. They have told the world more about what they won’t do, such as reinstate the Palestinian Authority, than what they plan to do. That said, the most common refrain has been that Israel will take control over Gaza’s overall security after the war, which begs the question of who will assert political control and almost guarantees a long insurgency. A few Israeli leaders have proposed reoccupying or annexing parts of the territory to create a buffer or prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven again — ignoring that this was unsuccessful in Gaza and Lebanon previously. One extremist proposed that Gaza be flattened, “from the sea to the border fence, completely empty, so that everyone remembers what was once there.” While that option is clearly neither legal nor practical, such strawman proposals gain media attention because Israel has offered no other concrete strategy for what comes after the shooting stops. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded, correctly, that Gaza be deradicalized like Germany and Japan after World War II, without recognizing that America began planning for the postwar environment two years before Germany’s surrender. In some ways, the haphazard American preparations for postwar Iraq seem detailed compared to Israeli conversations about Gaza after the fighting ends.  

The United States, for its part, has publicly suggested that the Palestinian Authority should reaffirm control. That proposal was so politically sensitive that one negotiator observed, “No one, not even the United States, can talk to them [Israel] about this.” Other proposals have another country or international force serving as peacekeepers or as an interim ward before restoring some semblance of Palestinian governance. Such an option is nothing more than a fantasy. Destroying Gaza and then leaving is not a viable option, at least if Israel doesn’t want to face intense international pressure as well as likely repeat attacks similar to Oct. 7. 

As in nearly all instances of particularly high-stakes decision-making, the best choice of what to do will almost certainly be unsavory, politically difficult, and, quite honestly, bad. All these choices will require tremendous amounts of political will, financial support, and the assistance of allies and “frenemies.” Many of the options, such as a return of the Palestinian Authority, would require extensive negotiations, and the longer there is an interregnum between the fall of Hamas and another non-Israeli entity taking control of Gaza, the more likely that the strip sprouts toxic ideologies in the future. Obtaining critical money for reconstruction from Arab and European states will likely require Israel to have a legitimate Palestinian partner and to commit to a two-state solution. And for all these options, the conduct of the war, including the number of civilian casualties and level of destruction, will have an impact on their feasibility. That is why having these discussions now is of paramount importance. If no plans are developed soon, the default effects will likely be similar to those of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s de-baathification decision, which dissolved the government and left anarchy in its wake.  

To be sure, there are contrasts between America’s war in Iraq and Israel’s in Gaza. The length and bitterness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provide decades of traumatic memories to both sides that limit policymakers’ freedom of maneuver. Geography is important too. Iraq is half a world away from America and for all intents and purposes after the war the United States did not have to deal with the mess it made. Israel doesn’t have that luxury, giving it even more impetus not to bungle what happens when the guns fall silent. Iraq was a war of choice for the United States, but it squandered precious planning time. Israel was surprised on Oct. 7, putting it under even more pressure to developing viable plans quickly. Despite those different contexts, a guiding central principle remains. If no plan is created soon to fill the void of governance in Gaza after high-intensity combat ends, forces of chaos will take over, just like they did in Iraq. And time is running out.

What comes next will be especially challenging, and Israel should steel itself for a long, hard slog. Politicians will claim that reconstruction can be done quickly and inexpensively, but America lost far more soldiers in the years after major combat operations ended in Iraq than in the short time it took to achieve regime change. Occupying Gaza unilaterally, which is what it seems that Israel will have to do at least for some time since it has closed off other viable alternatives, will require more than 80,000 soldiers if it is done correctly, based on a 2010 planning estimate from the Institute for Defense Analyses. 

Israel should aim to minimize the phase where it goes it alone in Gaza because finding legitimate local partners and foreign allies is critical. It is also easier said than done and in Iraq the United States struggled with both challenges extensively. Many allies deployed forces for only a short span of the conflict, and some, due to national caveats that prohibited them from certain operations such as leaving secure areas, proved to be more of a burden than an advantage. In terms of creating acceptable domestic security forces and a viable political system, America failed at both, but in doing so learned many lessons. Like deradicalization, building capable military and police forces are exceptionally challenging multi-generational tasks, and Israel does not have units specifically organized and trained to conduct security force assistance, which makes the task more difficult. To have the best chance of success, a cadre of professional advisors is necessary, ideally inside the Israel Defense Forces, which would require the formation of new units during wartime, itself a complex task. 

Rebuilding Gazan politics will be equally long and complicated. Although there is an incentive to select expatriates for leadership roles to bring in new blood, that worked exceptionally poorly in Iraq and should not be repeated in Gaza. Individuals who have not lived in Gaza or the West Bank will have neither the legitimacy nor the understanding of local politics to govern, especially in the myriad of crises that Gaza is likely to experience. While this means that members of the Palestinian Authority will likely have to take up most of the civil posts, there might have to be some posts filled with former employees of the Hamas government. In Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority decided to restrict former Baath party members from government positions based on the assumption that de-Baathification should create a “clean state” like de-Nazification in World War II. That order proved catastrophic, as the United States tried to stand up civil functionality with few technocrats able to serve in key positions. It was alsonot historically accurate, as the allies made the stomach-churning decision to employ some former Nazis.

To prevent both a humanitarian crisis and even more long-term enmity, reconstruction efforts should begin immediately after major combat operations end. Some reports estimate that 70 percent of Gaza’s buildings are damaged or destroyed, a figure that exceeded any U.S. operation in Iraq, even the fierce fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi. To meet short-term needs, generally successful policies such as solatia payments for those who suffered property damage or accidental injury or death as well as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program to meet urgent humanitarian needs could be adopted by Israeli forces. In addition, as high-intensity combat operations wind down, Israel should be more selective with targeting and its use of ordinance. The United States learned insurgent math the hard way, that every innocent you kill creates 10 new insurgents.

I know firsthand that taking advice about planning for what comes next won’t be easy. In the waves of anger and passion after the 9/11 attacks, many Americans were angry when France, one of their oldest democratic allies, begged Washington not invade Iraq, or at least to make proper plans for it. Rather than heed the advice, Americans cancelled vacations to the City of Light and three cafeterias in the U.S. House of Representatives renamed French fries as “freedom fries.” Decades later, this ally’s advice appears far more reasonable than American actions. Please take it from citizens and soldiers of a country that didn’t plan for post-conflict in Iraq, and now must live with the repercussions: You don’t want to make the same mistakes. 



Dr. Frank Sobchak is a retired Special Forces colonel who served in various assignments in war and peace during a 26-year military career. He is the chair of Irregular Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy, and a fellow (contributor) for the MirYam Institute. He is a co-author of the acclaimed two-volume The U.S. Army in the Iraq War and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, Time, the Jerusalem Post, Defense One, the Hill, and the Small Wars Journal. His X handle is @abujeshua.