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Learning from Iraq
Tim Collins
May 03, 2007

As a student, I watched the transition of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe after the Lancaster House accords. It was a time of hope.

I felt sorry for supporters of the outgoing and illegal white regime -- they had been duped by the Ian Smith government -- and I was optimistic about the prospects for Zimbabwe under the far-sighted Dr Robert Mugabe.

As a soldier in the British army, I served alongside Zimbabwean officers in the United Kingdom. They were able and professional soldiers and I shared their optimism.

From time to time, these soldiers mentioned the Fifth Brigade, a group of Zimbabwean soldiers who, at the time, were being trained by officers from North Korea. I dismissed their anxieties as mere Cold War rhetoric.

Today, the hand of a malevolent force can be felt in all corners of Zimbabwe. This sinister presence first made itself felt in the massacres carried out by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

That force is a legacy of Mugabe's rule -- and it will outlive him.

He has to go. Just as other dictators, among them Saddam Hussein, have gone before him. But for Zimbabweans, Iraq provides a cautionary tale.

Strongmen stay in power by dint of their machinery, and this usually means some distortion of the state's defence machinery. With regard to Hussein, this was certainly the case.

After Mugabe, reforming the security sector should be a top priority.

In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the decision by the United States to put in place an interim authority under Paul Bremmer brought the added blunder that the Iraqi military was dismissed. At the time, many recognised that a dangerous vacuum was being created. The extent of the consequences of that decision is only apparent now.

As a lesson, and with hindsight, it would have been better to put an Iraqi administration in power immediately, as no one knew better than the Iraqis how to manage their country. What can we learn from this with regard to Zimbabwe post-Mugabe?

Firstly, it is important to accept the scale of the damage his regime has done. This means that those Zimbabweans who have lived through the years of desolation, both in the country and in exile, must be involved in the clear-up in a leading role.

They can manage the transition to the future by managing the transformation of the armed forces and police from an instrument of oppression under the old regime to the new nation's security forces. That is where we are right now in Iraq, about four years after the invasion and with much work to do and many innocent lives lost. The blunder of Iraq must not be repeated.

Zimbabweans know who must be expunged from the security forces to bring this about. They know who must be kept on, too. They will also recognise that without strong local forces there will be chaos, like that which we saw in Iraq. Above all, what Zimbabwe will need is investment. But there can be no investment without security. One follows the other as day follows night.

In summary, it must be the people of Zimbabwe who manage and guide the weeding out of the guilty element in the state's forces if stability is to be achieved. That means handing them the reins of power post-Mugabe. Of course there will have to be checks and balances, but no one is more capable of succeeding than the locals. They have, after all, been thinking about the process and preparing for little else in the past few years.

*Tim Collins served with the British army and was involved in the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq. He describes the aftermath of the war as a "catastrophe" and a "right rollicking cock-up". Since leaving the army, his memoirs, Rules of Engagement: A Life in Conflict, have been published by Headline

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