Tomorrow marks 14 years since the United States led a coalition in the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The ensuing occupation would officially last eight years, eight months, and 28 days. In reality, elements of the CIA were already engaged in the country as early as July 2002, and today in 2017 the United States’ military involvement in Iraq continues against new enemies whose roots lie in the original conflict.
The narrative of the war shall likely remain controversial for decades, if not longer. The invasion was justified by allegations that Saddam Hussein possessed or was close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and the possibility that he would transfer them to terrorists. Years later, we know such weapons were never found. Members of the Bush administration were all-in on Iraqi responsibility or association with the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., and leveraged an angry, scared and supportive American population and legislature to commit the U.S. and its allies to the cause of war.
The execution of the conflict is as contentious a topic as the case made for the war. Images of Iraqis celebrating their brutal dictator’s toppling statues gave way to bloody sectarian warfare between the Sunni minority and Shia majority. Then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki had warned the administration that “several hundred thousand” soldiers would be needed to manage post-war Iraq, and was subsequently ignored as 145,000 troops were allocated for the invasion. Shinseki’s estimate was based on his leadership during the NATO mission in Bosnia, which had calculated that there should be at least one soldier for every 50,000 Bosnians (Shinseki was also a Vietnam veteran). Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld proceeded to name Shinseki’s successor when he had roughly a year left to serve, and snubbed his retirement ceremony.
A smaller force may have been tenable if the U.S. had chosen to leave immediately after toppling Saddam and securing any dangerous weapons it found. It may sound ridiculous, but the images of Iraqis celebrating the fall of their brutal dictator were very genuine. The Iraqi army, which virtually melted away in the face of Coalition military power, might have focused its energy on preserving peace and order in the streets, and may have chosen to work with Coalition forces to chart a course towards a peaceful, post-Saddam Iraq. They might have stymied much of the corruption and graft exhibited by Iraqi officials overseeing reconstruction efforts.
Instead, American forces and their allies attempted to project a Western vision of governance on a state conceived by European colonial mapmakers. They were caught off guard by looting and disorder that forced Iraqis to look to local strongmen and militias for order and justice. The disbanding of the Iraqi army and mass disenfranchisement of Baathists left thousands of armed Iraqis without a job or purpose. There was little recourse left for them but to become insurgents and, as fathers, brothers, and sons were killed fighting Coalition forces, popular opinion among the occupied population swung against America and its allies.
The most serious fighting in Iraq began after Bush had infamously declared “Mission Accomplished,” aboard an aircraft carrier in San Diego. Most notoriously was the Second Battle of Fallujah, where American Marines virtually razed the city while fighting from building to building. 95 U.S. soldiers and approximately 1,350 insurgents were killed. Low civilian casualties can be attributed to people fleeing the city before the fighting, but they largely blamed American forces when they returned to their devastated city.
The infamous prisoner abuse of Abu Ghraib undermined the Coalition’s already shaky moral high ground as well as the hard work and professionalism exhibited by the majority of American forces. Televisions around the world broadcast images of Americans abusing prisoners, resonating negatively with the Iraqi population, Muslims around the world, and citizens of allied countries and the U.S.
The 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, likely initiated by al-Qaeda in Iraq to sow further chaos, set off a firestorm of violence between Shias and Sunnis with Coalition forces caught squarely in the middle. This would eventually lead to the 2007 surge as administration officials tried unsuccessfully to convince allies and media outlets that Iraq had not fallen into a state of civil war (as if mass, organized violence among two groups within a country could be considered anything else).
Here, too, Americans are divided over an accurate description of history. Many conservatives and hawks believe the surge had successfully ended all violence in Iraq, and that Americans just needed to be patient while Iraq stabilized itself. History tells a different story, though. The United Kingdom, the biggest U.S. ally during the invasion and subsequent occupation, announced a total withdrawal from the areas it was responsible for, alongside other allies with smaller troop commitments. Though sectarian violence dropped dramatically, this was attributed more to fighters going underground or negotiating to stand down than to the destruction of destructive elements within Iraq during combat.
In truth, by 2007, many Americans were sick of the war. Controversial killings of civilians by American contractors like Blackwater, operating without accountability or regard for the diplomatic fallout they caused, contributed to this sense. The Iraqi parliament continued to signal that it viewed American forces as invaders and wanted them out. Iranian elements were actively killing American soldiers, and the military’s ability to retaliate (along with the public stomach for an expansion of the war) were gone. Barack Obama ascended to the presidency in part on his promise to reduce and withdraw American forces from the conflict, as many Americans likely saw no meaningful end in sight. Over the next several years, he proceeded to do just that.
The conditions of war and instability are widely credited with the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The rise of ISIS and its role in the Syrian civil war and crimes against humanity in territories it controls have contributed directly to the refugee crisis destabilizing Europe. It has also forced America to revisit the battlefields of Iraq, fighting against a terrorist army that the invasion and occupation at least indirectly helped to create.
Simultaneously, the collapse of Sunni rule in Iraq has resulted in the growth of Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East. The new Shia-dominated Iraqi government, in need of funding and military support, has found a natural partner in the Islamic Republic. This is disturbing, to say the least, for American allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have long opposed any growth of power or influence on the part of Iran.
The financial cost has been staggering, with $1.7 trillion in operational costs, and an ongoing $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans. Counting interest, those expenses could ride to more than $6 trillion by 2050. Americans for generations will live with that debt, not to mention the opportunity cost in terms of domestic and international projects that will not be executed because the money was spent on Iraqi battlefields.
Of course, the human cost is the most staggering. During the official invasion and occupation period, 4,816 Coalition forces were killed (4,498 were Americans military forces). Over 117,000 Coalition forces were physically wounded, not to mention the mental toll taken on young people experience incredible pressure and violence. Over 30,000 Iraq combatants died, on top of civilian deaths estimated between 151,000 to over 600,000.
Over the long term, however, the geopolitical costs will continue to be felt. We will never know if the Arab Spring would have happened without the American invasion of Iraq, but the costly experience of U.S. forces and the war weariness of the American public ensured that America was not available politically or militarily to intervene in support of Libyans, Syrians or Egyptians working towards building sustainable, freer states that might have been natural American allies and valued partners in the global economic community.
We can, unfortunately, trace the roots of ISIS back to American detention facilities in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a resident of Abu Ghraib, and his time there obviously did not reduce his nihilistic and violent worldview. He was released in 2004 as a low-level prisoner, and now leads an organization that seems to frighten many Americans more than Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda ever did. We can’t say definitively that there would be no ISIS-like entity beheading journalists, raping women and children, and subjugating ethnic or religious minorities between Mosul and Raqqa if not for the destruction of Baathist Iraq. However, the United States does own all outcomes, good and bad, following the invasion and occupation it initiated. ISIS is one of those outcomes.
The diversion of critical resources from the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan has left the original focus of the War on Terror as an incomplete project. Even roughly sixteen years after Coalition forces began their Afghan campaign, the Taliban remains a powerful influence in parts of the country, and a stable state that is immune to the dangers of radicalization and terrorism seems an unrealistic expectation, and there is little public or political will left to finish the job properly.
The refugee crisis and the associated cultural anxiety of older generations has brought out the worst in Western politics, including the self-destructive Brexit vote that may take the U.K. out of the European Union, and Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the U.S., which further threatens to weaken the American-led world order by weakening our strategic partnerships around the world and undermining outreach towards moderate Muslims who would be our allies against ISIS and like-minded radical groups.
Perhaps most distressing is that North Korea remains a rogue state in possession of nuclear weapons, and that the collapse of the Kim regime or an all-out confrontation would both require tremendous numbers of U.S. troops—some estimates put the number at 500,000—to establish order and secure the nuclear and chemical weapon stockpiles widely believed to exist in the mysterious dystopian Asian nation. That so many resources have been expended (read: wasted) in the Middle East for a war that essentially concluded without any key political objectives being fulfilled (and, instead, has further increased the need for international focus on the region) means that any Korean crisis would force America to fight on a third front, potentially with inadequate numbers of troops, personnel, and funding.
The U.S. would have to choose to abandon key objectives in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, or rely on China and other nations to deal with Korea. With nuclear weapons possibly up for grabs by smugglers, rogue North Korean military elements, and possibly others, the latter would be an extremely dangerous proposition. That the U.S. Military is essentially bogged down in the Middle East has limited America’s options in preventing civil war in Sudan or Libya, Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, Chinese ambition in the South China Sea, humanitarian crises throughout the world, and the aforementioned North Korean nuclear dangers.
It’s crucial that Americans remember the accurate history of the Iraq war to avoid repeating such costly foreign policy blunders in the future. Sugar coating the conflict or its lingering costs does the national interest no favors. Criticism of the conflict is not anathema to patriotism, but rather shows the highest regard for the future success of the U.S. That Americans should want to protect their credibility in the international community and preserve their military strength for when the world faces real crises is an aspiration that should have widespread support, and doesn’t undermine the heroic nature of American and Coalition men and women who served with professionalism and honor in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul or any other Iraqi cities. It is the only way that their sacrifice will not have been made in vain.