Lessons from Six Years in Iraq

Six years after the start of the Iraq war, Lawrence Korb, Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley reflect on its consequences at home and abroad.

A refugee family of Iraqi Christians arrives in Hanover, Germany for the first time on March 19, 2009, six years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Their settlement in Germany is part of a program administered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. (AP/Axel Heimkin)
A refugee family of Iraqi Christians arrives in Hanover, Germany for the first time on March 19, 2009, six years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Their settlement in Germany is part of a program administered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. (AP/Axel Heimkin)

The past six years of U.S. involvement in Iraq have been marked by profound failure and fragile success. Former President George W. Bush’s May 2003 “mission accomplished” announcement marked the ostensible end of hostilities in the country and was followed by the capture of Saddam Hussein and the transfer of power to Iraq’s interim government—important accomplishments in a difficult campaign. Yet a growing insurgency quickly undermined these achievements and ensnared the United States in a protracted and bloody civil war.

Fragile peace now reigns tentatively in Iraq. But with six years of experience behind us, it has become clear that whatever the uncertain gains we made in Iraq, they were purchased at too great a price—not only in dollars, but in the lives of our men and women in uniform, in U.S. credibility abroad, and in the confidence of the American people in their government. Six years after the invasion, our attempt to replace an authoritarian state with a democratic regime has become a symbol, not of our military or ideological superiority, but of how much we need to learn; not only about how to fight, but also about how to lead.

Fighting in Iraq challenged our vision of what it means to “win a war.” When President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, less than two months after the invasion, the initial military victory had been won—in the sense that the central government of Saddam Hussein no longer had control of the country. Defeating the insurgency and calming an ethnic and sectarian civil war, however, proved to be a much greater security challenge than toppling the Ba’athist regime.

The war in Iraq, and the insurgency in particular, did not have a strictly military solution. Rather, it demanded the use of all elements of U.S. national power, encompassing strong diplomatic and development initiatives, as well as a military component. Even our idea of military operations had to evolve. Rather than consistently performing full-scale kinetic, counterterrorism operations, U.S. forces eventually shifted to a military doctrine which placed high value on counterinsurgency skills and embraced stability operations as essential parts of the military mission.

The military also learned to build closer relationships with Iraqi citizens, not only to cultivate trust and provide aid, but also to understand the character of the increasingly deadly insurgency. The Sunni Awakening, a partnership between the U.S. and former insurgents, which finally took place in 2006, built on these efforts and was a key factor in reducing violence in Iraq.

Still, our ability to understand the people for whose freedom we have paid so dearly is limited. Our understanding of the war is largely influenced by our own experience in Iraq. Philip Bennett recently chronicled the divide between the American and Iraqi perceptions of the war, noting that Iraqi characters are barely present in the prolific journalism on the conflict, and instead consist of “a narrow cast of supporting roles: ungrateful partners, untrustworthy supplicants, invisible enemies, and unreadable victims.”

Indeed, the war has made journalists and Iraqis alike strangely immune to the human side of the conflict. As suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks in Iraq continue to cause hundreds of casualties a month, one Iraqi recently remarked that “No one values the victims anymore.” After six years of fighting, and with attention shifting to Afghanistan, we must be careful to continue to build and honor relationships with our Iraqi partners— interpreters, public servants, and others who have aided our work–as well as the ordinary Iraqis who have been caught up in the violence since 2003.

While Iraq has changed our understanding of post-conflict resolution and stability operations, it has also had a profound effect on American credibility and leadership, both at home and abroad. In the run-up to the war, the Bush administration misled the American people and the international community about the reasons for going into Iraq, while ignoring the advice of military commanders, who warned that our invasion force was too small to control the chaos that the invasion would provoke.

U.S. leadership has also suffered in the international arena. In pursing the war in Iraq, we alienated our European allies, compromised our reputation as a leader on human rights issues with our scandalous treatment of prisoners and “enemy combatants,” and lost the faith of not only governments, but people around the world. In 2002, for example, 75% of surveyed Britons had a favorable view of the U.S. By 2008, that number had dropped to 53%. In Turkey, a NATO ally and Iraq neighbor, our favorability dropped from 30% in 2002 to 12% in 2008.

The Bush administration’s decision to take us into a needless war has also made the American people less secure. After six years of fighting in Iraq, we have emboldened new enemies, created a pocket of terrorist activity that did not exist before our invasion, severely limited our ability to provide adequate resources to Afghanistan, the real central front of the war on terror, and undermined the capability and readiness of the military.

The final consequence is particularly damaging. Ground troops have undergone repeated deployments to Iraq, with heavy consequences for readiness, training, and the health and well being of our armed forces. Army suicides have reached their highest rate since the service began recording the levels 28 years ago, and about 320,000 deployed troops have experienced some sort of traumatic brain injury as a result of their service in the war zone.

Recently, the United States has made some progress in adopting a holistic vision of national security and repairing our international credibility. The Obama administration has pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility by the end of this year and increase the foreign affairs budget, in order to build our diplomatic and development skills. Yet much work remains to be done.

Under the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, all U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011, more than eight years after the invasion. While the United States remains in Iraq, we must demonstrate the kind of leadership we practiced before this misadventure began, by redoubling our efforts to aid the Iraqi people, assisting their leaders in making the political compromises necessary to create a unified Iraq, and working with Iraq’s neighbors to ensure that they work constructively with the government in Baghdad.

For more on this topic from CAP, please see our War in Iraq page.

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