Next Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). In an attempt to make sense of the past two decades of American military operations in Iraq, we must begin by recognizing our military engagement in Iraq isn’t at the two-decade mark. With only one brief hiatus, our military futility there goes back three decades.
My Experience in Iraq
The first time I engaged in combat was the afternoon of February 26, 1991, in northern Kuwait against the Iraqi Tawakalna tank division. The Desert Storm Battle of 73 Easting was a short, violent, and fierce tank battle, which resulted in my unit, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, gashing a hole in the Iraqi defenses, allowing other American armored divisions to pour through to complete the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s invasion force. I would never have believed it had someone told me that 32 years later, there would still be about 2,500 American troops in Iraq.
Following the crushing defeat the American-led coalition imposed on Saddam, the majority of the half-million combat force withdrew back to their home stations. But then-President George H.W. Bush kept a number of U.S. military forces engaged there, first in a quasi-humanitarian mission in the Kurdish region, Operation Provide Comfort, and later with a northern and southern no-fly zone. The latter two operations were still in effect at the time Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, ordered, ordered a direct invasion of Iraq.
From 1992 through the beginning of OIF, the U.S. Air Force averaged a stunning 34,000 air sorties per year in the performance of those twin no-fly zones. Successive American administrations had intended those military measures to force Saddam to comply with various UN mandates and to make him a more passive figure in the Middle East. Not only did the extraordinarily expensive decade-long effort fail to produce anything of value for the United States, but if anything it made Iraq more belligerent.
Adapting to New Strategies
Undeterred by the first decade of failure, Bush 43 pressed ahead with yet more coercive measures against Saddam, ultimately resulting in the now-infamous invasion in March 2003 based on erroneous intelligence data claiming that Saddam possessed – and was a threat to use – weapons of mass destruction. At the time of the 2003 invasion, I was a senior captain in the Army, serving in the Army Operations Center, in the bowels of the Pentagon.
I vividly remember we had spent months readying “sensitive site exploitation” teams to launch into Iraq as soon as it was safe, securing and safeguarding the many chemical and biological weapons we were sure existed. I was very confident these teams would find, catalog, and safely eliminate the very many chemical and biological weapons that our leaders had assured us were there.
On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a remarkable and powerfully emotional presentation to the United Nations Security Council in which he flatly stated that “Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons,” and claimed, “that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent … enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.”
For good measure, Powell also warned the world of the “sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaida terrorist network.” This was supportive of Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” Anything that connected Iraq to the September 11 attacks – still an open and painful wound in America in March 2003 – was especially persuasive.
On the night of March 19, 2003, Bush somberly addressed the nation to announce “on my orders” war against Iraq had begun. The reasons, he argued, were compelling: “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” Bush sternly stated. “We will meet that threat,” he concluded, by sending the U.S. Armed Forces to war in Iraq “so that we do not have to meet (that threat) later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”
As part of the October 2002 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq, the Congressional Budget Office provided a range for the estimated cost of the war. Taking the upper end of all categories (deploying the force, conducting active hostilities, redeploying the force, and conducting occupation duties), the cost for an eight-year war would have run just under $450 billion. As it turned out, as of the first full withdrawal in December 2011, the cost was estimated to have been (including the war in Afghanistan by 2011) a staggering $4 trillion.
The Cost of Iraq War
The worst of the cost, however, was the human toll.
The United States military lost soldiers to a total of 4,431 deaths and 31,994 wounded. In a vastly underreported category, the members of the U.S. Armed Forces also suffered staggering numbers of unseen casualties: hundreds of thousands suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (one study suggested fully 20 percent of all those who deployed to Iraq suffered from PTSD), and an estimated 350,000 who suffered traumatic brain disorder injuries. And what did America “win” for this extraordinary expenditure of financial and human capital?
Virtually nothing. When Obama fully withdrew the force in December 2011, the eight years of effort up to that point was exposed as having created a hollow Iraqi Security Force that disintegrated in June 2014 at the first test against ISIS – after which Obama immediately returned U.S. troops to protect the regime in Baghdad. There are still 2,500 troops in Iraq today, and no end in sight.
I’m sure Baghdad still appreciates the U.S. providing a military force for its protection. The United States, on the other hand, has done nothing but pay for the 32 years of military excursion in Iraq, in both blood and treasure. Our security is not more secure because of our military presence in Iraq.
In fact, these three decades have arguably degraded our national security, as we have gotten ourselves into more debt, but more importantly, have wasted entire military careers of our service members on training for unnecessary small-scale counterinsurgency fights at the expense of preparing for potential peer-on-peer conflicts that are both more likely – and more consequential for our long term security.
As is now well established, our entry into this war was based on either incompetent leaders or outright fraud and lies. Each person can judge for themselves, but regardless of which is right, the consequences for our Armed Forces and our country have been an unqualified failure. If there is any lesson to have learned from these three decades of unnecessary conflict, it is that we the people must demand accountability from those who lied us into – and lied to keep us in – wars. What would make a great first step, however, is to end our unnecessary deployment into Iraq today.