Twenty years since Operation Iraqi Freedom: lest we forget


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Twenty years ago, in March 2003, President George W. Bush launched the US invasion of Iraq, somewhat ambitiously dubbed ‘Iraqi Freedom’. The military onslaught began with a spectacular night time bombing of Baghdad called ‘Shock and Awe’ by Pentagon strategists. It was clearly designed to demoralise the Iraqi armed forces by showing them the overwhelming power of American high-tech warfare with its precision strikes and ability to take down command and control systems and air defences. A ground invasion of Iraq soon followed, carried out from Kuwait, which could hardly deny the US the use of its territory given that Kuwait had been liberated from Iraqi occupation by a US-led coalition in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Türkiye, by contrast, refused the US the use of its bases, so that the Pentagon had to give up its initial plan to launch a simultaneous invasion of Iraq from the north. Within three weeks, the Iraqi army had been routed, although this was less the result of a decisive battle and more due to the Iraqis deserting or surrendering in large numbers. Clearly, their will to sacrifice for the regime of the hated dictator, Saddam Hussein, who had already caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in his wars against Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait and the US-led coalition in 1991, was limited. By April, the US army was in control of Baghdad and began a military occupation of Iraq that was to last eight years, until the last American and British soldiers – with the UK being the junior partner in the coalition – left in 2011.

The invasion of Iraq marked a crucial turning point in the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ that George W. Bush had declared after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Buoyed by the unprecedented international wave of sympathy following the 9/11 attacks, Washington presented its case to the United Nations. The Security Council, in a show of unity unthinkable today, had endorsed the US invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime that was found to be complicit in Al Qaeda’s planning and preparations for the terrorist attacks. NATO declared its Article 5 mutual defence clause for the first – and so far only – time in its history. At a hastily convened meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels in early October, several ministers offered their forces to go to Afghanistan alongside the Americans. There was a real sense that everyone had been attacked by Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda operatives on 9/11 and that defeating this extremist movement was everyone’s fight.

Yet Paul Wolfowitz, deputising for the absent US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, made it clear that this assistance was neither necessary nor wanted. Washington’s mantra was: “it is the mission that determines the coalition and not the coalition the mission.” So, NATO stood down and had to look for other, novel ways to give some form of military expression to the dramatic invocation of Article 5. Eventually, AWACS air monitoring aircraft flew over the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and NATO military police were sent to guard some US military bases and storage sites in Germany and Italy. Yet these were probably not the actions that NATO ambassadors had in mind when they approved a collective alliance response under Article 5. In truth, Wolfowitz’s dismissive response to the offers of help was unquestionably the first big mistake of the Global War on Terrorism. If NATO and a broad coalition of partner nations had joined the US in Afghanistan from the start in 2001, there would have been proper planning for the country’s reconstruction and institution-building. Military and civilian efforts would have been integrated from the outset and other organisations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the EU, could have been engaged much earlier with their expertise and resources in this nation-building effort. NATO did ultimately take over the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August 2003. But by then, two years had been squandered in a largely military response to the deep-rooted problems of Afghanistan. The ‘golden hour’ when the Afghan people had faith in their international liberators and were prepared to cooperate with them had come and gone, unexploited.

This was to have severe consequences for not only Iraq but also Afghanistan

Yet for all the mistakes made in Afghanistan, it was still ‘The Good War’. The US and NATO-led intervention had the solid legal basis of UN Resolutions and annual votes in the Security Council to prolong the ISAF mandate. The International coalition comprised over 40 participating countries, including Asia-Pacific states such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand. The media might be critical of the slow rate of progress and of the on-again, off-again cooperation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai with his international partners, but there were no big demonstrations against the Afghan intervention in US or European cities. Public patience might not be indefinite, but the public nonetheless recognised that rebuilding Afghanistan was a difficult mission that would need a few years to show positive results.

The legitimacy of the Afghan operation and its direct link to fighting international terrorism made it all the more baffling when, in the summer of 2002, President George W. Bush turned his attention away from Afghanistan to what he saw as the far greater danger to global peace and security emanating from Iraq. This was to have severe consequences for not only Iraq but also Afghanistan, as the troops diverted to Kuwait for Operation Iraqi Freedom were no longer available to pacify the Hindu Kush. A crucial opportunity was lost at a time when the Taliban were still in retreat and neighbouring powers such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, awed by American military power, were ready to cooperate with Washington. The invasion of Iraq gave all of them the pretext to break with the US and feel under less pressure from the US military presence in Afghanistan. Criticising Washington for acting as the unipolar power in a multipolar world suddenly became much easier. Iraq marks the beginning of the division of the world into rival power blocs with the dangerous consequences that we have seen after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. After all, many leaders in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East have grown fond of telling us, if the US could invade another country to change a hostile regime that, it was claimed, posed an existential threat to it, why could Russia not do the same?

Why George W. Bush decided to remove Saddam Hussein, the long-standing Iraqi dictator, so soon after committing the US to a major deployment in Afghanistan remains unclear, even 20 years on. Some assert that he wanted to complete his father’s legacy. President George H. W. Bush sent US forces to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm. The Iraqi army had been comprehensively routed, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers killed and their vehicles destroyed as they tried to flee north from Kuwait City along what became known as the ‘Highway of Death’. Yet President H. W. Bush resisted calls for the US troops to cross the border and advance all the way to Baghdad to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. Bush knew that his UN mandate extended only to the liberation of Kuwait. A cautious man by nature, he feared that the Iraqis might well put up a stiffer resistance defending their own country than they had defending Kuwait. Like many, he probably believed also that Saddam Hussein’s humiliation would inspire his many opponents to rise up and depose him without the need for a US intervention. Desert Storm was such a hubristic triumph for American power at the time, coming on top of the sudden end of the Cold War for which Washington claimed much of the credit, that Bush justifiably wanted to quit while he was ahead. An invasion of Iraq could easily tarnish the American victory, albeit at the head of an international coalition of some 30 nations, and put in doubt Bush’s contention that Desert Storm marked the beginning of a ‘new world order’. Although Bush claimed the liberation of Kuwait demonstrated that the US had ‘finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome’ of misguided and bitterly divisive US interventions, he probably calculated that getting bogged down in Iraq could easily bring this Vietnam syndrome roaring back. Yet Saddam Hussein did survive in power. A revolt by the marsh Arabs in the south around Basra was brutally suppressed with thousands killed. The image of Desert Storm was tarnished and Bush was again criticised for not toppling the Iraqi dictator while he had his chance. Thus, many believed that George W. Bush was driven by a desire to avenge this defiance of his father and complete the unfinished business of America’s confrontation with Saddam Hussein, all the more so as Saddam was the implacable enemy of Washington’s ally, Israel.

Saddam’s generals were too frightened

This said, the narrative that Washington developed in the latter part of 2002 to justify the invasion of Iraq was based on two contentions: Saddam Hussein’s alleged links to Al Qaeda and international terrorism and his possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in defiance of multiple UN resolutions, and the work of UN inspectors who had been in Iraq since 1991 to track down and destroy Iraq’s stock of missiles and any fissile materials or nuclear weapons production plants. The high moment in Washington’s attempts to make its case for war occurred on 5 February 2003, when the then-US secretary of state, Colin Powell, addressed the UN Security Council. Powell, the father of Desert Storm as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the credible face of US diplomacy and a figure of undoubted integrity and international prestige. Mindful of the risks he was taking in presenting US intelligence information as factual proof of Saddam Hussein’s crimes to a global audience, Powell insisted that George Tenet, the then-director of the CIA and the man responsible for producing the ‘slam dunk’ intelligence on which Powell’s case relied, sit behind him in the Security Council chamber. Powell then proceeded to describe meetings between Al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi intelligence agents in Vienna and all the dastardly ways in which Saddam Hussein had been able to hide his WMDs from under the noses of the UN inspectors. He repeated ‘weapons of mass production’ 17 times and left no one in any doubt that despite being under a severe UN sanctions regime since 1990 and witnessing teams of UN inspectors find and destroy hundreds of his missiles and chemical armed shells, Saddam Hussein had still been able to maintain a nuclear arsenal capable of posing a real threat to the US and its allies.

Powell made a powerful speech on the day, but it was soon discredited, inflicting lasting damage on the reputation of the US and Powell himself. The alleged terrorist meetings in Vienna left no traces. The existence of WMDs in Iraq was fiercely disputed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for the UN inspections, and its highly vocal director general, Mohammed El Baradei. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of George W. Bush’s few unconditional foreign supporters, published an infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ of intelligence material on Iraq’s WMDs, claiming that they could be launched within 40 minutes. This too engendered political and media criticism of the manipulation of intelligence and of guesswork and gross exaggeration. The chief scientist involved in compiling the dossier, and subsequently in leaking embarrassing details about its unreliability to the media, Dr David Kelly, committed suicide, fanning suspicions that he had come under government pressure to fabricate the ‘evidence’ of Iraqi WMDs. Once Saddam Hussein had been defeated and forced into hiding (he was finally tracked down in December 2003, put on trial by the new Iraqi government and hanged), the American army and intelligence agencies fanned out across Iraq looking for these WMDs. They never found a single one.

In hindsight, the US and the UK were both victims of their own fixed assumptions about Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a villain. He had tried to deceive the international community before 1990 about his secret WMD programmes. The Israeli air force had destroyed a nuclear research reactor that Saddam had built secretly in the desert near Osirak in 1982. Later, the US found evidence that he had also been working on a ‘super gun’ or long-range artillery tube to fire nuclear or chemical shells. Moreover, Saddam had used chemical weapons against his own population, Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, in March 1988. Between 3,500 to 5,000 Kurdish civilians were killed in this attack. Once the UN inspectors arrived in 1991, Saddam Hussein played a constant game of cat and mouse with them. So, it is not surprising that US intelligence officials believed that a rogue like Saddam must have squirrelled some WMDs away somewhere. Saddam was also in no hurry to set the record straight. He seemed to think that if the US believed he had retained some WMDs, this might stop the Americans from attacking him. There are also indications that Saddam’s generals were too frightened to tell the capricious dictator that all the WMDs had been found and destroyed by the UN inspectors, and thus indulged him in his erroneous belief that some were still in their possession. Yet, back in Washington, the CIA’s suspicions that Saddam might still have WMDs easily turned into the administration’s unshakeable conviction that this was indeed the case. Basically, George Tenet told his bosses what they wanted to hear. Intelligence casting doubt on the WMD thesis was rejected as too circumstantial or unreliable, whereas intelligence indicating that Saddam indeed possessed WMDs was boosted and inflated, no matter how flimsy its actual content. Iraqi exiles living in the US also played a role in feeding the US intelligence agencies with misleading and self-serving information about the situation inside Iraq, hoping to provoke a US invasion that would bring them back to power in Baghdad.

Various tribes and ethnic groups soon formed their own militias

WMDs were the all-or-nothing case for the US. The National Security Adviser in the George W. Bush White House, Stephen Hadley, has revealed that had the WMD hypothesis been discredited at the time, it would have been impossible politically for the administration to move ahead. In the UK, Tony Blair tried to make an additional case against Saddam based on his massive violations of human rights and a number of UN Resolutions. Unlike Georgia W. Bush in Washington, he was facing large anti-war demonstrations on the streets of London. The US did not seek a specific UN Security Council Resolution to authorise the use of force against Iraq as it knew that it would face stiff resistance, not only from Russia and China but also from its ally, France. The then-French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, had made an impassioned speech denouncing war against Iraq in the same UN Security Council meeting where Colin Powell had tried to set out the US case.

So, the invasion went ahead in March 2003. It was to have a number of severe consequences, which we are still very much living today.

First and foremost is the destruction of Iraq and its society. The US army was quickly able to win the war and it saw that as its only mission. Neither the US army nor government in general had prepared any half-serious plan for how to run the country in the aftermath. The State Department had done some detailed planning, but that task was re-assigned to the Pentagon at the eleventh hour. The Pentagon ditched the State Department’s plans but did not come up with an alternative of its own. It was naively assumed that once the dictator had fallen and his statue in Ferdus Square in central Baghdad had been pulled down by the newly liberated Iraqis, freedom would break out all by itself and democracy would smoothly follow. Under Paul Bremer, the US set up a Coalition Provisional Authority, which became famous for isolating itself in the Green Zone –  the well-protected diplomatic quarter in central Baghdad walled off from the rest of the country – and recruiting lots of young American ideologues straight out of college and full of enthusiasm for liberation theory, but with no understanding of Iraqi society, culture or history. An early decision by Bremer to disband the Iraqi army, police and civil service as part of its policy of ridding Iraq of all elements of Saddam’s Baʿath Party proved disastrous. The ensuing absence of law and order encouraged an upsurge in crime and looting. The thousands of security personnel who lost their jobs and livelihoods overnight were embittered and joined the ranks of the anti-US militias. With no security across Iraq, various tribes and ethnic groups soon formed their own militias to protect their communities. Civil war soon broke out between Kurds in the north seeking greater autonomy and the government in Baghdad. The Shia Muslim majority saw the opportunity to gain the upper hand against the Sunni minority who had ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Neighbouring Shia Iran interfered in Iraqi politics, supporting the more radical Shia groups. Iraq splintered along sectarian and religious lines, and smaller communities like the Christians and Yazhidis came under pressure and started to flee the country.

The population saluted the elections but wondered if they were worth the insecurity

Chaos descended upon Iraq. Emma Sky, a well-known academic expert on interventions and at the time part of the British civilian team in Basra, reports that the UK brought in a number of very expensive power generators to restore Basra’s electricity supply, but as soon as the generators were installed, Iraqi criminal gangs stole all the copper wirings and smuggled them over the Kuwaiti border to sell them on the black market. As the violence and insecurity worsened, millions of Iraqis left the country, many seeking to enter Europe by illegal means. Of those who stayed, hundreds of thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded or psychologically scarred, and millions more had their lives permanently disrupted. Many Iraqi towns and cities suffered massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure. The US and the UK pulled out their forces in 2011, realising that they were part of the problem rather than the solution. By then, the US had lost nearly 3,000 soldiers and the UK over 400. Iraq had a new constitution and an elected and vociferous parliament. Elections were indeed free and fair, and many more voices were represented, but Iraqi politics developed largely along sectarian party lines. The Shias were now the dominant power brokers even if prominent Sunni politicians were able to gain some offices of state through power-sharing arrangements. The population saluted the elections but wondered if they were worth the insecurity and the prolonged meltdown of the Iraqi economy. The country only seems to be stabilising now in 2023. Violence is decreasing, and the government and parliament are working better together. Yet Iraq has been wracked by large protests and demonstrations against the high cost of living, economic inequality, unemployment and widespread corruption.

A second consequence was the damage to US influence and the country’s reputation. As mentioned, the post-war stabilisation of Iraq was severely mismanaged by Washington, which came across as callous, incompetent and putting liberation ideology before common sense and professional practice. The US gave the impression that it had misused the Global War on Terrorism as a convenient flagpole on which it could hang any justification for actions to settle scores with old adversaries. Calling the invasion an exercise in democracy promotion, the administration was caught up in the hypocrisy of practicing torture on terrorist suspects and insurgents at the notorious Abu Ghraib detention centre. Pictures of hooded and chained prisoners went viral. They shocked even long-time supporters of the US and constituted a powerful recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Trigger-happy US private security companies getting involved in gunfights on the streets of Baghdad did not help either. President Bush’s overseas trips were marred by anti-American protests.

Next came the emergence of a new, even more powerful jihadist movement. Dissident tribes from the Sunni heartland of Anbar province combined with disgruntled former Iraqi army officers to establish ISIL, the Islamic State. This movement took advantage of the security vacuum in northern Iraq and across the border in Syria to capture territory and declared the revival of the 7th century Caliphate with a headquarters in Raqqa in northern Syria. It attracted around 40,000 fighters from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to come and join its ranks, inspiring the true believers in a pure Islamist state by resorting to gruesome violence against non-believers or captured Western hostages. As the Iraqi security forces were too poorly trained and led, and riven by corruption, they retreated in the face of the ISIL onslaught even when they outnumbered the jihadists by a factor of 10:1. ISIL captured a lot of their weapons, armoured vehicles and equipment. The jihadists advanced as far south as the Iraqi city of Mosul, the centre of the country’s oil production. They plundered banks and controlled vital dams and water supplies. So just a few years after leaving Iraq, the US returned to form an anti-ISIL coalition of some 60 countries to roll back and eventually eliminate the Caliphate in 2017. Yet ISIL did not disappear but instead spread out across Northern Africa and the Sahel, as well as maintaining sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, thousands of ISIL fighters and their wives and children have been trapped in squalid holding camps guarded by Kurdish militias in northern Syria. Al-Hol has become the most notorious of these camps. It is a hotbed for radicalisation to provide the next generation of ISIL fighters. So, although the US has been successful since the fall of the Caliphate in decapitating the ISIL leadership through drone strikes and special forces operations, the jihadist movement is here to stay and will be a threat to Western societies for the foreseeable future.

This process of re-alignment continues to this day

The last legacy concerns Iran. The US toppling of Saddam Hussein removed the one factor that had contained Iran’s influence in the wider Middle East. Iran not only gained a strategic foothold in Iraq, particularly through its Revolutionary Guards organisation, which funded the Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces and pro-Iran political parties, but also in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as the Gaza Strip. This increased Iran’s ability to threaten US and Israeli allies and interests throughout the region and emboldened Tehran to work on its nuclear weapons programme to gain extra leverage. Iran also transferred weapons such as missiles to Israel’s enemies, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon. Questioning the purpose and coherence of American power, traditional US allies in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began to hedge their bets and transition away from the old reliance on Washington, quietly improving their relations with Iran and Syria, and reaching out to Russia and China. This process of re-alignment continues to this day, as we saw recently when Beijing brokered the re-opening of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Does all this mean that, after 20 years of hindsight, it would have been better to have left Saddam Hussein undisturbed and free to continue his repression of the Iraqi people? Undoubtedly not. Yet the question is: did he pose a threat to his neighbours and the broader international community, and were there better ways of dealing with him? Although interventions are no longer the flavour of the month in Western capitals in the wake of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, their time will come again. So, a few brief lessons of the Iraq invasion are worth recording for posterity.

Firstly, exhaust all other ways of dealing with the problem before resorting to military action. In the case of Iraq, classic deterrence before 2003 seemed to be working well enough. Through sanctions and US forces based in the Gulf region, Iraq was effectively contained and no longer able to invade its neighbours without suffering catastrophic retaliation.

Secondly, if a viable international strategy exists, as was the case with the UN inspectors, then get behind it and give it the means to work better. Don’t undermine it and replace it with something less effective and less legitimate.

It was first and foremost an Iraqi fight and the Iraqis had to own it

Thirdly, get the intelligence picture right. Intelligence agencies are there to tell leaders what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. In short, to speak truth to power. To its credit, the US overhauled its intelligence operations after Iraq, creating the post of Director of National Intelligence to oversee the work of its 17 intelligence agencies. Ukraine demonstrated that the US had made considerable improvements and predicted well Putin’s intention to invade contrary to many sceptics. It took painstaking analytical work by the US military and civilian agencies but they called it right.

Next, do not use force before you have assembled a coalition of other willing partners and established a basis of legitimacy abroad as well as support at home.

Only invade a country if you are prepared to own it afterwards. Nation-building takes an incredibly long-term commitment. NATO and the EU are still doing it in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo a quarter century after the conflicts and initial military interventions.

Finally, imperfect solutions are better than all or nothing. Training local forces to take on security tasks is an effective way to keep jihadists and insurgents at bay, provided that it is done professionally and pursued vigorously. The Iraqi forces performed much better against ISIL once the US and other allies were deployed to give them air support and tactical fire support. Yet it was first and foremost an Iraqi fight and the Iraqis had to own it.

The 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq made the media headlines for a few days last week and is now fading back into history. Yet for those seriously concerned with global peace and security, it needs to remain a living dossier permanently open to study and scrutiny. Lest we forget.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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