This column is part of our series reflecting on the Iraq War, which began ten years ago this week.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Speaking to Troops at the End of U.S. Military Operations in Iraq (AP)
I was in USMC recruit training the day Coalition Forces crossed the line of departure into Iraq. I was still there — almost ready to graduate the day that “major combat operations” came to an end.
A year-and-a-half later, as a newly minted Recon Marine I deployed to Iraq for the first time. Within two weeks of our arrival in-country, the first shots had been exchanged between the insurgents and Marines of 1st Recon Bn. It didn’t slow down much for the rest of the deployment.
A lot of words have been written, spoken or shouted about the war, most of them coming from people who were never there — by individuals who never experienced the dust, the heat, the threat, or the frustration. Some of us have spoken up and voiced our stories, but the vast majority of what is said is from those with no experience; from those who presume to know all there is to know.
I am not here to tell my story; there is very little about it that is much different from the stories told by the thousands of other soldiers and Marines who saw combat in Mesopotamia. Instead, I am going to look at some of what has happened, and is still happening today, and why.
THE POPULAR CONSENSUS is that the Iraq War began in March of 2003, although it could very well be argued that it began in January of 1991, when the First Gulf War kicked off. There were very strict terms to the cease fire in 1991 — terms that Saddam Hussein repeatedly violated (e.g. firing SAMs at American aircraft in the no-fly zone; supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks on US soil, including the attempted assassination of President George H. W. Bush; etcetera). Whether Saddam had WMDs or not, he’d spent the better part of a decade convincing the world that he did.
Regime change and the neutralization of Iraqi WMDs was policy under the Clinton administration, a fact that has been conveniently lost in all the political recriminations. As for whether or not Saddam was involved with al-Qaeda, there is no smoking gun. Osama Bin Laden had offered his al-Qaeda fighters to the Saudis in order to overthrow Saddam’s Ba’athis Regime in 1990 and been rebuffed. Notwithstanding the politicking and confusion that led up to the war, the invasion accomplished a great deal: it led to the removal of a well-known enemy; it provided a battlefield which simultaneously drew the jihadis under the banner of al-Qaeda for years and gave our form of high-tech, motorized warfare a greater advantage than it enjoyed in mountainous Afghanistan. Whether these successes were intended is beside the point. These are the facts.
This is not to say that the campaign was brilliant. It was handicapped from the beginning by the mentality that came out of the First Gulf War, where a high-tech war can be waged and won in days, if not hours. The Iraqi leadership was the primary target, so instead of an invasion, the war became a race to Baghdad. Vast munitions stockpiles were left behind, only to disappear into what were to become insurgent caches before any follow-up forces could secure them. We would be finding those munitions for years to come, either when we dug up the caches, or when they blew up on the side of the road, killing our brothers.
Failing to secure the material used by the insurgency was not the only failure in that thunder run to Baghdad. Wars are won or lost in the will of a belligerent to fight. By the time Baghdad had fallen, and Saddam was on the run, very little of the country had even seen American, British, or Canadian troops. Who was telling them they were beaten? They sure didn’t believe it.
As the insurgency flared up, and soldiers and Marines were redeployed to Iraq to quell it, a fundamental misunderstanding of the human terrain became entrenched in Coalition policy. It still has not been corrected, and as the violence in Iraq continues and al-Qaeda in Iraq extends its operations into Syria, the cost of that misunderstanding becomes more evident.
The assumption that was made going into Iraq was that the Iraqis are just like us, that given the chance for a Western democracy, they’d gladly set one up. This is a mistake. The Iraqis are not just Americans in dishdashas. They are very, very different. And so we mishandled things from the start.
Iraq, for all its modern features, is still a fundamentally tribal society. It has been a nation for less than 200 years, while its tribes are more than 2,000 years old. There is no higher good than the good of the tribe. The good of anyone outside the tribe is of minimal importance. For a Western form of representative government to work, everyone has to be seen as equal. A tribal society doesn’t see those outside of the tribe as equal. Blood and faith form far stronger bonds than any parliament in Baghdad can.
Tribes do not care about national borders imposed by foreigners. Neither did the foreign fighters coming into the country from Syria, or the smugglers trafficking Explosively Formed Penetrators and advisors from Iran. Yet we insisted for a very long time that the insurgency was nationalistic, largely Ba’athist hold-outs, and of the mind to leave these sanctuaries alone. When we pressed the insurgents hard enough, they fled. But we never hurt them badly enough to truly defeat them. We stuck to our timetables and our mission briefs, regardless of the situation on the ground, and the enemy got around us.
Now we are gone. They are back and stronger than ever. The Baghdad government grows weaker, as it is paralyzed by tribal and sectarian division and corruption at every level. Already Iraq has become a secondary battlefield for the clash between al-Qaeda and Iran in Syria. It will not cease to be so anytime soon.
There were those Iraqis who believed in the New Iraq. There are still those who do, but they are a minority, fighting an uphill battle. They no longer have our support, and it is unlikely that many of them would welcome it if it was offered again, unless they had no other choice. If it comes to that, we should not expect them to be our staunchest allies again.
I do not pretend to have any sort of overarching solution. The situation, like most such situations, is a mess of gray areas and conflicting loyalties. It could be that there is no solution, aside from going back over every few years and pounding on the more murderous jihadist groups when they threaten our interests, forcing a period of solace before it happens again. The ideology festering in that part of the world is relentless, remorseless, and often suicidal.
And we are no closer to defeating it today than we were ten years ago.
- Remembering Iraq Without Rewriting History
- Iraq War, 10 Years Later: Lessons From Former Deputy Defense Secretary