A Brief History of the Iraq War: Gains, Defeats and Miscalculation

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The war in Iraq began on March 19, 2003. It is now the longest military conflict to involve the United States other than the Vietnam War. At this writing, the war in Iraq has cost some 90,000 Iraqi lives. It has taken the life of 4,298 coalition troops, among whom almost 4,000 Americans. It has cost American taxpayers almost $700 billion and may cost up to $2 trillion if the occupation lasts another five years.

For all the costs of war, there are more questions today than there are answers, and possibly more problems today than there were before the invasion, when problems—severe though those were—were contained within Iraq. Here’s an analytical overview of the last five years, framed by attempted answers to three questions: What’s been gained? What’s been lost? Where to go from here?

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Ending Saddam Hussein’s Regime

Whatever may be said about the deceptions that led to the Iraq war over those fictional weapons of mass destruction or the bungling of the American-led occupation since, one reality remains incontrovertible: Saddam Hussein was one of the 20th century’s most heinous tyrants. His reign was a daily crime against humanity. His removal may not justify all that has happened since. But it was warranted. It’s worth remembering why, as the facts of Saddam’s brutality risk getting lost in the smoke of fresher atrocities.

There is the story of Kadhim Sabit al-Datajji, 61 at the time of the American invasion, a resident of the poor Shiite neighborhood called Sadr City (and formerly called Saddam City). He had seven sons. No one in the family was in Saddam’s Baath Party. Neighborhood Baathists questioned him, wondering why, accusing him of secretly being part of an opposition party. He spent eight years in prison. There’s the story of Farris Salman, whose tongue was pulled out with pliers and cut out in front of his family and neighbors by the black-hooded paramilitary thugs led by Saddam’s eldest son, Uday.

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Tallying the Toll of Saddam’s Stalinist Regime

Saddam’s model was Stalin—in repression, in the establishment of an Iraqi gulag, in torture meted out to victims, in the scale of executions. It is difficult to exaggerate the breadth of his brutality. “The terror,” New York Times reporter John Burns wrote in 2003, “is self-compounding, with the state’s power reinforced by stories that relatives of the victims pale to tell—of fingernail-extracting, eye-gouging, genital-shocking and bucket-drowning. Secret police rape prisoners’ wives and daughters to force confessions and denunciations. There are assassinations, in Iraq and abroad, and, ultimately, the gallows, the firing squads and the pistol shots to the head.” Estimates of the number of people killed during Saddam’s regime have ranged anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million. Human rights organizations estimate that the “disappeared”—those killed in Saddam’s prisons and rogue executions—number 200,000 or more. Some 500,000 Iraqis were killed in the eight-year war with Iran during the 1980s. Iraqis say 100,000 died in the first Gulf War (almost certainly an exaggeration, but tens of thousands just as certainly died in that war).
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The Case for War: President Bush’s False Pretenses

Had President Bush built his case for toppling Saddam around the regime’s brutality toward Iraqis, rather than its presumed threat to the world, perhaps public opinion would have been more supportive of Bush, and his credibility would not have shattered as son would. But he didn’t. He staked his justification for war on Iraq’s alleged possession of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and on Saddam’s potential channeling of those weapons to al-Qaeda operatives.

Both assertions were not only proven false subsequent to the invasion; they were discredited within various agencies at the Pentagon and within the American intelligence community. That’s not what the president told the American public when he made his case for war. Rather, he presented a picture of near certainty that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that those weapons could end up in al-Qaeda’s hands.

Much of the debate about pre-war intelligence centers on whether Bush lied to the public, or whether he acted on the best intelligence available at the time. Both possibilities miss the point. Clearly, there was a heated, bitter debate within the intelligence community, at the Pentagon and at the State Department, on the validity of the claims about Iraq’s WMDs.

Clearly, the best intelligence presented to the president necessarily had to reflect those debates. If it didn’t, those who presented it to him—Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA chief George Tenet—did so knowing that their information was inconclusive. And Bush accepted the information without questioning its genesis, as a chief executive should. Bush may not have lied. But his executive irresponsibility was an equally grave failure of leadership.

That executive irresponsibility set a pattern in Bush’s failed execution of the occupation to come.

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From Invasion to Insurgency

Three days into the war, several retired Gulf War generals warned that coalition troop levels were too low to seize and hold Iraq. Barry McCaffrey, who had commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the Gulf War, said taking Baghdad “is going to be brutal, dangerous work and we could take, bluntly, a couple to 3,000 casualties.” His comments were dismissed at the time. “I can’t manage what people -- civilians or retired military -- want to say,” then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in response. “And if they go on and say it enough, people will begin to believe it.” And strictly speaking, McCaffrey was wrong: Baghdad fell easily on April 9. But what neither Rumsfeld nor McCaffery had taken into account was the possibility of a guerilla war, which would cost American troops well in excess of the casualties McCaffrey was warning about. The State Department had provided the Bush administration with a comprehensive post-invasion plan to administer Iraq. Bush ignored it, preferring instead to run the war through hand-picked political loyalists who, in turn, let nepotism and politics dictate the hiring and firing of non-military occupation personnel. Many were literally vetted for their political allegiance to Bush and compliance to Republican Party ideology that had nothing to do with running Iraq (such as whether they were for or against abortion rights).

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An Occupation Driven by Politics, Not Reality

The result was a largely incapable operation—the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by the imperious L. Paul Bremer. On May 23, Bremer, with Bush’s approval—but without consultations with the State Department or the Pentagon, who knew far more about the war and the larger issues driving on the ground in Iraq than Bush did—disbanded the Iraqi army. The decision, The Time’s military reporter Michael Gordon wrote, all but ensured that “American forces would face a growing insurgency led by embittered Sunnis who led much of the army.”

The insurgency even then was brewing. Fifty-two coalition soldiers were killed between April 9, when Baghdad fell, and May 22, when Bremer issued his order. Twenty-eight of those soldiers were killed after Bush declared, after his flight-suited landing on the deck of the USS Abraham, Lincoln on May 1, that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

On July 16, 2003, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. John P. Abizaid, said fresh troops serving year-long tours, rather than six months, might be needed to fight the insurgency. It was the first official concession that the war wasn’t going as planned. It only got worse from there.

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Losing Sight of the War on Al-Qaeda

The Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq began within days of Bush taking office. That divergence from more pressing priorities would not change, even after the 9/11 attacks. Whether Saddam was involved or not, Bush would keep his focus on Saddam. Even as the campaign was launched to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan, military hardware was being pre-positioned in Kuwait to prepare for an invasion in Iraq—without authority from Congress. By the end of July 2002, Bob Woodward wrote in “Plan of Attack” (Simon & Schuster, 2004), “Bush had approved some 30 projects that would eventually cost $700 million.” Many of those projects were funded with money diverted from the Afghan campaign. “Congress, which is supposed to control the purse strings, had no real knowledge or involvement, had not even been notified that the Pentagon wanted to reprogram money.”

There had been no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the invasion. Soon after the invasion, however, al-Qaeda operatives began infiltrating Iraq. They established an autonomous group there, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and helped fuel the insurgency against American occupation—and impose Taliban-like repression on Iraqis in regions they controlled.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the relatively small number of American and NATO troops could barely contain a Taliban resurgence. And it could do little against a resurgence of al-Qaeda’s power in border regions with Pakistan. The Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf went one step further in undermining Bush’s “war on terror.” He agreed to grant tribal leaders in those regions a measure of autonomy. Al-Qaeda has since strengthened its terrorist capabilities, according to American intelligence officials.

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The Middle East, Still Undemocratic

Once the story about weapons of mass destruction proved hollow, Bush touted the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a first step in a flowering of democracy in the Middle East. Five years later, Iraq is not much more democratic than the autocracies that surround it. “Iraq,” The Times’ John Burns, who spent five years in Iraq, wrote, “could scarcely have been less prepared than it was to embrace democracy, dependent as that is, everywhere, on a minimum of popular consent and trust. The harsh reality is that many Iraqis, at least by the time of the two elections held in 2005, had little zest for democracy, at least as Westerners understand it.”

It isn’t just in Iraq that the promise of democracy wilted before the Bush administration’s renewed enthusiasm for autocracy. The United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco—are all authoritarian, one-party regimes that severely limit civil liberties and commit chronic human rights abuses.

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Bush Embraces Low Expectations in Iraq

Is Iraq better off today than it was five years ago? By almost all measures but one, no. It is not. The one measure by which it has improved is the obvious one: Saddam Hussein no longer tyrannizes over the country. But the replacement for Saddam’s regime has been anything but reassuring for millions of Iraqis.

The Shiite-dominated government has been incapable of forging a reconciliation pact with the Sunni minority. Sunnis are as mistrustful, and fearful, as ever of the Shiites’ dominance, not least because of the way the Shiite regime has let its own interior ministry forces terrorize many Sunni neighborhoods under the guise of establishing security.

The American troop escalation in 2007 provided some short-term gains by imposing iron-fist security measures in Baghdad and imprisoning more than 25,000 Iraqis, most of them without charges. But the “surge”’s success was contingent on political gains among Iraqis. Those gains have not been achieved.

The Bush administration has been content to point to the lower death tallies of late 2007 and early 2008. The tallies are, in fact, lower than they were in late 2006 and early 2007. But they are merely a return to the tallies of 2005, when, even then, American generals were characterizing the situation as a war.

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An Uncertain Future

It isn’t clear what the future will bring in Iraq, other than much of the same. Suicide bombings were again making daily headlines in March 2008. The costs of the war to American taxpayers were skyrocketing. Iraqi oil production was above pre-war levels, but barely. Electric production was either at or below pre-war levels. Iraq, by the numbers, was not a society on the mend, let alone a healthy society. And more than 4 million of its citizens were refugees. Most Iraqis, according to opinion polls, want Americans out of Iraq. John Burns, The Times reporter, is skeptical about the polls, suggesting that most Iraqis are still fearful of speaking their mind, and that most Iraqis he met in his years in Iraq wanted the Americans to stay, if only out of desperation.

“That sentiment,” Burns concludes, “is not one that many critics of the war in the United States seem willing to accept, but neither does it offer the glimmer of cheer that it might seem to offer to many supporters of the war. For it would be passing strange, after the years of unrelenting bloodshed, if Iraqis demanded anything else. It is small credit to the invasion, after all it has cost, that Iraqis should arrive at a point when all they want from America is a return to something, stability, that they had under Saddam. For America, too, it is a deeply dispiriting prospect, promising no early end to the bleeding in Iraq.”