By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes
Ten years ago this week, a US led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. While it is still a bit too soon to see the long term prospects for the post-Saddam Iraq, we have enough hindsight to make reasonable judgments about the overall effects of the Coalition conquest.
Previously, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and conquered it within two days. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein then declared Kuwait a province of Iraq and began a barrage of verbal threats against Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi army was then within short striking distance of Saudi oil fields. That mattered to the West for humanitarian reasons and because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were, and still are, exporting oil to Western nations. Which reason mattered most depends on which Westerner or non-Westerner you ask.
On January 18, 1991, US-led Coalition aircraft and ships began an intense and very effective attack on Iraqi military assets. On February 24, the Coalition attacked Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait for the purpose of liberating Kuwait and destroying the Iraqi elite Republican Guard divisions. By February 27, the surviving Iraqi forces in Kuwait retreated, and by the next day, all Iraqi forces near Saudi Arabia had been destroyed or had retreated north. The Coalition ordered a cease-fire.
The Coalition offered Saddam Hussein a truce based on his willingness to destroy all Scud missiles and to allow unhindered weapons and site inspections by the US and/or by inspectors from Coalition nations. Saddam quickly agreed to the terms. However, once the majority of Coalition forces were gone from the region, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN and Western inspection teams. Neither the UN nor the US could verify what WMDs remained in Iraq.
On March 20, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated intent of removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. A significant part of the US and British justification for that invasion centered on Iraq’s failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 truce. Given that Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens, the US and some Western allies took the WMD threat very seriously.
When the US Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the US used its air supremacy, its superior mobility, and its superior training and leadership to defeat the numerically superior Iraqi military. The 300,000 strong Coalition made fast progress against the 375,000 demoralized Iraqi military, and on May 1, 2003, US President George Bush announced that combat operations in Iraq were over.
While the war against the Iraqi military was, indeed, successfully concluded, the difficult process of occupying Iraq had only started. “Peace” in Iraq would cost the US and its Coalition allies—the UK principle among them—far more in lives and treasure than the war did.
Most participants and observers on both sides of the conflict were confident that a US-backed coalition would defeat the Iraqi military. However, coalition military and political leaders had three critical questions on their minds:
- What will it cost us in lives to destroy the Iraqi military and Saddam’s regime?
- What will it cost Iraq in civilian casualties and oil production?
- What will it cost Coalition members in both domestic and international political capital?
Leaders in Washington, D.C. and London knew the answer to the third question would be determined by the answers to the first two.
According to a variety of US polls, on the morning of the invasion, over 70% of the US population approved the action. A general anger over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which Islamic jihadis murdered approximately 3,000 innocent civilians in the US, fueled that approval. Some of the approval was also fueled by the belief that Iraq still possessed WMDs, intermediate range missiles, sarin gas, and extended range SCUD missiles.
The few adventurous folks who targeted Iraqi chemical weapons facilities on the ground with the assistance of Kurdish allies probably won’t say anything except that they were on vacation some place else that month. The Iraqi war veterans who now suffer from symptoms caused by chemical exposure in the Iraqi tunnels and bunkers usually don’t say much either, and if they did, who would listen?
It was never a question that Iraq had WMDs. As mentioned above, Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens. That is undisputed fact. Three conditions of the of the 1991 truce, as well as a UN mandate, were that Saddam get rid of the WMDs he had, that he not stockpile any more, and that he prove he was in compliance. However, Iraq routinely blocked UN inspection teams sent to verify that he was abiding by the terms of the treaty. This obstruction created the doubt that Iraq had disposed of its WMDs and ceased its WMD programs.
While blocking these inspections, Saddam continued to finance “secret” WMD programs in Iraq with illegally diverted “oil for food” funds that were administered by corrupt UN leaders. Saddam’s scientists and administrators, in their turn, stole most of the diverted money while sending false reports up the food chain to indicate a level of progress in their WMD research and production that did not exist. However, this façade was enough to convince Saddam that his scientists were succeeding in developing WMDs, including nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies outside of the Iraq were seeing some of the same overblown progress reports to Saddam, and this created a confusing picture. In addition to those reports, a variety of other anti-Saddam parties, both inside of and outside of Iraq, were doing their best to tell the West whatever it needed to hear in order to get the West to depose Saddam.
Saddam staunchly denied possession of WMDs to the West and to the UN. Simultaneously, he waged an information war against Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria, posturing and puffing up his WMD capabilities. He wanted to scare them. He succeeded.
Saddam gambled. He and most of the other oil-producing Islamic nations pressured the West to stay out of Iraq. Saddam thought that petroleum bargaining chip, combined with the threat that his modified extended range missiles could reach as far as Paris, would keep the US from “pulling the trigger” and launching an attack on Iraq. He was wrong and that bad bet cost him a trip to the gallows and the lives of his two sons.
During the Iraqi War, Coalition forces quickly found the banned Scud Missiles but found little remaining WMD equipment. The few sarin gas artillery shells and the nerve gas manufacturing equipment that were discovered did nothing to overcome most of the public’s perception that “there were never any WMDs in Iraq.”
While Saddam and his regime were easy to dispose of, creating something like a “government” in Iraq to replace the old Baathist regime was far more difficult. The US would pay dearly for the occupation process. In fact, “process” might be the wrong term. Much of the US/UK strategy for the occupation seems to have been based on wishful thinking and a strategy of “spend and pray.”
In a live broadcast interview on April 23, 2003, USAID administrator Andrew Nastios said the rebuilding of Iraq could be accomplished for no more than $1.7 billion dollars in total. He missed by a bit. Before the end of 2003, the cost of the Iraqi occupation had increased to about $1 billion per week. By 2007, the costs had escalated to $2 billion per week.
Visitors to Iraq today would likely wonder precisely where that $2 billion a week went. While the variety of contractors, both US and foreign, will reassure us that every penny was well spent, not being one of those contractor folks, I am a bit less satisfied with the results of the expenditures. If you are a family member or loved one of the nearly 4,500 US troops or 312 British troops who were killed, you might be too busy remembering that fallen soldier to wonder about the money. If you are a family member of one of the 90,000 injured Coalition soldiers, then you might simply be too busy wondering about your own expenses to think about Iraq. But even if the money doesn’t matter to you, and the dead and injured are not directly related to you, it’s still worth wondering why we achieved so little at such a high cost in lives and treasure.
Unfortunately, we are not likely to permanently avoid war in the future. For one thing, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” show, we remain involved in Afghanistan where we are burning more cash and lives to prop up an unlovable hoodlum in the person of Muhammad Karzai. For another, the White House has just stepped up its rhetoric against Iran. So while the Iraq War is over for us, questions about how we managed it remain critical.
Even at the time of the Iraq invasion, my greatest concern was that we were likely to invest heavily in lives and money without demanding anything from whatever group that we would prop up as an Iraqi government. My fears have been realized. How could I have imagined such a thing, you ask? Easily, Viet Nam should have taught us all better. Apparently, it didn’t.
While we spent generously and the Coalition troops fought effectively and efficiently, we have demanded very little from the Iraqi leadership to whom we relinquished control. While the various concerns of the many different Iraqi Peoples deserved consideration, we allowed the Iraqis to muddle along and call the shots while we paid the bills. That was nothing short of insane.
How insane? About a trillion dollars and 4,500 lives insane from the US point of view. The view from the Iraqi side of the equation is much worse. The Iraqi government, the Coalition, and the UN have no idea how many Iraqis were murdered during the chaos that plagued the US occupation. The estimates range from 110,000 to 600,000. The 600,000 figure seems wildly high to me, but 200,000 seems possible. The vast majority of those Iraqi civilians were murdered by Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis rather than by Coalition forces. Nonetheless, that’s still a level of human loss that should not be ignored.
If we weren’t willing to take charge during the occupation, then we simply should have shot Saddam when US Army Special Forces troops ferreted him out of his fox hole and then gone home. If we weren’t willing to be seen as being in charge in Iraq while providing some stability for a representative government to form, then we should not have stayed for more than the year that it took to destroy Saddam’s forces and hunt down his key Baathists pals.
In all major theories of war, including the various theories of guerrilla warfare and terror operations, one of the leading critical principles is “the principle of the objective.” Without a clear and viable objective in mind, one cannot achieve anything meaningful in a war.
In my opinion, and I won’t claim that it’s a humble one because I’m an opinionated old SOB and I know it, we failed to identify and pursue a clear objective in Iraq. We succeeded within the year in our original objective of removing the threat against ourselves and our allies by removing Saddam. Those who love to say Saddam never posed a threat to the US have ignored history and must not be paying for the petroleum they consume. But having achieved that objective, we stayed in Iraq while presumably hoping that someone in Baghdad would generously provide us with a plausible objective while we waited for democracy to break out. When we left in 2011, we were still waiting for that democracy. We’re still waiting now, but at least we no longer spend $2 billion a week for the privilege.
To be fair, what exists in Iraq today is probably, from the Western perspective, slightly less horrible than the Saddam regime. From the perspective of most Iraqis, life under the tyrant Maliki is far better than life under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The Sunni backed kingdom of Saudi Arabia might not agree. The Iranians are thrilled to have a Shia in charge in Iraq, but they are learning that not all Shia believe Iran needs to be the one Islamic Caliphate.
And now we can add a couple of new factors to the Iraqi equation. Turkey has decided that those “disgusting subhuman” Kurds in Iraq have oil and are therefore lovely folks. Turkey finds itself talking to the Iraqi government in Baghdad less and less, and holding hands with the Kurds more and more. But let’s not forget another important neighbor of Iraq. Syria is in turmoil, and the violence is increasing. Iraq’s Maliki regime is supporting Iran’s ally Assad in Syria.
The US, NATO, and Turkey are in no hurry to start an air campaign against Assad. Iran backs some anti-Assad fighters as a hedge against the Syrian dictator. However, Iran needs Assad to stay in power and remain a major concern to the West for as long as possible. If the West is busy being concerned with Syria’s recent attacks against Lebanon and Turkey, it is less likely to invest the considerable military assets and massive political capital required for a meaningful military strike against Iran. Iran is free to pursue its nuclear dreams.
Interestingly, Iran turned down its patented “death to America” rhetoric this week and seems willing to talk. How much of that shift is a response to the economic pain of UN and US sanctions, and how much is a strategy to buy time to assemble a nuclear weapon, is tough to guess at this point. If you happen to live in Israel, you can’t be enjoying this card game at all.
Not everyone will agree on whether the 2003 Iraq invasion should have occurred at all. Many who agreed at the time have changed their minds. What most of us can easily agree on is that the White House and Congress mismanaged the occupation. If we are to learn anything, and if the sacrificed Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians matter at all, then we are obligated to examine the Iraq occupation dispassionately and apolitically so that we can do our best to avoid such hideously expensive mistakes in the future.