Lessons Not Learned from the Iraq War

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Fifteen years have passed since US troops pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Fardos Square in Baghdad, to the cheers of jubilant Iraqis who were also hopeful that the end of tyranny would mark the beginning of democracy. But democracy never took off. The history of the Iraq War is yet to be written. What have circulated so far are politically motivated narratives by either those who always opposed the war, or those who originally supported it but later came to regret their stance. The latter would say, “If we knew then what we know now, we’d never have supported it.” Despite their differences, both groups seem to agree over what they think “went wrong.” But they are wrong.

“It was built on a lie” usually tops the talking points against the war. True as it is, the lie tarnished the image of the Bush administration, but was irrelevant to the carnage that befell Iraq after the war. Even if Americans had found Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or even if they had apprehended his imaginary operatives who had facilitated the 9/11 attacks, America would still have found itself managing post-war Iraq.

Detractors of the war then blame America’s chief executive in Iraq, Paul Bremer, for disbanding the army, arguing that his step rendered the country defenseless in front of bandits and, later, terrorist groups. Such argument is false.

Long before Saddam went, the Iraqi army was already in shambles. The story goes that the late Iraqi president applied to the military college, was rejected, and hence held a grudge against the army. Brutal as he was, Saddam was also shrewd, which means that his animosity toward the army sprang not from vendetta, but from his paranoia of coups, many of which had toppled his predecessors. After the Iran war, Saddam’s cousin, bother-in-law and childhood friend Adnan Khairallah emerged as a hero. In 1989, Adnan – then the minister of defense – died in a chopper crash. Many Iraqis suspected foul play. Saddam was scared that his cousin would move against him. Saddam moved first.

Thus was Saddam’s relationship with his army. As Iraq’s late strongman starved the army and liquidated its senior staff, he built parallel military organizations loyal to him, such as the Republican Guard and Fidaiyee Saddam. But even these loyal factions were turned against each other so that they would compete for his approval.

The military history of Operation Iraqi Freedom is still shrouded in mystery, but Iraqi witnesses believe that the battle for the airport, west of Baghdad, was the turning point, after which Saddam’s forces collapsed and started taking off their uniforms and running away, in a move that now seems to be the signature of the Iraqi military, whether in 1991 and Operation Desert Storm, when Iraqi troops abandoned their positions, or in 2014 when Iraqi battalions surrendered Mosul to ISIS.

When Bremer became the ruler of Baghdad in 2003, security agencies – especially the much-feared intelligence unit – had already disappeared. Bremer’s disbanding of the army was recognition of reality. If he had issued a general pardon and reassembled the security forces, this could have extended the war, given that Saddam and his two sons were still at large, and would have loved to see their forces reconstituted and at their command.

The rules of engagement of America’s military in Iraq did not help either. These stipulated that US troops would only shoot if they were shot at. This meant that Baghdad – then a city of six million – was not policed at all, which was an invitation for brigands and terrorists to form groups and sow death and destruction.

When the Saddam regime collapsed, former security personnel became too scared to show their faces for fear of reprisal. And they were right. After the downfall of the regime, Iran deployed what came to be known as the Battalions of Death – Iraqis who hunted down a long list of former military and Baath officials. In the government, Iran and its Iraqi allies enacted unfair policies, such as de-Baathification, which criminalized the majority of Iraqi state personnel, military or civilians.

America imagined a post-Saddam Iraq similar to post-Nazi Europe. The problem was that Iraqis, and behind them Tehran, were not interested in justice, only in revenge. America played along. It was this, not disbanding the security forces, that was America’s mistake.

When Washington finally realized its errors on security and de-Baathification, it rectified them by increasing its number of troops and using tribal muscle. Sunnis were invited back to Baghdad, despite Tehran’s protest. With such measures, violence in Iraq declined to its pre-2003 levels.

But by the time America had fixed Iraq, a new president had arrived in the White House, and Washington took its eyes off the ball. Barack Obama believed that his “Grand Bargain” with Iran would be the Middle East’s silver bullet. He wanted to restore Tehran to its role as the regional cop, on behalf of America, like it was under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi.

But Iran took Iraq from Obama and never delivered its part of the bargain. It resumed hunting down Sunnis, thus reviving terrorist groups. Violence levels in Iraq shot to peak levels last recorded in 2006.

Many people who talk about the Iraq War today imagine a linear line between the downfall of Saddam in 2003 and the rise of ISIS in 2014. Such reasoning is wrong. Bush’s war spiked violence in 2006, but Bush’s surge of troops restored order by 2009. It was Obama’s disengagement, and his handing over of Iraq’s keys to Maliki and Iran, that undid Bush’s stabilization, and allowed the resurgence of ISIS and violence.

The rise of ISIS, in Iraq and across the region, was the result of Obama opening up to Iran, not because Bush took down Saddam Hussein. Perhaps a revised history of the war in Iraq would read something like this: Had we known that Obama would become president in 2009, we would have never supported Bush’s Iraq War in 2003.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.