3 takeaways 20 years after the invasion of Iraq

Two decades ago, US air and ground forces invaded Iraq in what then-President George W. Bush called an effort to disarm the country, liberate its people and “defend the world.” against grave danger.

In the March 19, 2003 late-night speech in the Oval Office, Bush failed to mention his administration’s claim that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This argument – which turned out to be based on scanty or otherwise flawed intelligence – had been made weeks earlier by Secretary of State Colin Powell at a meeting of the UN Security Council.

Mario Tama/Getty Images


Getty Images

US Secretary of State Colin Powell holds a vial depicting the small amount of anthrax that shut down the US Senate in 2002 during his address to the UN Security Council February 5, 2003 in New York. Powell was giving a presentation to try to convince the world that Iraq was deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Bush described the massive airstrikes on Iraq as “the first steps in what will be a broad and concerted campaign” and promised that “we will accept no outcome but victory.”

However, Bush’s warning that the campaign “may be longer and more difficult than some anticipated” proved prescient. In eight years of presence on the ground, the United States has lost some 4,600 American servicemen and at least 270,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians, have been killed. Although the invasion succeeded in overthrowing Saddam, it ultimately failed to uncover any secret stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Although estimates vary, one estimate from Brown University puts the cost of the combat phase of the war at around $2 trillion.


When Ryan Crocker, who at the time was already U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria and would take on the highest diplomatic post in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, first saw the televised speech of Bush announcing the start of combat operations, he was at an airport heading to Washington, D.C.

“I thought, ‘Here we go,'” he recalls. But it was a feeling of dread, not excitement. Crocker wondered, “God knows where we’re going.”

Peter Mansoor, a student colonel at the US Army War College at the time, worries about his future, knowing that he will soon be in command of the 1st Armored Division’s first brigade, which will then go into action. in Iraq.

“I was very interested in the outcome of the invasion and what would happen next,” said Mansoor, who is now a professor of military history at Ohio State University. “I didn’t expect the Iraqi army to put up much resistance beyond a few weeks.”

Meanwhile, Marsin Alshamary, an 11-year-old Iraqi-American who grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the time of the invasion, says “seeing planes and bombings where my grandparents lived made you cry”. Alshamary, who is now a Middle East policy expert at the Brookings Institution, told him at the time that the possibility of Saddam being toppled seemed “unreal”.

Crocker, Mansoor and Alshamary recently shared their thoughts with NPR on lessons learned from one of America’s longest conflicts – the war in Iraq. Here are their observations:

Wars are not predictable. They’re chaotic – and more expensive than anyone anticipates

US optimism for a quick and relatively bloodless outcome in Iraq was evident even before the invasion.

In the months leading up to the 2003 invasion, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a radio call-in broadcast predicted that the coming fight would take “five days or five weeks or five months , but it certainly won’t last any longer than that.” Bush, in what was dubbed his “mission accomplished” speech on May 1, 2003, declared that “major combat operations in Iraq are over.”

Rumsfeld’s prediction would prove hopelessly optimistic. In the days and weeks after the fall of Baghdad, a growing insurgency took hold and American forces began to come under frequent fire from hostile militias.

Mansoor says the Bush administration “made a certain set of planning assumptions that didn’t pan out.”

“They basically planned for the best-case scenario, where the Iraqi people would cooperate with the occupation, that Iraqi units would be available to help secure the country in the aftermath of the conflict, and that the international community would step in to help rebuild Iraq. ” he says. “All three of these assumptions were wrong.”

Although many Iraqis were happy to see Saddam go, “there was a significant minority who benefited from his rule. And they weren’t going to go away quietly overnight,” Mansoor said.

It was not just the Iraqi army, but government bureaucrats who owed their livelihood to Saddam.

The US decision to disband the Iraqi army a few months later – leaving 400,000 disgruntled, combat-trained Iraqi men with no income – marked a turning point in the conflict. He helped fuel the insurgency and is credited by some historians with helping to spawn the terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS).

Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images


AFP via Getty Images

Iraqi children sit amid rubble on a street in the Nablus district of Mosul in front of a billboard bearing the logo of the Islamic State group on March 12, 2017.

“The Iraq conflict has sucked thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jihadist terrorists into the country,” Mansoor said. “It also created a battlefield in Iraq where … a civil war could take place.”

“None of this was planned,” he says. “But the result of the elimination of Saddam’s regime made that possible.”

Alshamary calls the Bush administration’s approach to the invasion of Iraq “scandalous”.

“There hasn’t been a history of short, successful interventions that resulted in successful diet change. So the arrogance of assuming that could happen was staggering,” she says.

Instead of a conflict that lasted for weeks or months, as Bush Cabinet officials and advisers had hoped, a years-long occupation ensued, which would inherit President Barack Obama’s administration. The word “quagmire” – largely disused since the Vietnam War – has been dusted off to describe the situation in Iraq.

The potential for prolonged occupation should have been anticipated, Crocker says. “Overthrowing someone else’s government and occupying the country is going to trigger consequences that are not just third and fourth order. They are 30th and 40th order – far beyond any ability to predict or to plan.”

“In Iraq, we paid for it in blood as well as in money,” said the former ambassador. “Somebody tell me when we’re deciding if it was worth those 4,500 lives, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of lives the Iraqis lost.”

If you are about to “reshape” a region, you may not like the shape it takes

Key figures in the Bush administration believed that regime change would make Iraq a US ally in the region and provide a pro-US bulwark against neighboring Iran, while reducing the threat of terrorism at home. him. Alshamary calls this notion, at least as far as Iran is concerned, “wishful thinking.”

Instead, she says, Tehran was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year conflict in the years 1980 and were still bitter enemies at the start of the American invasion. Today, the Iraqi army is only half its size before the invasion. And some analysts say the war in Iraq has made it much more difficult for the international community to respond to Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Instead of containing Tehran, the invasion of its neighbor and rival only “created a power vacuum which Iran filled”, Mansoor says.

This is a view shared by Crocker. “We basically left the field to the opponents with more patience and more commitment,” he says. “That would, of course, be al-Qaeda in the west and Iran and its affiliated militias in the east.”

The Islamic State also exploited sectarian tensions after the invasion to entrench itself in Iraq and Syria, forcing the United States to return troops to Iraq three years after its first withdrawal from the country.

John Moore/Getty Images


Getty Images

A woman from an Arab family cries after her family was denied entry to a Kurdish-controlled area from an ISIS-held village in late 2015 near Sinjar, Iraq. Not all results are bad

Despite the huge loss of life and other consequences of the US invasion, Alshamary, Mansoor and Crocker agree that Iraq is a fundamentally freer country today than it was before 2003.

Yes, there is crippling corruption, unemployment, poverty and total dependence on oil as a source of wealth, says Alshamary. On the other hand, Iraq has elections “which are not perfectly free and fair but are actually much better than people think”.

Even so, attacks on activists and journalists are not uncommon. Recent street protests have been forcefully suppressed by the authorities. Two years ago, the Iraqi prime minister narrowly survived an assassination attempt, allegedly by an Iranian-backed militia.

Despite these problems, Iraq held firm. It’s a democracy with peaceful transitions of power — things that wouldn’t exist without American intervention, Mansoor says.

Meanwhile, Crocker mentions a recent visit to Iraq, where he met a group of recent college graduates. What was Iraq’s biggest problem? He asked.

“Corruption”, was the answer. “And it starts at the top, including the prime minister.”

“I noticed they were saying that in the prime minister’s guesthouse,” he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To learn more, visit


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *