Scoring Our Four Iraq Wars

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Marine photo / Sgt. Jason W. Fudge

A U.S. Marine in Anbar province, Iraq, 2008.

A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.

— Thucydides

It’s still unclear how history will judge the U.S. conflict in Iraq. It seems most people think it was a mistake, despite the success of the initial invasion.

Many Americans feel we lost the war in Iraq, after all, people want clear victories, and the confusion of what happened in Iraq prevented a clear understanding of what happened.

So, a clear understanding of the Iraq conflict is important. We should know what we went through and we should have a better understanding of how to deal with future conflicts. Determining whether we won or lost in Iraq is difficult, though, because we didn’t fight one war.

We fought four, with varying outcomes.

War is the very definition of confusion, both to those fighting, and to those who observe from afar. The term ‘fog of war’ applies not only to the fighter — it also obscures the details for those who watch.

I have the rare advantage of having done both; I was in the dirt fighting in the initial invasion, as a Marine, and again in Ramadi in 2004.

I then spent the next seven years as a civilian intelligence analyst, looking at the war from the most strategic of levels, briefing generals and writing reports for politicians.

The conflict took up most of my twenties, and a good chunk of my thirties. I was in Iraq at the beginning in 2003, and at the very end when we withdrew in 2011.

The four distinct wars were against different enemies with vastly different agendas and motivations. Quite often, the soldiers and Marines in combat didn’t even know who, exactly, they were fighting.

War #1, against Saddam Hussein.

We won the first war, decisively.

Although President Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech seems premature now after years of insurgencies, the reality is the mission was, indeed, accomplished at that point in time.

The objective of the invasion was to topple Saddam, and we did it.

We were greeted as liberators in Baghdad. I had women and kids throwing flowers on my Humvee. An old man, missing teeth, drooling and with an empty eye socket, reached into my vehicle, grabbed my face, and kissed me on both cheeks.

Our success in removing Saddam sent shockwaves throughout the region. Was it a coincidence that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003? Unlikely. I believe the Iranians deeply feared we would swing east after we defeated Baghdad.

Also, arguably, the “Arab Spring” is indirectly a consequence of Saddam’s fall. The removal of an Arab dictator showed it could be done.

War #2, against the Sunni insurgency.

The second war began shortly after the few halcyon days of the summer of 2003, when defeated Sunnis, furious at having lost power with Saddam’s fall, regrouped and started attacking U.S. and coalition forces.

They formed disparate groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigade and remnants of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, and fought out of a sense of nationalism. After all, their government had been overthrown by a foreign invader, and they were patriotic Iraqis.

Iraqis have an intense sense of nationalism, perhaps more than any other Arab nation. For example, in 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority – the infamous U.S.-led effort to nurture a democratic Iraqi government – attempted to establish a new Iraqi flag. Purportedly, the reasoning was to erase the legacy of the Saddam regime. The CPA didn’t realize is that the Iraqi flag existed long-before Saddam, and the Iraqis loved their flag. A nationalist insurgency against an invading force should have been expected.

But we defeated the Sunni Insurgency, thoroughly, in 2007.

In part, our success was due to a massive, U.S.-led effort to essentially buy off the Sunni insurgents with jobs — a program called The Sons of Iraq. Additionally, President Bush significantly increased the U.S. troop presence, otherwise known as “the surge.”

But there was another factor, possibly the most important. The Sunnis had finally become tired of the repressive Islamists, led by al Qaeda in Iraq, which imposed sharia law and forced the Iraqi Sunnis to send their daughters abroad as wives of Islamist fighters.

War #3, against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Iraqi franchise of al Qaeda was deadly, no question, especially while they remained allied with the nationalist Iraqi Sunni insurgency.

But between losing local Iraqi insurgent support and the surge, AQI was significantly reduced in capability. We didn’t eliminate AQI entirely — they were still capable of attacks on occasion — but we achieved something else.

For about eight years, give or take, the U.S. war machine killed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jihadists, radical Islamists from all over the world bent on killing Americans. We lost a lot of U.S. troops to AQI.

But our greatest fear didn’t happen.

In the intelligence community we called it “bleed-out.” Unlike after the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, jihadists that fought in Iraq didn’t return to their home countries and start Islamist insurgencies of their own. They didn’t go back to their home countries because we killed them by the thousands.

Iraq was a grist-mill for jihadists, quite literally an abattoir. For every soldier or Marine we lost, they lost dozens, if not hundreds.

AQI survived, barely, but it never turned into an organization that could threaten the United States on our own soil. This, in my opinion, was a victory.

War #4, against the Iraqi Shia.

The United States fought a proxy war with Iran from 2004 to 2011.

Iran funded, trained and otherwise supported several Shia insurgent groups, including Jaysh al Mahdi, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Iran provided sophisticated weapons, including Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs) and Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions (IRAMs), as well as thousands of 107mm and 122mm rockets. These highly-lethal munitions caused thousands of U.S. casualties.

Could we have won this proxy war with Iran?

Perhaps, if we had stayed.

If the Bush or Obama administrations had had the guts to confront Iran, perhaps we could have secured in Iraq something unique, a truly democratic society in the heart of the Middle East. Perhaps we could have been in the position to ameliorate the horror of the Syrian civil war, of Bashar Assad murdering his countrymen with the support of Iran, as it transports weapons to his regime via Iraq.

But we didn’t.

We ceded the battlefield to Iran and its Iraqi proxies when we left Iraq in 2011. An action I believe history will someday call the most horrendous military/political retreat in U.S. history.

Was the invasion itself a mistake? Perhaps. It certainly changed my life for forever. I think Saddam had to go, but I wish we could have taken him out with a drone strike.

But did we “lose?”

Yes and no.

We won three wars, and only lost the fourth because we quit the field of battle.

The greatest tragedy of Iraq may end up being that our initial victories could be eclipsed by our ultimate failure.

J.E. McCollough served in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2005. He is a combat veteran of two tours in Iraq as a counter-intelligence specialist, where he earned a Purple Heart and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with ‘V’ Combat Distinguishing Device. He lives in Portland, Oregon.