The Legacy Of The Iraq War For The US – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Kabir Taneja
March 2023 marks 20-years since the United States (US) launched its war against then Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, under the pretext of Baghdad developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as Washington deviated and expanded its mandate under the ‘War on Terror’ era spurred by the 9/11 terror attacks.
For 20 years, the war itself has been seen as a watershed moment on multiple fronts, the biggest mistake of the Bush-Cheney administration, a conflict that undercut the War on Terror itself, and one that immensely diluted an already fragile American presence in the Middle East (West Asia). Even as the US tries to normalise the events of the time, and as Washington’s strategic interests in Iraq evolve, the legacy of the war continues to weigh heavy on the US foreign policy.
The aftershocks of the Iraq invasion
Almost no good came out of the American invasion of Iraq, despite some who continue to argue that while the war was launched on false intel and pretext, it still did more good than harm. The question, “for whom?”, continues to be avoided by those making this argument to this day. “When seemingly good wars go bad, Americans often conclude those wars were pointless or corrupt from the get go,” scholar Hal Brands recently opined.
Colin Powell, the then US Secretary of State who passed away in 2021, was perhaps one of the very few senior Bush administration leaders that openly criticised both the veracity of the intelligence provided and the decision making that followed, leading to the Iraq war and along with it, compromising American operations in Afghanistan as well. While the Iraq invasion’s flaws are well recognised, its known-on effect in Afghanistan is still being highlighted as one of the biggest strategic follies by America in modern times.
“In May 2002, the US began training the ANA, with US Special Forces leading the effort. Recognizing that training a national army was beyond the core competency of the Special Forces, the US deployed the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division to expand the training program from small infantry units to larger military formations, and to develop defence institutions such as logistics networks. However, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed a key resource from the Afghanistan mission: active-duty military units to train the Afghan military.
Instead, training the Afghan military transitioned to a steady rotation of various Army National Guard units,” read the second page of a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, where the US government body looked into what led to the failures of the Afghan Army in August 2021, where it collapsed within hours as the Taliban re-took Kabul. At least part of the question as to why the Afghan Army came out to be so fragile was traced to an institutional and political distraction that the Iraq war caused to operations in the country, where critical military talent and equipment was diverted even as the Taliban threat was recovering and not necessarily subsiding.
Saddam Hussein’s toppling was not the pivotal moment of the war. While it did make for good images for ‘Pax Americana’ view of the world back home for a population witnessing it on cable television and pining for avenging 9/11, there became much clearer evidence of groups such as Al Qaeda being more prominent in Iraq after the war began, than before it. The war itself, to this day, continues to galvanise support for Islamist movements across the world, and continues to be one of the most effective props to both radicalise and recruit. Add this to the US exiting Afghanistan after signing a deal with the Taliban, for the likes of Al Qaeda and others, the portrayal would be that the two-decade long wars have led to their victory, at least outrightly, in Afghanistan.
The coming of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) in Iraq and Syria, seeds of which can be traced to Al Qaeda in Iraq, is also now being seen by some as a ‘forever’ operation for the US in the region as scholars such as Haroro J Ingram and Craig Whiteside highlight that battlefield victories against jihadist groups tends to underestimate their capacities to survive and reorganise. This is only aided by the fractured legacy of the Iraq war pushing every subsequent US president to try and minimise or withdraw from the theatre, with warrying degrees of success.
However, the eventual illegitimacy of the war and the lack of culpability around those who made the decisions to start it remains a large stumbling block for others trusting the US. From Russia’s pitch of blaming ISIS in Afghanistan on “Anglo-Saxon” policies to the Iraq conflict— often cited by many in places such as New Delhi as to why trust towards the US should never be absolute—the legacy of the war lives in multidimensional narratives across the West, East, and the Global South.
Iraq war through the eyes of New Delhi
Despite the commotion around the war in 2003, New Delhi also saw an opportunity to get closer to the US at a time when relations with Washington were a far cry from what we see today in an era of the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, and so on. India’s then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was under pressure around a request by the US for India to join its ‘coalition of the willing’ and send troops to aid the US-led grouping in Iraq. This was taking place simultaneously as the Indian parliament unanimously passed a resolution against the invasion. The proverbial fork-on-the-road for Indian strategic thinkers of the time was to decide whether this was an opportunity to get in Washington’s good books or continue with its traditional position of the United Nations being the most apt institute to convene if WMDs in Iraq had indeed become an issue of global concern.
Thankfully, Vajpayee decided against direct support despite pressure from within his government and some in the commentariat outside. An agreement with the US would have meant Indian troops being deployed on Iraqi soil. While many (including this author) are in favour of India taking bolder kinetic decisions (which for example it failed to do in Afghanistan through much of the war), 2003 was neither the time, nor was Iraq the theatre for New Delhi to initiate this in-demand strategic shift. In 2023, knowing how the Iraq war turned out, Vajpayee’s decision stands vindicated.
The above political decisions also had pressure on another front, the fact that Hussein was seen favourably by India’s political elite, coming from a history of Indian MiG pilots training Iraqi counterparts, energy security, his help for India against Pakistan and so on. The then leader of the Rashtrya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological brain of Vajpayee’s party the Bharatiya Janata Party, had already criticised the war against Iraq.
B Raman, a former senior counterterrorism official in India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, wrote in a piece titled ‘Weep for Saddam’: “I weep for Saddam. He was a good friend of India and its people. He always stood by us in the best of times and in the worst of times. I remember the days after the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, in which nearly 300 innocent Indian civilians were killed by terrorists trained by the (Pakistani) ISI. We went from one intelligence agency to another asking for help in investigating the role of Pakistan. The Americans rebuffed us. Protecting Pakistan and its ISI was more important for them than grieving for the Indians killed and helping India to bring to book those responsible. Saddam rushed to our assistance and helped us in whatever little way he can.”
India’s relations with Hussein at a time when the country felt its voice found no takers in the West, a carry-over from the Cold War era were not just rhetorical. One of the first buildings over which the so-called Islamic State flew its flag in Mosul in 2015 in northern Iraq was the five-star Ninewah Oberoi Hotel. The hotel had opened in 1986; Oberoi, of course, being the international famed Indian hospitality brand, that also managed the Babylon-Oberoi in Baghdad, is today just another memory of India’s relations with the Iraq of that time, particularly as part of the Non-Aligned Movement construct.
Since Iraq, India has often held similar views on Western interventions in the region, criticising the Libyan war amongst other geopolitical flash points. The diversion over Iraq in India’s polity in 2003 was a missed opportunity for some strategic thinkers but was in all probability just a little ahead of its time as a policy decision.
The Iraq war was possibly the worst political decision making in the West in the recent past. There was no denying that Hussein was a dictator and had committed atrocities against his own people and Iraq’s neighbours as well. However, tying his name to 9/11 not only caused a big setback to the ‘War on Terror’, but also added a new layer of apprehension amongst many countries over cooperating with or following behind the US geopolitical decision making.
Some of these apprehensions are visible today on how the Global South positions itself around the Ukraine war, and a lot of these apprehensions come from experiencing centuries of colonialism, and lack of genuine and equitable partnership by global powers in contemporary history. India’s positioning as a voice for the Global South has the probability of fixing this anomaly, but a lot of it may come down how the likes of the US, Europe, China, and even Russia approach a fast-rupturing global order in the coming decade. The Iraq war remains a quintessential example of the adage that in international affairs, history is a great teacher only if it has willing students.