Has America Lost the Iraq War?
Since the U.S. withdrew in 2011, Iraq has disintegrated. Now a terrorist organization threatens to reverse everything America accomplished there.
In 2003 America and its allies launched the second Iraq war—dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom—to oust the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. At the time, the Bush administration reasoned that a Hussein-led Iraq was a strategic threat to the security of the United States.
The war was sold to the American public and the international community based on the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that he could use against the West (or Israel)—or give to terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. The Bush administration was convinced that an Iraq without Hussein would result in more stability in the Middle East, make the United States and other Western nations safer, provide more freedom to Iraqi citizens and help start a wave of democracy across the Middle East.
The second Iraq war, though successful at defeating and overthrowing Hussein’s regime relatively quickly, achieved very few of the above objectives. The reality is that Iraq is more volatile and unstable today than it was under Hussein. Arguably, the Maliki government is not as brutal and violent as Hussein’s, but it has proven inept and unjust in other ways.
One of the most iconic scenes of the entire Iraq war was when former U.S. President George W. Bush landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under the banner “Mission: Accomplished.” At that point, the future of Iraq looked bright. Saddam Hussein and his regime were on the run, and Iraq was finally considered “liberated.” President Bush said:
“The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will leave—and we will leave behind a free Iraq.”
When the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, President Barack Obama hailed Iraq as a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” state. The U.S. government hoped that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would lead Iraq in an inclusive, Western-style democratic fashion and maintain security through a strong, self-reliant Iraqi military.
Now, 11 years after the war began and 2½ years after the American withdrawal, neither the statement by the former U.S. president nor the statement by the current president holds true.
What we see in Iraq today is the hard-won coalition achievements quickly crumbling away.
The rise of ISIS
When the last American forces left Iraq in December 2011, the hope was that Prime Minister al-Maliki would be capable of leading in a democratic style. But now it is becoming clear that the Maliki administration is largely to blame for the recent violence and upheaval in Iraq.
Some of the mistakes of the Maliki government have been:
- Disenfranchising Sunni Muslims from leadership in the government.
- Disproportionally arresting Sunnis.
- Using Hussein-like methods to repress peaceful Sunni protests against his government.
- Disbanding Sunni militias that helped defeat the violent insurgency Iraq experienced and that were previously supported by the United States.
The current situation reflects the sectarian divide playing out across the Middle East. The religion of Islam is divided between two primary sects—Sunni and Shia. Nouri al-Maliki is a Shiite Muslim leading Iraq, which has a large minority population of Sunnis (about 40 percent). Maliki’s mistreatment of Sunnis is a reversal of the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, since Hussein was a Sunni who repressed the Shiite majority. The major difference between Hussein’s rule and Maliki’s is that Hussein was able to keep a lid on dissent with his brutal and powerful police state.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has risen in northwestern Iraq as an extreme Sunni response to Maliki’s government. ISIS has its roots as an al-Qaeda terror cell in Iraq. It has since outgrown al-Qaeda and has as its main goal the creation of a Sunni-led state in Iraq and Syria based on strict enforcement of Islamic law.
ISIS is an extremely violent and brutal organization. In fact, it was rejected by al-Qaeda for being too brutal. Trademarks of ISIS operations are slaughtering non-Sunnis, posting videos of beheadings online and conducting nearly daily suicide bombings in Baghdad.
Within the past months, ISIS has been taking more and more territory in Iraq. ISIS has been progressing toward Baghdad city by city. The ability of ISIS to send trained members of the Iraqi military (who far outnumbered ISIS and possessed superior U.S.-supplied weaponry) into panicked retreat is evidence of the weakness of the Iraqi government.
The question that remains to be answered—and that the whole world is watching to see—is if ISIS can defeat the Iraqi military in Baghdad and take control of the capital, thus effectively controlling the entire country. It is possible that Maliki’s military could defeat ISIS in Baghdad by fortifying the city, possibly with the help of Shiite militias, U.S. air support and Iranian forces.
Whatever happens, it is obvious that Iraqis should be prepared for years of instability and suffering. If ISIS topples the Maliki government, Iraq will come under the government of a brutal and violent fundamentalist regime (perhaps worse than Saddam Hussein’s rule). If ISIS is pushed back at Baghdad, Iraq could be in for years of civil war between an incompetent regime and violent and dedicated Islamic radicals.
Nearly every military operation the U.S. has engaged in since 1945 has ended in either a stalemate or with initial success that is squandered and reversed in the long term.Vietnam 2.0?
Students of history can’t help but notice the similarities between Iraq and the ill-fated Vietnam War. Both wars had hazy operational objectives that led to much dissent and opposition among American citizens. Both wars have shown the ability of untrained and poorly armed insurgents to seriously challenge the most powerful military on earth. Both wars have seen advances squandered after U.S. withdrawal.
The same story is simultaneously being played out in Afghanistan—where the Taliban is resurgent and was never totally defeated.
The fact is that the United States hasn’t won a clear victory in a major war since 1945, when it was part of the Allied powers that defeated Nazi Germany and Japan. Nearly every military operation the U.S. has engaged in since 1945 has ended in either a stalemate or with initial success that is squandered and reversed in the long term.
Iraq is very close to being added to the list of wars lost in the long term.
By almost every measurement—including militarily, economically and morally—the United States is in national decline. This slow decline is due to our national sins. God warned Israel, and its modern descendants, that a consequence of national sin would be that He would “break the pride of your power” (Leviticus 26:19). One application of this was that its “strength shall be spent in vain” (verse 20).
In other words, the national descendants of Israel would still have military strength, but not be able to use it effectively. That is exactly what we have seen in American-led wars of the last four decades. Even though the United States has possessed better trained troops, superior firepower and cutting-edge technology, it has not been able to defeat ragtag, guerilla-style armies and has not been able to secure its long-term objectives.
America may have already won her last war.