"This is a period in which it gets harder before it gets easier." - General David Petraeus
By 2004, the brewing tensions against the American occupation in Iraq had exploded into a brutal insurgency. With Iraq's military disbanded, and many of its former members contributing to the insurgency itself, it was up to the coalition forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority (the temporary governing body of Iraq) to rebuild the nation it had just torn down. As we've seen in part two of this series, the CPA made a number of serious mistakes in the first few months of the occupation which directly (though inadvertently) helped create the insurgency. But not everything the CPA and the military did was counterproductive. In this final installment of the series on Iraq, we'll discuss the ways the United States helped rebuild the country, and will take a look at the final connections between the war in Iraq and the rise of the so-called "Islamic State."
As the insurgency gained steam throughout 2004 and 2005, the American strategy finally began to shift towards counterinsurgency practices. The policy of "winning hearts and minds" was adopted to help learn from the initial mistakes of the invasion (specifically not taking the support of the Iraqi people for granted). Billions of dollars were also spent on reconstruction programs designed to educate, empower, and employ the hundreds of thousands of people who were negatively affected by the initial invasion. Though some of these programs proved completely pointless for the rebuilding effort, many of them also helped stabilize the country and give the Iraqi people a reason to support the American military.
But still, the insurgency raged on. In 2006, the coalition forces began a deliberate campaign to recruit Sunni tribal leaders to work with the American forces in fighting the al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni fighters. Known as the Anbar Awakening (for the Anbar province of Iraq where the majority of these Sunni fighters live), this strategy helped empower Iraqis to win back their country from extremism and likely prevented significant numbers of Sunni fighters from being recruited into the insurgency. Though Iraq's Sunni population would continue to take issue with the predominantly Shia government elected under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the support of Anbar greatly contributed to the temporary stability of the country.
However, 2006 also saw the outbreak of a disastrous civil war in Iraq. A faction of the Sunni insurgency fighters bombed a prominent Shia mosque in February in an attempt to provoke Iraq's Shia population into fighting the Sunni population. With the support of the Anbar forces and the surge of American troops in 2007, the country narrowly avoided splitting apart entirely along religious lines. Still, reconstruction and tactical victories against the insurgent forces (and several setbacks) would continue for several years. The final official American soldiers left Iraq in December of 2011, officially handing over the remaining security operations to the Iraqi forces. Though peace was uneasy in the country, it seemed to many like Iraq could finally begin stand on its own again. In hindsight, it is clear that American forces disconnected from Iraq before the country was capable of handling its own security. In many ways, this decision spanned both Bush and Obama administrations and came about in part as a desire to hasten the end of the war due to its increasing unpopularity among the American public (and very large price tag). Many experts predicted the problems Iraq would end up facing in recent years.
The aftereffects of the Arab Spring (not to mention the continued religious tensions) would again plunge Iraq into chaos. These protests against authoritarian government in Tunisia in 2011 inspired similar protests in Egypt and Syria against the leaders of those nations. While Egypt's transition was relatively peaceful (President Hosni Mubarak willingly left office), Syria's President Bashar al-Assad began a brutal campaign of oppression which sparked an equally brutal civil war in Syria. In the chaos of this war, radical religious fighters (many of whom had joined the Iraqi insurgency years earlier) joined together to form the group now calling itself ISIS (also referred to as the Islamic State and ISIL). The combination of Iraq's poorly defended borders, the weak central government and army, and continued Sunni tensions in Iraq's western Anbar province made it easy for ISIS to surge through parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 to control large sections of the two countries. Now in 2015, ISIS fighters remain firmly entrenched in their positions, with no clear end in sight.
So what happens now? Some presidential candidates are considering the possibility of invading Iraq again to take down ISIS, but this would likely cause the same problems as before (insurgency, sectarian violence, resentment of American influence in the region). Or, we can take a lesson from the Anbar Awakening and continue to aid our allies (Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia alike) in the region to build trust throughout the country and conduct proper counterinsurgency operations. Like any meaningful solution, this will take significant time and resources. However, helping the Iraqi people help themselves will produce far better results than continuing to insist that the American military can solve all of the problems of the world.
Looking back, we come to the final question of this three part series: Was it worth it? Saddam Hussein's massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were never found (at least not in significant numbers). Contrary the the neo-conservative ideology, democracy and peace did not spread throughout the region (and the democratic Arab Spring actually seems to have made things worse). Hussein and his terrible regime are gone, but the replacement government is hardly equipped to deal with ISIS on its own. And even if there had been stockpiles of WMDs, would that justify the lack of any initial strategy for governance following the invasion? It is impossible to speculate on how Iraq would like today had Hussein not been removed. Were he still in power during the Arab Spring, perhaps his response would have been similar to that of Assad, massacring his own people to keep himself in power. In any case, such counterfactual questions are meaningless when looking at the reality of today's Iraq.
In all, the years of violence in Iraq contributed to the deaths of nearly 5,000 coalition forces, 20,000 Iraqi security forces, 37,000 Iraqi army and insurgent fighters, and somewhere between 110,000-120,000 Iraqi civilians. Of course, it would be extremely unfair to attribute all of these to the coalition (one of the hallmarks of the insurgency was its use of violence against the Iraqi population itself). But hopefully, the lessons learned from the invasion of Iraq will remind the American public (and military officials especially) of the dangerous and unpredictable nature of warfare. As terrible as it is, there are indeed some situations in which the only viable solutionto an international dispute is war. Hitler and Nazis weren't going to stop their conquest of Europe through kind words or pointy sticks. But it should only be considered as a last result, when all other options have been exhausted. War is a Pandora's box that rarely works out exactly as planned. Even under the best planned situations, there are often many unexpected surprises. Though cliched, the saying "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" is very appropriate here. Let us never forget the lessons of Iraq. The decision to go to war (though sometimes necessary) should never be taken lightly.
Tl:DR: The war in Iraq is far too important to reduce to just a sentence (or even a series of blog posts). Read the whole series and then go educate yourself!