The Public Humanist

The Last US Troops Leave Iraq: A Retrospective on Operation Iraqi Freedom

troopsWith little fanfare this weekend the last few thousand American troops in Iraq withdrew from their bases and traveled into neighboring Kuwait ending America’s most contentious war since Vietnam. After eight and half years of conflict that cost the US almost one trillion dollars, 32,000 wounded and the lives of almost 4,500 service men and women, the war is officially over.

Well, at least for the Americans. This month alone 225 Iraqi civilians were killed in ongoing terrorism and violence. But that pales in comparison to the more than 100,000 Iraqis killed in the campaign officially known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.[i] The sad reality of post-US Iraq is that the oil production in Iraq is still not up to pre-invasion levels; previously ethnically mixed, vibrant neighborhoods have been cleansed of those belonging to the wrong sect; bombings and terrorism remain a part of daily life for average Iraqis; and on many levels, from garbage pick up to education, Iraq’s civil society has been shattered by the US invasion, the bloody insurgency that followed, and the civil war that swept this tortured land since the US invaded and destabilized the country’s fragile ethnic balance.

If this were not enough, in a sign of things to come, yesterday Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister moved to arrest his Sunni Vice President on charges of terrorism. This portends the breakup of Iraq’s fragile ‘peace’ that came about between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008 and may lead the country back into a full blown Balkan-style civil war.

In light of the traumas the US and the Iraqis suffered in this “preemptive invasion” there has, not surprisingly, been little fanfare accompanying the US withdrawal. There were no “Mission Accomplished” banners greeting the US troops on the Kuwaiti border or American flags being triumphantly rubbed over the faces of fallen Saddam Hussein statues as in 2003. The days of that hubristic moment when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier and the White House spoke threateningly of invading Iran next have been replaced by a more sober assessment of the real costs in lives and gold that wars take. It is in this spirit of new found caution that this retrospective on the war in Iraq is written. Now that the war is over we can use hindsight and the distance of time to objectively assess how it started and finished.

How did We Get Here? Leading the American People from 9/11 to Baghdad

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on the US there was a concentrated effort on the part of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to shift the war effort from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which acted as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda terrorists who carried out 9/11, to Baathist-Socialist Iraq. As the World Trade Centers smoldered Wolfowitz claimed “Making war on Iraq might be easier than against Afghanistan.”[ii] Wolfowitz and fellow Neo-Cons saw the attack as an opportunity to overthrow the secular dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and replace him with a pro-American Shiite government.[iii] Fortunately, Secretary of State Colin Powell vehemently halted such discussions and the idea was shelved until after the US’s stunning victory in Operation Enduring Freedom (i.e. the October-December 2001 invasion of the Taliban Amirate of Afghanistan that saw the US topple the Taliban with less than a dozen US deaths).

The unexpected victory in Afghanistan, the “Graveyard of Empires,” empowered Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Neo-Cons who had long been planning for an invasion of Iraq. Their plan, known as a “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” had been created back in 1996 and offered to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.[iv] It was rejected as too militaristic and risky by the Israelis and shelved until the days and months after 9/11. In the aftermath of the successful takedown of the Taliban (which nonetheless saw the target of the operation, Osama Bin Laden, escape to Pakistan), it was decided the US would carry out the plan.

In an effort to rationalize the full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation that the US was not at war with, the Bush administration began to speak of nefarious links between Saddam Hussein, a secular Socialist dictator who had crushed political Islam in his state, and Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi fundamentalist firebrand who had previously offered his jihadi veterans to help expel Hussein from Kuwait.[v] A group known as the Office of Special Plans was created by the White House to cherry pick information that would conflate these two vastly different people and their agendas.

At the same time, efforts were made to demonstrate to the American people and the world that Saddam Hussein was actively building nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that would then be given to Bin Laden’s shattered Al Qaeda group. Over and over again the White House scared Americans who were still traumatized by the images of Americans falling out of the burning World Trade Centers with rhetoric of a nuclear 9/11. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, National Security Adviser Condi Rice, for example, stated “We know that he (Hussein) has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon…we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”[vi]

As Rice made these statements, I was teaching a course on Iraq at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. There I told my students and community groups that I spoke to that I thought it was all but impossible that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) program.[vii] After all, even a passing familiarity with Iraq’s history in the 1990s would have led to a familiarity with UN Resolution 687 which served to prevent such an occurrence. This post-1991 Gulf War resolution called for an arms embargo on Iraq and meant that Saddam Hussein could not rebuild a nuclear power plant that had been bombed the Israelis in 1981. Nor could he build facilities to create bio-chemical weapons. Nuclear reactors and accelerators are no small things to build even without US spy planes, UN inspectors and satellites looking for them in a country under an embargo.

But such commonsensical doubts went out the window for many in February 2003 when Colin Powell, the widely respected Secretary of State who had been opposed to the invasion of Iraq, gave in to the neo-cons and gave his historic speech at the UN. In this speech Powell convinced many doubters by showing slides of purported Iraqi WMD sites that had been provided to him by the Office of Special Plans and by the CIA. Most Americans, and many Democrats, were convinced and on March 20, 2003 the US invaded Iraq in a campaign called Shock and Awe.

The Course of the War: From Hubris to Catastrophe to a Victory…of Sorts

As in Afghanistan before, the 2003 take down of the Iraqi regime was a relatively smooth affair. The Iraqi army had been hurt by the UN embargo and fought poorly against more advanced US forces. On April 9th 2003, Baghdad fell to the US led Coalition which was effectively the US and Britain.

Soon thereafter Saddam Hussein and many top officials were captured by US troops. Interrogations and a subsequent investigation by the US government’s Iraq Survey Group definitively demonstrated that Iraq had no WMDs.[viii] Top White House officials have subsequently admitted they were wrong and President Bush admitted in his memoirs to getting a “sickening” feeling in his stomach when the weapons failed to materialize.[ix] But many Americans still continue to believe that the mythical atom bombs, chemical and biological bombs (which were not used by the embattled regime when it was invaded) somehow existed and were counter-intuitively hidden, not used.

Regardless of the veracity of the original rationale for invading Iraq, it soon became obvious that the mission in the country was far from accomplished with the toppling of Hussein. As it transpired Hussein had been a Sunni and his sect had dominated the Shiite majority since the 1500s. By introducing democracy the US pushed his sect out of power and democratically empowered the Shiites who made up 60% of the country. To compound matters, the American authorities disbanded the Iraqi army and carried out a purge of known Baathist Party members (mainly Sunnis). This created what the US army called unemployed “POIs” (pissed off Iraqis), many of whom were military men with weapons.

At this time the disgruntled Sunni Baathists, who were a relatively secular lot, were organized to resist the Americans by Jordanian jihadi terrorist named Abu Musab Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s Unity and Jihad terrorist group was soon planting land mines around the country to kill US soldiers and Americans were introduced to the term IED (improvised explosive device, the number one killer of US troops in Iraq). Thousands of Americans were killed or wounded by these explosives. Others were killed in ambushes carried out predominantly in an area known as the Sunni Triangle.

While Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld initially dismissed the insurgents as “dead-enders,” it soon appeared that thousands of disgruntled ex-Baathist Sunnis had grown their beards long and joined Zarqawi’s Islamist terrorists. Soon oil pipelines were being blown up, Americans ambushed, civilians killed in suicide bombings, and whole parts of the country blatantly taken over by Zarqawi’s fundamentalist Sunni insurgents. In recognition of his influence in “jihadifying” the Socialist Sunnis, Osama bin Laden even allowed Zarqawi to join his organization and create a franchise known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Bush White House’s claims that there were links between Al Qaeda and Iraq had become a self fulfilling prophecy.

To compound matters, Zarqawi’s Sunni terrorists began attacking newly empowered Shiites as well. By 2006 the Shiites organized death squads of their own under an Iranian-backed fundamentalist named Moqtada al Sadr and began to fight back. Sadr’s Shiite terrorists also began attacking Americans who attempted to disarm them. By 2007 Americans were dying in record numbers at the hands of terrorist-insurgents on both sides. It looked to many as if the war would be lost leaving Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists and Al Qaeda-linked Sunni terrorists to control the country which sat on the world’s second largest reserve of oil.

But far from backing down, Bush doubled down on his bet and sent 30,000 extra troops under the leadership of General Petraeus to seize control of Baghdad. As this troop “surge” took place, events took a turn for the better in the western provinces of Zarqawi’s Sunni triangle. There a local Sunni sheikh whose brother had been killed by Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda men turned on the Sunni insurgents and went over to the Americans. This sheikh’s men then helped the US surge troops raid Al Qaeda in Iraq safe houses and interdict “rat lines” of communication. Soon thousands of disgruntled Sunni moderates who had been sickened by Al Qaeda in Iraq’s violence and fundamentalism joined the Americans in the so-called Anbar Awakening (named for the province where the movement began). By 2008, Al Qaeda had been vanquished by the Anbar Awakening as over 100,000 Sunnis joined a pro-US militia known as the Sons of Iraq. Bush’s gamble had paid off just in time for a new American president to take control of the war.

While running for president, Barak Obama had famously declared Iraq to be a “war of choice” while Afghanistan, the original theater of war against Bin Laden, was declared a “war of necessity.” In 2009/2010 Obama began to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan which had become know as the “Forgotten War” while the Americans fought in Iraq’s Sunni triangle. With America’s eye off the ball in Afghanistan, the Taliban had reconquered most of south and eastern Afghanistan and were within a day’s march of the capital. Obama launched a troop surge of his own for Afghanistan that helped stabilize the situation and give the Afghans breathing time to push the Taliban out and build up an army. By 2011 a US Seal team had also killed Bin Laden, thus removing the original target of Operation Enduring Freedom from the scene almost ten years after 9/11.

In 2011, the number of US troops in Iraq, which had at one time been up to 170,000 (at a time when the larger country of Afghanistan had just 10,000) was diminished to 50,000 and then this weekend, none. While more than one in two Americans believed that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 in 2003, few believe it did today. Republican presidential candidates like Ron Paul have called the Iraq war a waste of precious resources that could have been better spent on nation building at home during a period of acute financial crisis. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have spoken in agnostic terms about the war and America’s sense of hubris that at one time drove our government to contemplate invading the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a Bush appointee) summed up many Americans’ feeling about the war when he stated at West Point “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” As for the Iraqis whose lives have been shattered by the calamity that befell them known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, there would be few who would dispute Gate’s sage comments.

[i] For the most widely cited source on Iraq deaths see:

[ii] Bob Woodward. Bush at War. New York Simon and Schuster. 2002. Page 84.

[iii] For more on Wolfowitz’s statements see the 9/11 Commission Report:

[iv] Find the actual plan here:

[v] For the best account of these events see James Bamford. A Pretext for War. 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. New York; Double Day. 2004.


[vii] For my comments in 2002 on the eve of the US invasion see:

[viii] For the government’s report on the lack of WMDs see the CIA website here:


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