The Iraq invasion: Twenty years later

  • Fall 2022 ∕  Winter 2023
The Iraq invasion: Twenty years later

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Roger Petersen, Steven Simon, and Marsin Alshamary discuss the history behind the war, lessons learned on state-building, and provide commentary on that nation's future. Petersen, Simon, and Alshamary will be speaking on this topic at a MIT Starr Forum Zoom webinar on Friday, March 24. Register here.

FALL 22/WINTER 23 :: précis Faculty Feature :: Roger Petersen, Steven Simon, Marsin Alshamary
Saddam Hussein statue toppling
March 6, 2023

Lessons learned

by Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT

The Iraq invasion and war were hugely consequential for the United States. Although the Iraq war is almost universally derided as one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of the post-Cold War era, the course and conduct of the conflict is actually poorly understood. Above all, the “lessons” taken from the Iraq case are unhelpful overgeneralizations. From a general policymaking standpoint, the lesson is that the US cannot do “nation-building.” From the US military side, the lesson is that the military should not do counterinsurgency. Indeed, as US policymakers and military leaders turn toward “near-peer” competition, counterinsurgency is something of a dirty word. Correspondingly, few wish to hear more about Iraq because it is seen as a quintessential case of nation-building and counterinsurgency. These dismissals are unfortunate. The US cannot simply wish away insurgencies. They are going to occur. The question is what the US and other great powers might do about them. 

The Iraq war produced a multitudinous number of interactions with tremendous variation in outcomes.

Furthermore, these lessons are not just overgeneralizations: they are oversimplifications not connected with what actually happened. Two misunderstandings stand out above all others. The first has to do with US strategy and conduct in Iraq. There was no single counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. The US instituted at least five different strategies: clear/hold/build, decapitation, community mobilization, homogenization, and warfighting. These strategies, and combinations of these strategies, were employed at different times and in different regions in Iraq. Insurgents confronted US efforts with their own counterstrategies. These interactions among opponents sometimes favored the US and its coalition; other times those interactions favored the insurgents. In effect, there was not one single war in Iraq, there were many. The Iraq war produced a multitudinous number of interactions with tremendous variation in outcomes. 

To fail to consider this variation in favor of gross generalization is an abdication of critical thinking. For any social scientist dedicated to explaining variation in violence and state-building, the Iraq conflict provides an incredibly rich and valuable recent history. To say that the US lost, won at a high cost, or drew is not particularly helpful. Indeed, the US military often succeeded in reducing violence. US forces succeeded less in the realm of state-building. Even in the realm of state-building, the reality is complicated. In its 2018 evaluations, Freedom House gave Iraq a 32/100 score, far better than many other Middle Eastern states. As of this writing in 2021, Iraq limps along. Iraq is not Afghanistan. 

There is a failure to appreciate variation in US strategy in Iraq and how it produced different types of conflicts over space and time. A second major failure is in understanding the overarching environment where strategies played out. At a most fundamental level, the war and political battles in Iraq from 2003 to the present have been a struggle for group dominance. As the reader will note—violence and state-building are two of the words in the title of the book (forthcoming, see reference below). Dominance is the third. While the Iraq war and related conflicts were highly decentralized on the one hand, identity master cleavages often played an overarching and decisive part in explaining key outcomes. We cannot fully understand variation in violence state-building or the general contours of the Iraq conflict without understanding the underlying identity contests for dominance among Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. 

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Death, Dominance, and State-Building: The US in Iraq and the Future of American Intervention by Roger Petersen (publication forthcoming).

Opportunities and challenges

by Steven Simon, the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at CIS

The effects of the wars between Iraq and the United States are still playing out. It might be nearly twenty years after G W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but the conflict began in the months of 1991. In the interval, Iraq was the target of a massive air campaign and twelve years of sweeping economic sanctions that killed, impoverished, sickened, and stunted a large part of Iraq’s noncombatant population. This grim period was punctuated by periodic airstrikes.

Combat operations did not really end until ISIS was defeated in 2016. Beginning with Jerry Bremmer’s arrival in Baghdad in 2003, the US dismantled the Iraqi military, undermined Iraq’s residual administrative capacity through de-Baathification, and implanted a consociational political order that normalized corruption and impeded effective governance.

The opportunities for Iraq reside in its young population. The question is whether the country’s political economy can secure this cohort an education and job opportunities.

Iraq therefore faces serious challenges. During the past year, Iraqi politics were shaken by an attempt to overturn the apportionment system that has regulated Iraq’s government since shortly after the invasion. The ensuing crisis ended in a violent confrontation and the defeat of the party seeking to overturn the existing system and replace it with a majority government. The irony was that the faction pressing for this transformation was itself the embodiment of the old way of doing business and trusted by no other political faction. 

On the positive side, the gunfire and rocket launches that ended the confrontation ended as quickly as it began and did not devolve into an insurgency or civil war. The system was resilient enough to emerge intact from a severe stress test. On the negative side, the system is scarcely appropriate to Iraq’s existing economic difficulties and ability to deliver the range of services on which Iraqi society depends.

Iraq is currently saddled with a hybrid military structure consisting of regular army units and a congeries of mostly Shi’a militias with ties of various intensities to Iran. These irregular units emerged from the ISIS invasion of 2014 and report to the prime minister. The split in the chain of command and divided loyalties of some of these militias is a problem that Iraqis have learned to live with, but could prove more than just awkward if, for example, the US and Iran go to war.  

Apart from the US military presence of about 2500 troops carrying out an advisory and training program and Iran’s support for well-armed militias, Iraq is also burdened by Turkish and Iranian military intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing Iraq is climate change. Iraq is already being pummeled by global heating. The southern marshes, an area of habitation and resource extraction, are drying up. Riparian waters are diminishing.  The government in Baghdad lacks the capacity to develop and enforce mitigating measures and help is unlikely to come from outside.

The opportunities for Iraq reside in its young population. The question is whether the country’s political economy can secure this cohort an education and job opportunities. In 2019, Iraqi youth erupted in protest against the political system that has failed to provide basic necessities and avenues of advancement. The protests were harshly suppressed by the armed wings of many parties across the spectrum of Iraqi political actors; the system after all is essential, among other things, to their ability to maintain patronage networks. Protests have not since broken out but could recur at virtually any time.

Another important opportunity lies in renewed diplomatic and economic ties to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Although these wealthy countries have thus far been hesitant to invest in Iraq, emerging links are the necessary precursor to this key component of economic development.

Violence in Iraq

by Marsin Alshamary, MIT PhD '20, incoming assistant professor at Boston College

In August 2022, Iraq was once more on the verge of civil war. This time, the conflict was not sectarian as it has been in the 2006-2008 war when Shia and Sunni armed groups fought one another and rearranged the map of Baghdad along religious lines. Rather, this near-civil war would have taken place between different factions belonging to Iraq’s largest and most powerful ethno-religious group, the Shia. In many ways, the transition from inter-group violence to intra-group violence reflected the consolidation of Iraq’s informal power-sharing system of governance.

This near-civil war revolved around a familiar cast of characters. First, there is Muqtada Al-Sadr, notorious amongst American audiences for leading the anti-American insurgency in 2004. Sadr has—like many Iraqi politicians—restyled himself from a militia leader to a politician. His populist messaging resonates with poorer Iraqis and resulted in victories at the ballot box. In the 2018 election, Sadr joined forces with the Iraqi Communist Party and won 54 of the 329 parliamentary seats. In the 2021 early elections, which were held to assuage a wave of anti-government protests, Sadr won 73 seats. In this latest election, the Sadrists were once again the biggest winners, but this time with significantly more seats than the runners-up. 

The tensions with the Sadrists have not dissipated and will lurk in the background of Prime Minister Sudani’s premiership.

It is not surprising then that Sadr saw himself as kingmaker and chose to disrupt the traditional consensus model that Iraq’s politicians had clung to since 2005. He allied himself with the Sunni Taqadum Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in an attempt to form a government of majority and opposition, rather than consensus. 

Sadr’s goal was to force his Shia rivals, the Coordination Framework, into the role of opposition. The Coordination Framework is a group of Shia political parties including former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law, former wartime Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s Alliance of Nation State Forces (in partnership with Ammar Al-Hakim, formerly of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq), the Fateh Alliance (consisting of several prominent paramilitary groups from the Popular Mobilization Forces), and smaller parties including current Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani’s Furatain Party.

From the American perspective, the Coordination Framework includes some friendly faces (Haider Al-Abadi and Ammar Al-Hakim) and some whose ties to Iran are worrying (Hadi Al-Ameri and Qais Al-Khazali). Nevertheless, both Iran and the United States largely kept out of the government formation process. At the time, media and analysts largely told a one-dimensional tale of Muqtada Al-Sadr as a reformist and the Coordination Framework as Iranian stooges.  

The Sadrists and the Coordination Framework clashed for months, drawing the government formation process for over a year while everyday Iraqis continued to suffer under poor services, security incursions from Turkey and Iran, and the excruciating effects of climate change. The Coordination Framework deployed many tactics to prevent Sadr from forming a majority government, including resorting to the Federal Supreme Court and preventing parliamentary quorums required to elect a president. By June, Sadr grew frustrated at the Coordination Framework and his own allies – Taqadum and the KDP – for their half-hearted investment in a majority government. He ordered his 73 MPs to resign and for his followers to take to the International Zone, a fortified area in central Baghdad that houses government buildings, the UN compound, and various foreign missions (including the American Embassy). 

For a few weeks, the protests were relatively peaceful but hugely destabilizing for daily affairs. New parliamentarians were sworn in and the numbers for the Coordination Framework swelled. They set about forming a government without Sadr while he called on the Iraqi people to join his protestors to demand a change in government type. Everyday Iraqis – who had in 2019 come out in droves to protest the government – largely stayed out of it, fearing the Sadrists’ known mercurial nature. In 2019, the Sadrists vacillated between supporting the popular protest movement and between turning against it violently. Iraqis have little faith in their political leaders, including Sadr, who often tries to style himself as a man of the people. 

The peace did not hold. In late August, Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics and suggested that he would not be responsible for the behavior of his followers. The protests turned violent as the Sadrists and members of the Iraqi Security Forces and Popular Mobilization Forces fought each other in clashes that extended beyond Baghdad. During that restless night, residents of Baghdad were reminded of the civil war. For many observers, it looked as though Iraq was falling into a Shia-Shia civil war. The next day, presumably under pressure from elite Shia clerics and due to a military defeat in the International Zone, Sadr apologized to the Iraqi people and called for his followers to halt the violence. They immediately demobilized. 

The tensions with the Sadrists have not dissipated and will lurk in the background of Prime Minister Sudani’s premiership. The context of this violence is different from instances of violence in the past. It is not directed at an occupying force or an ethno-religious enemy. Rather, it is a manifestation of competition among the Shia.