It is by now well-chronicled that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on shockingly bad intelligence. Bush administration officials routinely claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and would use them against America if we didn’t act. As error-ridden, the decision to invade was, our failure to withdraw once the mistake had been made plain began a vicious cycle that has yet to be broken.
With Saddam deposed, the Bush administration could have worked with the existing Iraqi military to maintain public order and set the conditions for the Iraqi people to form a new government. The U.S. military could then have withdrawn beginning in late 2003. Instead, some in Washington wanted to try remaking Iraq in America’s image.
First, they disbanded the Iraqi army, eradicated the core of the government, and tried to build new structures from scratch — while picking political winners and losers, thus making enemies of the losing Sunni portion of the population. The result was hardly surprising: the formation of a Sunni-led insurgency months later.
Bush admitted in a January 2007 speech that we weren’t winning the war. He admitted surprise that we were losing the war because the Iraqi elections, “of 2005 were a stunning achievement. We thought that these elections would bring the Iraqis together.” But in 2006, he lamented, “the opposite happened. The violence in Iraq — particularly in Baghdad — overwhelmed the political gains the Iraqis had made.”
But the end state laid out by the president had no more chance at success than the one he said had failed. Victory in Iraq, he explained, “will bring something new in the Arab world — a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Bush confidently asserted, “has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.”
The intent was to provide Maliki “breathing space,” which would allow him to reconcile with his political adversaries to create a stable democracy — and that illumined one of the enduring failures of our military operations in Iraq to date: success was dependent on political actors beyond the control or even influence of U.S. military operations.
Instead of reconciling with his adversaries, Maliki — a Shia — used the “breathing space” to remove his Sunni political opponents from key government positions. Contrary to what many believe, it was Maliki’s purge of key Sunni leaders that was a key factor in the 2014 rise of ISIS, not the withdrawal of American troops. In the two years leading up to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, Maliki’s mistreatment of the Sunnis caused months of anti-government protests in Iraq — much like those in the country today.
Burgeoning protests against government corruption are happening almost daily in cities throughout Iraq. American troops in Iraq can no more solve Baghdad’s political chaos today than they could in 2003, 2007, or 2014. Already we have sacrificed the blood of thousands of Americans and trillions of dollars trying to achieve the unattainable. It is time that the unbroken series of failures comes to an end.
Especially with the increased threat to our troops from Shia militias angry over the killing of Qassem Soleimani, it is time to acknowledge the limits of military power to solve political problems and withdraw all American troops from Iraq.
Keeping U.S. troops there to buy more time for Iraq to get its act together will continue to be a never-ending, never-succeeding failure. We should not wait for one more American to die in Iraq. It is time to withdraw — now.