What two decades of Iraqi struggles can teach us about modern conflict

The shadow of this doomed invasion can be seen in the incoherent approach to other conflicts, from Libya to Syria

Renad Mansour
Monday 20 March 2023 13:39 GMT
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A US marine watches as the statue of Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, 9 April, 2003
A US marine watches as the statue of Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, 9 April, 2003 (Reuters)

It is now 20 years since the United States-led coalition invaded Iraq with the intent to remove the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and usher in democracy.

Despite the hundreds of billions spent for this effort, Iraq is still not a functioning democracy and continues to struggle to build coherent state institutions. Instead, the invasion and subsequent occupation unleashed wave after wave of crisis, from the rise of salafi-jihadi organizations like al-Qaeda or Isis to fallout from the US confrontation with Iran.

Today, conflict continues to be an everyday reality in Iraq, from armed groups competing for territory and influence, to the structural violence of a corrupt system where political elites pocket state funds meant for the provision of basic services, leading, for instance, to the proliferation in the healthcare system of fake medicine.

Deprived of a decent standard of living - despite the country’s massive oil wealth – Iraqis have tried to mobilise in mass protest. But time after time, demonstrations have been violently repressed by state forces, making Iraq today at times as dangerous as ever for anyone who wants to exercise their democratic rights against the kleptocracy.

Chatham House has collated reflections from a range of Iraqi and international officials and experts who were involved in, or impacted by, the war and subsequent efforts to rebuild the country. These reflections on the failures of the invasion and occupation offer critical lessons for the many conflicts that rage around the world today.

From the very start, the US and its allies prioritised quick wins to show their home audience that the invasion was a success, resulting in rushed decisions that lacked a longer-term strategic vision. The consequences were grave. The US quickly decided to disband Iraq’s military and remove more than 40,000 senior civil servants from the state bureaucracy, citing their ties to the Ba’ath Party. These decisions represented a shift in the aim of the invasion from "regime change" to the wholesale destruction of the state. Rebuilding a coherent state after this would require significantly more time and effort than originally envisaged.

A missile hits the planning ministry in Baghdad on 20 March, 2003
A missile hits the planning ministry in Baghdad on 20 March, 2003 (AFP/Getty)

The US quickly pushed for the formalisation of a new constitution and national elections to show the world that Iraq was swiftly transitioning to a democratic system. However, rather than reaching out to Iraqis across the country to oversee a truly representative process, US leadership relied on a small group of returned Iraqi exiles who had a narrow vision of what the new Iraq should look like. In the long term, this decision ensured the continuation of the conflict by exacerbating divisions and empowering leaders who were disconnected from the society they claimed to represent.

A key lesson for international forces seeking to support regime change or political transitions in other states can be taken from this: working with a small group of exiles who have lived outside the country to form a new system will likely not lead to democracy. The conflicts in Venezuela or Iran involve similar dynamics, where governments in exile or opposition figures work closely with the US against the status quo. Where exiled political opposition is the only advisory source for international actors, resulting policies may not completely speak to the needs of society in those states.

The US and its allies believed that a political settlement based on an elite bargain would lead to democracy and the end of conflict. But instead, it entrenched a system of corruption where Iraqi officials – across the ethno-sectarian spectrum – gutted state coffers for their own gain and left little to be redistributed to society, which remains today without basic services or essentials.

In many other conflicts, from Libya and Lebanon to Colombia, international actors support a dialogue with the elite which often does not represent the wider populations and who critically, pursue their own economic interests which sustain corrupt systems that harm ordinary people.

Over two decades, billions of dollars have been spent on development aid and stabilisation projects in Iraq, but have not led to improvements in the daily lives of citizens. Around the world, international donors continue to fund development projects that fail to factor in political, security and societal dynamics. This means that many projects – from schools to hospitals – often are not sustained in the long term.

George Bush makes his ‘mission accomplished’ speech from the deck of the the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln
George Bush makes his ‘mission accomplished’ speech from the deck of the the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (AP)

Despite President George W Bush’s fateful "mission accomplished" announcement just five weeks after the invasion, a crucial lesson that can be drawn from the Iraq experience is that the peaceful building or rebuilding of a state cannot be achieved by military means. This was a lesson that more a decade later, President Trump failed to learn, with his announcement of a military victory over Isis. The US bombing campaign helped successfully dislodge the groups from the territory they controlled, but failed to address any of the root causes of their emergence in the first instance.

The shadow of Iraq's divisive war has left a fear and hesitancy of the US and other states to become involved in "boots on the ground" conflicts and an incoherence in interventions. This hesitation can be seen from the disjointed international involvement in Libya and war ravaged Syria – to the more blatant and sudden withdrawal of international troops and aid from Afghanistan – and the continuing blind-spot of civil war in Yemen.

Iraq’s ongoing statebuilding challenges can be traced back to decisions made by US and formerly exiled Iraqi leaders in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, while others can be laid at the feet of Iraqi officials and international allies in the years that followed. Understanding what went wrong can offer valuable lessons for not only those working in Iraq today, but also in other conflict zones around the world - whether they will be heeded, remains to be seen.

Dr Renad Mansour is Project Director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House and author of 'Once Upon a Time in Iraq'

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