The what if’s of Iraq


It is entirely fitting that the invasion of Iraq began, 10 years ago Tuesday, based on faulty intelligence: Our actions throughout the war were marred by miscalculation and wishful thinking time and again.

Ten years ago, we were wrong not just about whether Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (we now know that he had stopped his weapons of mass destruction program but didn’t want anyone, not even his generals, to know for fear that it would dispel his aura of power). Another crucial bit of misinformation marked the start of the U.S.-led attack: Intelligence agencies reported that Hussein and his sons were hiding in a bunker beneath the Dora Farms palace complex south of Baghdad.

Acting on that tip, President George W. Bush ordered a flurry of bunker-buster bombs and cruise missiles dropped on Dora Farms on March 19, 2003, ahead of the planned start of the ground and air offensive. The complex was obliterated, but Hussein escaped unharmed. He had never been there in the first place. Later investigation showed there was no bunker either. It was all a giant misconception.


PHOTOS: The Iraq war, a retrospective

The Bush administration was convinced not only that Hussein had WMD (this was an error, not a lie) but also that the people of Iraq would somehow be able to govern themselves after he was removed from power. As it happened, the entire Iraqi government crumbled when Hussein fell, and the U.S. had neither the resources nor the know-how to pick up the pieces. Unprepared and eager to leave, U.S. armed forces blundered into a prolonged and costly counterinsurgency that was headed for total defeat until the near-miraculous turnaround engineered by Gens. David H. Petraeus and Ray Odierno during the 2007-08 surge.

Critics are right to note that the “surge” — shorthand for an increase in U.S. troop strength, a change in how the troops were deployed, and an active program of outreach to the Sunni tribes that helped bring them over to our side — did not solve all of Iraq’s problems. But by engineering a 90% drop in violence, the surge offered an opportunity to make headway. It definitely did near-fatal damage to Al Qaeda in Iraq, composed of Sunni Arab extremists, and the Jaish al Mahdi, composed of Shiite Muslim extremists.

Iraq was never going to live up to the fondest hopes of Bush that it would become a model democracy and transform the Middle East. The post-Hussein years were too messy, chaotic and violent to serve as inspiration for anyone. But at least Iraq appeared to be on its way to becoming a functioning democracy by the end of 2011.

TIMELINE: War in Iraq

December 2011, however, marked another turning point in Iraq’s tumultuous history, for that was when all U.S. troops withdrew because of a failure to secure a Status of Forces Agreement. Ostensibly this was because the Iraqi side wouldn’t grant the troops the legal immunity from prosecution that the Pentagon demanded. But in fact there is plentiful evidence that President Obama, who was elected in no small part because of his opposition to the initial invasion, did not have his heart in keeping a U.S. presence in Iraq. He did not personally involve himself in the negotiations, and he approved, over the objections of his negotiating team, an impractical and unnecessary demand that Iraq’s parliament approve any grant of immunity. When negotiations predictably foundered, Obama pulled the plug and pronounced that our troops would be home by Christmas.


It was a popular decision, but it was to have baleful consequences, for it freed Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to be more of a Shiite sectarian than he could have been with the U.S. looking over his shoulder. He promptly sent his security forces to raid the compound of the Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi. Hashimi fled — eventually to exile in Turkey — but his bodyguards were tortured and he was convicted in absentia of carrying out acts of terrorism. He faces a death sentence if he returns to Iraq, even though plenty of Shiite politicians who were guilty of similar offenses remain free. Maliki only reinforced his reputation for selective prosecution in recent months by arresting the bodyguards of former Sunni Finance Minister Rafi Issawi and by attempting to arrest Issawi.

Maliki’s sectarian acts are causing a violent pushback from Sunnis who are making common cause once again with Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group has recovered from its near-death experience to stage violent attacks not only in Iraq but also in Syria, where it operates under the guise of Al Nusra Front, one of many rebel organizations fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Assad, in turn, is supported by Iran and, implicitly, by Iraq, which has ignored American pleas to stop the flow of Iranian arms across its territory to Syria. This is a sign that in the Iraq of 2013, the wishes of Tehran are accorded more respect than those of Washington, even if Maliki and other Iraqi Shiites resist becoming “Persian” puppets.

This is, to put it mildly, an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Americans have a right to ask: We invaded Iraq to achieve … this?

It is tempting to argue that the whole invasion, undertaken under false pretenses, was jinxed from the start. And yet nothing is predestined in history. Even after no WMD were discovered, things might have turned out differently if different decisions had been made: If, for example, we had seriously prepared to administer Iraq after Hussein, if we hadn’t needlessly disbanded the Iraqi military, if we had sent enough troops to control the entire country, if we had reached out to Sunni tribes earlier, if we had sent troops to garrison population centers from the start instead of leaving them isolated on mega-bases, and, finally, if we had stayed after 2011.

A different decision in any of these instances might well have produced a different outcome. But of course 10 years of history can’t be altered after the fact. Our only hope now is that, just as we were surprised by the initial insurgency in Iraq and surprised, somewhat later, by the surge’s success in defeating or converting most of the insurgents, so too we may yet be surprised by how Iraq turns out.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to Opinion, and the author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.”