5 lessons of the Iraq war
March 16th, 2013
06:46 PM ET

5 lessons of the Iraq war

By Fareed Zakaria

The American public has lost interest in the Iraq war. A topic that was at the center of the national political debate is now barely mentioned in passing. The country has decided to move on, rather than debate whether the war was worth it - though for the vast majority of Americans, the answer to that question would be a decided, “no”.

Yet, it was the most significant military conflict that the United States has been in since the Vietnam War, and so it is worth asking – ten years after it began - what lessons might be learned from the war, aftermath, and occupation. Here is my list:

Bring enough troops. The Bush administration chose to go to war with Iraq in a manner that would make it relatively easy politically. It drew up plans for a small invading army and insisted that the costs would be minimal – silencing those within and without the Pentagon who suggested otherwise. In the first phase of the war, toppling Saddam’s army, the plan worked fine. But as the mission turned from invasion to occupation, the military’s “light footprint” proved to be a deadly problem. Iraq moved quickly towards chaos and civil war, under the eyes of American troops who could do little to prevent it. The lesson of the Balkans’ conflicts in the 1990s had been to have a much larger force, by some calculations four times larger than the United States had in Iraq. But that lesson was not learned in 2003. The next time, if it’s worth going to war, it’s worth staffing it properly.

Don’t tear down the state. In the first months of the occupation, the United States disbanded the Iraqi military, sanctioned a process of “deBaathification” – the firing of anyone from a government position who was a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party – and shut down Iraq’s state-owned enterprises. The combined effect of these moves was to tell the ruling elite of Iraq, the Sunnis, that there was no place for them in the new Iraq. Unemployed, enraged, and often armed, many Sunnis went on to organize or encourage the insurgency that rocked Iraq for most of the next decade.

Compare those decisions to ones made by Nelson Mandela after the fall of apartheid. Mandela agreed that while his African National Congress would take power, the new ministers would not fire a single existing bureaucrat or general. The entire Afrikaner establishment was preserved, so that they would not be threatened by the new South Africa. The result, almost miraculously, was that there was no insurgency, despite many predictions that it was inevitable.

Don’t knock down doors. As the insurgency began, even in its earliest months, the U.S. military’s response to it was wrong and utterly counterproductive. The army, led by men like General Raymond Odierno, opted for a strategy that emphasized “shock and awe,” breaking down doors of suspected insurgents, rounding up communities, and demonstrating toughness. It backfired, convincing the locals that the Americans were the brutal thugs and that the insurgents had reason to be resisting them. In Mosul, one American general followed a different path. David Petraeus focused from the start on winning over the local population, using money, patronage, and services to create confidence and trust. His approach, which later became the “counterinsurgency” strategy, was adopted by the entire U.S. army in Iraq only after six years of fighting and failing. Ironically, General Odierno became Petraeus’ deputy and one of the key implementers of a strategy that was entirely different from the one he had prosecuted earlier. Better late than never.

Make a deal to include all parties. The crucial challenge in Iraq was to bring the three main communities together – Shia, Sunni, and Kurd – to create a new national power sharing agreement. That would include a division of oil revenues, an allocation of powers and authorities, and a settlement of some territorial disputes. Instead the United States handed the keys over to the Shia majority, trusting that it would treat its two partners fairly. It didn’t happen. The Kurds protected themselves by creating an autonomous republic in the north that is a state in all but name. They issue passports, speak Kurdish, and have their own army. The Sunnis launched an insurgency that persists to this day. The violence has subsided, but Iraq remains a state that has not settled any of its key challenges, and that means it has a province in the north that has all but seceded, and in the center of the country, there is still violence on a daily basis.

Write constitutions before holding elections. The U.S. wanted to craft Iraq’s constitutions and basic laws before rushing to elections. But because it had so bungled the initial year of the occupation, it found it desperately needed Shia support – and that could only come by allowing early elections. Those elections empowered the Shia religious parties that had been backed and sustained by Iran for decades. These groups, one of which is now in power led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, have little interest in liberty and law. For them, the elections were a way to consolidate power and oppress their political opponents and pursue sectarian conflict. The starkest indication of the collapse of any traces of liberalism or tolerance in Iraq is the fate of the Christian population. After surviving under Saddam Hussein, sanctions, and war, Iraq’s Christians have fled the new democratic Iraq, fearful of their lives, to the point that there are now almost no traces of Christian Iraqis, people who have lived in those lands since the days of the gospels.

This is not the only list of lessons, there are surely others. But many of these are still worth heeding. When we look at Afghanistan, the issue of making a deal with all parties – Pashtun and non-Pashtun - still applies. When we look at Syria, we must ask whether we can intervene effectively with few resources and a lot of good intentions. And when we consider any of these challenges, we should always ask, at least to be prepared, what could go wrong? Because if Iraq teaches anything, it is that in a complicated war in a distant land, what can go wrong often will.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Arab Spring • Conflict • Iraq

soundoff (291 Responses)
  1. Xman

    There was only one lesson to learn from Iraq, and that was to HAVE NEVER STARTED IT IN THE FIRST ******* PLACE.


    March 19, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • Josh

      can't agree more

      November 2, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  2. andrew

    9/11 happened on a Tuesday. Next week, Monday the 17th, barely six days after the fateful day, I listened to Wolfovitz
    being interviewed on public radio, stating that we have to invade Irak, because of the connection with the terrorists. It
    was the earliest official statement in this respect – obviously the invasion has been planned way before.

    March 19, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  3. Gael Christophe Mockelyn

    Let me add a 6th lesson: never take the appearance for a reality!

    March 20, 2013 at 3:55 am | Reply
  4. Beth Pyles

    Once again, Mr. Zakaria in particular and the mainstream press in general have confused the trees for the forest, analyzing how we could have done it better while abandoning reflection on whether we should have done it at all. Space doesn't allow for my thoughts on why this is such a travesty, so if you're interested, check out my blog post on this article by Mr. Zakaria at http://ifbethhadablog.blogspot.com/2013/03/forest-trees-how-fareed-zakaria-and-so.html

    March 20, 2013 at 7:01 am | Reply
  5. fiftyfive55

    One thing we definitely learnes is all those American troops who were killed or horribly injured,did so for 4.00 a gallon gas ! Just think,send your son to war for exxon and shell,destroy him then charge us 4.00 a gallon for gas.They didnt have to kill all our troops just to rip us off at the pump.

    March 20, 2013 at 8:09 am | Reply
    • Joe B.

      If that is true, then why are gas prices still hurting Americans today? Remember that the left said this war was about oil (total lie). Well if it was about oil, why are the prices still a problem?

      March 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Reply
  6. Next Time

    The next time someone starts World War III through a 9/11 style attack of epic proportions, we should just have World War III. Build up the military to size needed, put the economy on a war footing, and run the table. The tragedy of Iraq is that it sapped the willpower, money, and manpower America needed for taking on Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. If America is attacked again, we should attempt to culturally shatter the Middle East, eliminate Islam as a viable religion, and destroy all water treatment, electrical power, and food distribution facilities in the entire region. GWB was restrained and surgical in dealing with a cancer that required massive radiation and chemo therapy.

    March 20, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  7. Next Time

    Has anyone been troubled by Carthage lately?

    March 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  8. SM

    "What goes around, comes around" USA should remember these words!

    March 21, 2013 at 1:50 am | Reply
  9. Kangkung

    How about don't start a war based on weak evidence ?

    March 21, 2013 at 2:09 am | Reply
  10. Peter Baxter

    The road to Hell is full of good intentions and the intentions of the coalition were good. If they had divided the country in to three states all holding there own elections I believe it would have worked. It became more about getting the oil than establishing peace. They could have had a President like USA who would have represented Iraq but each state with their own security. Well they have one it is called Halliburton.

    March 21, 2013 at 4:56 am | Reply
  11. jrh0

    I don't typically agree with Zakaria, but he got it mostly right here. The ultimate failure in the Iraq war was the way we botched the reconstruction. The invasion went just a quickly and successfully as expected, but the strategy for post war reconstruction, particularly debathification, caused the reconstruction to get ungly and drawn out.

    Part of this was trying to build the ew Iraqi government on a western template, instead of figuring out what works for their style and culture. Its kind of like restructuring an entire company, when all we really needed/wanted to do was fire the CEO.

    We also failed to account for outside influence, IE Iran and Sunni extremist groups. Had we done a little more preparation, specifically identifyingand contacting multi party political leaders who would have been ready to immediately move into the transitional government, this process could have been much easier.

    March 21, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  12. johnny

    Never trust a war mongering President of USA.

    Americnsa should take the trouble to find out more whether the President, or his croonies, are pursuing outerior motives, like oil, as in Iraq – or helping their rich and wealthy friends in the defence industries.

    March 21, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  13. johnny

    While there is justiciation for America in fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq will go down in history as a personal, meaningless and wasfeful war.

    Saddam Hussein made the fatal mistake in planning the assasination of President Bush Sr.

    March 21, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      Saddam's fatal mistake was being a convenient target for larger ambitions by the Neoconservatives running the USA. Nothing he could have done or not done would have stopped the invasion, it had been planned as far back as 1997.

      March 22, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
  14. Rick

    Lessons learned
    1) Don't lie to the pubic
    2) Don't go to war for oil, religion or money
    3) Don't keep a military empire as a jobs program
    4) Don't deficit spend to keep that empire running
    5) Don't think any war will last just a week.

    March 22, 2013 at 10:03 am | Reply
  15. Rick

    Congress did not declare war, and the UN did not approve the invasion, end of story. It was a unilateral war that was planned well in advance. Even when it was well known that Osama Bin Laden was the cause of 9/11 and he was in Afghanistan, Bush advisers were recommending an invasion of Iraq.

    March 22, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
  16. Rick McDaniel

    Actually.........you can't avoid tearing down the state, in war.

    That rule should be........don't feel obligated, to rebuild, for the loser. That is where we have been really stupid.

    March 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  17. Mateus Mahumane

    There's no war in which there are no winners and losers. I case of Iraq war, the oil companies, logistics and security companies, arms manufacturers were big time winners.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  18. ollie

    Rule #1: Don't get caught plagiarizing.

    March 29, 2013 at 11:21 am | Reply
    • Tina

      America has done many atrocities in Iran n in other cotinrues, India also loosing out to Us via Brain drain,they undrstnd our weakness for money,recognition many young genius s pulled towrds us.can see McDonals n Kfcs sprouting up ,hate 2 c our culture,taste n elite young urban sold 2 us in de name of better opportunities n grwth.

      July 6, 2014 at 10:06 am | Reply
    • Natsu

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      July 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  19. Deen

    Another one please. " Dont go to war with inspiration and information from Israel " They will make us fight with just about everysingle country in that region and burn all the bridges. Just becuase they dont want to live peacefully with others givng them there rights.

    March 30, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  20. Bob Knippel

    The biggest lesson again confronting Americans is that of people in American government having their own agenda with no regard for law, cost, or morality, all the while passing it off as being in the interest of America.

    April 21, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  21. The Sheriff of Baghdad

    Everyday is September 12, 2001.

    Never Forget, Never Forgive!

    June 3, 2013 at 2:55 am | Reply
  22. joe c

    lesson number one. NEVER TRUST AN ISRAEL FIRST JEW.
    lesson number two. never trust a jew/aipac owned congress (8% approval rating, get a clue).
    lesson 3: we will never ever win anything in the mideast as long as the mentally retarded red-headed
    pimple faced spolied step child called israel is attatched to our rear-ends.
    lesson 4: deport neocons, they are traitors and should be hung for treason
    lesson 5: never vote an israel first jew or christain to office again. they are bigger terrorists then
    all muslims combined

    June 7, 2013 at 9:50 am | Reply
  23. PaulGL

    And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the horns of the golden altar which is before God, one saying to the sixth angel that had the trumpet, Loose the four angels that are bound at the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, that had be prepared for the hour and day and month and year, that they should kill the third part of men. And the number of the armies of the horsemen was twice ten thousand times ten thousand: I heard the number of them. And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates as of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone: and the heads of the horses are as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceeded fire and smoke and brimstone. By these three plagues was the third part of men killed, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone, which proceeded out of their mouths. (Rev. 9:13﷓18)

    It is clearly indicated by prophecy that the United States is not directly involved in the battle of Armageddon. Why is this so, since the United States has a deployment of forces throughout the world. One possible reason is a decision by the leadership of the United States not to become involved in the battle of Armageddon. The choice is ours which possibility will become reality.
    It was predictable from prophecy that the U.S.S.R. would collapse, freeing America from N.A.T.O. troop obligations. It was also predictable that the 4th largest army in the world (Iraq under Saddam Hussein) would be removed from being in the path of the 200,000,000 horseman of the ‘kings from the rising of the sun’, who cross the Euphrates.
    It is my hope that the leadership of the United States will be enlightened enough that, when the Antichrist rises to power, they will withdraw all Americans from the countries under his control. I hope also that the immigration laws will be set aside for the persecuted Jews and Christians who flee the Antichrist, although no one with his mark should be admitted.
    What is needed in America is not a religion-instigated program of legislated morality: that is treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease. What is needed today is a turn away from empty materialism and even more so away from dead religion to love the living Christ.

    June 7, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  24. E. Fitzgerald

    What happened with the occupation of Iraq is that many Muslims now hate us more than they hate each other. They are a tribal people. Settling their tribal disputes and distribution of power is beyond our control. It is one thing to help them broker a deal with each other, but occupying their country for that purpose was a mistake we should not repeat. It cost too many American and Muslim lives. We should be careful not to do more harm than good in the world. It backfires.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:39 am | Reply
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