The Aftermath of the War in Iraq

Published on Strategy International on 5 January 2012 as part of the research programme US Foreign and Security Policy. Click here to view full report.

December 2011 will be remembered as the month that the war in Iraq officially ended. On December 15th, Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta ended the mission in Iraq with a speech noting that from that moment on the Iraqi government will be responsible “for directing its own path to future security and future prosperity”. A few days later, on December 18th, the last convoy of American troops departed in complete secrecy as there were fears of an attack.

The war in Iraq officially began on March 20th, 2003 after several failed attempts by the US Government to justify it by gaining approval from the United Nations. In May 2003, following the fall of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, the previous month, the US president G.W. Bush falsely declared that the mission in Iraq was accomplished. However, even though Sadam Hussein was not in power any more the attacks against the US troops continued by militant groups supported by Al Qaida who seized the opportunity and went into Iraq for the first time (Kennedy-Pipe 2008:416).

The United States was trapped in, as it seemed at the moment, an endless war. If they had left after the fall of Baghdad it would seem like they invaded and destroyed a country and left like runaways unable to control the situation. However, their decision to stay was partly because they wanted to prove that they had control of the situation. In a much deeper analysis, while being present in Iraq, the United States would be able to control the area of the greater Middle East; especially Iran which given the chance would have played a major role in the post-Sadam Hussein Iraq. Being part of the reconstruction in Iraq, it would mean that Iran would have more influence in the area. Even though Iran was not present in Iraq (Kennedy-Pipe 2008:416), it was benefited by the USA’s engagement as it played a part in their efforts of building their nuclear capabilities. Because of the fact that the main argument of the invasion in Iraq, was proved false, the United States could not convince their allies in the United Nations that Iran did not seek nuclear power for peaceful causes but for the development of nuclear weapons(Kennedy-Pipe 2008:416).

But before moving forward with the analysis it is important to examine the true costs of the war by looking at some of the most important statistics.

Until November 30th the USA counted 4,486 fatalities of all kinds (including fatalities in non-hostile incidents). However, what is surprising is that most of the fatalities are observed from 2004 until 2007. In addition, most of the deaths were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with the largest percentage being in May 2007 (65.1%). The rise of deaths after the invasion is mostly because of the penetration of terrorist groups in the country and their influence by Al Qaida.

Furthermore, it is not surprising that the Iraqi side counts the most losses of human lives since it was them that they were being attacked.  The estimated civilian fatalities until October 2011 are 115,676, a number that is believed to be higher. Once again the most fatalities are observed from 2004-2007 with 34,500 in 2006 only.

The US government throughout the 8.9 years that the war lasted spent more than $8 billion from the US Treasury both in contributing to the war and the reconstruction of Iraq. This amount exceeds the cost of the war in Afghanistan by almost $400 billion. The biggest amount spent in Iraq was $131.1 billion in 2007.

Taking into account the numbers mentioned above, one can come to the conclusion that this war was not worth it after all. A huge amount of money was spent, the loss of human lives for both sides was excessive and ultimately the USA did not gain much, if anything at all. It is obvious now that the Bush Administration and the neo-conservative ideology failed completely in foreign policy. The image of the United States was damaged, the USA lost important allies at that period, including Arab States that were close with, such as Egypt. In addition, the war had a negative impact domestically with more and more American citizens feeling not only deceived but betrayed by their government.

Barack Obama’s Administration that followed had set one goal from the very beginning, to remove all the American troops from Iraq. Even though the Obama administration kept its promises it is believed that Iraq was not completely ready for the transition. The situation in the country is still very unstable. Following the withdrawal of the last US troops there were attacks in Baghdad that killed 69 people and injured many more.  According to national polls most of the Iraqis believed that the country was not in the right direction. Significantly, in a poll held in June 2010, 59% of the people had negative views on the direction of Iraq. On the other hand, despite the differences between the government and the opposition most of the Iraqis approved the national government.

It is soon to say for sure what is going to happen in Iraq but it almost sure that the situation will continue to be unstable with the differences in the political elites and the presence of Al Qaida in the country. However, there is no surprise on the reason why it is now that the USA withdrew. First of all the economic cost of the war was extreme as mentioned above. Combined with the loss of American soldiers the disapproval of the war was rising. Moreover, the upcoming elections probably played a role since by withdrawing the troops and ending the war the Obama Administration seemed that they kept their promises thus helping boost the popularity of the president.

Last but not least, it is worth mentioning what the future holds for the USA after the end of their presence in Iraq. To begin with, the war in Afghanistan is still going and a possible withdrawal from the country would not be the ideal solution since the Taliban’s are still present. The Afghan president has already expressed fears for the future of Afghanistan after a possible withdrawal. In addition, another scenario is an armed conflict with Iran. If Israel attacks Iran and Iran responds then the United States would have no other solution than assisting Israel as they are Israel’s only ally in the region. Furthermore, a confrontation between the USA and Pakistan is also possible since their relations are deteriorating especially after the latest incident in which a NATO airstrike killed 24 soldiers in November 2011. Finally, with the continuous violence in Syria there is a possible intervention by the United Nations in which the US would have to participate.

However, at the time being it is unlikely that the United States will attempt to intervene as a sole power and in the extent it intervened in Iraq. First of all it is too soon for an intervention of this kind. Secondly, the Obama administration follows a complete different direction in their foreign policy from Bush’s administration. Lastly, with the upcoming presidential elections the current president will not risk to lose any more voters. Even though a US participation in possible UN and NATO led military interventions is not unlikely at all, their presence would be distinctive, like in Libya.

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