The wars the United States waged and fueled in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan following September 11, 2001 caused at least 4.5 million deaths, according to a report by Brown University.
Nearly a million of the people who lost their lives died in fighting, whereas some 3.6 to 3.7 million were indirect deaths, due to health and economic problems caused by the wars, such as diseases, malnutrition, and destruction of infrastructure.
These were the conclusions of a study conducted by the Cost of Wars project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
The report also analyzed the effects of wars in Libya and Somalia, which were sponsored by Washington.
The scholars estimated that, in the countries studied, there are still today 7.6 million children under age 5 who are suffering from acute malnutrition, meaning they are “not getting enough food, literally wasting to skin and bones, putting these children at greater risk of death”.
In Afghanistan and Yemen, this includes nearly 50% of children; and, in Somalia, close to 60%.
This 2021 report noted that “38 million is a very conservative estimate. The total displaced by the U.S. post-9/11 wars could be closer to 49—60 million, which would rival World War II displacement”.
The May 2023 study, which estimated that U.S. post-9/11 wars killed 4.5 to 4.6 million people, emphasized that large numbers of civilians are still perishing today, due of the lasting consequences of these violent conflicts.
Although the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, “today Afghans are suffering and dying from war-related causes at higher rates than ever”, the report noted.
In addition to the staggering death tolls, millions more civilians were wounded and suffered other incredible hardships due to these wars.
“For instance, for every person who dies of a waterborne disease because war destroyed their access to safe drinking water and waste treatment facilities, there are many more who sicken”, the study highlighted.
The 2023 report “highlights many longterm and underacknowledged consequences of war for human health, emphasizing that some groups, particularly women and children, suffer the brunt of these ongoing impacts”.
People living in poverty and those from marginalized groups had higher rates of death and lower life expectancies.
The document stressed how the “post-9/11 wars have caused widespread economic hardship for people in the war zones, and how poverty, in turn, has been accompanied by food insecurity and malnutrition, which have led to diseases and death, particularly amongst children under age five”.
In virtually all wars, indirect deaths represent the majority of the lives lost. The Brown University researchers pointed out, for example,
In conflict areas, children are 20 times more likely to die of diarrheal disease than from the conflict itself.
Damage to infrastructure that happens during wars is likewise very deadly. “Hospitals, clinics, and medical supplies, water and sanitation systems, electricity, roads and traffic signals, infrastructure for farming and shipping goods, and much more are destroyed, damaged and disrupted, with lasting consequences for human health”, the report noted.
Economic problems caused by these post-9/11 wars have been devastating.
Two decades of U.S.-NATO military occupation of Afghanistan left behind a borderline apocalyptic economic crisis.
More than half of Afghanistan’s population is in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 per day. A staggering 95% of Afghans do not have enough food.
In Yemen, more than 17.4 million people are food insecure, and 85,000 children under age 5 have likely died from starvation.
Even in countries where large numbers of U.S. troops weren’t deployed on the ground, Washington’s wars have destroyed the lives of countless civilians.
U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia “significantly impact people’s livelihood sources”, killing workers, destroying farms and businesses, and bankrupting families.
“The severe impact of such economic setbacks on populations who depend on the land for their survival cannot be underestimated”, the report emphasized.
Washington’s so-called counter-terrorism laws in Somalia have also “hampered humanitarian relief efforts, intensifying the effects of famine”, the researchers noted.
Hundreds of thousands of children have died from famine in the East African nation.
The Brown University studies are part of a growing body of scholarship documenting the death tolls of post-9/11 U.S. wars.
IPPNW cautioned that this 2015 figure was “only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely”.
As US armour was rolling into Iraqi cities, international news networks replayed over and over again a scene from April 9 that year that in hindsight seems loaded with dramatic irony.
The toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos square — an event that turned out to be stage-managed — was meant to symbolise the liberation of Iraqis and the end of the Ba’ath Party’s 35-year-long rule in Iraq. Yet it was not the grand finale of the US invasion but rather the prelude to a long and bloody revolt and armed uprising.
The US occupation that lasted eight years created aftershocks of regional instability and left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead — so many that no one has an exact count.
Like the US-led coalition in Iraq back then, the Russian government expected its illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to end with a quick and decisive victory.
Fooled by a sense of its own invincibility, the Russian army entered Ukraine as if on parade, in long columns that became easy targets for US-made Javelin missiles. They expected to be marching through the streets of Kyiv within days, but a year later, the Russians remain bogged down in a protracted and bloody war.
So did Russian President Vladimir Putin end up repeating the mistakes — and for many, the crimes — of Bush in Iraq 20 years ago? How much do these two epoch-defining invasions have in common? What are the differences?
The short answer: The parallels run deep, from the false pretexts under which they were launched and the failings of the United Nations system that the wars showed up, to the use of private military contractors. But key differences exist in the deeper motivations that triggered the wars, said military historians and analysts. And the US military proved more effective at fighting a conventional war in Iraq than Russia has in Ukraine.
“In the US case they achieved the decapitation, but they really misread the Iraqi population,” says al-Marashi. “The US thought they would be greeted as liberators overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and that didn’t happen. What did Russia think? That the Ukrainians would also welcome them as liberators for overthrowing this so-called ‘fascist regime’.”
Once senior Bush administration officials had made up their minds about invading Iraq, their single-minded determination to topple the Iraqi regime rendered them oblivious to the unintended consequences of war, said analysts.
It also blinded them to inconvenient truths — something neatly encapsulated in what a White House official reportedly told journalist Ron Suskind. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” the official said.
Creating their “own reality” meant ignoring international law and the United Nations Charter that the US and Soviet Union were original signatories to. The inability to stop the two bellicose powers from attacking sovereign states starkly exposed the weaknesses of the post-World War II international order.
Both Russia and the US went to war off the back of bogus pretexts — alternate realities they created. In the case of the US and its closest ally in the invasion of Iraq, the United Kingdom, dubious intelligence painted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a harbourer of al-Qaeda, a hoarder of weapons of mass destruction, and an all-around international bogeyman.
Al-Marashi has firsthand experience of this. A paper he wrote was plagiarised by the UK government in a 2003 document used to make the case for invading Iraq — the so-called “dodgy dossier”. Al-Marashi said his work was used in “constructing the image of a dictator who had to be overthrown”.
Russia constructed the image of a hostile administration in Kyiv that needed to be overthrown and took that lie to its absurd outer limits, portraying Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a depraved addict presiding over a government of neo-Nazis.
“The first ‘reason’ for Putin taking Ukraine was that he was saving the Ukrainians from this drug-crazed criminal Nazi gang running the country,” says Margaret Macmillan, professor of history at the University of Oxford. “And when it turned out that a lot of Ukrainians were supporting the drug-crazed criminal gang the war was now on the Ukrainians themselves, and then there was talk of re-educating them.”
As a state where power is concentrated in one man, Russia’s war in Ukraine is Putin’s war — the brutal incarnation of his own imperial designs, said experts.
According to Jade McGlynn, research fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, and author of the book Russia’s War, the invasion of Ukraine “at its heart is a war over identity and conceptions of the [Russian] nation”.
Putin “conflated himself with the power structures of Russia,” said McGlynn, and “constructed a post-Soviet Russian identity that is very dependent on Ukraine and the idea of a greater Russia”.
For al-Marashi, who used to teach at Ukraine’s Ivan Franko University, Russia’s war has an undeniably imperial aspect to it that can be traced back to Ukraine’s incorporation into the Russian empire and deliberate policies of “Russification”, which attempted to deny Ukrainian culture and identity in the 19th century. This “imperial mindset” has a long history to it, said al-Marashi, from Catherine the Great’s description of Ukraine as ‘New Russia’ all the way to Putin. “Those are imperial linkages that I don’t think you can deny,” he said.
The US’s imperial mindset towards countries it has invaded and occupied is also hard to ignore, said experts. But there is a key difference highlighted by the contexts that set the stage for the wars in Iraq and Ukraine.
Russia, said Macmillan, “is the last standing European empire”. But it is a crumbling empire, and the speeches and revisionist historical treatises that laid Putin’s ideological groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine are often shot through with a sense of historical loss. Putin has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “genuine tragedy” in which “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory”.
But it was very different for Bush, who “inherited the windfall” of the end of the Cold War and was “riding the emergence” of the US as the superpower in a unipolar world.
According to al-Marashi, the 2003 invasion of Iraq came at a “unique historical moment” for the US, when its hegemony was relatively unchallenged and it “sought to reshape the world” in its image.
When Bush ran for president, he was focused on domestic affairs, not foreign intervention, al-Marashi pointed out. But that changed with the 9/11 attacks, which emboldened the administration’s hawks, who felt that the US had unfinished business in Iraq.
In much the same way, the Putin regime had unfinished business in Ukraine. Putin, said experts, felt the need for a lasting solution to the Ukraine question that had plagued Russian nationalists since the Soviet breakup in 1991. That question — namely, what to do about Ukraine drifting towards the West’s embrace — had become ever more pressing since the 2014 war in the Donbas.
For Bush Junior, returning to the Middle East was an opportunity to finish off what his father started in the First Gulf War. Key officials and ideologues of the second Bush administration had served under the elder Bush including his vice president, Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and US trade representative Robert Zoellick. They had long advocated for US military intervention abroad.
Wolfowitz, Armitage and Zoellick — three leading “neocons” — together with another key war architect, Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were signatories of a letter to President Bill Clinton in 1998 calling for regime change in Iraq.
“The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction,” the letter read. “In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.
“In any case, American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council.”
From Blackwater to Wagner
Security concerns, although they turned out to be highly exaggerated, played into the decisions of the US and Russia to embark on their illegal invasions.
Moscow has pointed to its fears of NATO expansion and the existential threat posed by a hostile Ukraine, describing its neighbour as merely a proxy for the West. It is, in Putin’s view, the latest episode in a long history of Western attempts to cripple Russia.
To some extent, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. European support for NATO is far greater than before the invasion, and Russia is more isolated, more economically vulnerable, and faced with biting sanctions.
Similarly, in the aftermath of 9/11, paranoia crept into the US establishment. The first major attack on the US mainland exposed the vulnerability of the world’s sole superpower and left the US public deeply shocked. Although Iraq had nothing to do with the attack, Americans “were prepared to believe the government if it told them Iraq was responsible,” Macmillan said.
Ultimately, both wars left the countries that started them — and the world at large — less secure than before, and as the costs and casualties began to mount, their citizens became predictably wary. The aftermath of 9/11 saw jingoism reach a fever pitch in the US but also galvanised an anti-war movement. By the end of Bush’s final term, public support for the war had plummeted.
It is much harder to gauge Russian public opinion — criticism of the war has been banned and early shows of public disapproval were ruthlessly stamped out — but the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing abroad to avoid the draft gives some indication of the public mood.
When the war in Donbas started in 2014, “there was a nationalist revival”, said McGlynn, “you saw people volunteering to go off to Donbas.
“In 2022 it was different, people were anxious”.
Yet again, Putin appears to have followed Bush’s example.
The US did not rely on conscription to fight its war in Iraq, but was nevertheless wary that a steady stream of body bags for regular troops would take a major toll on public opinion. Its widespread reliance on private military contractors in Iraq, however, helped solve that problem.
Newly recruited, poorly trained prisoners have been pressed into service with the promise of freedom, and have reportedly been used as cannon fodder in some of the most intense fighting in Ukraine. Wagner’s fighters have also been implicated in some of the worst atrocities in the ongoing war.
Who won, and who lost
The US did not have a sound exit strategy in Iraq and so got trapped in a grinding conflict, said Macmillan, adding that Russia has made the same mistake.
Yet the results of the Russian and US invasions have been felt most acutely by the invaded populations — Iraqi society was “shattered” by the US’s “shock and awe” offensive, said Macmillan, while the costs of reconstruction for Ukraine will likely be higher than in Iraq.
Still, there are differences in the consequences that the US faced and that Russia will likely confront for years to come.
While the US was stuck in a quagmire of its own creation for nearly a decade, there were no significant economic hardships experienced by its population. The US economy did not suffer a war-induced shock, it faced no sanctions and diplomatic isolation, and its military was not humiliated in the way Russia’s has been.
Condemnations of US actions were ultimately inconsequential. The US was simply too secure in its role as global hegemon to be treated like a pariah state, and the prospect of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Bush or any other senior US government official, as has been issued for Putin, was inconceivable.
For Russia, it is different. Russia is not the Soviet Union — it is a rump state with a struggling economy overly dependent on hydrocarbon exports. Its military, once seen as among the world’s most sophisticated, increasingly looks like a Potemkin army when put to the test.
The consequences for the world at large may also be more severe this time.
War in Ukraine threatens to feed into global insecurity. In Iraq, apart from oil supply instability, the spillover from war was largely contained to the Middle East. Ukraine, on the other hand, is more integrated into the global economy and is a breadbasket that sustains global food markets, while sanctions on Russia have destabilised global energy supplies.
The conflict also comes at a time when the guardrails of an interconnected global order that disincentivised wars between major economies are falling apart. “Globalisation is unwinding,” said Macmillan.
The world, in short, is a more dangerous place than it was two decades ago. A major nuclear power is engaged in a war that is sucking in NATO powers. And even superpowers cannot create an alternative reality.
With the Pentagon now refocusing elsewhere, and with Iran getting closer to nuclear weapons by the day, the widening post-Iraq American boots-on-the-ground Middle East vacuum is cautiously being challenged by China.
Shiite Muslims protest near the local headquarters of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority on July 20, 2003, in Najaf, Iraq. – Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
The invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, by a US-led “coalition of the willing” set the standards for the use of armed force as an instrument Great Power foreign policy outside the scope of the UN resolutions.
That action destabilized the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa and undermined the system of alliances built in the wake of WWII, paramount amongst them the cornerstone of the Quincy Agreement on Feb. 14, 1945 — signed aboard the USS Quincy moored in the Great Bitter Lake along the Suez Canal — between President Franklin D. Roosevelt — who had just returned from Yalta — and King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud, setting up the “oil for protection” pact between the United States and the Saudi kingdom. It would “fuel” the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against the Warsaw Pact, rich with the plentiful oil fields of Siberia and the Caspian, then in USSR territory.
The Iraq invasion was a protracted reaction against the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, known as the “two blessed raids” in Islamist parlance. To a large extent, though, the four planes that hit America on that day were but US jihadi chickens coming home to roost, as the United States itself had unleashed the genie from the bottle when the CIA instrumentalized the Afghan and international brigades of mujahedeen to vanquish the Red Army and kick it out of Kabul, on Feb. 15, 1989. That would prove the final blow to the Soviet system and a prelude to the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 of that same year.
Using jihadis to unsettle the USSR looked at once like a coup de maître, but it would soon prove to feel more like a sorcerer’s apprentice, as jihadism was fueled into becoming the major world threat until the 2020s, morphing from local to regional then international stages under the guises of al-Qaeda and finally the Islamic State (IS), reaching deep into America and then European societies.
Fifteen of the 9/11 kamikazes being Saudis, the neocons in the George W. Bush administration blamed the Wahhabi kingdom for the misdeed — a modern-day illustration of the beam and the mote parable — and envisioned the invasion of Iraq as a means to punish Riyadh for shifting to a post-Saddam Hussein, Shiite-dominated Mesopotamia with huge oil fields. Intoxicated by Iraqi exiles roaming inside the beltway, they underestimated the resilience of the armed Sunni resistance — which would give birth to IS — and didn’t anticipate the Iranian capacity to control local Shiite militias who came to dominate in Baghdad. Paradoxically, the US invasion eventually delivered Iraq to its arch-nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the neocons had naively believed in a domino theory that would see Western-style democracy expand from Shiite Baghdad to Shiite Teheran by virtue of example.
The Iraq fiasco engineered the local branch of IS in the infamous US detention facilities of Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, which would later expand to Syria during the course of the civil war in 2012, taking advantage of the sectarian output of the hastily praised democratic ideals of the Arab Spring, and finally bring terrorist havoc into Europe with the to-and-fro of jihadis with their Levant bases. Equally damaging, it undermined for good the Saudi-American trust relationship, which had survived the trials of the 1973 Yom Kippur-Ramadan war and the first oil crisis, the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan jihad. When Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017 and started the process that would shift the kingdom from gas station of America to political heavyweight on the world scene, he had learned the lessons from the Iraq invasion and its far-reaching consequences.
One of them was that the United States would shy from armed intervention in the Middle East for fear of unpredictable pernicious effects: President Barack Obama, who had achieved the painstaking pullout of troops from Iraq in December 2011, reneged from bombing Syria in August 2013 when President Bashar al-Assad gassed his own insurgent population on the outskirts of Damascus. Rather, the White House would take precautions from the chaotic outcomes of the Arab Springs in engaging the Muslim Brotherhood, the intimate enemy of Riyadh, as a stabilization force against all-out chaos.
As a consequence, Saudi trust in America went to a new low, and the kingdom — together with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — helped then-Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi oust and replace Muslim Brother Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 in a media campaign that painted the latter as a stooge of the Obama administration.
Though Saudi relations with Donald Trump looked better as the latter pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kazemi had a more balanced attitude toward his Sunni neighbors and the West, Tehran regained much of its hand in Baghdad after the last elections. Meanwhile, the United States — with traumatic memories of the disastrous Iraq invasion — was pulling much of its troops from the Middle East. It let the Taliban retake Afghanistan in August 2021, giving mixed signals to regional allies dependent on its military guarantees.
With the Pentagon now refocusing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Chinese navy challenge on the Taiwan straits, and with Iran getting closer to nuclear weapons by the day, the widening post-Iraq American boots-on-the-ground Middle East vacuum is cautiously being challenged by China, which is going beyond its commercial and financial collaterals to venture into security safeguards. Such are the lessons learned from the Iraq War by Beijing and its Arab partners, if not by Washington.
A third, broader AUMF approved by Congress 2001 was not incorporated into the latest repeal effort because supporters say it is still needed to combat al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and related terror operations.
“Passing this bill is an important step to prevent any president from abusing these AUMFs, reaffirm our partnership with the Iraqi government, and pay tribute to the service members who served in Iraq and their families,” Kaine said.
Kaine said he urged the House, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, to swiftly pass the legislation and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature. Kaine’s Republican co-sponsor, Indiana Sen. Todd Young, called for quick action by the House as well.
“A broad and diverse coalition in the House supports this legislation, and I am hopeful the bill will receive prompt consideration,” Young said in a statement.
Previous attempts to retract or amend the authorizations failed in recent years, including a 2021 bill to repeal the 2002 AUMF approved by the then-Democratic-controlled House but which stalled when it reached the Senate.
In the current debate, some senators expressed concerns the new repeal attempt could be seen as a sign of U.S. weakness by international foes such as Iran. But the legislation has found a broad support in the House across party lines and McCarthy has indicated support for the measure.
The legislation “has a good chance of getting through committee and getting to the floor,” the California Republican recently said at a GOP retreat in Orlando.
Biden came out in support of repeal earlier in March, noting that no ongoing military activities rely on the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs.
“President Biden remains committed to working with the Congress to ensure that outdated authorizations for the use of military force are replaced with a narrow and specific framework more appropriate to protecting Americans from modern terrorist threats,” the White House said in a statement just before the Senate held a test vote March 16.
IAVA, a large Iraq war veterans’ group, welcomed the resolution, too, saying Congress should not allow a president to have “unchecked” authority over troop deployments.
“Congress has shirked its responsibility to our troops and their families for too long by leaving open-ended authorizations of military force in place. It’s past time to change that,” IAVA CEO Allison Jaslow said in. statement about the Senate vote.
Washington’s decision to completely dismantle the state and military apparatus contributed decisively to the prevalence of total chaos and the disintegration of Iraq’s social fabric
The events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent American invasion (2003) and occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) were two landmark events, which made Washington the architect of regional destabilisation and insecurity in the Middle East for about a decade.
The timeline of the invasion refers to the US and British-led attack of “the willing” on March 19, 2003, in implementation of the US “New National Security Strategy,” which placed the issue of terrorism at the top of Washington’s political agenda.
It is a fact that Decision 687 of the S.C. imposed a series of commitments on Iraq’s disarmament, including destroying any alleged weapons of mass destruction and cooperating with a UN Special Commission to inspect its nuclear program.
Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with the international community was quickly taken advantage of by the USA and Great Britain in order to request that the S.C. adopt a new decision authorising the use of force. With most UN member states opposed to violence and in favor of a peaceful resolution, the US and UK launched a unilateral invasion, which was criticised even by US officials, such as the US ambassador to Baghdad in 1990.
The unilateral military operation against Iraq was carried out in violation of Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, which introduces a general prohibition of the use of force, and Article 51, which recognises the “natural right of individual or collective self-defense, in the case that a State is attacked”, as well as article 39 of Chapter VII, which refers to the authorisation of the Security Council.
Regarding the right of self-defense the Bush and Tony Blair governments did not invoke information about an existing or imminent threat, instead they based their arguments on the fear of a future use of weapons of mass destruction by the Saddam Hussein regime.
US arrogance peaked when defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected the report of the UN inspector general for the search, inventory and destruction of weapons of mass destruction, which concluded that no evidence had emerged to support speculation about weapons of mass destruction. After all, the minister of foreign affairs Colin Powell, in his speech at the United Nations on February 3, 2003, speculated that Iraqi weapons might be linked to terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda.
Based on the above, it is not surprising that the International Commission of Judges in Geneva concluded that the US committed a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force, as its invasion of Iraq did not meet either of the two conditions under Chapter VII of the Charter Organisation of the United Nations.
However, the role of the UN was crucial in providing a legal cover for the so-called ‘multinational’ force in Iraq, and even under the guidance of the US and UK to defy the will of the duly elected Iraqi parliamentarians to attach the UN mandate to conditionalities, such as a timetable for the withdrawal of occupying troops or a refusal to privatise their natural resources.
But as history has taught, when a people is denied the ability to decide its own destiny through a peaceful political process, it will try to do so with guns and bombs. And here are the effects:
According to the Lancet medical review, until shortly before the emergence of ISIS in 2012, more than 1,455,590 Iraqis had lost their lives from fighting and explosions, and millions were wounded and displaced.
The ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that the American occupying power used to impose itself intensified the already existing ethnic and dogmatic passions. Washington’s decision to completely dismantle the state and military apparatus, contributed decisively to the prevalence of total chaos and the disintegration of the country’s social fabric.
The “liberation” of Iraq is captured in some of the most inhumane images, with open-air markets turning into rivers of blood and dismembered people, cities being wiped off the map, like Fallujah in 2004, prisoners being unspeakably humiliated by the ‘liberators’, as in Abu Ghraib.
In short, the invasion and occupation of the ‘prothyms’ in Iraq, includes all those ingredients that became fertilizer for ISIS propaganda and plunging the country into a vortex of chaos and blood.
According to president Barack Obama, “ISIS is the spawn of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that developed because of our invasion and is a sample of the side effects”.
Also according to Patrick Cockburn and his book “The Rise of the Islamic State”, ISIS is “the child of war” , of a supposed war on terror, as designed by Bush and Blair. Ηοwever, a war on terror would be directed against states that breed extremism like Saudi Arabia, but the two leaders chose a state whose government opposed religious fundamentalism and turned it into a magnet for hard-line jihadists in the power vacuum that followed the subversion of the legal government of the country.
And worst of all, the criminal operation of Bush and Blair brought terrorism to the safe streets of Europe, such as in Madrid, Paris, Berlin, London, Brussels and Nice.
Likewise, Islamic terrorism has spread to Africa through Al-Qaeda’s sister organisation Boko Haram and the Islamic State, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis that followed the ‘humanitarian’ war of the liberal ‘interventionists’ to overthrow the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya.
The war, which had a heavy cost for the Americans as well, with approximately 5,000 victims and an economic cost of 1.7 trillion dollars, was after Afghanistan the most overt application of the Bush doctrine of preventive strikes and was the reason for the strengthening of the American military presence in Middle East and the emergence of the dominant role of the USA in the Persian Gulf region.
The ‘achievement’ of fundamentally destabilising the entire region through its transformation into a series of “failed” states has been the hotbed for the rise of ISIS, with incalculable implications for the West.
Τhe war against Iraq, which also devastated neighboring Syria, was the main cause of the modern refugee crisis. According to UN data, in 2007 Iraqi refugees around the world were almost 4.000.000.
At the same time, however, the refugee crisis contributed to the rise of neo-nationalism and far-right movements in Europe, which there is a risk of leading to the collapse of the European Union.
Two decades after the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq, one of the most memorable moments for many in the region remains the 2008 news conference in Baghdad when an Iraqi journalist stood up and hurled his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush. As the U.S. leader spoke alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he was forced to duck the flying shoes as the journalist shouted: “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!”
The man was quickly pounced on by security forces and removed from the room, and says he was subsequently jailed and beaten for his actions.
“The only regret I have is that I only had two shoes,” Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who expressed the feelings of many Iraqis at the time, told CBS News on Monday, exactly 20 years after the beginning of the U.S.’s campaign of “shock and awe.”
Then-President Bush’s administration justified its decision to attack the Iraqi regime headed by Saddam Hussein with assertions that the dictator was hiding chemical or biological “weapons of mass destruction,” but no such weapons were ever found.
Al-Zaidi says he didn’t throw his shoes in a moment of uncontrolled anger, but that he had actually been waiting for just such an opportunity since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. He said Bush had suggested that the Iraqi people would welcome U.S. forces with flowers, which left him looking for an adequate reply.
“I was looking for the opposite and equal reaction to say that Iraqis don’t receive occupiers with flowers,” the journalist told CBS News, adding that he staged his protest to oppose “this arrogant killer, and out of loyalty to the Iraqi martyrs killed by American occupation soldiers.”
Sentenced to three years in prison, al-Zaidi was seen by many Iraqis as a national hero, and he served only nine months of his sentence.
He says he was beaten and tortured for three days following his arrest by Iraqi officers, who he claims sent photos of himself blindfolded to the Americans. He says three months of his jail term were spent in solitary confinement as he suffered medical problems.
“Back then, in the midst of being tortured for three days, there was a rumor that I had apologized. I told the investigator I did not apologize, and if time was rewound I would do it all over again,” he told CBS News. “Even knowing what I would go through, still I would stand up and throw my shoes at him.”
Al-Zaidi said the anxious wait for the expected invasion before March 20, 2003, left Iraqis on edge, with stockpiling food and others fleeing major cites for smaller towns far from Baghdad, fearing American bombs.
“People were like, semi-dead, like zombies, walking as if they were in a different world,” al-Zaidi recalled. “Then the zero-hour came. Most if not all Iraqis were woken up by the sound of explosions.”
The journalist says some of Iraq’s infrastructure still hasn’t been repaired, and he blames the invasion for “political and financial corruption” and the current political gridlock in his country, where “every political party has its own armed faction or militia that kills and terrifies people, kills their opposition and assassinates protesters.”
“We are trying to tell the world that the Iraqi people are being killed and ripped off,” he said. “We are suffering and we will continue to suffer, but the future of Iraq is in our hands and we want to remove this authority that ruled Iraq for the past 20 years.”
On March 20, 2003, the United States led a coalition that launched a fully-fledged invasion of Iraq, closely supported by the United Kingdom.
The case it had made for invading the Middle Eastern nation was built on three basic premises: that the regime of Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD); that it was developing more of them to the potential advantage of “terrorist” groups; and that creating a “friendly and democratic” Iraq would set an example for the region.
What appears inescapable is that the Iraq war has cast a long shadow over the US’s foreign policies, with repercussions to this day.
Weapons of mass destruction
“Let me begin by saying, we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here,” David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), told the US Senate on January 29, 2004.
His team – a fact-finding mission set up by the multinational force to find and disable Iraq’s purported WMDs – was ultimately unable to find substantial evidence that Hussein had an active weapons development programme.
The Bush administration had presented that as a certainty before the invasion.
In a speech in Cincinnati in the US state of Ohio on October 7, 2002, the US president declared that Iraq “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.”
He then concluded that Hussein had to be stopped. “The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons,” Bush said.
Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair had said the same thing on September 24, 2002, as he presented a British intelligence dossier affirming that Hussein could activate chemical and biological weapons “within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population”.
When the ISG presented its findings, one of the war’s main arguments crumbled. “We’ve got evidence that they certainly could have produced small amounts [of WMD], but we’ve not discovered evidence of the stockpiles,” Kay said in his testimony.
According to Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa programme at Chatham House, the decision to invade Iraq was a “huge violation of international law” and that the real objective of the Bush administration was a broader transformational effect in the region.
“We know that the intelligence was manufactured and that [Hussein] didn’t have the weapons,” Vakil told Al Jazeera.
“They felt that by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and supposedly bringing democracy to Iraq then there would be a domino effect,” Vakil said.
Some observers have pointed to the fact that while the ISG did not find an active WMD program, it had gathered evidence that Hussein was planning to resume the programme as soon as international sanctions against Iraq were lifted.
According to Melvyn Leffler, author of the book, Confronting Saddam Hussein, uncertainty was a defining factor in the months prior to the invasion.
“There was an overwhelming sense of threat,” Leffler told Al Jazeera. “The intelligence community in the days and weeks after 9/11 developed what they called a ‘threat matrix’, a daily list of all incoming threats. This list of threats was presented to the president every single day.”
For years prior to the invasion, Hussein resisted inspections by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, established in 1999 with the mandate to disarm Iraq of its WMDs.
While Bush campaigned for the presidency on the promise of a “humble” foreign policy, the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, dragged the US on a decades-long global counterterrorism military campaign it dubbed the “War on Terror”.
In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, Bush stated in no uncertain terms that the US would combat “terrorist groups” or any country deemed to be training, equipping or supporting “terrorism”.
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, aiming to threaten the peace of the world,” he said.
The speech went on to identify Iraq as a pillar in the so-called “axis of evil”.
“Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” the US president said.
“This is a regime that agreed to international inspections – then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilised world.”
A year later, on January 30, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney drew a link between Hussein’s government and the group deemed to be behind 9/11, stating that Iraq “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda”.
Hussein was known to have supported various groups deemed “terrorist” by some states, including the Iranian dissident group Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and several Palestinian splinter groups, but evidence of ties to al-Qaeda has never been found.
According to Leffler, Bush never believed in a direct link between Hussein and al-Qaeda.
However, he believed the sanctions regime against Iraq was breaking down, that containment was failing and that as soon as the sanctions were lifted, Hussein would restart his WMD program and “blackmail the United States in the future”.
In a speech on October 14, 2002, Bush said the US was “a friend to the people of Iraq”.
“Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us … The long captivity of Iraq will end, and an era of new hope will begin.”
A few months later, he added that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region” and “begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace”.
Ultimately, the attempt to turn Iraq into a “bulwark for democracy” largely backfired, with little evidence of a strengthening of democracy in the wider region.
“Since the war in Iraq, there has been not only a persistent threat from al-Qaeda but also the emergence of ISIS [ISIL] and the growth of the Iranian state as a regional power, which has been profoundly destabilising in the region,” Vakil, of Chatham House, said.
In 2005, under US occupation and with strong input from American-supplied experts, Iraq hastily formulated a new constitution, establishing a parliamentary system.
While not written in the constitution, the requirement that the president be a Kurd, the speaker a Sunni, and the prime minister a Shia became common practice.
According to Marina Ottaway, Middle East fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the US invasion “created a system dependent on divergent sectarian interests” that is “too bogged down in the politics of balancing the factions to address policies that would improve the lives of Iraqis”.
“The Iraqi constitution was essentially an American product, it was never a negotiated agreement among Iraqis, which is what a successful constitution is,” the analyst added.
“The United States made a huge mistake in trying to impose its own solution on the country.”
Twenty years ago this month, the United States invaded Iraq. On the eve of the 2002 congressional vote to authorize that unprovoked and disastrous war—which claimed the lives of at least 275,000 Iraqi civilians and around 7,000 Americans—theeditors of The Nation made the case for rejecting that war of choice: “The case against the war is simple, clear and strong.” At the time, few media outlets stood with The Nation to oppose what so many now acknowledge was a foreign policy debacle; in particular, far too many liberals succumbed to either President George W. Bush’s arguments or, more likely, their own delusion that the political problem of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship could be solved through military means. The absence of accountability for a government that lied us into war, and a media that jettisoned skepticism for stenography, continues to endanger our fragile democracy to this day.
The Nation has a long tradition of opposing this country’s imperial misadventures, from the annexation of Hawaii and the conquest of the Philippines to the occupation of Haiti and the war in Vietnam. One of the crucial voices leading The Nation’s opposition to the Iraq War—during the run-up to the invasion and afterward—was the writer Jonathan Schell. Already celebrated for his 1982 book The Fate of the Earth—a foundational text for the nuclear disarmament movement—Schell drafted the open letter to Congress below, which, like all Nation editorials at the time, ran unsigned. We reprint an excerpt of it now as a warning that, sadly, has lost none of its salience.
S oon, you will be asked to vote on a resolution authorizing the United States to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. The nation marches as if in a trance to war. Polls and news stories reveal a divided and uncertain public. Yet debate in your chambers is restricted to peripheral questions, such as the timing of the vote or the resolution’s precise scope. You are a deliberative body, but you do not deliberate. You are representatives, but you do not represent.
The silence of those of you in the Democratic Party is especially troubling. You are the opposition party, but you do not oppose. Raising the subject of the war, your political advisers tell you, will distract from the domestic issues that favor the party’s chances in the forthcoming congressional election. In the face of the administration’s preemptive war, your leaders have resorted to preemptive surrender. For the sake of staying in power, you are told, you must not exercise the power you have in the matter of the war. What, then, is the purpose of your reelection?
On April 4, 1967, as the war in Vietnam was reaching its full fury, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And he said, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
Dangerous dunce: George W. Bush and his administration blundered their way into a foreign policy disaster. (Charles Ommanney / Getty Images)
Now the time to speak has come again. We urge you to speak—and, when the time comes, to vote—against the war on Iraq.
The case against the war is simple, clear, and strong. Iraq has no demonstrated ties either to the September 11 attack on the United States or to the Al Qaeda network that launched it. The aim of the war is to deprive President Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, but the extent of his program for building these weapons, if it still exists, is murky. Still less clear is any intention on his part to use such weapons. To do so would be suicide, as he well knows.
Some observers have likened the resolution under discussion to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 authorizing President Johnson to use force in Vietnam. But that was passed only after a report was received of two attacks on US naval forces. (We now know that the first attack was provoked by a prior secret American attack and the second was nonexistent.) The new resolution, which alleges no attack by the nation of Iraq, is a Tonkin Gulf resolution without a Tonkin Gulf incident.
Even if Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction and wishes to use them, a policy of deterrence would appear perfectly adequate to stop him, just as it was adequate a half-century ago to stop a much more fearsome dictator, Joseph Stalin, from carrying out nuclear warfare. It is not true that military force is the only means of preventing the proliferation of these weapons, whether to Iraq or other countries. An alternative path is clearly available. In the short run it passes through the United Nations and its system of inspections. At the very least, this path should be fully explored before military action—the traditional last resort—is even considered. Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for example, almost every country in the world agreed to do without nuclear weapons. The larger issue is whether proliferation—not just to Iraq but to many other countries as well—is best addressed by military or political means.
But the decision to go to war has a significance that goes far beyond the war. The administration’s recently published “National Security Strategy of the United States” sets forth even larger ambitions. It declares a policy of military supremacy over the entire earth—an objective never before attained by any power. Military programs are meanwhile forbidden to other countries, all of whom are to be prevented from “surpassing or equaling” the United States. China is singled out for a warning that by “pursuing advanced military capabilities,” it is following an “outdated path” that “threaten[s] its neighbors.” The new policy reverses a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks. It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to be attacked by them. It trades deterrence for preemption—in plain English, aggression. It accords the United States the right to overthrow any regime—like the one in Iraq—it decides should be overthrown. It declares that the defense of the United States and the world against nuclear proliferation is military force. It is an imperial policy—more ambitious than ancient Rome’s, which, after all, extended only to the Mediterranean and European world. Nelson Mandela recently said of the administration, “[T]hey think they are the only power in the world…. [O]ne country wants to bully the whole world.”
Lasting scars: The US invasion of Iraq destabilized the region, ushering in destruction whose effects can still be felt today. (AFP via Getty Images)
A vote for the war in Iraq is a vote for this policy. The most important of the questions raised by the war, however, is larger still. It is what sort of country the United States wants to be in the 21st century. The genius of the American form of government was the creation of a system of institutions to check and balance government power and so render it accountable to the people. Today that system is threatened by a monster of unbalanced and unaccountable power—a new Leviathan—that is taking shape among us in the executive branch of the government. This Leviathan—concealed in an ever-deepening, self-created secrecy and fed by streams of money from corporations that, as scandal after scandal has shown, have themselves broken free of elementary accountability—menaces civil liberties even as it threatens endless, unprovoked war. As disrespectful of the Constitution as it is of the UN Charter, the administration has turned away from law in all its manifestations and placed its reliance on overwhelming force to achieve its ends.
In pursuit of empire abroad, it endangers the republic at home. The bully of the world threatens to become the bully of Americans, too. Already, the Justice Department claims the right to jail American citizens indefinitely on the sole ground that a bureaucrat in the Pentagon has labeled them something called an “enemy combatant.” Even the domestic electoral system has been compromised by the debacle in Florida. Nor has the shadow cast on democracy by that election yet been lifted. Election reform has not occurred. Modest campaign reform designed to slow the flood of corporate cash into politics, even after passage in Congress, is being eviscerated by conservative attacks. More important, this year’s congressional campaign, by shunning debate on the fundamental issue of war and peace, has signaled to the public that even in the most important matters facing the country neither it nor its representatives decide; only the executive does.
Members of Congress! Be faithful to your oaths of office and to the traditions of your branch of government. Think of the country, not of your reelection. Assert your power. Stand up for the prerogatives of Congress. Defend the Constitution. Reject the arrogance—and the ignorance—of power. Show respect for your constituents—they require your honest judgment, not capitulation to the executive. Say no to empire. Affirm the republic. Preserve the peace. Vote against war in Iraq.
Twenty years on from the US invasion of the country, Iraq has fallen off the policymaking agenda in Washington, DC—cast aside in part as a result of the bitter experience of the war, the enormous human toll it exacted, and the passage of time. But looking forward twenty years and beyond, Iraqis need a great deal from their own leaders and those of their erstwhile liberators. A national reconciliation commission, a new constitution, and an economy less dependent on oil revenue are just some of the areas the experts at the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative highlight in this collection of reflections marking two decades since the US invasion.
What else will it take to transform Iraq into a prosperous, productive regional player? What can the United States do now, with twenty years’ worth of hindsight? And just how far-reaching were the effects of the war? Twenty-one experts from across the Atlantic Council take on these questions in a series of short essays and video interviews below.
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address on January 28th, 2003, referring to Niger’s mostly foreign-owned uranium mines. Bush’s notorious “Sixteen Words” were based on intelligence the CIA believed to be false. Nevertheless, it formed the core of the Bush administration’s pretext for war, that Iraq’s formerly U.S.-backed dictator Saddam Hussein was secretly amassing weapons of mass destruction – WMDs.
Months earlier, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned of the WMD threat, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Bush invoked the same imagery one month later, in a major address in Cincinnati, laying out the case for invading Iraq, saying, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Bush’s Secretary of State General Colin Powell sealed the deal at the United Nations on February 5th, 2003, with a presentation laced with false intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMD program that he said included nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He would later call the speech a “blot” on his career.
The Bush administration’s lies and misrepresentations were amplified by the corporate media, most notably by The New York Times. Story after story ran above the fold on the front page by reporter Judith Miller, often co-written by Michael R. Gordon, hyping the claim that Saddam Hussein was attempting to build nuclear weapons. In a 3,400-word article hyping the threat of WMDs published on September 8, 2002, Miller and Gordon cite unnamed “officials,” “American intelligence” and Bush administration “hard-liners” three dozen times, along with unnamed Iraqi defectors and dissidents.
Months after the invasion, the Times also published a piece by the late Ambassador Joe Wilson. “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” was Wilson’s first-hand account of a CIA-sponsored trip he took to Niger in February, 2002, to assess the veracity of the uranium claims being pushed by the Bush administration. Wilson reported to the CIA that he had found no evidence that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq. His Times piece was a damning indictment of the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to push an illegal war.
In retaliation, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, leaked the name of Joe Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, to select members of the press, including Judith Miller. Plame was a covert CIA agent, and when a rightwing columnist published her name, her undercover career was essentially over. Judith Miller refused to reveal her source to a grand jury investigating the leak, and was jailed for 85 days for contempt of court. She was released after agreeing to cooperate.
As these legal battles raged in Washington, DC, the real war raging in Iraq was killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of U.S. and coalition troops. Millions of Iraqis became refugees, later joined by Syrians as the conflagration sparked by the U.S. invasion spread.
While the true cost of the Iraq war will never be fully known, Brown University researchers put it at close to $3 trillion. They also estimate that up to 580,000 people – civilians and combatants – have been killed in Iraq and Syria since 2003. “Four times that number may have died due to indirect causes such as displacement, poor access to safe drinking water, healthcare, and preventable diseases,” their Cost of War report grimly notes.
This week, Brown University Professor Nadje Al-Ali, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies, speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour, reflected,
“The young generation of Iraqis are trying to go beyond the impact of the invasion and occupation. There’s lots of creativity, resourcefulness and positive energy. So I have some hope. For people, especially in this country, it’s high time to really rethink US military involvement and policy more broadly, not just in Iraq but in the Middle East and the world.”