The U.S. Army’s long-awaited official history on the war in Iraq has finally been released, and it highlights the successes — and, more importantly the failures — of a conflict in which the ultimate victor is Iran.
The history, which is more akin to a study of the war, was commissioned by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. ray Odierno in 2013, continuing under current Army chief Gen. Mark Milley.
The study was delayed for release since 2016 when it was finished, likely for political reasons, the Army Times reported, adding that some experts believe the delay was tied to concerns about airing “dirty laundry” regarding decisions made by some leaders during the war.
The study is 1,300 pages longs, comes in two volumes, and is replete with more than 1,000 declassified documents. It spans the March 2003 invasion, ordere by then-President George W. Bush and subsequently authorized by Congress, through the U.S. withdrawal during the latter years of the Obama administration.
The study also examines the rise of ISIS following the U.S. withdrawal and the subsequent influence of Iran and Syria in Iraq.
“At the time of this project’s completion in 2018, an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor,” authors Col. Joe Rayburn and Col. Frank Sobchak, both retired, wrote in the final chapter.
Rayburn and Sobchak also described the damage to the political-military relationship caused by the war, which also includes the American public.
“The Iraq War has the potential to be one of the most consequential conflicts in American history. It shattered a long-standing political tradition against preemptive wars,” authors wrote.
“In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, the pendulum of American politics swung to the opposite pole with deep skepticism about foreign interventions,” they added.
That said, the authors also pushed back against critics who are now pushing the military to forget about the low-intensity conflict lessons learned in Iraq and instead prepare for major power warfare.
“The character of warfare is changing, but even if we face peer or near-peer competitors in future conflicts, they are likely to employ a blend of conventional and irregular warfare — what is often called ‘hybrid warfare’ or ‘operations in the gray zone,’ ” authors wrote.
In the foreword, Odierno wrote that “those who rejected the idea that there is an operational level of war in counterinsurgency were wrong.”
He also wrote that, after the war, the United States has again entered “another historical cycle” as in wars past, where civilian and military leaders are conflicted over the value of land power. He also pointed out that the Army was consistently undermanned and overtaxed during the war.
The former top general lamented the chronic lack of troops available in-theater and also for additional operations such as Afghanistan. Though Congress authorized additional troop strength during the conflict, oftentimes the Pentagon relied on the Army Reserve and National Guard to meet mission requirements.
In the end, Odierno called the study an “astonishing story of an Army that reached within itself to learn and adapt in the midst of a war the United States was well on its way to losing.”
Other observations in the study, per the Army Times:
- The need for more troops: At no point during the Iraq war did commanders have enough troops to simultaneously defeat the Sunni insurgency and Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
- The failure to deter Iran and Syria: Iran and Syria gave sanctuary and support to Shiite and Sunni militants, respectively, and the U.S. never developed an effective strategy to stop this.
- Coalition warfare wasn’t successful: The deployment of allied troops had political value but was “largely unsuccessful” because the allies didn’t send enough troops and limited the scope of their operations.
- The National Guard needs more training: While many National Guard units performed well, some brigades had so much difficulty dealing with insurgents that U.S. commanders stopped assigning them their own battlespace to control. The study found that Guard units need more funding and training.
- The failure to develop self-reliant Iraqi forces: The U.S.-led effort to train and equip Iraqi forces was under-resourced for most of the war. A premature decision to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis made it harder to blunt political pressure by Iraqi officials on Iraqi commanders.
- An ineffective detainee policy: The U.S. decided at the outset not to treat captured insurgents or militia fighters as prisoners of war and then never developed an effective way to handle detainees. Many Sunni insurgents were returned to the battlefield.
- Democracy doesn’t necessarily bring stability: U.S. commanders believed the 2005 Iraqi elections would have a “calming effect,” but those elections instead exacerbated ethnic and sectarian tensions.