What does it look like when you “liberate” a country that hasn’t asked for it, when you unleash a violent chain of events creating the conditions for an even worse tyranny than before?
Those who witnessed Iraq in the wake of the American invasion in 2003, the failures of reconstruction, and the rise and fall of ISIS, say one need look no further than that country today to get your answer.
The Washington Postlast week reported that there are still a million internally displaced Iraqis who fled the 2014 takeover of ISIS and the ensuing war to overthrow it — with many living in soon-to-be-shuttered government-run camps. Meanwhile, COVID has sent an already fragile economy spiraling toward collapse, with salaries in the major cities left unpaid, reconstruction projects stalled or completely aborted. A new central government is still trying to find its legs, more than a year after deadly street protests washed over the country. According to experts who spoke with RS, direct attention from the Western powers that sent this country on its present course is scattershot, with aid easily corrupted by a burgeoning kleptocracy across the provincial governments and Baghdad.
“The trauma on Iraq has been despicable,” said Abbas Kadhim, who spent his own youth in an Iraqi IDP camp in the 1990s before coming to the United States, where he observed the 2003 war and its aftermath from a distance. Now he is the director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, trying to rebuild broad diplomatic and political bridges with Baghdad.
“This is really the part we have to reckon with when we talk about what happened in Iraq and what it will take to build back. There are things going on in that country that will take decades to undo,” he said in an interview with RS.
Peter Van Buren, a former U.S. foreign service officer who spent a year in Iraq leading two provincial reconstruction teams, later wrote about it in “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for Iraqi Hearts and Minds,” in 2012. He often talks about his disgust with the arrogance of the American project to remake the country in its own image, only to abandon it when the effort became untenable.
“It is part of the American way of making war, arriving unwanted in a third world country with promises to liberate, and then leaving as our domestic politics (or just losing) turn that war into an unwanted child,” he said in an email to RS.
Elijah Magnier spent years as a war correspondent in several major Iraqi cities during the war, including Baghdad at the height of the insurgency. To his mind, the United States left everything — the carnage of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, the cratered cities and towns, the toxic environment, the terrorist breeding ground and sectarian strife — behind, with impunity.
“That’s not the way it works, we’re dealing with human beings here,” he said in a recent interview. “So the U.S. removed Saddam Hussein — who was a bad person and I’m glad he’s gone — but you don’t interfere in countries where the population isn’t ready. When people are ready, they will remove their own leaders. If not, it doesn’t work.”
While that point seems to have been taken by numerous American scholars and military strategists in the years since, the lessons are far from academic in Iraq. They are visceral and ongoing.
“(The Iraqis) did all of the heavy lifting in this war,” said Kadhim, pointing in particular to the years after the U.S. began its withdrawal in 2009. At that point, the remnants of the Al-Qaida post-invasion insurgency, which was supposedly vanquished by the U.S. military “Surge” from 2007 to 2008, was already regrouping in the form of a more deadly, more powerful ISIS (ISIL, or Daesh).
Hobbled by corruption, ineffective intelligence, and festering sectarianism ignored if not inflamed by the Shitte administration of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (Washington’s man in Baghdad), the U.S.-trained Iraqi military didn’t stand a chance. As the United States was preparing to leave in 2009, then-Gen. Ray Odierno said the Iraqi forces were “ready” to take on their own security. In 2014, as ISIS raced across Iraq like a cancer, they fled. Several divisions “evaporated,” with 60 out of 243 battalions unaccounted for, all equipment lost.
“ISIS took 40 percent of the country. Some of these cities were completely destroyed,” said Kadhim, noting that much of the real destruction came when the areas were later liberated in 2017 by Iraqi forces with the help of U.S. airpower and Iranian militias. At its peak, ISIS territory included the provinces of Mosul, Anbar, Saladin, as well as major portions of Kirkuk and swaths of outer Baghdad. Entire religious sects like the Yazidis in Northwestern Iraq were massacred, kidnapped, sold, and blown to the mountain winds like sand.
“You’re talking about cities that are no longer habitable,” some, like Mosul still have unaccounted-for bodies lying under rubble, IEDs and unexploded ordnance still dotting the urban landscape, said Kadhim. There are booby traps everywhere. Reporter Mizer Kamel, writing in October, was overwhelmed by the apocalyptic scene in Mosul, two years after the city’s “liberation” from ISIS.
At one point he entered a house that served as an ISIS headquarters, with several families — a total of 64 people — living there during the central government’s fight to retake the city in 2017. Two missiles had hit the home at one point, igniting oil barrels stored in the basement. Men, women, and children were set on fire, their screams heard for two hours before an eerie silence. The injured had been taken away by ISIS, a neighbor told Kamel, who spotted human bones in the remains of the building. Some 50 bodies were never recovered.
“[Neighbourhood] residents, without exception, speak of the heavy psychological toll on their mental and physical health due to the unrecovered bodies under the rubble,” Kamel writes. “The house has become a health hazard, a breeding ground for stray dogs and a den for snakes, scorpions and insects.”
He said 80 percent of old Mosul was “wrecked” with many residential neighborhoods completely flattened. “Al-Shahwan (district) feels like a Second World War movie set. The destruction is terrifying, with torched cars piled up on tons of rubble, wreckage from destroyed houses, and skeletal human remains.”
This of course is feeding on the minds of the denizens of Iraq’s doomed IDP camps in Nineveh and Anbar provinces. They know what awaits them when they try to go home. But there are other traumas: Six years ago, many of these children were being indoctrinated in ISIS classrooms. They saw parents and family killed or taken away. Those born under the so-called ISIS caliphate are not recognized by the Iraqi government today. They are now citizens of nowhere because no one wants them. “You need an army of psychologists and psychiatrists to undo the damage, if it can be undone,” said Kadhim. “Many of these efforts just aren’t in the government’s toolkit. You’re talking about a really scarred society.”
According to a September report by Brown University’s Costs of War project, the post-9/11 wars led by the United States created at least 37 million refugees in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan over the last two decades. By 2007 in Iraq, some 4.7 million had left their homes. During the ISIS takeover in 2014, two million were forced out. While the majority have been resettled, there are still more than a million displaced. Most in the camps today are those whose homes had been destroyed, either by ISIS, the subsequent liberation, or at the hands of their neighbors, said Magnier.
Most are innocent, but they are victims of a tribal culture in which they pay the price for the direct or even indirect links through family members to Daesh or Sunni rebels who did not renounce ISIS.
“If you commit a crime or you violate the law in Iraq, your entire family must pay the price. It’s a tribal mentality,” Magnier added. That is why you see women,elderly, even children who were not even born during the ISIS period, at risk of arrest, local retribution, homelessness. “Kicking them out in the hope they go home will be disastrous,” one aid worker told the Washington Post. “There’s no plan, and there are no guarantees.”
American regime change has left Iraq even more dysfunctional and psychologically broken than it was before, critics say. We can scrub our hands of it until they’re raw, but truth, like tattoos, won’t wash away.
We (always) “walk away from the destruction we create, having burned out the jungles in Southeast Asia with Agent Orange and turned functioning countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq who dare bark at the American Empire into failed states,” charged Van Buren.
“When Joe Biden speaks of the need for American global leadership, perhaps he should first talk to those we have already left behind.”
Kadhim said it is his mission to redirect Washington’s attention to Iraq and to target existing U.S. aid more strategically, and directly. Without that, the Iraqi government, now facing the collapse of the Iraq economy, will be forced to put the IDPs and their struggles aside.
Estimates for the reconstruction run upwards of $150 billion. “The Iraqis barely have a budget running at that level,” Kadhim said. “More than two years have passed since the defeat of ISIS and there has been no significant help or aid given to repair the damage. I think people would do well to pay attention to these inconvenient facts.”
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.