The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 20 years later, despite America’s carelessness, Iraq is recovering

Visitors walk by a flower installation during the International Festival of Flowers and Gardens in Baghdad on Thursday. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Rajiv Chandrasekaran was The Post’s bureau chief in Baghdad from 2003 to 2004. He is the author of “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.”

Twenty years ago this month, as tens of thousands of U.S. troops prepared to storm into Iraq, the task of rebuilding and governing the soon-to-be-liberated country of some 25 million people fell to a few dozen Americans ensconced at a Hilton resort on the Kuwaiti beachfront. Some were military reservists with skills in civic administration. Others were long-serving officials or retired diplomats eager for one final tour of adventure. None of them, however, had a plan.

Because there wasn’t one.

The failure of President George W. Bush’s national security team to craft a detailed strategy for what to do once U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s government, and assemble the people to carry it out, set in motion disastrous events that contributed to a years-long insurgency that would kill or injure more than 50 times as many U.S. troops than the march to Baghdad did.

Early in the occupation, the Americans made two fateful decisions that continue to reverberate today. They disbanded the Iraqi army — even though most rank-and-file soldiers had no great love for their murderous dictator — and summarily fired hundreds of thousands of low-level members of Hussein’s Baath Party, including many schoolteachers. Both decisions, made in haste without thoughtful analysis of the implications, would propel many Iraqis into armed resistance.

The choice of Americans who were dispatched to administer Iraq during that critical first year also had a devastating impact. GOP loyalists in the Pentagon sent a 24-year-old with no background in finance to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange. A 21-year-old who hadn’t yet graduated from college was assigned to the team of Americans trying to rebuild the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police. Some applicants who sought to work for the occupation administration were asked whether they supported Roe v. Wade and if they had voted for Bush.

Even more significant, no one in Washington thought to draw up a pre-invasion strategy for sharing power in the newly liberated nation among Shiite and Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds. That negligence launched the country into a civil war that would kill tens of thousands of Iraqis — and thousands of U.S. troops caught in the middle.

After years of bloodshed, though, the country is now in a far different place. Aside from having a far closer relationship with neighboring Iran than the United States, Iraq is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in the past two generations. It is a democracy, albeit a fragile one, which is a rarity in the Arab world. Baghdad is thriving. Oil exports are flowing. Foreign investors are betting on the country’s growth. All of this has occurred in spite of the mistakes made by American civilians during the U.S. occupation.

Iraqis themselves contributed greatly to the outcome. At the time of the U.S. invasion, 84 percent of Iraqi men could read and write. Hussein ruled his country with an iron fist, committing countless atrocities in the process. But he also poured large amounts of money into education, creating a large reserve of doctors, teachers and other skilled professionals who were still in the country when the Americans arrived. Human capital matters.

Those talented Iraqis, aided by revenue from oil exports, have been a key reason Iraq looks so much better today. But could we have gotten here without the loss of so much blood and treasure?

It might be tempting to argue that the Iraqis ended up transcending the occupation and what came after, fighting through their differences to achieve detente among rival factions. That ignores all that we did, through our carelessness and incompetence in the early years, to make the problem worse.

Had we gone to war with a real plan for what we would do once we liberated Baghdad, had we sent language-proficient reconstruction experts instead of political sycophants, and had we sought to heed the wishes of millions of Iraqis to help them create a multi-sect, multiethnic, big-tent government, the history of the United States in Iraq over the past two decades would almost certainly look very different.

The country wouldn’t have been free of all bloodshed. But perhaps an all-out civil war could have been averted. The popular disaffection among Sunni Arabs that led to the growth of the brutal Islamic State could have been prevented. And many more of those Americans who served there would be healthy and alive today.

For many Americans, now fixated on the war in Ukraine and escalating tensions with China, Iraq seems far in the rearview mirror. Only a fraction of 1 percent of our compatriots were deployed to Iraq; most people don’t have a close friend or relative who served there.

Despite our tendency to forget our own history, we still have a responsibility to those who served, particularly those who returned home wounded or in a flag-draped coffin, to reckon with the grievous decisions we made at the outset. We could start by making a solemn commitment to never again launch a war without planning and staffing for what comes after our troops tear down a statue of a brutal dictator.