Iraq, squeezed between Iran and the Arab/Sunni world, and internally between its Shia majority and its Sunni (and Kurdish) minority, is a demographic miracle.

The demographic miracle – hardships before, grim prospects ahead

By 1990 – after the long years of devastating Iran-Iraq war – the population stood at 17,6 million. By the time of the (second) US-led invasion in 2003 it had grown into 27 million, and after the years of civil strife during the ensuing period, by 2010, it had grown into 31 million, followed by rapid growth thereafter, with annual growth figures 2010-2014 averaging some 4%, such that by this year, 2023, after an ensuing period of more normal growth figures of some 2,5%, the population had swelled to an impressive 45,5 million, more than double the figure for 23 years earlier. And from here, the UN prognoses indicate a figure for 2050 as an unbelievable 74,5 million, and for 2100 an incredible 111,5 million. So, in defiance of all their misfortunes and suffering, all violent deaths and injuries, during the past half-century Iraqis have multiplied faster than most or even all other countries. This in itself is truly remarkable, almost inexplicable, even without a comparison with comparable countries in the region.

But it does mean that many, many more people, increasingly young ones, will be involved in and affected by an established struggle for increasingly scarce natural resources, under conditions of continued competition/conflict between the country’s constituent religious-ethnic components in the competitive regional environment. Clearly and apparently unavoidably this will condemn, or force, many Iraqis to join the army of current and future migrants, trying to escape drought-related poverty and/or conflicts in their country of origin.

So longer-term prospects for Iraqis are rather grim, as are their experiences of conflict and suffering of past decades. And – despite current trends of security cooperation between the incumbent Al-Sudani regime in Baghdad – a significant part of this was caused by the US (or, as Tony Blair would hasten to correct, US-led) invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, almost exactly 20 years ago. This calls for some reflections as regards the relevant lessons learned from this infamous episode in America’s “war on terror”, as proclaimed by George W. Bush after 9/11, 2001.

20 years after the US invasion, 22 years after 9/11 and the war on terror

The Memorial Day 2021 in the US gave rise to and reason for attempts to summarize net outcomes of the a full 20 years of the US proclaimed “war on terror”, its achievements (if any) and its costs, with Afghanistan and Iraq the key examples – although at the time of the Memorial Day the Biden administration’s abrupt and disastrous departure from Afghanistan had not yet happened, adding doom and gloom to the Afghanistan experience.

Summarizing the total impact and outcome of the US “war on terror” 2001-2021, one (here selected) scholar, Julia Gledhill in Defense One) had these figures to provide:

Since 2001, the US has been militarily involved, with own troops, in at least 24 countries, and in anti-terror activities of various kinds in 85 countries, the total number of casualties in this war on terror being a staggering 800 000, including some 335 000 civilians, forcing some 37 million people to flee from affected countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan but also Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the Philippines and Nigeria, to mention a relevant sample. And this war has cost US tax payers in toto the incredible sum of over 6.4 trillion USD, in addition to the thousands of killed or maimed US soldiers and contractors. I.e., a huge undertaking at huge cost. But what about the result?

Here Gledhill and others venture to point to one positive parameter: a tendency for Islamist terror activities on European soil to be reduced, and to be almost diminished on US soil (only to be replaced by rising extreme rightist terrorism). But other that that, very meagre results of the war on terror, on the contrary, a significant increase globally in the number of terrorist attacks since 2001 have been registered, and a State Department assessed addition in the number of terrorist groups globally, adding 105 new groups during that same period. The grim reality, then, seems to be that far from being “won” and successful, so far, the US, or US-led, “war on terror” has had at least questionable results, so far, at enormous cost. It is important to conclude this, now that world politics – after some years of focus on the pandemic threat – is focusing on and struggling with geo-politics and geo-economics, notably the Ukraine open crisis and the Taiwan potential crisis, hoping (probably unrealistically) that the post-millennium concentration on the threat of (mainly jihadist) terrorism and the war on terror can be regarded as a past stage.

Iraq – an America “fiasco”

Still, it remains important not to forget the lessons learned from “Fiasco – The American Military Adventure in Iraq”, as was the title of Thomas E. Ricks’ sobering best-seller from 2007, later followed up with the book “Gamble”. In “Fiasco”, Ricks gave a detailed account of the process of US (neo-conservative) policy formulation, leading – against the advice of Hans Blix and others at the UN level (Colin Powell long nurtured bad memories of his role at a crucial moment) and in defiance of huge popular protest, especially in Tony Blair’s UK – to the fatal invasion, based on a conviction that Saddam Hussein did indeed possess actionable weapons of mass destruction and was indeed somehow responsible for the 9/11 attack – hence a vital target in America’s war on terror.

Now that the 20-year anniversary revives memories of the invasion, its causes and its effects, a large literature picks up where the discourse was initiated by Ricks and others. In this, more mature figures of the real net costs of the operation (and its disastrous aftermath), costs in life – US and Iraqi – and treasure are exposed: thousands of US casualties, hundreds of thousand Iraqi casualties, trillions of US dollars spent, and, in retrospect, for what useful purpose, other than the successful removal of the draconian leader, Saddam Hussein, i.e., “regime change”.

What distinguishes the case of Iraq in the list of other war-on-terror operations – or “forever wars” as Trump used to call them -, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and others, may not be primarily the combination of enormous costs in life and treasure and questionable results. In that balance Afghanistan is clearly comparable, and worse in terms of final outcome, and in the case of Libya (where the US leadership role was less pronounced), “regime change” was indeed achieved, with similarly doubtful consequences as we have seen. But in the case of Iraq, unlike all others, the invasion is rather universally defined as a US mistake, based as was later – too late – clarified on misleading evidence delivered by unreliable sources, leading to consequences rather universally designated as “disastrous”. Hence, indeed, a “fiasco”.

No US – nor UK – accountability, only political blame gaming. But the US is still around, mutual need

But – significantly – for all the near-consensus talk of “fiasco” and “mistake” and “disaster” as regards Iraq and the US/US-led military adventure, and for all the blame gaming, the concept of accountability never rose any serious foreground. No one, not Bush, not Cheney, nor Wolfowitz, nor Blair or anyone else in responsible position at the time was ever held to account, juridically. Many were blamed, politically, but no one was punished, juridically. This being the remarkable case is of course explainable in terms of US global power/impunity, and also in that – as Ricks explains in his “Fiasco” – the degree of political consensus on this in US politics was rather overwhelming, with blame widely shared. Only Obama played the role of prominent nay sayer.

Still there is another matter that distinguishes the Iraqi case from at least most other cases in the sad story of costly and questionably successful war-on-terror operations, and certainly Afghanistan, after the US-led cut-and-run: the fact that the US, for all its guilt carried and harm done, still remains in Iraq, as a peace builder partner and security provider to the current (Al-Sudani) regime in Baghdad, as with the chain of more or less stable regimes preceding the current one. Clearly, the Baghdad-Washington relationship is fragile and tentative, in view of squeeze between Iranian and Arab state interests and conflicts played on Iraqi soil – adding to domestic new and old tensions – and in view of remaining wounds from earlier US-imposed hardship, but Iraq nonetheless stands out as an exception to the rule of typically unsuccessful – but extremely costly and unfinished war-on-terror operations. And after the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between the former antagonists Saudi Arabia and Iran (and the crisis in Israel), the US can be expected to appreciate even more to be welcomed and needed by the struggling Baghdad regime. It is not just US pay-back for old sins, it is contemporary US strategic need.

Meanwhile, pending all this, Iraq is growing exponentially in population size. Enormous challenges are mounting ahead. The US made a big, catastrophic mistake in 2003, the US itself, more or less grudgingly, admits. But the US remains in Iraq, now based on mutual strategic need.

The author is ambassador, holds a Phd and is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
The article is earlier published in Consilio International.