August 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Iraq’s infamous invasion of Kuwait. It also marks 30 years since the U.S. military begun its involvement in Iraq. That involvement has lasted, in one form or another, almost continuously to this day.
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of Kuwait and conquered the tiny oil-rich sheikdom in a highly effective two-day operation. By doing so, he rapidly turned the United States and most of the world against him.
The George H.W. Bush administration promptly established a multinational coalition consisting of 35 countries. It launched Operation Desert Shield, a military build-up in Saudi Arabia primarily aimed at protecting that kingdom from any potential Iraqi attack.
Saddam, likely believing the Americans were bluffing with their threat of military force, refused to withdraw from Kuwait by the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council. Consequently, in January 1991, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, an enormous air campaign against Iraq that rapidly devastated both its armed forces and infrastructure.
Television viewers across the world saw the bombing of Baghdad in real-time. The U.S. military showcased its hi-tech military gear, particularly its stealthy F-117 Nighthawk bombers, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and various precision-guided ‘smart’ bombs.
The Iraqi military stood no chance against this superior firepower and technology.
Following Desert Storm, the U.S. launched a ground campaign called Operation Desert Sabre that lasted a mere 100-hours. U.S.-led armored forces battled the Iraqis in the desert and suffered minuscule losses compared to their Iraqi adversary. Iraqi forces fled Kuwait, after infamously looting it and setting its oil wells on fire, and the war was formally ended by a ceasefire by the end of February.
In the lead-up to the war, Bush had promised a quick and decisive victory, insisting that the Persian Gulf War would be nothing like the costly and demoralizing quagmire the U.S. experienced in Vietnam. In many ways, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, the U.S. felt it had gotten over its so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” since it achieved its objectives quickly and suffered very few casualties.
However, the removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait and the ceasefire did not end the U.S. military’s involvement in Iraq. In many ways, it was merely the beginning.
Iraqi Shiites and Kurds rose against Saddam in March 1991, shortly after the U.S.-Iraq ceasefire. They believed that Bush’s suggestion that Iraqis should take matters into their own hands and overthrow Saddam from power meant that the U.S. military would support their uprising. Instead, it stood by.
Despite gaining much momentum and ground early on, the widespread uprisings were brutally crushed and countless numbers of people were massacred by Saddam’s ruthless forces.
Bush wanted to avoid becoming entangled in any internal conflict in Iraq. However, images of destitute Kurdish refugees fleeing into the mountains under fire from Saddam’s helicopter gunships resulted in widespread public pressure for the U.S. to do something.
After all, Bush had continuously compared Saddam to Hitler in the run-up to and during that war. But when Saddam began slaughtering his victims before the world’s eyes, Bush sought to keep the U.S. on the sidelines.
The U.S. finally did intervene in April 1991, establishing no-fly zones over large swathes of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region and the southern Shiite regions. Operation Provide Comfort saw the U.S. military and its allies Britain and France provide humanitarian aid to the Kurds and helped incubate the autonomous Kurdistan region that exists there today.
Saddam remained in power, presiding over large swathes of a largely destroyed and destitute country subjected to a crippling international embargo that further devastated its economy and left many Iraqis hungry.
The no-fly zones remained in place throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency and U.S., along with British and French, fighter jets often patrolled designated swathes of Iraq’s airspace. While Clinton opted to contain Saddam Hussein his administration also took some limited military action against Iraq throughout the 1990s.
In his first year in power, Clinton launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Baghdad in retaliation over a suspected Iraqi plot to assassinate former President Bush while he was on a visit to Kuwait to commemorate the coalition’s victory in the Gulf War.
In October 1994, the U.S. also promptly deployed forces to Saudi Arabia in Operation Vigilant Warrior when it looked like Saddam was positioning force for a second invasion of Kuwait — which, of course, never happened.
Clinton’s pinpoint strikes often had a questionable impact on reprimanding certain actions of the Iraqi regime. For example, when Saddam briefly sent a large ground contingent to intervene in the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War in 1996, Clinton responded by firing cruise missiles at some remnants of Iraq’s air defense in the south of the country.
The most punitive strikes the U.S. military carried out against Iraq during Clinton’s administration was undoubtedly Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. The four-day bombing campaign aimed to degrade Iraq’s purported capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. It had debatable results.
Clinton was succeeded by President George W. Bush, who ran on a platform of isolationism regarding foreign policy in the 2000 presidential elections. Bush’s worldview, however, quickly changed following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Although Saddam’s Iraq had nothing to do with that terrorist atrocity, his regime soon found itself in the Bush administration’s crosshairs.
In March 2003, ditching prior containment efforts, the U.S. outright invaded Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It toppled the Iraqi regime under the pretext of preventing it from developing deadly weapons of mass destruction. It quickly became apparent, however, that Saddam’s prior efforts at developing such weapons had long since ceased before that invasion.
While the Iraqi armed forces promptly crumbled in the face of the coalition’s superior firepower, the U.S. quickly became embroiled in an occupation and conflict against various insurgents. Its early decision to disband the old Iraqi Army proved fatal since it antagonized tens-of-thousands of Iraqis who had military training overnight.
The U.S. also fought the ruthless Al-Qaeda in Iraq group, which sought to exploit Sunni disenchantment with the invasion and that minority’s displacement from power. Some of the bloodiest fighting experienced by U.S. forces during the Iraq War took place in Fallujah in late 2004 against entrenched Al-Qaeda militants. By the time the militants were routed much of that city was reduced to rubble.
Significant elements of Iraq’s Shiite-majority also at times violently opposed the U.S. presence, particularly forces loyal to the rabble-rousing Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Vicious sectarian conflict also plagued Iraq during this period.
Approximately 4,000 U.S. troops ultimately lost their lives throughout the Iraq War, which lasted from March 2003 until the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011. Tens-of-thousands of Iraqis, many of them civilians, also lost their lives during that period.
The U.S. military achieved some success in building up a new Iraqi government and army and briefly afflicting a series of strategic defeats against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. However, the Iraq War became widely opposed in the U.S. and viewed by many in retrospective as a costly and shameful blunder.
During the 2008 presidential elections, Barack Obama vowed to bring all U.S. troops home from Iraq. On the other hand, his opponent John McCain once suggested he would support the U.S. military having an open-ended presence in the country that could last up to 100 years. McCain cited long-term U.S. deployments to Germany and South Korea as possible precedents.
All U.S. troops in Iraq withdrew under the terms of a status of forces agreement reached with Baghdad during the Bush administration. For two years and seven months – between December 2011 and August 2014 – the U.S. military had no presence in Iraq, a conspicuously exceptional period in the last 30 years.
That all changed in Obama’s second term in office when the vicious Islamic State (ISIS) group took over one-third of Iraq, including the country’s second city Mosul, in the summer of 2014. ISIS quickly demonstrated its brutality and immense cruelty by subjecting the Yazidi minority in Sinjar to a campaign of genocide and slaughtering up to 1,700 unarmed Shiite Iraqi cadets at Camp Speicher in Tikrit.
The U.S. quickly established a multinational coalition to combat the terrorist group. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cited George H.W. Bush’s coalition to force Saddam out of Kuwait as a model for that new anti-ISIS coalition.
Operation Inherent Resolve, which is ongoing, relied heavily on airstrikes to target the group in both Iraq and Syria. Adverse to troop casualties and generally reluctant to have the U.S. become embroiled in Iraq again, Obama continuously vowed early in the campaign that he would avoid putting America ‘boots on the ground’.
Nevertheless, about 5,000 U.S. troops would redeploy to Iraq, mostly to train Iraqi and Kurdish military forces. U.S. special forces also participated in combat. The U.S. suffered minimal casualties, especially compared to the Iraq War.
Tens of thousands of U.S.-led airstrikes supported ground offensives by Iraqi forces, which gradually reclaimed territories and cities captured by ISIS. In 2015, the Iraqis recaptured Tikrit and Ramadi. In 2016, it recaptured Fallujah from the group. In October 2016, Iraqi forces launched the lengthy and ferocious battle to reclaim Mosul.
That urban campaign lasted until July 2017 and saw much of the city’s west side reduced to rubble after months of bitter fighting and hundreds of supporting air and artillery strikes.
Even after the complete destruction of its self-styled caliphate, ISIS still retains a dangerous presence in Iraq. The U.S. troop presence in the country has also become increasingly contentious.
In December 2018, Obama’s successor Donald Trump made a surprise visit to U.S. troops stationed at the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s western Anbar province. He did not meet any Iraqi officials on that unannounced visit. Many officials in Baghdad perceived the stunt as both a snub and a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
Shortly after that, Trump further inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment in the country when he suggested the U.S. could use Al-Asad to “watch Iran.”
Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias began increasingly targeting Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops with mortars and rockets. After one such attack killed a U.S. civilian contractor in Kirkuk in December 2019, the U.S. retaliated with a series of airstrikes that killed several members of the militia it suspected of carrying out that attack.
Then, on January 3, 2020, a U.S. drone strike killed Iraqi Shiite militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis alongside Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) extraterritorial Quds Forces, in Baghdad. Iran retaliated with ballistic missiles attacks targeting two U.S. bases, including Al-Asad, a few days later, leaving several U.S. troops with traumatic brain injuries.
Calls in Baghdad for evicting U.S. troops from Iraq once again intensified.
Today, 30 years after U.S. troops began their deployment to Saudi Arabia in response to Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait, the U.S. military retains a troop presence in Iraq and remains active in that country.
If the incumbent President Trump loses this year’s presidential election, then the fifth Iraq handoff will automatically commence. In other words, a Joe Biden administration will become the fifth U.S. administration in a row that inherits a status-quo in which the U.S. military has substantial involvement in Iraq.
It’s unclear how much longer the U.S. military will remain in Iraq. If this history is any indicator, the U.S. military will remain engaged in and with Iraq in one way or another for at least the foreseeable future.