Sgt. Daniel Wiser yells to his section to get back to the landing zone in Mosul in 2003. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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Little U.S. military influence remains
The U.S. mission in Iraq continues nearly 10 years after the invasion — but it’s largely a civilian-run operation.
Fewer than 300 active-duty U.S. troops remain inside Iraq today, defense officials say, a small fraction of the roughly 16,000 employees who work in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest U.S. diplomatic outpost in the world, with an annual operating budget of about $5 billion.
Some of those troops are Marines doing embassy security like those in other capital cities around the globe. Others are helping to provide support for the Iraqi military, with substantial assistance from civilians and contractors.
The Iraqi air force remains extremely limited, and the small cadre of U.S. troops is helping the Iraqis learn to fly F-16 fighter aircraft, C-130 transport aircraft, and IA-407 Kiowa helicopters, which can provide close-air support for ground troops.
"We are working with the government of Iraq on a number of military equipment purchases … that will help give Iraq the ability to protect its borders and meet legitimate defense needs in the coming years," said Air Force Lt. Col. Wesley "Jack" Miller, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Pentagon’s role in Iraq is limited. The small number of troops falls under the command of the civilian-run embassy. The State Department runs most of the U.S. programs, which often focus on business and economic issues.
The top U.S. priority in Iraq nowadays "is to expand American investment and commercial ties with Iraq," U.S. Ambassador Robert Stephen Beecroft said in a recent statement. "Bolstering the private sector here is critical to growing the economy, reaching full employment and raising the standard of living."
The U.S. has kept troop levels in Iraq at a bare minimum since the December 2011 withdrawal of combat forces, in part because the Iraqis refused to continue granting broad legal immunity to American troops. Those now in country have immunity through the embassy.
With few boots on the ground, the U.S. military relies heavily on contractors for logistical support and training for the Iraqis.
Some Iraqi troops also come to the U.S. to attend some of the Defense Department’s top schools, such as the Army War College, the Air War College and the Naval Staff College, Miller said.
The Obama administration has faced criticism for its relatively limited role in Iraq since 2011. That intensified recently amid reports the Iraqis were quietly supporting the embattled regime in neighboring Syria and also allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to send military supplies to the Syrian government.
"We have largely stripped ourselves of any meaningful influence that we might’ve had, not only with the withdrawal of U.S. troops [in 2011] but also with a policy of almost complete neglect of the situation in Iraq," said Fred Kagan, a military expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.
— Andrew Tilghman
In the moonless dark of the Kuwaiti desert, U.S. Army troops cut eight lanes through sand-hill berms built along the Iraq border.
More than 100,000 American and coalition troops amassed on the Kuwaiti side March 20, 2003, with more than 150,000 others on the ground, in the air and at sea surrounding the country, including those aboard five aircraft carriers.
It was about 1 a.m. when a scout unit of the 3rd Infantry Division raced through the lanes. Other 3rd ID soldiers, joined by elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, led a furious charge to Baghdad and launched eight years of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
More than 1.5 million U.S. troops would deploy to OIF over that time. They would topple a tyrannical dictator and install a fledgling democracy.
In sacrifice to a hard-fought victory, more than 4,600 U.S. troops would give their lives; more than 32,000 would come home wounded. Tens of thousands would be decorated for their sacrifices and bravery — four with the nation's top valor award, the Medal of Honor. All four went to enlisted men, posthumously.
Now, 10 years later, military leaders and strategists continue to mine the Iraq War for lessons learned as debate continues on whether the conflict was justified — or even legal — and whether it was worth the cost.
The case for war
The run-up to the invasion was a political war.
The administration of President George W. Bush campaigned for months to convince Congress, the American people and world leaders that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq was a safe haven for terrorists and that the need for military action was urgent.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. had badly damaged America's sense of security and left many people — and much of the media — receptive to the "Bush Doctrine" of pre-emptive strikes, and trusting of intelligence presented in support of such action.
In a September 2002 address, Bush lobbied the U.N. Security Council to authorize military intervention, then made his case to Congress and the American public in his State of the Union address in January 2003.
The next month, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the U.N. General Assembly, pushing the administration's claims that Saddam possessed WMD — a claim that since has been roundly discredited.
Right up to the end, it was not clear to military officers involved whether the invasion would get a green light, said Marine Gen. John Kelly, then the one-star deputy commander of 1st Marine Division under then-Maj. Gen. James Mattis.
"When we got the word to start the deployment … a fair amount of people, certainly in my own service, were saying, ‘This isn't going to happen,'" said Kelly, now chief of U.S. Southern Command. "Of course, the idea was that hopefully the deployment over there would force Saddam Hussein's hand."
It didn't work that way. Despite worldwide opposition to invasion and calls for more diplomacy, Bush on March 17 gave Saddam and his sons 48 hours to surrender and leave Iraq.
On March 19, two Air Force F-117 Nighthawks dropped four 2,000-pound bombs in a strike aimed at killing Saddam and his sons, reportedly at a farm site on the outskirts of Baghdad. It was later learned that they were not there, nor were any Iraqi leaders.
The next day, U.S. troops pushed through the berms on the Kuwaiti border and entered Iraq.
The war was on.
The mission had only begun
After a three-week race to Baghdad that involved bypassing most major Iraqi cities, U.S. soldiers and Marines reached the capital, which fell without the cataclysmic battle some had feared. Marines tore down a statute of Saddam as TV crews broadcast the moment live around the globe. Only weeks later, from the decks of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, Bush gave a rousing speech to the crew under a banner declaring, "Mission Accomplished."
As it turned out, the mission had only begun. About 150,000 troops were on the ground then, pitted against an Iraqi force estimated at 424,000 soldiers.
U.S. military planners expected heavy fighting with the Iraqi army, especially the elite Republican Guard, said Joseph Collins, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.
The toughest fighting was expected to take place once U.S. troops crossed south of Baghdad, and the use of chemical weapons was considered highly likely.
That didn't happen, but a fierce insurgency bloomed amid planning missteps such as failing to safeguard Iraqi weapons caches; allowing the Iraqi army to disband, with many troops drifting into the insurgency; and an inability to quickly establish a new Iraqi government.
By the end, the war Vice President Dick Cheney had confidently predicted would take "weeks rather than months" lasted nearly a decade and cost 4,468 U.S. deaths, 32,221 wounded and $825 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The total cost of the Iraq War, including future costs of veterans benefits, has been estimated at $3 trillion.
Planners had expected the Iraqi people to welcome U.S. troops as liberators, so they gave little thought to protecting Iraqi infrastructure and creating a new government, said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, former executive officer for retired Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the counterinsurgency strategy that ultimately quelled enemy forces in Iraq and paved the way for an American exit.
At the war's start, however, the invasion force was too light to secure Iraq after the regime fell, said Mansoor, who now teaches military history at Ohio State University.
The U.S. military's initial concepts to deal with the invasion's messy aftermath were not ideally suited for conditions on the ground, he said.
For example, U.S. troops responded to the insurgency by rounding up all military-aged Iraqi males and putting them into a detention facility.
"When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," Mansoor said. "So for the [U.S.] Army, which was not trained or educated in counterinsurgency warfare in 2003, the mantra was, ‘Continue to attack.'
"Well, continuing to attack in a counterinsurgency conflict is not necessarily the best course, but staying on defense and protecting the Iraqi population was something that was pretty foreign to our military doctrine in 2003," he said.
Early in the war, U.S. and allied forces largely bypassed Iraqi cities on the way to Baghdad — but U.S. troops then spent almost nine years engaged in urban combat.
The fact that U.S. troops had to operate in Iraqi cities was not related to the initial ground war; rather, "That's where the insurgents took us," said a retired senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were operating in the cities because that was what Iraq was — that's where the people lived."
To combat the insurgency, then, the U.S. military had to change the way it fights wars to make its central mission protecting the Iraqi population. The Army would later codify some of the lessons learned in a 2008 field manual on "full spectrum operations," which made clear that soldiers had to be ready to fight both conventional and irregular wars.
Known as counterinsurgency, or COIN, the strategy eventually fell out of favor with political leaders in Washington when it produced mixed results in Afghanistan, but the official said COIN is not going away.
"We're going to be doing more of that in the 21st century than we will be fighting other people's armies," he said.
A test bed for new concepts
As U.S. forces implemented and expanded COIN strategies, they also developed new tools for combat. The Iraq War proved to be a valuable test bed for new technologies, such as a rapidly growing role for unmanned aircraft; mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; and robots to defuse or destroy improvised explosive devices.
At the start of the war, 99 percent of the U.S. Humvees that crossed into Iraq had canvas doors or tops. The insurgents quickly adopted roadside bombs as their weapon of choice, forcing the U.S. military to rethink the role of armored vehicles.
"to move forces on the battlefield from Point A to Point B, armor was the coin of the realm," said retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq and vice chief of the Army.
One lesson of the Iraq War is that the nature of war itself has changed, Chiarelli said.
"We are no longer fighting against state-sponsored forces in all instances," he said. "There's no requirement for the other guy to necessarily follow the Geneva Conventions, wear uniforms or do any of those kinds that were parts of conflict in the past."
In this type of warfare, providing potable water, creating jobs and organizing communities to govern themselves will be just as important as, if not more important than, the ability to destroy enemy targets, Chiarelli said.
Beyond governing themselves, locals needed to take charge of their own protection, said retired Army Col. Tony Deane, who served outside Ramadi in 2006.
the U.S. military asked tribal leaders to provide men for the Iraqi police, said Deane, then a lieutenant colonel with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. Within a few months, the number of Iraqi police in Ramadi grew from about 200 to more than 3,000, Deane said, and local Sunni leaders added their political support in the fight against al-Qaida.
"The lesson learned is not everyone there is the enemy. There's got to be some sort of political accommodation in any kind of insurgency."
Mansoor said he hopes the U.S. military retains some of the hard-fought lessons of Iraq through professional military education so troops don't have to spend years learning on the job again.
"What I don't want to see," he said, "is what happened in the wake of Vietnam, where we simply ignored the lessons, buried them or in some cases threw them away [when] we retrained for high-end combat.
"In addition, we only educated for high-end combat, as well, and the result is the very kinetic way that we approached the first year of the Iraq War."
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from MilitaryTimes.com reader">Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.