Those who have lived through the Iraq war have never been certain whether they were at the beginning, middle or end of hostilities. Preparations for the U.S.-led invasion began well before the March 2003 launch of "shock and awe." American forces toppled Saddam Hussein within weeks, but rather than bringing an end to the combat as expected, the collapse of the regime and subsequent dismantling of the Iraqi army gave rise to an insurgency and brutal sectarian conflict. Now, as the United States formally concludes its combat role on Aug. 31, it is time once again to ask: What was the U.S. mission in Iraq, and what was accomplished?
Hussein was a ruthless dictator whose henchmen tortured the political opponents they didn't execute. He invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He tried to build nuclear weapons, and he used chemical weapons against Iran as well as against his own citizens, killing at least 5,000 Kurds in Halabja alone in March 1988. All told, more than 180,000 Kurdish men, women and children were slaughtered in his Anfal campaign in the north. Meanwhile, the regime drained marshes and starved hundreds of thousands of Shiite Arabs out of the south. These were horrible crimes committed over decades, many of them long before President George W. Bush decided to seek a "regime change." But did they warrant a U.S. invasion?
The Bush administration made the decision to go to war in Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that were plotted by Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and carried out by Saudis, not by Iraqis. It offered many reasons for turning its sights on Iraq. First, Bush made the radical case that the attacks in the United States justified preemptive strikes against potential threats to Americans. He said it was necessary to disarm Hussein, who allegedly was hiding a program to develop weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The administration claimed a connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda and warned that Hussein could provide the terrorists with WMD. Neoconservative ideologues added that removing Hussein would open the way for a democratic government in Iraq and have a ripple effect throughout the Middle East — domino democracy — that would stabilize the region.
Opponents of the war ascribed other motives to Bush: He sought to "finish the job" for his father, who stopped short after driving Hussein out of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, or, as many Iraqis believed, he wanted to get his hands on Iraqi oil.
At least 4,415 American troops died in combat, and tens of thousands were wounded. Iraqi casualties have been harder to count. The Iraq Body Count's website puts the civilian death toll between 97,000 and 106,000; hundreds of thousands were wounded, and many others displaced, forced into exile. The Bush administration initially calculated that the war would run $50 billion. Seven years later, the bill is tallied at about $750 billion, and nearly as much likely will be needed to tend to the physically and psychologically wounded service members who have returned. By any measure, the price has been high in blood and treasure, and in the damage to American moral authority.
From the beginning, this page argued against the war, saying the administration had failed to prove that Hussein had WMD or a connection to the 9/11 perpetrators. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously responded to skeptics by asserting that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." The administration pointed to suspect aluminum tubes and alleged mobile bio-laboratories, and went to war despite the opposition of most of its allies and without United Nations approval.
After the fall of Hussein, it quickly became clear that the administration had been seeing things it wanted to find rather than finding the truth. There were no WMD; no 9/11 plotters in Iraq. Bush had taken the country to war on false pretenses. The United States was not safer after the war, because there had been no imminent threat before it. Arguably, Americans were more at risk. Al Qaeda exploited Iraqi resentment of U.S. troops, who were viewed as occupiers rather than liberators by much of the Muslim world. Abuses committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison fanned anger and anti-Americanism. Though Al Qaeda was not a force in Iraq before the war, it was after. And rather than stabilizing the region, the war shook a strategic balance. Hussein's Sunni regime had served as a useful if unsavory counterweight to the Shiite government of Iran.