Five Years Into Iraq: A Report Card

With the war in Iraq stretching past the five-year mark, experts weigh in on what has gone right, what has gone wrong, and lessons learned. Paul Kane, a Marine veteran of Iraq, writes of the “serious disconnect” between civilians and those who have served in uniform, while Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, says that today “we have the right strategy in place — and it is making a difference on the ground.” See their full comments below. Stephen Walt also shares his comments on the war in Five Years and Counting: Ten Unpleasant Truths about the War in Iraq.


Graham AllisonGraham Allison
Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has called the Iraq War, "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." I agree.

The fifth anniversary of this unnecessary "war of choice" should serve as a reminder that however expensive the direct costs in blood and treasure, the opportunity costs are even more significant.

First, at a point where the U.S. had successfully toppled the Taliban and had Al-Qaeda on the ropes, the President took our eyes off the prize. As a consequence, as the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed, Al-Qaeda has re-acquired its sanctuaries and was able to regenerate "key capabilities it would need to launch an attack on US soil."

Second, because of Iraq, the U.S. failed to extend a successful war on terror to a war against nuclear terrorism. In his 2002 National Security Strategy, President Bush rightly identified the largest threat to American national security as the "nexus of terror and weapons of mass destruction." With momentum from a successful elimination of Al-Qaeda, the US could have launched a global undertaking to minimize the risks of nuclear terrorism: locking down nuclear weapons and materials, cleaning them out of places where they could not be locked down, preventing additional states acquiring nuclear weapons and the production of new nuclear weapons useable material, and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons infrastructure. While modest steps were made on each of these agendas, Iraq "sucked the oxygen" out of all other energetic undertakings.

Third, President Bush took the US to war on the false premise that Saddam Hussein would transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. When Saddam was found to have no WMD and no operational ties to Al-Qaeda, American credibility collapsed. Majorities in most countries of the world now regard the US as a rogue superpower. Never has the favorability rating of a country fallen so far or as fast as that of the US under President Bush.


Kevin RyanBrigadier General (ret.) Kevin Ryan
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Since the invasion and post-war operations in Iraq began five years ago many factors have influenced and changed our plans and operations: the influx of international terrorists and the outflow of coalition troops, the eruption of civil war and the emergence of concerned citizen militias, the failure of political reform and the success of the surge, and others. One factor which is only now becoming significant though is "time." Up to now, there has not really been enough time to have fully discerned the environment or to have consolidated efforts. But five years provides some real perspective, and after a half decade, time itself has begun to have an influence on events. Five years of sectarian killing and vicious Al Qaeda suicide tactics have exhausted many Iraqis. The parents of Sunni and Shia children born in a newly free Iraq in 2003 are about to send them off to school. Five years have seen the introduction of five-star hotels in the Kurdish north, enabled by a previous decade of American security guarantees. Time may turn out to be our greatest ally in Iraq. If we can keep violence to a tolerable level and keep reconciliation moving forward then, given enough time, we can be hopeful about a unified and stable Iraq. American military and diplomatic presence in Iraq should be designed to leverage this growing factor of time. Our force levels should be lowered so they can be sustainable over time. Our reconstruction investments should be increased so they can provide substantial economic assistance for the long haul. During a 12 March interview, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Charlie Rose that the dramatic improvements in security in Iraq are still "fragile" and will take time to become "irreversible." Our allies and adversaries both need to know that time is on our side.


Meghan O'SullivanMeghan O'Sullivan
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The past five years have been difficult for Iraq, America, and other countries that are part of the Coalition. We have learned many things the hard way, made mistakes when choosing between bad options, and been sobered by the enormous challenge of rebuilding a country emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, sanctions, and war.

But Iraq today is a very different place than it was a year ago. At the end of 2006, most Americans were talking about how to manage a defeat in Iraq – and most Iraqis had lost hope that Iraq without Saddam would reach any of their original expectations. Today, we have the right strategy in place — and it is making a difference on the ground. According to a recent ABC/BBC poll, more than half of Iraqis say things in their lives are going well and almost two-thirds assess local security positively. It is too early to claim success and we know how fragile progress in Iraq can be. But, in addition to security gains that have brought an stunning calm to Anbar and decreased ethno-sectarian attacks in Baghdad by 90%, we can point to a growing and maturing Iraqi security force and the serious degradation of Al Qaeda in Iraq and extremist elements of the Jaysh al Mahdi. Equally important, the decrease in violence has changed the psychology among Iraqis and has allowed for a different kind of conversation to take place among Iraq's leaders. The pace of political progress is still frustrating, but Iraq's leaders are now talking about the big issues that divide them, rather than only swapping recriminations about the latest rounds of violence. Whereas last winter we faced the challenge of reversing Iraq's mounting violence, the challenge today is to consolidate — and extend — the progress that our soldiers and diplomats and their Iraqi counterparts have made over the past nine months.

Yet, despite these hopeful signs, neither America's interests or Iraq's future are secure. The remaining challenges — from getting the region's Sunni Arab states to overcome their suspicion of Iraq's government to integrating tribal forces into Iraq's formal security structure — are daunting. Multiple scenarios across the spectrum are still possible. We all agree that which one materializes will depend on the Iraqis. But it will also depend on America. The events of the last year demonstrate that our role remains vital. When our commitment to Iraq is strong, we can help create the environment in which Iraqi leaders make decisions consistent with a stable, united Iraq. If our commitment comes into question, it will become harder for Iraqis to put aside their sectarian and ethnic affiliations and make decisions in the interest of Iraq as a whole.


Eric RosenbachEric Rosenbach
Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The fifth anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq provides an obvious opportunity for reflection. Undoubtedly, pundits will rehash the now stale stories of intelligence debacles, naive neocon fantasies about a democratic Middle East and a Secretary of Defense whose arrogance resulted in the needless deaths of American soldiers. These points of history represent the reality of our invasion of Iraq; however, Americans should resist the temptation to dwell exclusively on those past failures. The nation needs to shift our focus and face the question of our future involvement in Iraq.

Quality leadership matters immensely in the calculus of the Iraq equation. At the Pentagon, Secretary Gates has excised the ghosts of the past and provided smart policy and steady leadership. And over the past year, a seasoned leadership team in Iraq has produced markedly improved security. Those security gains are important and have shifted the momentum of the war. But they could be ephemeral.

The reality of contemporary Iraq is that we are far from achieving the goal of a stable, independent and democratic country. Iraqi political leaders haven't used the relative calm achieved over the past year to heal sectarian wounds or ensure strong governance structures. And it will be least five to seven years before Iraqi security forces will have the capacity to truly ensure their nation's security. Iraqi forces still almost completely lack key components of a modern military: logistics, air support and armor units.

So given that mixed reality, how much longer will we be in Iraq?

Upon taking office in January 2009, the next President will need to rationally and thoughtfully consider America's national interests in a future Iraq. Upon reflection, the President will likely find those interests compelling. Military advisors will likely recommend that the President maintain enough troops in Iraq to hold hard-won gains. The trend in recent polls in the United States that indicate a drop in the number of Americans who want us to withdraw in the near future will slow, but stabilize. This will likely lead the next President — whether Republican or Democrat — to seriously consider a longer-term commitment to Iraq.


Paul KanePaul Kane
Research Fellow, International Security Program

Having had the privilege of serving as a Marine in Iraq, I have since surveyed or interviewed more than 10,000 combat veterans of the war. Our findings confirm common sense and leave us with important observations and unanswered questions:

1. Wars are fought, won or lost as much at home as they are on battlefields. The greatest challenge a president can face in wartime is how to marshal the people to participate, endure sacrifice and lend their personal support. I fear President Bush's legacy as a leader, especially after 9/11, will not be fondly remembered on this count.

2. With the immediacy of its images or information and armed with technology, the media now more than ever has the power to influence and shape the outcomes of combat and war. We found that more than 1 in 5 of the Marines said that their morale while still deployed and in the fight was "significantly impacted" negatively by media coverage of the war. How can the media report responsibly; furthermore, how do we have legitimate debate and dissent at home that does not undercut efforts, morale and risk lives? Unlike Las Vegas, what happens and is uttered at home during war, does not stay at home.

3. One of the most recklessly stupid decisions of the Iraq war was Paul Bremer's firing of the Iraqi Army. This single act beggared more than 3 million Iraqis, lent immeasurable momentum to insurgency and released to the wind 400,000 armed and angry men. The United States — having begun the war, invaded Iraq, and scuppered her army and unwittingly unleashed chaos — has a moral obligation to oversee the return of a measure of order and basic security. If you mistakenly kick-in a man's door, there had better be a replacement door there before you go home.

4. Wars today are more likely fought by the sons and daughters of Generals and military veterans of past wars than by the children of today's senators, professors or CEOs. Fewer and fewer of the nation's security policymakers have served in the military and even fewer have actually seen the face of war in combat. Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Bush the elder all knew the hiss of bullets. How different were they as leaders for having these personal experiences that our combat innocent leaders of today lack?

5. A serious disconnect exists today between the civilian culture's perceptions of war and its social bonds with those who serve in uniform. Increasingly, Iraq combat veterans are being viewed by some with apprehension and mis-labeled as victims or "damaged" (rather than different) for their war experiences. This could be one of the most unfortunate and unjust outcomes of the Iraq war as many of its 1.6 million American veterans are now returning home.

6. After five years, the approach taken by many of our elected leaders to Iraq remains unchanged and unenlightened. Incurious of realities on the ground, unschooled in military affairs and blindly confident, one party led us to war as a simple solution to a complex dilemma. Now, leaders of the opposing party are committing many of these same sins, seeking to lead us out of war with a simple solution, racing to "bring home the troops." Both parties have been consistent in taking turns at being consistently wrong. Blindly going to war with hubris — or blindly withdrawing troops in disregard to hard assessments of gains are two sides of the same coin.

A third way is required on Iraq that acknowledges we are not to be divvied-up into red and blue states, but in fact remain the United States. America's moral obligation to Iraq and her innocent civilians remains yet to be fully paid.

There are solutions to Iraq, but none of them are simple, they will require years to implement, and they will demand all our creativity, exertion and patience.

The views expressed in this piece represent those of the authors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Belfer Center, Kennedy School or Harvard University.

Related: See an analysis of major newspaper editorials leading up to the war here.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Kevin Ryan, Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Eric Rosenbach and Paul Kane. “Five Years Into Iraq: A Report Card.” News, , March 19, 2008.

The Authors

Graham Allison

Eric Rosenbach