Ten years ago this Tuesday, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and by any count — and there have been many — the toll has been devastating.
So far, about 4,400 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, and the combined costs of the war come to an astounding $2 trillion, including future commitments like veteran care.
So where do we stand today?
Stephen Hadley was the national security adviser under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009, and part of the White House team that helped sell the war to the public.
Looking back, Hadley tells NPR’s Jacki Lyden, everyone — not just the White House — was wrong in citing Saddam Hussein’s alleged stock of weapons of mass destruction as a reason for the invasion.
“Republicans thought he had them, Democrats thought he had them, the Clinton administration thought he had them [and] the Bush administration thought he had them,” Hadley says. “We were all wrong.”
Hadley says the initial invasion was a success, but what followed took longer and cost an enormous amount in terms of both lives and money. He stands by the judgment, however, that Saddam was a threat to the U.S. and the region.
Hadley also stands by an opinion he wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that the U.S. would “leave behind an Iraq that would be able to govern itself, defend itself, sustain itself and be an ally in the war on terror.” He says Iraq, though far from perfect, is accomplishing many of those things, but that the war in Syria is putting a lot of pressure on it.
“I think this is a country that is taking responsibility for its security both internally and externally,” he says.
Regarding the human toll on both sides, Hadley admits that “clearly the situation got away from us.”
“The cost of getting it back under control … was too high in terms of dollars, in terms of lives of Americans [and] in terms of lives of Iraqis,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons some of us have been arguing that we need to do something to bring the war in Syria to a close.”
Iraq‘s ‘Imperfect’ Leader
A memo Hadley wrote in 2006 for Cabinet-level officials caused some waves when it was leaked to the press that same year. In it, Hadley expressed concerns about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ability to combat sectarian violence.
That memo, Hadley says, was written while President Bush was considering whether to dramatically increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. The administration questioned whether Maliki was committed to an inclusive Iraq.
With Hadley’s advisement, the president concluded he would be an inclusive leader and the decision was made to move ahead with the surge, Hadley says.
“Maliki has a lot of challenges, he’s an imperfect leader,” he says. “But I think he met the test that was set out in that memo and the president was confident that Maliki would be a partner in the surge that ultimately brought an end to hostilities in Iraq.”
The War’s Lasting Scars
Even though the war officially ended in December 2011, there are those who still live with its legacy and always will.
Shannon Meehan is a veteran living in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and three young sons. In 2007, Meehan was 24 and a tank platoon leader in the city of Baqubah.
Meehan was on a mission to re-establish control in one of the country’s most dangerous sectors, he tells Lyden, when his soldiers came upon a house they believed to be booby-trapped.
“I called in a mortar strike in what I thought was an effort to protect the lives of my soldiers,” Meehan says.
The mortar rounds destroyed the house, but Meehan’s relief at hitting the target quickly changed.
“We received word that there was an innocent family … huddled inside that house that I’d just destroyed,” he says. “Trying to reconcile what I’d just done … I was just overwhelmed with disbelief and guilt immediately.”
Meehan says he struggles with the memory of that incident every day. Now retired, he lives with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote about his experiences in a memoir, Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq.
Meehan is far from alone living with his invisible wounds. The National Council on Disabilities says up to 40 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from one of these “signature injuries.”
Aymen Salihee lives in Baghdad, 6,000 miles from Meehan. Like Meehan, the 36-year-old civil engineer is a father to young boys. He suffers from a different Army mistake.
In 2005, an American sniper in Baghdad shot Salihee’s brother, Yasser, by mistake. Yasser was driving when he made a wrong turn onto a street that had been cleared by soldiers.
“Suddenly, he faced two American soldiers,” Salihee says. “One of them shot in the front of his car, and the other shot him directly in his head, without any warning shots from the Americans.”
Though time has passed, Aymen Salihee is pessimistic about Iraq’s future.
“It’s not good; it’s not better,” he says. “At this time, it makes no difference between Saddam’s regime and now.”
American taxpayers have spent about $60 billion on rebuilding Iraq, and a Boston University tally finds about $8 billion has been requested for Iraq spending this year. A recent inspector general’s report to Congress, however, shows the huge costs have yielded too few results.
“It’s really striking to contemplate how invisible the American footprint has become here,” says Ernesto Londono, a Washington Post correspondent covering the anniversary in Baghdad. “You look around at the neighborhoods where Americans invested a lot of money and there’s very little that is visible.”
Londono was in Baghdad at the peak of sectarian bloodshed in 2007. Today, he says, the picture is better.
“Some people are doing very well,” he tells Lyden. “You see a surprising amount of wealth on the street. … Iraqis are more plugged in digitally than they’ve ever been. This used to be a hugely repressed … [and] now Iraqis have one or two cellphones, and everyone is on Facebook.”
But sectarian tension is still evident, Londono says, especially at the political level; many Sunnis accuse the Shiite-dominated government of being authoritarian. At the street level, however, he says things have changed dramatically.
“At the end of sectarian war in 2008, there came a point where people realized that they were being set up by hard-line groups … and they were being foolishly pushed into this really brutal fight,” he says. “But the war definitely left scars; the neighborhoods that were mixed before are nowhere near as mixed now.”
Hadley says the country now faces encroachment from Iran and the sectarian war in Syria.
The fear, he says, is that if the opposition is successful in toppling Bashar Assad in Syria, that sentiment might bleed over into Iraq and spark a sectarian war to topple Maliki. With the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the nation, he says, Iraq is not getting needed support.
“The United States is not playing the role it needs to play in terms of helping Iraq get through this difficult transition period,” he says.
As for the future of the U.S. role in Iraq, the American presence has shifted from the military to the CIA, which is covertly helping Iraq build up its counterterrorism operations.