Iraq 20 years on: Insider reflections on the war and its aftermath by Chatham House

This essay collection explores two decades of state-building in Iraq and the lessons to be learned.

Photo of anti-government protests in Baghdad, 2019

I grew up in exile. Throughout the 1990s, I met many exiled Iraqi political leaders opposed to Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, including Ahmed Chalabi, who was one of the most influential and infamous voices that played a part in persuading the US to invade Iraq, and later became a president in the rotating Iraqi Governing Council. ‘Anyone is better than Saddam’, they would tell me, as they compared the Iraqi president with Hitler and Stalin. I would watch and read news reports and stories of Saddam’s attacks on his own people, including his use of chemical weapons. The comparison resonated.  

Every Iraqi I knew had a family member affected by Saddam Hussein’s regime. My father was a political dissident, forced to flee Iraq under fake names and with forged passports; his family members were often visited and interrogated by Iraqi government officials. These stories were formative for me – terrifying tales of Saddam’s depravity, dreams of Iraq’s bright future and an end to exile if the regime was gone. 

Still, in the process of forming my political consciousness, I listened to these opponents of Saddam, and I believed them. Like many, I thought that removing Saddam and establishing a democratic and representative state was best for Iraqis – and that it was possible for an outside power to bring about such a change, even the George W. Bush administration, regardless of what I thought of its specific policies and views. I had hope in Iraq’s future.  

Twenty years ago, in 2003, Iraqis across their country and abroad anxiously celebrated the US decision to remove the Saddam Hussein regime, which had degraded the wealthy country of Iraq from a regional powerhouse to a pariah state. On the eve of the invasion, a Gallup opinion poll in Iraq found that 72 per cent of respondents favoured the war. This optimism was certainly underlined by trepidation: many still did not know what would come next.  

Very few observers would have imagined that the years following regime change would be marked by civil wars, the rise of genocidal groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), and the emergence and establishment of a political system defined by endemic corruption that has gutted the country’s basic public services. Iraq has one of the highest national revenues in the world ($115.7 billion in 2022) but one of the lowest life expectancies (69 years) and human development index (HDI) scores. This disparity is directly linked to the nature of the system set up 20 years ago.

Iraq has one of the highest national revenues in the world but one of the lowest life expectancies.

Today, almost two-thirds of Iraqis are under 25, and they are too young to recall anything other than their life after 2003. Although too young to remember a time before the invasion, many of them believe that their lives are worse off as a result. 

Trapped in the Green Zone 

After years away, my family started going back to Iraq. Over time, a new reality began to emerge, one far different from the rosy picture of life without Saddam that had been presented in exile. The US did not seem to have a coherent plan for the day after, for when it became the occupier. It allied with the exiled politicians, themselves rendered foreign after decades abroad, who were returning to a changed and relatively unfamiliar Iraq. Many of Baghdad’s new political leaders were lost in the city – unable to find their way around, and disconnected from the people they sought to lead or represent.  

To consolidate their power, the new rulers built a Green Zone – a fortified area in central Baghdad housing domestic authorities and foreign governments. They wanted themselves and the new government to be safe from the rest of the city and the country, which was under fire from a breakdown in law and order.  

Iraq’s new leaders and their foreign backers hid behind high blast walls. At first, aspiring local leaders remained in their homes or offices in the wider city. However, in short order, the entire collection of ruling elites – foreign and domestic, new and old – decamped to the fortified Green Zone. Iraqi politicians commandeered houses in areas under US protection and hired bodyguards to transport them around the country in armoured cars. 

The Green Zone thus became more than a place of safety: it came to divide the rulers from the ruled. This governance gap would only increase over the next 20 years, as the elite took the country’s immense wealth but failed to deliver basic public services – like electricity or water – to the people.  

The Green Zone also housed Iraq’s international state-builders. These diplomats and aid workers would spend hundreds of billions of dollars trying to support development and reform in Iraq. But again, the Green Zone limited their proximity to residents across the capital – to say nothing of the rest of the country. Most of these foreigners were new to Iraq and could not speak Arabic or Kurdish. This disconnect meant the money they spent did not translate to sustainable initiatives, nor did it appear to result in concrete improvements. Most Iraqis began wondering what these external actors were doing and why they were there.  

I, too, began to ask questions, namely of the opposition political leaders whom I came to know when I was younger: Why did some people who fought their whole lives against dictatorship turn into unrepresentative and corrupt leaders who distanced themselves from society? Thinking about this paradox at first overwhelmed me. But it pushed me to examine, enquire and study, and to eventually work towards a better understanding of the failures to rebuild Iraq.  

‘Why are you here?’ 

Family visits to Iraq deepened my interest in studying the country. I eventually completed a doctoral dissertation and then worked for several policy research institutes, Iraqi and international. Some of my work has been academic, such as trying to understand the nature of the state or the mechanics of conflict economies. More of it has been policy related, trying to answer questions about corruption and conflict. Some of my experiences have been eye-opening, and they have greatly contributed to answering the questions that initially drove my research queries and the conundrums with which I have long grappled.  

For instance, a few years ago, I was asked to conduct research to offer recommendations to an international organization looking to support security sector reform in Iraq. The organization wanted to train parts of the Iraqi military as a way to rebuild state institutions. My job was to look into the history and track record of security sector reform in Iraq, and then to examine the organization’s own strategic plan and make recommendations.  

Between 2003 and 2011, almost $20 billion was spent on efforts to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces through the Iraq Security Forces Fund, with the US as lead contributor. But only a few years later, in June 2014, that same military force fled when faced with only a couple of thousand ISIS fighters who went on to take over one-third of the country. My research revealed that the technical, capacity-building approach to security sector reform neglected vital political and economic realities. As a result, these efforts failed.  

Yet, this international organization now had another mandate with more money to invest in repeating what amounted to the same programme. I presented a critique and recommendations, noting that their plan would not work as intended. The room of policymakers asked me a few follow-up questions and thanked me for my study. But it seemed their intention was to carry on with the same plan.  

I later asked officials why they were still continuing with the plan when (very recent) history showed that it would be essentially impossible to successfully carry out their mandate.  

‘You think we are only in Iraq for Iraqis,’ they replied matter-of-factly. ‘But our audience is also back home. [Our stakeholders] need a sense of purpose and for that reason we will continue this programme.’ 

I was taken aback, though it made sense. The comment made me think of the question, ‘why are you here?’, which so many Iraqis would ask rhetorically in regard to the foreign presence. One part of me had thought that international organizations were in Iraq to help rebuild the country. And while this may well have been true, they also had another audience: their home populations and governments. At times, these audiences appeared to be even more important than recipients of aid in Iraq. It seemed these organizations were content spending money even if the chance of success was practically zero, because reforming Iraq was only one part of their goals.  

Dialogue of the deaf 

Over the last two decades, Iraqis have grown accustomed to the idea of a national dialogue that brings together political leaders across the ethnic and sectarian spectrums. In any given year, multiple versions of national dialogues occur, each championed by a different foreign sponsor spending tens of millions of dollars and bringing together a similar cast of characters with a range of different political ideologies. Rather than working together on one single and comprehensive dialogue project, many foreign officials wanted to champion their own individual project. Ironically, Iraqi leaders were, and continue to be, constantly in touch with one another – a necessity to sustain an entire political system grounded in an elite bargain. But to further protect this pact, these elites also play along with the activities of foreign emissaries, who, while publicly announcing their concerns of the political system, have consistently failed to hold to account the elite whose corruption harms Iraqis every day.   

A few years ago, I was advising an international organization on a dialogue effort. I wanted to move beyond tried and failed methods by bringing together Iraqis from outside the approved lists of participants maintained by foreign governments and organizations. Such lists are kept in order to avoid working with individuals and parties deemed too controversial. But my efforts failed. The explanation given was the ‘foreign media’ test. Foreign countries spending millions of taxpayer funds promoting dialogue efforts do not want to risk any blowback that could appear in the Daily MailDer SpiegelEl Pais or Le Monde. Engaging with problematic characters, such as individuals or groups seen as terrorists, was forbidden. While this seemed reasonable, I soon learned that this definition had too broad a scope. The organization I was advising seemed to be using simple Facebook and Google searches to learn about suggested participants. In one case, an influential medical doctor was disqualified from a local dialogue because he had a Facebook picture in which he was holding a gun. He had no links to terrorism or criminality. The photo was enough for this international organization to exclude him despite other local participants arguing the man was an important figure to include.  

It once again seemed that the foreign audience was more important to this international organization than the local Iraqi participants, those who would supposedly be most affected by the organization’s efforts. This foreign donor spent millions. But what appeared to me to matter more than a sustainable result was that the endeavour be low risk, which meant carefully selecting who could and could not speak on behalf of Iraqis and take part in dialogues.  

The lessons from the 2003 war 

The biggest headlines of the 2003 Iraq War were about ‘regime change’. The reality was something different, and more nuanced. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), working with the new ruling elite, not only removed the former regime, they also fundamentally restructured the foundations of the Iraqi state. The most infamous instance of this came with the removal of the military and the top several layers of the civil service, stripping the country of the vast bureaucratic capital that had long existed.  

These initial decisions amount to original sins in the governance of today’s Iraq. But also consequential were countless decisions taken after those early weeks and months, political interventions masked as apolitical policy efforts, such as supporting and relying on individuals to reform the system instead of institutions that could potentially hold to account the entire elite. These efforts have contributed to building a political system that is a patchwork of public and private institutions, and a blurring of formal and informal sectors – this has created a murkiness that has proved massively lucrative to many of those controlling Iraq’s levers of power. This system has grown resilient, with elites defending it against the sinister efforts of ISIS, but also against the hopeful and rightful demands of youth uprisings, such as the October 2019 protests. Elites have also learned to defend the system against internal destabilization. After winning the 2021 national election, Muqtada al-Sadr failed to form a majority government, which had attempted to exclude some powerful elites. Instead, the system ensured that any government would be based on the usual consensus, stifling Sadr’s bid to disrupt politics.  

Many of the same exiles that returned to Iraq in 2003 still hold positions of power. Iraq’s demographics continue to raise new questions and challenges for these leaders, namely the booming population. Twenty-five million people lived in Iraq in 2003; 20 years later that number stands at 41 million, most of whom have only known a political system that has constantly failed to deliver on their basic needs.  

The purpose of this series of essays is to revisit the last 20 years in Iraq to understand what went wrong, what could have been done differently, and how to correct the current trajectory. Anyone who has worked in Iraq during this time can recount incidents that speak to the country’s conditions – many horrific and others comical, and indeed sometimes both. The authors in this series have lived and worked in Iraq and are now willing to share some of their personal anecdotes and reflections to unpack the contradictions in state-building, and to offer advice to those tasked with the job in the future, in Iraq or similar contexts. These experiences can explain how and why one of the largest international state-building projects in recent memory did not achieve what those who instigated it claimed was their ultimate goal. 

Iraqis are still left picking up the pieces. They are living under a repressive political system, albeit a very different one from that which existed before 2003. They need all the help they can get to overcome the wrongs they have been subjected to for several decades. But a new approach is needed. The aim of this collection is to hold Iraqi and international state-builders to account as well as to discuss what could have been done differently, the possible pathways forward, and ultimately to caution against similarly misguided interventions in the future.

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