Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Operation Iraqi Freedom: Learning Lessons from a Lost War
Operation Iraqi Freedom: Learning Lessons from a Lost War

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Learning Lessons from a Lost War

Bottom Line

  • American-led efforts to state and nation-build in Iraq all but failed, resulting in the deaths of 4,431 US troops, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fatalities, and mixed-at-best results in creating a viable state.
  • Despite these failed efforts in Iraq, the United States will most likely need to work with allies, partners, and the Ukrainian people to reconstruct their country in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Therefore, learning lessons from the war in Iraq is critical for future efforts at state stabilization.

Editor’s Note: FPRI is publishing a collection of essays to mark the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. The articles analyze the war’s impact on US influence in the Middle East, America’s global standing, and US democracy promotion efforts. In addition, our authors explore the legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and argue that the inability of American officials to understand Iraqi politics was perhaps the most important intelligence failure of the entire war effort. 


Twenty years ago, the United States, together with a “coalition of the willing,” invaded Iraq with the initial goals of eliminating the country’s purported weapon of mass destruction capabilities, severing Iraq’s alleged support of al Qaeda, and deposing Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath Party leadership. In its place, the Bush administration promised to create a democracy in Iraq, develop an economy based on Iraq’s oil wealth, and build a professional military.

Ultimately, the justifications for the invasion were unfounded. Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program proved to be virtually non-existent and Iraq’s purported ties to al Qaeda were also found to be untrue. 

The costs of the war were significant. Between 2003 and March 6, 2023, Department of Defense Casualty Index reports 4,431 US troops died in Iraq and 31,944 were wounded in action. Allies and partners that supported the war in Iraq also lost lives, eroding goodwill and straining important relationships. And, although exact numbers vary and will never be known, estimated deaths of Iraqi civilians are in the hundreds of thousands, with one estimate at nearly half a million. The war also touched off two decades of forced migration, including an estimated 9.2 million refugees and internally displaced persons, and caused a significant “brain drain” from Iraq, depleting it of the talent necessary to run the country. Alongside the toll on the population, Iraq’s physical infrastructure, including its oil production capabilities and electrical grid, were significantly damaged in the course of war. Ironically, the invasion helped create the conditions for the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, the Islamic State, which occupied large portions of the country from 2014 to 2017. The fight to defeat the Islamic State caused further death and destruction in Iraq and Syria.

The results of the Bush administration’s ambitious project of “nation building,” by virtually all accounts, failed. Efforts to establish a democracy in Iraq have been troubled, with voting breaking out along ethnic lines, allowing the Shia majority to elect their own parties often at the expense of other ethnic groups, and creating the conditions for Iranian-backed militias to gain a foothold in the country. Iraq’s economy has shown improvements post-COVID, particularly its oil sector, but inflation, poverty, and food insecurity still loom large. And the Iraqi military all but collapsed in 2014, with thousands either shedding their uniforms or being slaughtered by Islamic State fighters as they took over the western portion of the country. Efforts to rebuild Iraq’s military are ongoing and require addressing how to coordinate and consolidate multiple security forces, including Shia militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga.  

Twenty years on, what should the United States learn from its war in Iraq? Perhaps first and foremost, Operation Iraqi Freedom should teach the United States that wars are a terrible way to launch state and nation-building efforts. Wars wreak destruction not only on other militaries, but on a country’s civilian population, its infrastructure, its economy, and even the environment. The use of war to change another country’s administration comes with dozens of unforeseen consequences, and these consequences in turn affect efforts to create a viable government, vibrant population, and thriving economy. 

Second, US efforts in Iraq should teach the United States that strategy requires not only knowing what to do but how to do it as well. How the United States chose to rebuild Iraq was disastrous. Specifically, the Iraqis were all but left out of US-led efforts to reconstruct the country, denying them agency in the destiny of their own nation. Instead, the United States focused on speed, efficiency, and resources, which were the wrong measures of effectiveness and masked serious problems with efforts at reconstruction

Similarly, the United States should also learn the critical importance of allies and partners for achieving its foreign policy goals. Moreover, Washington should appreciate that there are heavy costs that come from damaging important relationships and breaking trust. The United Kingdom, one of the America’s strongest allies, followed the United States to war both in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in 2013, the British parliament voted against military action in Syria, breaking with the United States. One explanation given was a lack of trust from faulty intelligence in Iraq.

Finally—and critically—the United States may hope that it is done with state- and nation-building, but these necessary efforts for securing the peace are as relevant as ever. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now in its second year, has wreaked destruction on Ukraine’s physical, social, and political infrastructure. While efforts are underway to hold Russia accountable for paying to rebuild Ukraine, Ukrainian efforts to rebuild their country will require US, EU, and NATO support. Ukraine will require years if not decades of assistance to help rebuild its physical infrastructure, intentionally targeted by Russia, and to help restart the economy. Supporting countries need to encourage the return of intellectuals and help repatriate refugees. Institutions and processes in government need to be reestablished, including elections, but also efforts to help combat corruption. And international actors, at some point, need to help Ukraine with the daunting task of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of its uniformed and non-uniformed troops, as well as security sector reform. Building on lessons learned from Iraq, Ukrainians need to be in the lead and be given agency moving forward. 

Nothing can undo the many mistakes the United States made in Iraq. The best one can hope for twenty years on is that Americans can learn from these mistakes and do better by our allies and partners and the countries and people we are trying to help.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: Defense Department