March 22, 2023

Sharper: Iraq

Analysis from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges for U.S. foreign policy.

It has been 20 years since the United States began Operation Iraqi Freedom, and over a year since the Biden administration transitioned from a combat mission to an advise-and-assist role in the country. As the challenges that remain in the region persist and given the complicated history of the war in Iraq, what does the future hold for U.S.–Iraq relations? CNAS experts are leading the conversation on the evolving diplomatic landscape and reflecting on the long-term impact of U.S. policy in Iraq. Continue reading this edition of Sharper to explore their ideas and recommendations.


Twenty Years Later, the U.S. Military Is Still Lost in Iraq

"Virtually all the military support sent to Iraq over the past eight years has focused on defeating the Islamic State, and not at all on creating capabilities that the Iraqi security forces can sustain on their own," argues Jonathan Lord in Lawfare. "If this administration is serious about focusing the U.S. military toolkit on deterring Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific and blunting Russian military aggression in Europe, it needs to shift its resources in Iraq from supporting yesterday’s fight to begin preparing for tomorrow’s—in which the Iraqi security forces most likely will need to stand on their own."

20 Years Later: The Legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom

March 20, 2023, marks the 20th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). OIF was launched by U.S. forces to end Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. The 2003 invasion of Iraq transformed Iraq and reverberated throughout the Middle East in ways that are still felt today. The U.S. military continues to confront and contend with the lasting impact of the war on the force and its veterans, while military necessity birthed rapid technological advancements which have indelibly altered the way of war. As we reflect on the past two decades, what is the current-day legacy of OIF? How did emerging technologies impact the war? And how did OIF influence U.S. veterans' culture? On March 27, 2023, CNAS will host a series of expert panel discussions to examine the lasting echoes and impacts of OIF here and in Iraq.

Al-Sudani’s First 100 days–Or How to Keep Everyone Happy

"The first 100 days of the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shiya al-Sudani are a model of appeasement," write Hamzeh Hadad, Erwin van Veen, and Folkert Woudstra for Clingendael. "Nevertheless, Iraq is in need of substantive economic and political reforms, including in administrative efficiency and private sector development. Such changes will not happen as long as the country is awash in oil revenues that can satisfy Iraq’s power brokers and its population to a sufficient extent. Although Iraq’s immediate future is secured by its oil wealth, it is economically vulnerable in the long term. This is bound to have political consequences, if only because it will affect the rents that currently accrue to the country’s elites."

Middle East Security

Twenty Years Later, the U.S. Military Is Still Lost in Iraq

Having done little to enable the Iraqi security forces to sustain their own capabilities, the Biden administration is setting the conditions for another strategic failure in I...

Middle East Security

Virtual Event | 20 Years Later: The Legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom

Mar 27, 2023

Middle East Security

Al-Sudani's First 100 Days

The first 100 days of the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shiya al-Sudani are a model of appeasement....


Rightsizing in the Middle East

"Changing the mix of military resources in the Middle East means that the United States will need to accept more risk in the region than it has in recent decades," write Becca Wasser and Elisa Catalano Ewers in Foreign Affairs. "There is a chance that Washington’s worries could materialize and that the United States may then have to contend with a nuclear-armed Iran or an ISIS 2.0 with fewer armed tools immediately available. It is difficult to take a hard-nosed look at how U.S. interests have changed in the Middle East, and it is even more difficult to then act accordingly. But should the United States retain its ability to surge its presence in the region, and should the current government continue to invest in the economic and diplomatic resources the Middle East genuinely requires, such risks are more manageable."

Uncertainty Hangs over Iraqi Kurdistan in 2023

"Frequent foreign attacks undermine prospects for stabilizing Iraq two decades after the U.S. invasion," argues Hamzeh Hadad in The Hill. "The formation of a consensus Iraqi government in October, which includes both major Kurdish parties, presents an opportunity to resolve internal Kurdish issues, as well as outstanding ones with Baghdad, but this can be done only with American support. Ensuring stability in Iraqi Kurdistan is important for the U.S. and its allies. The region plays host to coalition troops and various international organizations serving Iraq and Syria. Moreover, previous instance of instability in Iraqi Kurdistan, such as the financial crisis in 2020, triggered major refugee flows into Europe."

What I Failed to Understand about Saddam’s Iraq—and American Power

"I hadn’t sufficiently understood that Saddam’s absolutist rule had destroyed every vestige of civil society in Iraq, from the family and tribe at the base of the social order to the regime at the top," observes Robert Kaplan in The Wall Street Journal. "He had made it impossible for any sort of order to succeed him. His tyranny was so extreme and unpredictable that it was itself a species of anarchy. This was a searing revelation for me. America’s military could accomplish many things, but reconstituting and reforming a brutalized, ferociously sectarian Iraq was not one of them. I should have known better."


Rightsizing in the Middle East

Washington’s large Middle East presence is more than just wasteful....

Middle East Security

Uncertainty Hangs over Iraqi Kurdistan in 2023

Ensuring stability in Iraqi Kurdistan is important for the U.S. and its allies....

What I Failed to Understand About Saddam’s Iraq—and American Power

Iraq, rather than permanently traumatizing us, has proved to be a great teacher....

In the News

Featuring commentary from Jonathan Lord, Becca Wasser, and Hamzeh Hadad.

Middle East Security

How the US invasion shaped Iraq

The US invasion of Iraq kicked off a cycle of violence and instability that persists to this day. Start Here with Sandra Gathmann explains how the invasion set Iraq on a troub...


Why Joe Biden is ending America’s combat mission in Iraq

When the first American bombs began falling on Iraq on March 19th 2003, President George W. Bush predicted a hard slog. “A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large a...

Middle East Security

Iraq 20 years after the invasion: How Life is Better and Worse

Twenty years later, however, the results are decidedly mixed, say Iraqi experts, with gains coming at a huge expense. Estimates of war-related deaths vary but the Iraqi Body C...

Middle East Security

‘They Have to Balance’: New Iraqi Leader Tilts the Scales toward U.S.

The scene in Baghdad, according to former U.S. officials, was a state of near-pandemonium, with Iran-backed Hezbollah operatives whipping votes in a flurry of calls just as U....

Middle East Security

20 Years After US Invasion, Iraq Far From 'Liberal Democracy'

"Building democracy takes time and building a democracy doesn't create a utopia overnight," said Hamzeh Haddad, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations....

About the Sharper Series

The CNAS Sharper series features curated analysis and commentary from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy. From the future of America's relationship with China to the state of U.S. sanctions policy and more, each collection draws on the reports, interviews, and other commentaries produced by experts across the Center to explore how America can strengthen its competitive edge.


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