Iraq, Not Afghanistan, Is America’s Longest War
27 years of conflict
There’s no question the United States’ war in Afghanistan — now entering its 16th year — ranks high on the list of America’s longest wars. But does it deserve the unenviable moniker of “America’s longest war?”
In fact, that title belongs to a conflict most Americans view not as one, but two, perhaps three distinct wars waged by two or three different presidents. That war? America’s quarter-century-long intervention in Iraq.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The two countries had been involved in a stand-off regarding debt owed to Kuwait by Baghdad stemming from the Iran-Iraq War, along with a dispute over oil fields. The annexation of Kuwait drew immediate international outrage and the United Nations approved embargo and sanctions upon Baghdad.
After a five-month stand-off, the United States led a coalition in a massive military assault, overwhelming Iraqi forces. In 43 days, Saddam’s military was decimated and Kuwait liberated. The war was a made-for-television spectacle, a rousing success which seemingly cemented America’s rightful place as “leader of the free world.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 further reinforced this narrative. While Saddam Hussein remained in power and questions remained regarding the wisdom of allowing such a menace to live another day, the prevailing sentiment was to move onto other issues. In the United States, Americans shifted their focus to the economy and the impending presidential election the following year.
For most, it was the end of their country’s war with Iraq.
But this was not to be. Even as it celebrated, America’s troubles with Iraq were just beginning.
In the wake of its disastrous defeat, unrest spread in Iraq. The long-oppressed and discriminated-against Shia majority of southern Iraq rebelled, forcing Saddam to respond with a brutal suppression campaign. In the north, the Kurds intensified a pre-existing insurgency against the government. Iraqi forces cracked down on the uprising, causing a refugee crisis on the border with Turkey.
The United States responded with Operation Provide Comfort to defend the Kurds and provide humanitarian aid. The operation consisted of the establishment of a no-fly zone over Iraq north of the 36th parallel and the deployment of U.S. troops to Turkey.
At top — a U.S. Navy F-14 flies over burning oil wells in Iraq in 1991. Above — a U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 launches for a strike on Iraqi targets in 1998. Navy photos
It didn’t take long for the fighting to resume. In March 1991, fewer than two months after the end of Desert Storm, the U.S. Air Force shot down two Iraqi fighters violating the no-fly zone. Later, U.S. troops entered Iraq once again to safeguard the Kurds and the humanitarian mission. On Jan. 1, 1997, Provide Comfort ended at the request of Turkey, which was seeking to de-escalate tensions with Iraq and Iran.
The no-fly zone remained in place, however, under Operation Northern Watch.
In southern Iraq, the brutal suppression campaign against the Shiite minority continued. When the Iraqi air force flew missions in support of the campaign, it violated post-war agreements. In response, the United Nations established a second no-fly zone under Operation Southern Watch on Aug. 27, 1992. The no-fly zone covered Iraqi airspace below the 32nd parallel in order to protect the Shias from massacre.
As in the north, it did not take Iraq long to test the system. The remainder of 1992 saw challenges against the southern no-fly zone, eventually leading to the shoot-down of an Iraqi fighter by the U.S. on Dec. 27.
Though hardly-remembered today, the two no-fly zones became an enduring part of the post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy landscape. Thousands of servicemembers, plus hundreds of aircraft and ships would cycle through the Persian Gulf and the various bases throughout the region to sustain the effort.
In fact, the period between 1991 and 2003 constitutes a “second war” against Iraq, one fought primarily from the skies. Policing Iraqi airspace was a far cry from the high-intensity warfare of Desert Storm, but violence erupted frequently and out in the open. While air-to-air engagements eventually subsided, Iraqi air defenses rarely missed an opportunity to shoot at coalition aircraft, though they failed to achieve any kills.
These violations were met with punitive responses, including a series of attacks against surface-to-air missile sites in southern Iraq in early 1993. Many of these incidents didn’t receive significant media coverage, but they were serious enough to raise concern among policymakers a showdown was in the offing.
Shortly after commencing his presidency, Bill Clinton was quickly reminded the Iraq problem was not going away and would have to be dealt with on his watch. In one his first major foreign policy actions as commander-in-chief, Clinton ordered a retaliatory strike against Iraq for an assassination plot against former president George Bush. This marked the beginning of a long face-off between the 42nd president and Saddam Hussein that sustained itself into the next administration.
In 1994, it looked like Clinton would have his own war with Iraq. In October, Hussein massed forces at the border with Kuwait, threatening to re-invade his neighbor unless U.N. sanctions were lifted. A build-up of U.S. forces in the region took place under the banner of Vigilant Warrior and Baghdad stood down, having buckled under the pressure.
U.S. Marines escort Iraqi prisoners of war in 2003. Marine Corps photo
The crisis came at a time when the United States had drawn down its presence in the region. Hussein’s reckless feat not only ensured the no-fly zone and sanctions would remain in place, but that the United States and its allies would bolster their presence, remaining in the region indefinitely to deter Iraqi aggression.
During the second half of the 1990s, the “second war” against Iraq continued to escalate. In August 1996, Iraq launched an offensive into northern Iraq, placing the lives of the Kurdish minority in jeopardy, once again. The coalition responded by launching Operation Desert Strike, attacking command and control centers and air defense targets in southern Iraq. The strikes were also aimed at reducing the risk to coalition pilots, who continued to be targeted inside both no-fly zones.
The following year, Clinton’s stand-off with Iran reached a fever pitch. As Hussein continued to violate U.N. resolutions and endure suspicions of maintaining a WMD program, the U.S. and the Coalition spent the period of October 1997 to December 1998 deploying substantial military force to the region to add heft to the ongoing negotiations.
Hussein walked a thin line, bringing tensions to the brink of war on multiple occasions, only to back down at the last moment as a means of buying time and, hopefully, exhausting the world in its efforts to subdue the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. By late 1998, it seemed to be working – the United States had by then expended tremendous amounts of money and diplomatic reserve in its attempts to bring the rogue nation to heel.
But in December 1998, Iraq’s luck ran out. Citing continued violations of U.N. resolutions and non-compliance with WMD-related inspections, Clinton ordered Operation Desert Fox. A four-day air and naval campaign running from Dec. 16 to 19, it struck WMD facilities and leadership centers of the Iraqi regime and Republican Guard.
Though considered successful, the strike was roundly criticized, with some suggesting it was part of a broader campaign to effect regime change in Baghdad. The issues of WMDs and regime change would dominate America’s dealings with Iraq in the years to come.
Meanwhile, the war in the skies over Iraq continued, unabated. From the end of Desert Fox to 2003, Iraqi continued to violate the no-fly zone and shoot at coalition aircraft with impunity. The coalition carried on with retaliatory strikes, delivering ordnance with greater frequency than in years past.
One of the biggest air strikes of the no-fly zone era took place on Feb. 16, 2001 and served as newly-inaugurated Pres. George W. Bush’s introduction to the Iraq conundrum. By the dawn of the 21st century, war appeared to brew on the horizon. The devastation of 9/11 all but sealed Iraq’s fate.
On March 19, 2003, the clock ran out on Hussein. Citing the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD development and sponsorship of terrorism, Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, an invasion followed by an occupation whose legacy remains highly controversial. Though the Ba’athist regime was toppled in short order, the pacification and reconstruction of the country would prove to be an arduous and grinding effort, one that cost the lives of thousands of servicemembers, thousands of more Iraqi civilians, and billions of dollars.
When investigations failed to produce evidence of WMDs and links to terror groups that served as the casus belli for the war, the Bush administration suffered at the polls and the revelations — or lack thereof — further divided a nation already split along partisan lines. By 2007, the brutal insurgency, terrorism and poor governance had Iraq teetering on the brink. The surge of additional American troops into Iraq provided a window of opportunity to establish order and civil society, as well as give the United States a way out of the conflict.
U.S. Marines fire rockets at ISIS in Iraq in 2016. Marine Corps photo
Disenchantment with the Iraq War contributed to the ascendancy of Barack Obama in 2008. Having opposed the war from the start, the 44th president stayed true to his campaign promise of ending the American role in the conflict. On Dec. 18, 2011, the last U.S. troops crossed the border into Kuwait and, once more, Americans sought to turn the page and focus on nation-building at home.
But, as before, it was not to be.
In 2014, the civil war raging in Syria expanded into Iraq, with Islamic State leading the onslaught. The Iraqi government proved unequal to the challenge, proceeding to yield a significant quantity of territory to ISIS.
With Iraq seemingly teetering on the brink once again, Obama ordered the deployment of military advisers to Iraq and a significant amount of air assets to the region to support the effort on the ground against ISIS. If the irony was lost on the American public, it certainly wasn’t on those manning the front lines. Three years after departing Iraq, the United States was at it again.
As of this writing, American troops are on the ground in Iraq, assisting the Iraqi military and friendly militias in their struggle against ISIS. Since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014, the coalition has conducted 13,305 air strikes in Iraq and the shooting continues.
As with the no-fly zones of 1991 to 2003, media coverage and the absence of a significant ground presence obscures the fact America is still fighting a shooting war in Iraq daily, 25 years after the first bombs fell on the embattled Middle East country.
While the campaign against ISIL has seen progress, the ultimate fate of Iraq remains in doubt and the situation isn’t likely to change any time soon.
America’s war in Iraq encompasses a bewildering passage of time in which any individual alive today can place their lives within. The youngest servicemembers who fought in Desert Storm are now in their mid-to-late-40s.
Conversely, those barely old enough to recall the events of 9/11 constitute some of the youngest personnel serving in Inherent Resolve. Pres. George Bush, Sr. is 93 years old and his son, George W. concluded his presidency nearly a decade ago. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, coalition commander during the Gulf War, passed away in 2012. Those comprising the graduating classes of 2017 were born after Desert Fox.
Edward Chang is a contractor-mariner for Military Sealift Command. When not at sea, he writes on military history and national security-related topics. Any thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of any government agency.