Eleven Years And We Still Haven’t Learned From Our Mistakes

Updated: March 21, 2014


By J.E. McCollough

We’d all like to forget our mistakes. Even the ones we learn from usually involve events we’d prefer not to think about or be reminded of on a regular basis. The key, though, is that we at least learn from our mistakes. Ignoring the mistakes we’ve made or pretending we didn’t make them at all is self-delusional at best.

The United States has certainly made mistakes in our ongoing conflict with Al Qaeda and its various embodiments; from Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan and elsewhere. I think it’s an inevitable consequence of such a global, extended fight. Possibly the biggest mistake was shifting focus from Afghanistan, where our enemy was in disarray, to Iraq, a different, old enemy who was beginning to claw his way out from under ten years of harsh sanctions. Saddam wasn’t involved in the US/Al Qaeda war and I believe we could have dealt with his re-emerging regional ambitions without a full-scale invasion.

This month is the eleventh anniversary of the Iraq invasion mistake. But it seems America, at least the American media, would prefer to pretend it never happened. The only media outlet to even mention the start of the Iraq War I’ve seen has been Al Jazeera America. It’s only been eleven years but I’m starting to feel like a veteran of America’s new Forgotten War. We should understand our mistakes, hopefully learn from them. Not talking about the war at all is a serious error.

What Happened In Iraq

In Iraq we successfully deposed the dictator and achieved our initial goal, but we then compounded our original error and mistakenly decided to stay in Iraq to try our hand at nation-building.

There were successes, of course, though usually inadvertent. I don’t think we initially realized that by staying in Iraq we would turn that country into a major front in our war with Al Qaeda. But that worked out. For the most part, we won.

US forces were like a massive bug zapper for Islamic extremists, and at times it seemed like they couldn’t help themselves but be drawn to their deaths. A common jihadist refrain directed at Westerners is, “We love death more than you love life.” Well, it’s true. We killed AQ fighters by the thousands, if not tens of thousands, and by the time we left at the end of 2011 Al Qaeda in Iraq was a shadow of what it had been. While AQ in Iraq was never completely stamped out, it didn’t represent an existential threat to the government of Iraq and certainly had no ability to prepare and launch operations against the United States.

iraq2Eventually, through sheer blind-doggedness and dumb luck, we actually got Iraq to a semi-stable point on the verge of becoming a Western-leaning more-or-less democracy. Real elections were held and the sectarian and ethnic and political blocs were negotiating instead of going to war with each other. Not bad for what had looked like an unmitigated disaster just a few years prior.

We could have stayed. We knew the threats that still existed in Iraq and the region and we could have made a serious effort to mitigate them. We’ve done it in the past; we protected Europe from the Soviet threat after World War II and we still have tens of thousands of troops in South Korea protecting that country from the North Koreans. These were our allies and we rightly refused to abandon them even after major hostilities were over. General Austin, the commanding general of United States Forces – Iraq in 2011, did his best to negotiate a deal with Baghdad but with no political support from DC his efforts were doomed.

What Happened After Iraq

And so we left, and made the initial mistake of invading Iraq, and the subsequent mistake of staying, even worse.

Without the US military’s boot on its throat, the Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq (that had been all but exterminated while the US remained) flourished. In taking Ramadi and Fallujah earlier this year, the two largest cities in western Iraq and the sites of some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire US involvement in Iraq, Al Qaeda is carving out a new safe-haven and re-establishing itself as a regional threat in its alliance with the Syrian-based Al Qaeda franchise fighting Syrian rebels and Assad alike for control of Syria.

Al Qaeda in Iraq isn’t new to regional activities. It bombed a Jordanian hotel in 2005 on the orders of then-leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi. And with its resurgence in western Iraq and Syria the organization will be able to once again launch trans-national attacks on the West and our allies.

Make no mistake, we knew Al Qaeda would return. We left Iraq anyway.

And there have been larger regional consequences than just an Al Qaeda resurgence in western Iraq. Without the US military giving teeth to our diplomatic presence and providing a counterweight to Iran, Tehran’s influence in Baghdad grew to the point Iraq essentially became an Iranian client state.

This not a good development for regional stability. All the political progress we had made? Ceded to Iran. Additionally, with the US no longer controlling Iraqi airspace, Iran in 2012 was able to supply Syrian President Bashar al Assad with unlimited material support—including boots on the ground – ensuring he stayed in power and ensuring the Syrian civil war devolved into a free-for-all fight among the Free Syrian Army, Al Qaeda, other miscellaneous Islamic factions and Assad. Again, something we knew would happen and definitely not a positive development for regional stability.

And, yes, regional stability is important. The lack of stability in Afghanistan is what gave Al Qaeda the safe-haven it needed to develop and launch multiple attacks on the United States, obviously including September 11. Instability in the Middle East can have deep impacts on the price of oil and food worldwide, and due to the nature of our globalized economy that inevitably translates to negative impacts on the US economy.

Denying Al Qaeda safe-haven was the entirely legitimate justification for invading Afghanistan in 2002. Ensuring regional stability in the Middle East was why we re-took Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1991.

By leaving Iraq in 2011 we created the conditions which would require US involvement in another war in Iraq. Secretary of State Kerry said the Iraqis will have to deal with Al Qaeda’s offensive in Fallujah and Ramadi. That it’s their war. Well, it may be their local war, but fighting Al Qaeda and ensuring oil keeps flowing from the Middle East has been the US’ war for decades. At some point I believe we will be forced to become involved again in Iraq.

We should have just stayed involved.

If we refuse to admit we made a mistake in leaving Iraq because we’re angry and embarrassed that we mistakenly invaded Iraq in the first place, we’ll only have greater problems to deal with in a few years’ time. Not talking about the war or trying to forget it happened is a disservice to those who fought and to those who will have to fight again someday.

We can only hope maybe next time we’ll learn from our mistakes.





  1. leftoftheboom

    March 21, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Mr. McCollaugh,
    I liked your article and while I have some similar reasons, I don’t consider Iraq a mistake for invasion. I have some different sources and they could be wrong but this is my point of view. I will borrow parts of your words if I may. I have discussed my opinion with several others who share the same view.

    “There were successes, of course, though usually inadvertent. I don’t think we initially realized that by staying in Iraq we would turn that country into a major front in our war with Al Qaeda. But that worked out. For the most part, we won.

    US forces were like a massive bug zapper for Islamic extremists, and at times it seemed like they couldn’t help themselves but be drawn to their deaths.”

    We knew before the invasion of Iraq that we would be drawing in all the Al Qaeda fighters and every other Islamic fighter. Part of the thought process involves the very basic founding principles of Islam going back to the Crusades. When the Holy land is threatened, all actions to remove the infidel must be taken. We knew we would suck them in where U.S. Military force could be brought to bear and we could guarantee that we would get most of them because they had no ideological choice but to engage us because we threatened a position they must secure.

    The mistake was that we left, I agree and for much the same reasons as you but not with the same intent. We should have stayed because so long as we occupied that position, they could not commit to terror attacks elsewhere. The mindset is that you must fight to protect the holy land and you cannot do that if you are not directly facing the infidel. So we protect the U.S. by making sure that the threat is contained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The problem with an insurgent campaign is that the public does not have the stomach for an unending war. There is no way to get people to accept the ruthless statement that we will never end the war with Al Qaeda and the like until one of us has been destroyed. It will continue with attacks hither and yon until we get aggravated enough to invade someone else and do it all over again.

    Nation building was a convenient excuse to stay in Iraq and continue to draw in any terrorists who wanted try their hand at defending the holy land. But the average American cannot see the need for that and on one in the world will allow the proper alternative. So our politicians withdrew from Iraq and are planning the same for Afghanistan much the same as they did a few decades ago when they withdrew from Vet Nam. We at least get better treatment from the average civilian that our brothers got before us, but that is mostly because they spent the long hard years making America recognize their sacrifices and our generations reaped the reward.

    We are caught between a rock and a hard place. To continue the war and keep the terrorist in check, we would have to convince the American people that such sacrifice is worth that much effort and that cost in lives and money. It is impossible to convince a nation with nearly an entire population of people with the attention span of a 2 year old to do anything long term. Look at the politicians that get elected.

    Maybe if we had Fallujah Shores or Access Ramadi? Kim and Kanye move to Fallujah, and then America might care. Dancing with Iraqi’s? Honey BoBo goes to Bagdad? DUCK it’s a sniper Dynasty? Until you get their attention, the average American believes what CNN, FOX, or MSNBC tells them to believe.

  2. DemoDick115

    March 22, 2014 at 11:12 am

    I agree with the author on many of these points. While I do feel it was necessary to depose Saddam, it could have been done in a better way. Is it not the job of the Green Berets to depose dictators and rebuild nations? Force multipliers as they call them. A couple of A-teams could have brought the Iraqi army to it’s knees, took Saddam off his high horse, and all the while built those everlasting relationships that only out Nations Finest can which would have helped prevent further conflict. I will admit those tanks would have been a pain in the ass, but that’s why they have CCT’s and A-10, right? The Green Berets with CIA elements took Afghanistan in three months, on horseback. I feel Iraq could have gone the same way. That’s just a 16 year old who has been watching this war unfold for the last 10 years two cents.

  3. Leonard Bowen

    March 22, 2014 at 11:42 am

    I try not believe that negative feelings about my time in Iraq. I’ve never ever wanted to think that there was a wasted moment over there, I know there were times where I should have said or done some things different but not for one second in either of my deployments did I feel it was wasted. I wasn’t a grunt but I did grunt work, I wasn’t SF but I did work with local military to help them stand up on their own. You see I was on one if the original MiTTeams as a SPC. We were a six man team attached to an Armor unit from Riley, and I was originally from the 3ACR, when it was the ACR. While I was on that mission down in St. Michael, Mahmudiah one of my good friends was vaporized by an IED in Tal Afar. They said the blast was so massive it split the Abrams in half. You see that’s why this war cannot be forgotten, cause this is just a microcosm of the big gigantic picture known as OIF was really about. To us the boots on the ground it was never about oil or food, or hell even AQ, it was about the guys wearing that flag on the right sleeves, that indicates charging forward to mouth of the devil and kicking his fucking teeth in. No the war was not perfect, but shit its war when the fuck did pretty and neat become a standard of war. Why also does it mean something, well now that I’m not active and have since moved home well now my kids can say something none if the others can say…my dad was in the Army. Remember when we were kids and how much weight that held… I do cause I could say the same about my dad, who did his time in Vietnam…Voluntarily! And my last reason Iraq means something, cause no matter how hard it was, and no matter how close divorce we were, my beautiful wife and I are still together and she says she would not change a thing because it has made us stronger and that she will always be proud of the sacrifices we both have made. Iraq happened you’re goddamn right it happened and just like Vietnam and Korea there were far too many that didn’t make those sacrifices but believe they are in a position to judge, or far too many that make decisions without practical knowledge. Have a very blessed day and to all those lost in those thoughts of a meaningless war, don’t worry, turn around and u will see that you are not alone, the rest of will always have your Six. Blood and Steel


    March 23, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Well, I feel we bettered Iraq. I was there for OIF2 04-05. Every time we did patrols and guarded the police stations people would tell us horror stories about how suddam’s hench men would torture them, kidnap their daughters and execute them based on political agenda’s or ethnic oppression. There was a bad insurgency the whole time we were there, but people counted on us to protect them. Though it was exhausting it was rewarding to keep a people safe.
    We also spent plenty a nights on top of schools killing deviants trying to plant explosives inside. That being a lot of the families supported our efforts knowing we are protecting their children from foreign fighters. Some of the bravest men that fought beside us were the Iraqi soldiers we trained. We also gave them CIB’s and they earned them. Iraq to a college tree hugging Marxist liberal pot smoking turd fly, might seem like a failure, but wtf do they know about life other than what some commi dope smoking retard told them. I was there, I saw a lot of horrific things, but I was happy to keep people safe and free. I signed up to take the brunt of the war and I’d do it again, again and again. We are supposed to protect the weak and free the oppressed. Not because it’s popular but because we stand for Freedom. I’m sad that our government gave up on Iraq, we did so much to progress them. Even when we fought in Fallujah Nov 2004 (operation phantom fury) we believed in that fight, even our commander told us “this is about the most purest fight of good vs evil you will probably ever see in your lifetime” and we believed it to the bitter end over 2 exhausting weeks of non stop combat. War maybe Hell but you will also see true Heroism on a level that you will not see anywhere else. We lost some of our best in that battle but it was not in vein (like the media would have you believe).
    Either way liberals are like turds every dog shits one out. I am so proud of all you Veteran’s you are the best of your generation, no matter what the FUBAR public says. I commend you for your bravery and commitment to hardships no one else can fathom.
    You are the Stars and Stripes of are Flag, the True bearers of Truth and Freedom. Don’t let others convince you, that Iraq was in vein, they weren’t there and don’t know the truth. They care more about celebrity relationships than world crisis.
    Thank You for your service!
    Sincerely Yours
    God Loves The Infantry!
    Grunt of TF 2-2 1st INF

  5. Kenneth Zech

    March 24, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    I think the mistake was definitely made by civilian authorities, and I would concur that “nation building” is not something we should be involved with. I am an Air Force veteran of almost 23 years, and was in the First Gulf War. Pulling back just short of ousting Saddam then was the first mistake. Things may have been in a better position then, and now with the cut and run administration we have now, any sacrifice that has been made will have been for nothing.

  6. D

    March 25, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Anyone who was over their and put in work has nothing to be ashamed of. Be proud of your service because u took care of your brothers. Politicians are so full of shit it’s hard to know what to believe. I think there was both good and bad things that came from going to Iraq. I agree that pulling out when we did will probably end up being a huge mistake… The way this administration has handled Afganistan is also a failure. However are boys are tired and this country doesn’t support them the way they should. When a president doesn’t listen to his Generals who the fuck is he going to listen to.

  7. Fuchdalot

    April 1, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    The Iraq war was not a mistake. However, after the invasion our decisions were screwed up. If I remember correctly a lot of the insurgency consisted of Syrian’s. After the Arab spring Syria had a stockpile of gas that rivaled Saddam’s. Dissolving the entire Iraqi military was a giant Charlie Foxtrot. Saddam’s Godfather chain of power should have been taken out and it was. During the Clinton Admin. the U.S. bombed Iraq. We had his mid level military leadership willing to help take him out. The U.S. Initiated the secular division and Zarqawi capitalized on that by causing a civil war in the middle of our occupation. Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of people in his government. He was able to maintain order between Shia and Sunni. He had a large population of Palestinian refugees who had settled there.Saddam’s Prime Minister was Catholic. Saddam gassed the Kurds and we initiated a no fly zone.
    The U.S. had plans of keeping some Troops in Iraq even after our withdrawal but Iraqi President Maliki would not grant them immunity so we pulled all troops out.
    I also saw where someone wrote we had to stay and rebuild after the war and that was where we went wrong. We did this in Germany because we knew the Soviets were our next enemy. Had we left Germany the Soviets would have not stopped at just West Berlin. We remained there and Japan to ensure that the country was rebuilt and the governments that bombed Pearl Harbor and killed six million Jews was tried and another form of Hitler could not come into power.
    The reason we are still in Korea is because we are still technically at war with the North. We never signed a peace treaty, there was a cease fire because Truman threatened to drop a nuke on the North. The Korean War was a UN mandated war fought by NATO. China had just become a Communist power and at that time U.S. leaders were worried of Japan being influenced into Communism.
    Sorry for getting off topic but what ever happened to Obamas red line in Syria? Our complete justification of the Iraq war carried out next door. Syria was a neutral country during the Persian Gulf. When the U.S. Invaded Iraq we were fighting Syrians who were damn good snipers given their weapons. The type of Sniper trained in the military. I’m not sure about Syrian gun rights but I do not think they had many until the civil war. Then we find out that Syria has the largest stockpile of WMD’s in the Middle East with a lot of resemblance to that Saddam Iraq’s and the red line was crossed.
    Getting involved in the Syrian war is ignorant. The U.S. doesn’t need another war. A country that borders our closest ally Israel using gas on its people though. We should have at least given the Syrians a good two days of bombing strategic government areas. Taken out there Migs maybe. We know Israel would have helped and given us Intel on important areas to strike. Obama was bluffed though. Putin took him by the hand and assisted in diplomacy to rid Syria of their gas.
    I originally thought F it let them kill themselves off was the best policy. Now AQ is running Syria and as written in this article gone over the border in cities in Iraq where our fiercest fighting took place. After finding and killing UBL in our true “Ally” country of Pakistan, in a city that is the equivalent of West Point we should have gotten the hell out of Afghanistan. That should have been the banner that read mission accomplished.
    Afghanistan was tactically a success in the beginning aside from Tora Bora, and some low points in Anaconda. We shifted our focus from Trashstan to Iraq and allowed our enemy adapt to our tactics and gain strength.
    Now Russia is showing its ambitions of returning to Soviet return.
    Rant over.


    April 3, 2014 at 3:51 am

    The biggest screw up of the Iraq War, was having Paul Bremer involved. Had we had our actual generals making the calls as far as rebuilding the Iraqi Military we would have never had as much trouble.
    Bremer was supposed to give all of the cooperative former Career military officers and ncos their jobs back in the Newly formed Iraqi forces. Mind you that was the plan our Generals and other echelons had. The former Iraqi soldiers were on standby waiting for this to happen. Also mind you, these guys had no other kind of income and were promised their jobs back. But Paul Bremer went against the U.S Generals strategy they already had in place. Therefor resulting in the rise of many insurgent factions. Many reasons why this was a disaster.
    1st Violated trust of people that depended on us
    2. It would have been a lot easier to train an already standing military.
    3. this provoked them to go against us because they had no other means other than being a soldier.
    4. really sucked for us because we were fighting a lot of actual trained military men as well as foreign fighters. results very deadly
    5. Bremer sunk billions of dollars on security contractors (foreign ones as well I might include) who mind you didn’t work hand in hand with us and would get killed because they ride in civilian vehicles and look like insurgents. We really would have been better off reinstating the former Iraqi soldiers and having more of our own military there, when obviously the commanders requested the same several times to an idiot congressional audience.
    Don’t take my word for it, even though this happened while I was there. Look him up if you don’t already know, Paul Bremer. Had we used the original strategy everything would have panned out a lot differently.

Get notified of new Rhino Den articles and videos as they come out, Also, find out before anyone else about new product launches and huge discounts from RangerUp.com, the proud parent of the Rhino Den.

  • Videos (The Damn Few and more!)
  • Military-inspired articles
  • MMA (and Tim Kennedy) coverage
Close this window

Join the Rhino Den / Ranger Up Nation

Read previous post:
The Damn Few: The Wizard of VA