While observers of the Iraq War anniversary argue over the scale of the mistake -- a colossal folly rooted in imperial ambition and hubris, or simply an error based on faulty intelligence and misplaced fear -- the devil is in the details. These numbers, assembled by some of the 29 contributors to the Costs of War Project based at Brown University, help put the past 10 years in perspective.
0: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. But a new organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, has since formed and has attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces, and wages regular attacks on Iraqi civilians. Additionally, by 2013, AQI had spread offshoots and technical know-how to Syria, Jordan, and Libya. If Iraq became a "front" in the war on terrorism, as Jessica Stern, former member of the National Security Council and current fellow at the Hoover Institution, and her co-author Megan McBride, say "it is a front that the United States created."
2 plus 2: Conflicts exacerbated by the Iraq War. Iran and North Korea were apparently not intimidated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, nor deterred from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Conversely, the war in Afghanistan was arguably prolonged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has escalated into Pakistan, with a corresponding increase in military spending and loss of life.
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The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime's onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict's most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?
To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO's intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels' hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.
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General David Petraeus will soon be back in Washington D.C. to report on progress in a war many consider lost, this time in Afghanistan. The narrative that Petraeus and his surge in troops along with the new way of war he is credited in perfecting led to "success" in Iraq is hard to challenge these days. It informs our view of Afghanistan as well, with many placing their faith in the hopes that Petraeus will save us in Afghanistan just as he did in Iraq. The truth is much more complex. Iraq's fortunes changed for many reasons, not only the changes introduced by Gen. Petraeus. And the terrible costs to Iraqis should give pause to those who want to replicate the experience in Afghanistan.
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