On March 19, 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war in Iraq, part of a conflict he later called “The War on Terror.”
In the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush framed the invasion as an opportunity to liberate the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and to protect the American people from future acts of terrorism, claiming that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” said Bush in his address. “We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. So that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”
The irony of Bush’s war announcement — after more than $1 trillion expended and a death toll that reached, by the highest estimates, into the hundreds of thousands — is that the invasion is credited as one of the foremost causes of a rise in domestic terrorism in Iraq, namely the creation of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a group also known as ISIS.
A parade to commemorate victory over ISIS was held in Iraq on December 10, 2017. The Victory Day parade featured colored smoke from helicopters, confident and marching soldiers, and a euphoric Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who named the day a national holiday. But despite the enthusiasm of Victory Day, one year after ISIS’ defeat, the country is struggling to land on its feet.
Infrastructure issues plague the Mosul Dam, and, according to satellite imagery, more lives would be at risk if it were to break. With drought looming, a surprising “threat multiplier” for terrorism is climate change, where conditions force poor and desperate people to ally with groups like ISIS for resources. (Al-Abadi did not even acknowledge the water shortages in Iraq, calling them “not a crisis.”) On top of that, the defeat of the group in Iraq does not necessarily spell out its demise in other parts of the region.
“ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaeda in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007, when the group had declared an Islamic State and operated under the name Islamic State of Iraq,” Pentagon spokesperson Commander Sean Robertson told the news outlet Voice of America in an emailed statement.
For some who understand that, it is not easy to forget this looming specter of violence, even with ISIS out of commission. The Iraqi Human Rights Commission claims to have exhumed 4,536 bodies in Nineveh since the defeat of ISIS. ISIS is weakened but still deadly, and that makes touting its defeat in Iraq as a success, as U.S. President Donald Trump does, much more complicated.
The Economist warns that after losing out in Iraq and Syria, the ideology of the Islamic State is turning its attention to greener pastures in Africa, where jihadists in the Sahel region (where the savanna transitions into the Sahara) are already responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 people.
While it is undoubtedly better that ISIS be defeated rather than resurrected, its absence does not automatically mean Iraq has a rosy future. The Iraqi population finds itself caught in the middle of questions of violence, the exportation of terrorism, and collapsing infrastructure, and there is little evidence that it has a government interested in solving these problems. Even as one of its most dangerous threats has been ostensibly eliminated, hope is a distant feeling for the newly liberated country.