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Opinion: The Third Iraq War

Undated photo of ISIS militants

Undated photo of ISIS militants

In the Naval War College’s Strategy and Policy course students have an opportunity to critically analyze both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). These two historical case studies are commonly referred to by students and faculty alike as the First Iraq War and the Second Iraq War. Now, before us we see the Third Iraq War unfolding. Despite what some pundits and former administration officials are saying America is still playing an active role in Iraq’s wars.

An overlooked fact is America’s wars in Iraq make the conflict the longest war in U.S. history. Like two geographer friends of mine that like to argue over whether the Amazon or Nile is the longest river on the planet—it all depends on where you start. Most historians would put the date that America’s wars with Iraq began as 8 August 1990 when then President George H.W. Bush gave his famous “line in the sand speech.” It has been 24 years from that line to today.What has America learned in a quarter century of direct, and often kinetic, engagement in the cradle of civilization?

From the military historian’s armchair, watching the news unfold on the situation in Iraq today feels like watching a documentary about Vietnam backwards; in Vietnam America escalated its involvement from a few advisors to heavy conventional operations, but in Iraq we moved from heavy conventional operations to advisors that are reluctant to get too involved in combat operations.

The large conventional operations that typified the first two Iraq wars will not be ours to own this time. Clarifying this point, on June 19, President Obama spoke about the ensuing crisis stating specifically, “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well.”The boots on the ground will be Iraqi soldiers with America providing intelligence, training, assistance, and perhaps a few drone strikes for what can best be described as a full blown sectarian civil war.

In an odd twist, many of the Iraq and Syria Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) forces that we will be helping the Iraqi Army fight are the same militants that just a few months ago many on Capitol Hill were pleading to arm and equip. This however was when these same Sunni militants were in Syria fighting against the Alawite and Shia Syrian government forces. As long as they were fighting Shia forces in Syria they were being promoted by some American leaders as the Sunni militant good guys that needed our support, but now that they have turned their attention against the Shia controlled Iraqi government they the world’s most dangerous terrorists. If you are confused by all of this, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Take it as an indication of just how complex the situation is in Iraq and Syria today.

Naval War College students also learn that civil wars are among the most violent and intractable of all forms of warfare. Our own Civil War is a good example–Britain and the other European powers of that era steered clear of getting involved. America did not create the deeply rooted sectarian hatred that is central to the Third Iraq War, but they certainly helped to create the conditions that are fueling the fire.

In the long list of strategic oversights and blunders leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq the most glaring and obvious is that America was prepared to replace Saddam’s secular Sunni regime with the first Shia government of an Arab nation. Why this should have given pause to the planners of OIF is because an Arab Shia controlled nation has never existed in modern times — never. History matters, especially in the cultural context of any conflict. Nowhere in the Middle East was the divide between Sunni and Shia more bitter than in Iraq. Yet somehow this was overlooked?

As a result of this regional context of Shia vs. Sunni, it is unlikely that any coalition of fellow stable Sunni controlled Arab allies will form a coalition to help Shia controlled Iraq defend against the radical Sunni militants. Thus by deduction, in the Third Iraq War, Iraq is calling on its only two allies that have a shared interest in preserving the current structure in Iraq—the U.S. and Iran. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. has had “very brief discussions” about Iraq and the threat posed by ISIS on the sidelines of the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.

The shifting alliances in the region, enemies becoming friends overnight, and the seemingly endless warfare echoes George Orwell’s novel 1984. How is it possible that the U.S. and Iran may wind up working together to restore order to Iraq? Well, it all depends on where you start.


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Categories: Foreign Forces, Military Personnel, News & Analysis

About Cmdr. Daniel Dolan

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan is assigned to the Naval War College where he teaches Strategy and War and serves as the Deputy Manager of the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program. He is an EP-3/special mission P-3 Naval Flight Officer and frequent contributor to Proceedings. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent an official position of the Naval War College, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

  • Godblessourchildren

    This is very interesting. Is the ISIS walking away from the west because, while under western control, they would have to show constraint. Why have half the pie when they can have all of the pie? They no longer need western financial support and they now hold control of the largest refinery in the world. They can negotiate their terms. We showed no interest of intervention until they targeted the refineries. Seems to me that they are going solo. We most likely will be dragged into this war unless we can secure the oil fields and that appears unlikely. This is the result of having businessmen run our foreign policies. What a mess!

  • MuhammedA

    This is a volatile region,Politic of this region is very complicated ,It requires a detailed
    narrative with relegious aspect and idealogies involved , I will narrate at some other time.

  • Hawk

    One hopes the Naval War College doesn’t actually confuse Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan/Phillipines) with Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq #2) as the opening paragraph states.

    • Joe

      Yes, quite embarrassing….

    • CDR Daniel Dolan

      Thank you for pointing this out. I am aware of the difference, I served in all three (OEF, OIF, and OEF-P). I have submitted a corrected copy of the article. Much appreciated.

  • Mike Langohr

    I submit that the title of a now “old” book puts it best – “Fiasco.”

    When I attended the post Viet Nam war college it seems the curriculum taught caution against all the things that got us into all of these recent messes. What happened?

  • Lawrence Reid

    “We most likely will be dragged into this war…?” How? With a Commander-in-chief who is committed to absolutely no confrontational position of strength in any place at any time under any circumstance it would seem very, very unlikely with or without the oil stakes.

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  • Adrian Villanueva

    What is worrying is ISIS has foreigners from the West (US, Australia, UK etc.) and Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia etc.) joining the “jihadist wars” in Iraq and Syria.. These terrorists will eventually bring this kind of “wars” to our shores, as they would have the experience of terror attacks including suicide bombings. We need to be prepared to stop them now. How? we better have courses not only for Security and Intel personnel, but also for the Navy/Military including Staff Colleges.

  • Spencer Moseley

    I am not sure about the accuracy of the statement that Iraq is America’s longest war. The Indian Wars were conducted from 1622 – 1924 and Vietnam was from 1955 to 1975. Both of these wars were longer than Iraq at bearly 13 years. It is fashionable by today’s politics to describe the Iraq war as our longest but history would prove this to be false.

  • Samuel Adams

    If this is the “true” thinking(which i highly doubt) of the little boys in charge, it’s no wonder that they’ve created such a mess of the entire planet and Amerikans are big, fat, stupid beasts playing with themselves in front of the television.

  • RJ Chesnut Jr.

    “An overlooked fact is America’s wars in Iraq make the conflict the
    longest war in U.S. history.”
    Umm, we are Still in AFPAK, do not
    re write History,
    When we leave AFPAK, IT will be the longest commitment .

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  • MuhammedA

    It looks like Iraqi army has put on civilian dress and fighting as ISIS millitants ,Situation is not clear ,Sooner or later Shias & Sunnis will fight and all kind of fighters will jump into the war ,there will be a fire every where impossible to control without rain of blood shed ,Sooner the better , Call OIC meeting ,UN Gen. assembly and extensive diplomatic efforts need to be taken to divide the country to the satisfaction of the Shia Sunnis & Kurds, all others are trouble makers must be killed by UN forces , After the country is divided boarders must be sealed like our boarders so that no one can carry out terrorist activity in that region if we want un interrupted supply of oil , we must have absoluty stabilty in the middle east.

  • kayanatwo


    we went to iraq not knowing why the shias and sunnis hate each other, and when did the hatred from each other started…

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