Retired General Joseph Votel
General Joseph Votel held the position of Commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) between March 2016 and March 2019, before retiring at the end of 40 years of military service. But before his retirement, Votel commanded the 75th Regiment, which was deployed in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. In this article devoted to “Asharq Al-Awsat”, Votel recalls the Iraq war, his role in it, and the aftermath of the invasion…
Twenty years ago this month, in 2003, I was in command of the American commando battalion participating in the Iraq war. I was a colonel in the US Army at the time, and we were part of a large group of special operations forces deployed around the region. Our mission was to conduct operations behind Iraqi forces to secure critical infrastructure sites and prevent obstruction of US and Coalition forces heading to Baghdad and other important population centers. We succeeded in our endeavor, as we were able, in the first 45 days, to recover an American soldier who had been captured, and we captured and kept the impregnable Haditha Dam, and secured many airports, and carried out many raids, and supported conventional operations.
Our first operations were not without a price. A few days after the capture of the Haditha Dam, three American guards at a remote checkpoint stopped a car that was approaching them. A pregnant woman got out and indicated that she was in desperate need of help. As the commandos approached, the suicidal woman detonated a bomb she had been hiding, killing the three guards on the spot, bringing these soldiers to the forefront of a long line of hundreds of soldiers who died from the IEDs. Perhaps these soldiers should have ascertained the truth about that woman before approaching her, but the desire of the Americans to help the needy in distress was a strong motive for what happened, and these soldiers paid with their lives for that. We did not appreciate the consequences of this at the time, but this attack was an early indication of the extent of the brutality of this battle over the next eight years.
President George W. Bush explained the primary reason for going to war, to prevent Saddam from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and intelligence reports and Saddam’s expulsion of UN weapons inspectors gave credence to this strategic concern. Some claimed that Iraq was harboring al-Qaeda terrorists, and Saddam was shunned by the international community and defied UN resolutions imposed after the successful 1991 campaign to expel him from Kuwait.
Former President George HW Bush was the target of an assassination plot linked to the Iraqi intelligence services. The US military launched several short-term campaigns during the 1990s to deter Saddam and punish him for his transgressions. The Americans considered these operations an extension of the global war on terror that began after the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, it became clear to us that our motives for launching this war were not accurate. After removing Saddam and his Ba’athist government from power and defeating his military and paramilitary forces, the war turned into something of a bloody rebellion. This led to the emergence of a violent al Qaeda strain. I returned to Iraq several times throughout those battles, times as a brigadier general, and other times as a major general.
Despite the setback at Abu Ghraib prison, American men and women served with honor and courage throughout the eight-year war, in which 3,481 Americans were killed and 31,994 wounded. The visible and invisible scars and wounds of combat are still evident in our society today. Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder have contributed to rising suicide rates among our soldiers and veterans. Soldiers’ families also endured the separation of their loved ones during periods of service in Iraq, and the masses of Americans rallied around the soldiers’ families by providing them with resources before, during, and after their travel to Iraq to fill the void that our federal and state agencies were unable to fill. Traveling through our airports and hearing expressions of gratitude was common. Americans may not have loved that war, but they loved those who participated in it. The perseverance of our men and women paid off. In December 2011, when our last combat formations moved to Kuwait, Iraq was a stable, peaceful and relatively independent country. The selection of its democratically elected prime minister came from among the formerly oppressed Shiite population, and Iraq was ready to play its geo-strategic role in the region. Unfortunately, this government only lasted 3 years.
Volumes have been written about the mistakes we made in Iraq. Our initial planning was insufficient, and we did not seriously consider the necessary steps after the end of major combat operations. We have over-militarized our politics and strategy and have not taken advantage of the excellent skills and capabilities of our diplomats and government. We have prevented large segments of the Sunni leadership from holding positions in the state’s administrative apparatus, and marginalized the intellectuals, which created a place for extremist forces and organizations. We imprisoned thousands of young men, accelerating extremism, failed to secure population centers, left Iraqi citizens vulnerable to attacks and chaos, and failed to appreciate the country’s deep cultural foundations.
We have learned from some of our mistakes, and after 4 years of conflict, we have effectively “raised” troop numbers, which ultimately stabilized the security situation and allowed time for the Iraqi government to devote itself to work. We benefited from the formation of the “Anbar Awakening” council, brought the Sunni leadership to influence the growing problem of terrorism, dismantled the “Al-Qaeda” network, and employed more effectively trained and equipped Iraqi forces in a modern way, which helped them protect their own security.
The departure of US forces in December 2011 was bittersweet at the same time. Many, including myself (at the time an army general), argued that leaving a small group of fighting forces was necessary to preserve our interests and help solidify the foundations of Iraq’s advance. We have learned from our experiences throughout the 10-year global war on terror that maintaining pressure on extremist organizations and maintaining our alliance with our partners was essential to success. In the end, we kept a small security cooperation organization, and all other forces withdrew. In the beginning, the security deterioration was not apparent, but by 2014 it was horrific when ISIS came to power and invaded the Iraqi army, which was once proud of itself and enjoyed great capabilities, and the organization took control of large areas of the country, and formed a government with its perverted ideology. Iraq became a magnet for tens of thousands of foreign fighters around the world, and the instability that followed was felt not only in the region, but also in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. Millions have been displaced or become refugees, and Iraq’s infrastructure is in tatters.
President Obama ordered the US military to respond. Indeed, we formed a large coalition of about 80 countries and organizations, and we returned to Iraq and Syria to defeat the caliphate of ISIS. During that time, I was fortunate to hold a senior leadership position, oversaw the coordination of our efforts and was directly responsible for ensuring that the coalition forces had the resources and strength to ensure success. When I was performing my duties, I reflected on our previous experience in Iraq and was determined not to repeat the same mistakes. Among the most important lessons was not to focus on winning the daily battles. Our mission has been to empower and support our partners in Iraq and Syria, to apply unique American capabilities when needed, and to maintain coalition unity to carry out our primary mission, which is to defeat ISIS. Indeed, we succeeded militarily in destroying the Khilafah state, but the political victory in achieving a sense of lasting peace and stability was less successful.
I have always believed that Iraq is a country of geostrategic importance. It is a country rich culturally and historically. Iraq lies between the Gulf and the Levant, and seems more like a barrier between these two vastly different regions and their core issues. Iraq has great natural resources, modern infrastructure, and capabilities that qualify it to become an economic power. Its people are educated and diligent, and it is the home of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Kurds, with all their traits and the tensions between them caused by their clear differences.
Many experts wonder whether the 2003-2011 war was worth it, and whether our efforts were in vain. There are logical arguments for both sides. But I am still proud of my service nearly 4 years after my retirement. I often mention the veterans’ groups I speak with that I am proud to have served during that time. It is important to view service and sacrifice in the context in which it was made. That Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter) did not turn out as well as we would have hoped does not diminish the value of the efforts that have been made by so many.
Every soldier, naval officer or pilot wants to see the fruits of his efforts. And I think that’s what happened. We gave the Iraqi people a chance, and the fact that it took longer to achieve this goal does not mean that I and others who have served in that country have failed. I remain hopeful that we will continue to be cooperative partners in Iraq. And we will eventually succeed. As we mark the twentieth anniversary of the Iraq War, I remain hopeful that others will appreciate our services and see that our sacrifices were not in vain.