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Mission accomplished in Iraq?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama's speech comes 7 years after President Bush said goals had been met
  • Peter Bergen says Iraq war has been enormously costly
  • He says most of the stated goals of the war have not been met
  • Bergen: Iraq still doesn't have a government in place following elections held in March

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that promotes innovative thought from across the ideological spectrum, and at New York University's Center on Law and Security. He's the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader."

Washington (CNN) -- On May 1, 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, President George W. Bush announced "major combat operations" in Iraq had ended. The defeat of Saddam Hussein, he told the American people, was "a crucial advance in the campaign against terror."

For the umpteenth time, Bush bracketed Saddam and the 9/11 attack. "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11th, 2001, and still goes on."

The president went to describe the 9/11 attacks -- "the last phone calls, the cold murder of children, the searches in the rubble" -- as if this had any bearing on the Iraq War.

The president also made the definitive statement that Saddam was "an ally of al Qaeda," something that his own intelligence agencies had determined was not the case before the war.

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Now seven long years later, another president will again announce that the U.S. combat mission is over in Iraq, which is a good moment to ask: Was the Iraq War somehow post facto worth the blood and treasure consumed?

Look at what was lost and what it cost:

-- More than 4,500 American soldiers dead and 30,000 wounded.

-- At least 100,000 Iraqis killed.

-- Costs to U.S. taxpayers that will rise above a trillion dollars.

-- Jihadist terrorist attacks increased around the world sevenfold in the three years following the 2003 invasion.

There is no question that the United States liberated Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's demonic tyranny, but that argument was not what persuaded Americans that a preemptive war against the Iraqi dictator was in their best interests.

They were hustled to war by the invocation of putative Iraqi mushroom clouds and the argument that there was a genuine and threatening Saddam-al Qaeda WMD "weapons of mass destruction" nexus.

The war against Saddam wasn't conducted under the banner of the liberation of the Iraqi people but rather under the banner of winning the war on terrorism. And by that standard, it was a failure, giving the jihadist movement around the world a new battlefront and a new lease on life.

A study by New York University's Center on Law and Security, which I co-authored, compared the period after September 11 through the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 with the period from March 2003 through September 2006. The study found there were seven times more deadly attacks by jihadists after the invasion than before.

Even excluding terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, fatal attacks by jihadists in the rest of the world increased by more than one-third in the three years after the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War, of course, did not cause all of this terrorism, but it certainly increased the tempo of jihadist attacks in places far-flung as London, England; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Amman, Jordan.

It also bears recalling that almost none of the goals of the war as described by proponents of overthrowing Saddam were achieved:

-- An alliance between Saddam and al Qaeda wasn't interrupted because there wasn't one, according to any number of studies, including one by the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Pentagon's internal think tank. Indeed, it was only after the US-led invasion of Iraq that al Qaeda established itself in the country, rising by 2006 to become an insurgent organization that controlled most of Sunni Iraq.

-- There was no democratic domino effect around the Middle East. Quite the opposite; the authoritarian regimes became more firmly entrenched.

-- Peace did not come to Israel, as the well-known academic Fouad Ajami anticipated before the war in Foreign Affairs. Ajami predicted that the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad.

-- Nor did the war pay for itself as posited by top Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, who told Congress in 2003 that oil revenues "could bring between 50 and 100 billion dollars over the course of the next two or three years. We're dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." Quite the reverse: Iraq was a giant money sink for the American economy.

-- The supposed threat to the United States from Saddam wasn't ended because there wasn't one to begin with. And in his place arose a Shia-dominated Arab state, the first in modern history.

The administration's focus on war in Iraq also undermined America's place in the world. A poll taken a few months after the 2003 invasion found that Indonesians, Jordanians, Turks and Moroccans all expressed more confidence that Osama bin Laden would "do the right thing" than that President George W. Bush would.

As American prestige overseas evaporated, the U.S. military was stretched to the breaking point. Instead of being greeted with flowers -- as had been promised by supporters of the war -- American GIs were greeted with IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

During World War II, 3 percent of American combat deaths were caused by mines or booby traps. By 1967 during the Vietnam War, the figure rose to 9 percent.

In Iraq during the latter half of 2005, IEDs were the leading cause of American combat deaths; by October 2007 some 1,000 American soldiers had been killed by homemade bombs. Some of those deaths might have been avoidable, but only 1 in 10 of the some 9,000 military transport trucks in Iraq in 2004 were armored.

For President Bush, the troop "surge" in Iraq in 2007 was the single most consequential decision of his presidency, a decision that he made against the advice of almost the entire leadership of the military and in the face of opposition from much of the foreign policy establishment. And he did this at a time when his favorability ratings with the American people were hovering around 30 percent in most polls.

In part because of the surge, as well as other factors such as the Sunni tribes of the "Awakening" turning their guns on al Qaeda, the organization suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq.

For the Arab leaders of al Qaeda, the large role their Iraqi affiliate had played during the Iraq War was a source of considerable pride. That was reflected in several tapes issued by bin Laden in which he crowed about the successes of Iraq's insurgents against American forces. But after al Qaeda in Iraq was largely put on the run in 2007, bin Laden has fallen silent on the issue of Iraq.

However, al Qaeda in Iraq might still regain a role despite its much weakened state.

In 2008, there was a sense that al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate was on the verge of defeat.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said, "You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they've never been closer to defeat than they are now."

Al Qaeda had by then certainly lost the ability to control large swaths of the country and a good chunk of the Sunni population as it had two years earlier, but the group proved surprisingly resilient. That's been demonstrated by a number of al Qaeda bombings in Baghdad in the past couple of years that have killed hundreds. Just last week, a campaign of terrorist attacks in 13 locations across Iraq killed more than 50 people.

In short, the jury is still out on whether the Iraq War was the United States' most spectacular foreign policy blunder of the past several decades, or if, out of the wreckage, something resembling a coherent Iraq will eventually arise.

It is a sobering to note that -- despite the fact that Iraq is a much safer place than it was four years ago -- in the first three months of 2010 there were more terrorist attacks in Iraq -- 566 -- than in any other country, according to an analysis by Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation. Those attacks killed 667 people.

Meanwhile, Iraq still does not have a government following the elections held there in March. Its politicians are gripped in a seemingly endless deadlock over which combination of political parties should lead the country. Once that government is in place, it's anyone's guess whether the parties in power will largely follow direction from Tehran or embrace a more independent, secular line.

Gen. David Petraeus famously asked Rick Atkinson, The Washington Post reporter who was embedded with him during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, "Tell me how this ends?"

That question remains a good one today.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.

Part of complete coverage on
iReport: Share your story
If you or a loved one have previously served or are currently serving in Iraq, please share your story. Tell us how the war has affected your life
Past: Timeline
The start of the war, Saddam Hussein's capture, Falluja and more -- check out key events of the Iraq war
Present: Where are they now?
Jessica Lynch, Donald Rumsfeld, Ayad Allawi. Look back at past newsmakers and where they are today
Future: What's next
Analysts envision a persistent American presence in an Iraq that remains unstable
Photos: Inside Iraq
See images of the country today, more than seven years after the start of the war