Business News/ Specials / How the Iraq war bent America’s army out of shape

The Iraq war began on March 21st 2003, when Baghdad’s night sky lit up with American guided bombs and tracer fire. “This will be a campaign unlike any other in history," promised General Tommy Franks, the cigar-chomping commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), “a campaign characterised by shock, by surprise…and by the application of overwhelming force." America’s air-and-ground assault quickly overwhelmed Iraq’s hapless armed forces. But in the years that followed, it overwhelmed the American military, too, leaving it bent out of shape for the accelerating competition with China.

The American-led coalition conquered Baghdad in just over three weeks, a remarkable display of raw military power against what was then the world’s fourth-largest standing army. But in the years that followed America was sucked into a campaign of nation-building and counter-insurgency against armed groups, including Sunni jihadists, disaffected members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and Shia militants. Barack Obama, then president, pulled American troops out in 2011, only to send many back after Islamic State, an al-Qaeda splinter, tore through northern Iraq and Syria in 2014. Around 2,500 American troops remain today.

(Graphic: The Economist)
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(Graphic: The Economist)

These campaigns put an enormous strain on America’s army. For the first six years of the war, the number of American troops in Iraq rarely fell below 120,000 (see chart). At the peak of “the surge" in 2007—a spike in troops to combat a raging insurgency—the number was far higher. And as Iraq wound down, the war in Afghanistan ramped up: 98,000 troops were deployed there at that conflict’s peak in 2011. Mobilisation on this scale required implementing what many soldiers called a “backdoor draft": a stop-loss policy of forcing soldiers to extend their service. Between 2002 and 2008 more than 58,000 soldiers were affected.

The intense pace of operations had a wider impact on American forces, as a paper published in 2009 by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank, warned. By 2007 the share of army recruits with high-school diplomas had fallen to 79%, the lowest level for 25 years. A growing number of volunteers were being given waivers for criminal records, obesity or other issues. In 2006 there were more than 34,000 people with “moral waivers" serving in the American armed forces, more than a fifth of all enlisted soldiers.

Those in the field were run ragged. Instead of deploying one unit in every three, allowing time for recuperation and training, the army was forced to deploy one in every two. Army trucks worked at ten times their peace-time rate, the Abrams tank was flogged six times as hard and the Chinook helicopter three times, all in harsh desert conditions that resulted in frequent breakdowns and shortened the lifespan of the equipment.

Worse still, all of that came at a crucial period for America’s global position. In the decade prior to its invasion of Iraq, China’s military spending roughly doubled. In the decade that followed, it quadrupled. Meanwhile America frittered away extraordinary resources. The cost of military operations in Iraq since 2003 runs to more than $800bn on a conservative estimate, and into the trillions on more expansive measures.

The problem was not just profligacy. For more than a decade, despite a much-touted effort by the Obama administration to effect a “pivot" of American strategy to Asia and the Pacific, America’s armed forces devoted the bulk of their intellectual and organisational efforts to the irregular warfare they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officers gained combat experience, to be sure. But they were feted for writing manuals on counter-insurgency, rather than pondering tank battles in Europe or naval warfare in Asia.

“A vast number of navy and marine officers could be trusted to explain the intricacies of every street in Baghdad," says Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute, another think-tank, and a former consultant for Indo-Pacific Command, America’s military command for Asia, “but far fewer came to know much at all about the military and diplomatic geography of maritime South-East Asia."

Special forces prioritised assassination and abduction over traditional sabotage and raiding. Air superiority was taken for granted, and air defences were neglected. The war caused a “crushing aircraft readiness crisis" in the air force “from which it has yet to recover", says Mark Montgomery, a retired rear-admiral. Tank skills atrophied. “Over the last nine years of doing irregular warfare we have eviscerated the Armour Corps to the point of its extinction," lamented Gian Gentile, then a serving army colonel, in 2010, exaggerating only slightly. Mr Gentile questioned whether armour, artillery and infantry could still work together in what America calls brigade combat teams.

China watched and learnt. Though the People’s Liberation Army was awed by the speed and decisiveness of America’s thrust to Baghdad, it carefully noted America’s reliance on large bases, secure logistics and assured access to satellites. It methodically invested in tactics and capabilities—like ballistic missiles, anti-satellite weapons and cyberwarfare—designed to puncture this American way of war. “Many of these reforms have been bred out of the American experience in Iraq," noted a report by the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank, in 2008 (one of the authors was Kurt Campbell, who now serves as President Joe Biden’s top Asia official).

Even after Donald Trump’s national defence strategy of 2018 formally reoriented America’s armed forces to the threat from China, a shift largely endorsed by the Biden administration, the Pentagon was slow to shed this legacy. It had proved unwilling “to fully come to grips with the reality that its principal competitors are no longer regional threats such as the Iraqs and Yugoslavias of the world", wrote Chris Dougherty, one of the authors of that strategy, in 2019. “The erosion of US military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia was a symptom of this infection."

This is slowly beginning to change. The war in Ukraine has sharpened the Pentagon’s focus on high-intensity warfare. It is shifting from brigades to larger divisions, and is now training Ukraine in the sort of combined-arms warfare that was neglected for years. It is also rebalancing resources. On March 14th the Pentagon projected a cut of $5bn to CENTCOM’s budget and a reduction of more than 6,000 of the command’s troops. A Pacific Deterrence Initiative to bolster bases and air defences in Asia now exceeds $9bn, more than the defence budget of Thailand or Indonesia. American preparations for a possible war over Taiwan look more serious than ever. But these efforts were delayed by years. The “diversion of attention is a cost we are still paying and only time can help resolve", says Mr Sayers. Many Asian allies remain unconvinced that America can break old habits.

“For much of the past two decades, Washington’s focus on the Middle East has reduced military readiness, distorted force-structure priorities and, until recently, left the joint force ill-equipped and unable to prepare adequately for high-end military competition with a peer adversary," concluded a scathing assessment of Asian security trends published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, in June. A war that was waged in 2003 partly to awe adversaries and cement American military primacy has left long-lasting scars on the victor.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Updated: 24 May 2023, 12:09 PM IST
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