20-Year retrospective: Reflecting on the ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech and its aftermath

On the first of May, 2003, six weeks after the US invasion of Iraq, former US President George W. Bush delivered the widely known “Mission Accomplished” speech while aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. On the twentieth anniversary of this speech, the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative hosted a virtual discussion with distinguished guest speaker General David H. Petraeus (US Army, Ret.). Moderated by the Director of the Iraq Initiative, Dr. Abbas Kadhim, the conversation examined the consequences of the invasion and General Petraeus’ outlook on decisions made during the US mission in Iraq and in its aftermath.

Currently serving as the Chairman and Founder of the KKR Global Institute, General Petraeus served over 37 years in the US military and participated in major political and military events that unfolded in Iraq following the invasion. His positions in the Iraq War include Commander of the 101st Airborne Division (2003-2004), Commander of the Multi-National Security Transition – Iraq (2004), and Commander of the Multi-National Force – Iraq (2007-2008).

Defining the ‘mission’

Given General Petraeus’ command of the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq, Dr. Kadhim started the conversation by asking General Petraeus what had been communicated to him regarding the mission to invade Iraq and what missions his unit conducted in the first two months.  

General Petraeus explained how the 101st Airborne supported the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) by liberating and then securing the cities that the 3ID had bypassed – Najaf, Karbala, and Hillah — which sat on critical lines of communication that were used by the convoys of trucks that went to and from Kuwait to obtain resources like fuel, food, and ammunition. Additionally, the 101st Airborne’s 72 attack helicopters also sought to identify and clear enemy elements ahead of 3ID before 3ID launched the bold thunder runs that entered Baghdad, seized Baghdad International Airport, and ultimately toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was, of course, the objective of the military operation. He also recalled, after asking about plans following the seizure of Baghdad, being told by the Deputy Head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), “Just get us to Baghdad, Dave, we’ll take it from there.”

The challenge of owning Iraq

Although the invading forces took Baghdad relatively quickly, General Petraeus affirmed that the tough combat and immediate post-invasion challenges were substantial. Those challenges included the collapse of Saddam’s bureaucracy and security elements.  One of the assumptions of the invasion plan was that the elements of governance and security would remain in place, despite the toppling of Saddam and his most senior officials.  However, this did not prove to be the case – “all of a sudden, we owned Iraq” Petraeus explained. And then the 101st was ordered to air assault north from Baghdad to Mosul, capital of Nineveh Province, to establish order and security. With that mission, and as an occupying Force Commander under the Geneva Convention, Petraeus effectively became the executive, legislative, and judicial head of Nineveh Province, along with oversight of the three Kurdish Region provinces, as well (though they were secure and well-administered).

However, ‘owning Iraq’ in the north posed considerable challenges, as the 101st had been slated to occupy an area around Baghdad International Airport and did not even have maps of the new area for which they were responsible until 36 hours prior to the air assault north.

The accomplishments in Mosul: A positive trajectory leading up to President Bush’s speech

General Petraeus reflected upon the achievements of the 101st leading up to and immediately after Bush’s May 1st speech in 2003, including:

  • Holding a caucus in Mosul for the selection of a representative provincial Council in Nineveh province that would enable majority rule but also protect minority rights (the latter was particularly important as Nineveh Province is one of the most diverse in Iraq, with all major ethnic, sectarian, political, tribal, and societal groupings present).
  • Training Iraqi national security forces to provide police security and secure major weapon storage sites in the province.
  • Reopening the city of Mosul through the restoration of basic services and repair of re-establishment of bridges, roads, electrical generation and transmission, and other damaged infrastructure.
  • Appointing key leaders and returning bureaucrats to oversee ministries’ functions, including telecommunications, Mosul university, Mosul Hospital, the airport, and other ministry activities.
  • Reopening an international border to open trade to Iraq and finding funding to pay the province’s civil servants.
  • Repairing the major irrigation system in Western Nineveh province and restarting oil production.

With hindsight, General Petraeus said that while the optics of the president’s speech were obviously premature, during the time leading up to the speech, things were going well in his area. On the day of the speech, US forces had, in fact, been in good shape, and would have continued as such had they continued along the planned trajectory.

Fatal mistakes

However, mistakes made after the speech yielded key difficulties, defining the legacy of the invasion.

General Petraeus explained that replacing the ORHA with the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA) was a mistake; rather, the US should have swiftly established an embassy and brought in elements of existing US organizations to help with reconstruction, repair of basic services, support for the ministries, etc.  – organizations such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Defense Contracting Agency, USAID, and other US Departments and Agencies – instead of establishing yet another pickup team whose members below the top typically rotated every three months. The CPA also took decisions that “cut us off at the knees, at a time when things were going quite well,” described Petraeus, which happened when the CPA decided to

  1. Disband the Iraqi Military, without announcing for five weeks how the former soldiers would be able to provide for their families.

While there needed to be a traditional disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process for Saddam’s military, the decision to fire the Iraqi military without notice nor severance plans was “catastrophic.” By sending hundreds of thousands of former soldiers into unemployment, many of whom still possessed military weapons, the CPA decision incentivized opposition to the “new Iraq.”

  • Fire the members of Saddam’s Baath Party down to and including Level 4, which included many tens of thousands of the mid-level bureaucrats and professors needed to run the country, without an agreed reconciliation process. 

Just about all the bureaucrats operating in Iraq at the time, in a country where the government owned and ran every enterprise, university, and institution, were Baath party members. General Petraeus emphasized that while de-Baathification was needed at the top levels, it should not have included the bureaucrats operating at all levels of public service, which created the loss of necessary support to maintain the country’s internal functions. A reconciliation process should have been agreed on in advance to enable use of the experienced Iraqis with the expertise needed to run the country.

  • Run Iraq with the head of the CPA as a proconsul

General Petraeus argued that running Iraq with a proconsul further exacerbated the power vacuum crisis and was compounded by the CPA’s decision to establish a ‘rotating presidency council,’ which would delegate power to a different faction’s representative every month. Many representatives were returning exiles who lacked credibility with the Iraqi public.

These decisions created extensive repercussions as the United States sought to rebuild Iraq. As an example, General Petraeus cited the delay of a true nationwide reconciliation process approved in Baghdad until the Iraq War troop surge of 2007. Iraqi employees cast out of government jobs created insecurity which was exacerbated by the contemporary absence of private industry in Iraq. “Everything was gone with a sweep of a pen […] without adequate consideration of the ramifications” General Petraeus observed.

Dr. Kadhim added that ramifications were amplified by Iraq’s emergence from years of internationally imposed sanctions and a state-controlled economy, which limited the materials that were needed to rebuild Iraq in the invasion’s aftermath.   

Post-conflict operations upon Invading

Victory in major city battles during the fight to Baghdad, including the liberation of Najaf and Karbala, created requirements for General Petraeus’ division considering that the team now occupied, and thus ‘owned’, these cities, given that the local government officials and police had largely fled. ORHA was preoccupied with Baghdad, so General Petraeus and other commanders needed to take control of post-conflict operations. Due to lacking rule of law, civil society support, and assistance from the United Nations, the commanders conducted ministry activities in the areas for which they were responsible without much direction.

In the year after Saddam’s fall, elements of the 101st Airborne completed over 5,500 small reconstruction projects in northern Iraq. General Petraeus received a variety of input from the Iraqi public including enthusiastic support, grievances, and innumerable legal petitions. By eventually conducting direct elections for district councils and governors, however, the 101st area at least had local and provincial councils with which the units could work together. 

Regarding democratization operations, General Petraeus cited Bernard Lewis: “democracy is strong medicine in the Middle East; it should be administered small doses at a time.” He discussed the “traumatic” transition Iraq went through following the invasion and toppling of Saddam’s dictatorial regime, recalling these words run through his mind as he pushed back against the seemingly democratizing (yet pernicious) decisions made by the CPA in the invasion’s aftermath.

The surge that mattered most: The surge of ideas

When Dr. Kadhim introduced the topic of the surge in Iraq, General Petraeus quickly pointed out that “the surge that mattered most was the surge of ideas,” or the change in strategy that he and Ambassador Crocker pursued in Iraq. Instead of continuing to transfer the responsibility for security to Iraqi Security Forces and withdrawing US forces from populated areas, the new strategy did the opposite: 1) Securing Iraqi neighborhoods by returning US forces to them, and taking back responsibility from Iraqi forces, while also 2) Conducting reconciliation with the rank-and-file members of insurgent groups, while even more relentlessly pursuing the irreconcilable leaders.

“There’s a view that this was the kinder, gentler strategy—but it was very intense in the first six to eight months,” General Petraeus indicated as he described persistent fighting to counter insurgent violence. The fighting was followed by a civil-military campaign plan that involved rebuilding and restoring basic services to critically help win the hearts and minds of the residing Iraqi communities.

Responding to whether the surge was meant to be a “stop-bleeding” measure, General Petraeus disagreed, explaining that it was intended to pull Iraq out of a civil war, restore security, and enable a return to normalcy. “We drove violence down by nearly 90 percent,” detailed General Petraeus, who said that the violence stayed down for the subsequent three and a half years until the removal of final US combat forces.

Civil-military coordination in Baghdad and Washington

General Petraeus indicated that the Surge was a civil-military campaign plan, in partnership with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, which involved not just security operations but also rebuilding and restoring basic services to help win the support of Iraqi communities and oversee Iraq’s future, thereby solidifying the hard-won security gains.

According to Petraeus, President George W. Bush personally ensured Washington’s support in this campaign, including by holding a weekly video conference with Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, with the National Security team present at the Situation Room table in the White House, every Monday morning from 7:30-8:30 am.

The path forward: The future of US-Iraqi relations

The end of the surge yielded two major agreements: the Status of Forces Agreement and the currently active Strategic Framework Agreement, which were, according to General Petraeus “absolutely vital” to carry on with US operations in Iraq.

Looking to the future, General Petraeus said that he is “very cautiously optimistic” for the first time in years. He spoke of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani’s public commitment to keeping American forces in place to assist the Iraqi military in countering ISIS, as well as the increase in oil prices (the major source of revenue for Iraq), public demonstrations against government corruption, and the Prime Minister’s determination to improve bureaucratic functions – noting that all of these are encouraging vis-à-vis Iraq’s future. He also hopes to see further transformation in Iraq’s rule of law and governance, opening opportunities for foreign investment, especially considering Iraq’s substantial energy reserves, agricultural potential, and educated and industrious population.

Amna Haider is a project assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs, where she supports the Center’s work on Iraq.

Related Experts: Abbas Kadhim