The Gulf War’s Anniversary: Reflections on 25 Years of U.S. Military Involvement in the Middle East


The field telephone alongside my cot rang at 0230 on January 17, 1991. I was a U.S. Army battalion commander in the desert of northern Saudi Arabia. My battalion had arrived from Germany in mid-December and deployed swiftly to within a few miles of the Iraqi border. The call was from my brigade commander summoning me to a meeting where I would learn that the long anticipated air campaign had commenced. Operation Desert Shield was over. Operation Desert Storm was on. The war had begun.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War — the beginning of direct, major U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. This was also the moment when the region’s existing political order began to unravel, increasingly replaced by ethnic and religious sectarianism. On February 24, we invaded Iraq and over the course of 100 hours routed the Iraqi army and liberated Kuwait. My soldiers finished the war astride the so-called Highway of Death that connects Kuwait City to Basra. The road was littered with destroyed military and civilian vehicles illuminated by the gigantic oil fires ignited by the retreating Iraqi army. As we congratulated ourselves on our success, no American could have imagined that Iraq and the broader Middle East would be a focal point of U.S. national security policy for the next three decades.

America is beginning an election year, and national security is clearly a major concern. The candidates have repeatedly been asked whether they would have invaded Iraq if they had been president in 2003. This is an interesting question in counter-factual history, but it is not very helpful in the formulation of policy for the future. A better question for each of them and all of us on this anniversary is this: What have we learned from the last 25 years that should guide our policies, both towards this volatile region and with respect to the employment of American military power?

Here are my thoughts on that question:

To be successful, strategy must be holistic. Since 2003, I have attended countless strategy briefings in Washington, Kabul and Baghdad given by senior military, diplomatic and political leaders. Each noted an American objective to return Iraq and Afghanistan to full sovereignty. As a consequence, they argued that stability depended on four factors: (1) political efforts to establish a credible, democratic government; (2) economic recovery that would provide jobs; (3) diplomatic strategy to get countries in the region to be supportive; and (4) military operations to provide security as well as training for local forces.

Each of these components was critical. Policymakers have subsequently acknowledged the need for a comprehensive strategy, but it has not necessarily been learned. Security was a necessary but not sufficient aspect to establish conditions where good governance and economic recovery could occur to achieve overall success. Senior military officers would all agree, however, that “You cannot kill your way to success.” Militaries may win the conflict, but governments ensure peace and long-term stability.

Why do soldiers fight? The training of local forces (the military and police) was essential for the establishment of clear Iraqi or Afghan sovereignty as well as the elusive “exit strategy.” The United States spent $26 billion and eight years creating an Iraqi army that fled when confronted by a numerically inferior force with far less sophisticated equipment. Afghan military forces teeter on failure after 13 years of U.S training programs. Why does this occur after the massive effort we have undertaken? The essential problem is that the American military can effectively train others how to fight, but it cannot train them why to fight. Historically, soldiers of any nation will fight for something they believe in, but not for a government that is corrupt and ineffective.

Tactical and strategic successes are not the same thing. American policymakers too often confused tactical and strategic successes in the execution of policy. For example, Iraqi elections were tactical successes as an essential part of our political efforts, but good governance was the strategic success that eluded us. Drone strikes that kill individual terrorist or insurgent leaders are tactical successes, but if they serve to further alienate a broader swath of the population they are likely to ultimately represent a strategic failure.

War in the Middle East is always an away game. One night in 2005, I was in the Green Zone when a mortar attack began. Though we were in no immediate danger, we were told to remain where we were until the “all clear” was sounded. I was with a British general, so I asked him about prospects for success in Iraq. He was clearly frustrated and finally remarked, “This would all be one hell of a lot easier if you Yanks would make this place a colony!” Obviously, this was never a U.S. policy goal. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would always be “away games,” and American presence was always described as temporary in order to facilitate a return to local sovereignty.

Still, American policymakers did believe that the correct goals for Iraq and Afghanistan were to establish democracy and a market economy. But for the average Iraqi or Afghan, the goals were much more fundamental (and with huge ethnic, historical and religious overtones). In many ways their goals were far more important. We were (and are today) only visitors. As a Taliban sympathizer reportedly remarked to an American in Kabul, “You might have all the watches, but we have all the time.”

Wars change and evolve. Carl von Clausewitz, the renowned 19th-century Prussian strategist, observed that war is like a chameleon and changes over time. Good strategy has to anticipate such changes if it is going to be successful. But war is the most complex of all human endeavors and the ultimate example of the difference between “problems” and “wicked problems.” “Problems” lend themselves to linear solutions requiring the devotion of resources (people, money and time). “Wicked problems” change as you begin to address them. They morph into a different problem (or problems) before your eyes. Iraq and Afghanistan are clearly “wicked problems” of policy. The United States has fought several wars in Iraq since 2003: a conventional war against the government of Saddam Hussein; a counterinsurgency war against Baathist elements as well as both Shiite and Sunni paramilitary groups; a counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda fighters who infiltrated Iraq in the chaos following the 2003 invasion; a conflict with heavily armed and well-organized criminal elements; and the current campaign against the Islamic State. While American policy and strategy evolved, it is an open question whether we did so quickly and successfully. Yet one constant remained true: War is a contest of wills. The enemy adapts and always gets to “vote” on your strategy.

Why should we reflect on this now?

During the Gulf War, 269 American military personnel died and nearly 500 were wounded. The war was largely financed by countries that did not deploy troops as part of the coalition forged by the United States. The number of Iraqis killed during the air and ground campaign is unknown, and estimates vary from 20,000 to over 100,000. Most of the American military returned home by late summer 1991. Parades were held in New York and Washington. Medals were awarded, and the nation basked in a victory. The war’s brevity and relatively low American casualties meant that it will likely be a footnote in the history of American warfare. But it was not the end of the U.S. military presence in the region, but the beginning. The Gulf War was followed by subsequent operations in the region such as Provide Comfort, Southern Watch and Desert Fox. In 1999, I served on the Kosovo Task Force as a member of the National Security Council Staff. One morning during that crisis, I received a Pentagon summary of airstrikes in the Balkans, which further reported that on 60 percent of the days we struck targets in Serbia and Kosovo, the United States had also bombed Iraq. Despite our rapid victory in and quick homecoming from the Gulf War, we had clearly undertaken a longer-term commitment in the Middle East.

U.S. casualties since 2003 now number nearly 7,000 dead and 50,000 wounded. The total cost of these conflicts exceeds $4 trillion. The total number of Iraqi dead following the invasion is unknown. A study prepared by Brown University reports that 165,000 civilians have died from direct war-related violence. Some experts believe twice that number have died as an indirect result of the war due to disease, malnutrition, etc. The number of Iraqis wounded likely exceeds one million.

The costs of blood and treasure to the United States, its allies, as well as the people of both Iraq and Afghanistan are more than enough reason to reflect on what we have learned in the past 25 years. But this is not a call for isolationism or pacifism. Military force will remain an essential element in a troubled world, and we must all accept that 1991 was the beginning of a long war that could last for generations. Rather, it is a demand for honest reflection devoid of political gamesmanship that seeks to learn from the past and informs policy for the future.

I once worked for a general who frequently said, “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.” Our learning from the past must be combined with a clear acknowledgement that warfare in the 21st century is rapidly evolving. Cyber weapons, drones and the impact of social media on warfare are only a few examples of the impact of technological innovations. New and extreme ideologies capture the imaginations of contemporary populations. Consequently, American leaders and policymakers must think creatively and formulate policies for the prudent employment of military forces. This must include galvanizing allies to shoulder the responsibilities of collective defense, investing wisely in both new technologies and personnel policies that allow American forces to adapt quickly and, finally, maintaining the support of the American people for the difficult choices that inevitably lie ahead. The anniversary of the Gulf War is an opportunity for us to place this war and the subsequent conflicts it precipitated in a broader context while confronting essential lessons all Americans must insist their current and future political leadership understand.


Dr. Jeffrey D. McCausland retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel.  He commanded the 3rd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery during the Gulf War and subsequently served on the NSC Staff in 1999 and as the Dean of the United States Army War College.  Col. McCausland has returned to both Iraq and Afghanistan on several occasions since 2003 as a national security consultant for CBS Radio and Television.


Photo credit: Tech Sgt. Joe Coleman, U.S. Air Force