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Lessons from the fall of Baghdad for the Ukraine war

Lessons from the fall of Baghdad for the Ukraine war
7 min read
11 April, 2022
Analysis: The 19-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the current war in Ukraine serve as a reminder of the futility of seeking to achieve political aims by military invasion.

Nineteen years ago a global superpower with an overwhelmingly superior military force invaded a smaller state in the name of regime change.

Despite its technological advantages, and its possession of cruise missiles, stealth fighters, and thousands of tanks, the stronger nation could not win.

Instead, it was soon bogged down in a stalemate, with no decisive military victory in sight.

Now, nearly two decades later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine bears an eerie resemblance to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which reached its culmination with the fall of Baghdad in April of 2003.

Even with the fall of Iraq’s capital and most of its urban centres, the US was unable to subdue the nation in the face of a tenacious insurgency. In a much similar way, Russia’s ongoing military offensive has failed to take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, yet Moscow insists on prosecuting the war.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq casts a shadow on the current war in Ukraine, offering lessons on great power hubris and the determined resistance of a nation under occupation.

Putin's need for a history lesson

During Putin’s long periods of isolation over the course of the pandemic, the Russian leader allegedly lost interest in day-to-day politics and delved into history, emerging as an amateur historian himself.

This shift led to his interest in a revisionist glorification of the Russian empire and his obsessive belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

Russian successes in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the deployment to Syria in 2015 might have influenced Putin’s decision to invade his neighbour.

However, it seems that the success of his previous military operations overshadowed lessons from recent history, in which armed invasions of neighbouring powers have often proved unsuccessful. 

In 1990 Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait based on a very similar premise to the one that Putin made in attempting to justify his invasion of Ukraine. Both leaders denied the distinct history and independence of their smaller neighbours, citing a historical claim to the land and people.

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Hussein’s actions failed and set in motion the enmity between the US and Iraq that led to the invasion in 2003, leading to the fall of Baghdad 19 years ago and Hussein’s demise, an example of the regime change that Putin ultimately fears.

Russia's own history also provides apt examples of the failures of armed invasions, such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Then, the US was able to defeat the Soviet forces by providing the Afghan mujahideen with a myriad of weapons to aid their resistance, including anti-aircraft weapons which dealt a decisive blow to the USSR.

Today, the US and a variety of allies are doing the same thing in Ukraine, arming the Ukrainian resistance in a way that has so far proved successful.

Despite superior military capabilities, Russian forces met fierce resistance as Ukrainian efforts managed to stall their advancement. [Getty]

The lessons of the Iraq invasion

The Iraq war opened with heavy bombardment, aerial attacks, and volleys of guided missiles, a strategy that US military planners described as “shock and awe”, a military tactic in which overwhelming force is used in the early onset of war in order to try and defeat resistance and gain the upper hand.

In early February of this year, similar language was used to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The journal Foreign Affairs featured an article entitled “Russia’s Shock and Awe,” examining Moscow’s use of overwhelming force against Ukraine in the early days of the war. Three days later, another article entitled “The Coming Ukrainian Insurgency” anticipated that the Russian invasion would unleash forces that Moscow could not control.

George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures said of the Russian military invasion plan, “The forces they had available were built around the assumption of ‘shock and awe.’ They did not expect to have to bring in reinforcements.”

In making the assumption that an aggressive military strategy would succeed in immediately overwhelming the local military, Putin repeated the mistakes of US President George W. Bush in Iraq and has been similarly unable to suppress a looming insurgency.

What both the US and Russia failed to learn is not only the danger of overestimating their military might but another constant in history: the determination of a people to fight a foreign occupying force on their soil.

On 9 April 2003, Baghdad fell. By the summer, a powerful Iraqi insurgency had erupted. In Ukraine, despite early victories by the Russian military, a combination of Ukrainian military and civilian resistance emerged to push back and stall Russian advancement, echoing the struggle of the American military in Iraq.

The resistance that Russia is now facing in Ukraine, however, differs from the Iraqi insurgency in one key element. While Iraqi insurgents managed to deal a blow to the US, they only represented a handful of the Iraqi population and many were foreign fighters.

The insurgency did not have major support from the Kurdish or Shia communities, with the exception of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which eventually laid down its arms in 2009.

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On the other hand, the vast majority of Ukrainians have rallied behind the resistance efforts.

“Now there is a common enemy and now Ukraine is more united than ever,” Maria Marchenko, an independent Ukrainian researcher, told The New Arab. 

While women were crucial in a support role for the Iraqi insurgency, women are on the front lines in Ukraine. “Currently, about 18% of Ukraine’s armed forces are women who voluntarily defend the country,” according to Marchenko.

While Iraq’s insurgents were supported by neighbouring Syria and Iran, the Ukrainians have the support of NATO member states and much more sophisticated weaponry.

Dmytro Fihun, who is on the front lines in Western Ukraine, told The New Arab that his 22-year old best friend, a helicopter pilot, was killed fighting against Russian forces using military equipment provided by Western allies.

Neither the Iraqi resistance nor the Afghan resistance were provided with aircraft yet still mounted a solid defence.

It is not only weapons that make the difference to a military force. The Ukrainians have the moral support of numerous nations and publics. Speaking to those on the frontlines, The New Arab was told that such sympathy and solidarity reaches those fighting in combat zones and lifts their morale.

If the US was unable to crush Iraqi resistance decisively on its own with its military might, how could Russia do the same in the face of a wider resistance movement with wider international support?

Reflecting back on the fall of Baghdad, the final lesson from history is that there are always unintended consequences. Four months after the city’s fall, one faction of the Iraqi insurgency detonated a suicide truck bomb, destroying the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.

The same faction was most likely behind the assassination of Iraqi cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim ten days later. That faction would eventually evolve into the Islamic State (IS) a decade later, the terrorist group that in 2014 defeated the US-trained Iraqi army, struck cities as far as Paris, and committed a genocide against the Yazidi people. 

Revisiting the past and analysing the unintended consequences of the US invasion of Iraq, which bears significant resemblance to the ongoing war in Ukraine, begs a crucial question: who knows what the Russian invasion of Ukraine will set in motion?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi