Mourners attend the funeral of eight people who died in an attack by the Daesh terrorist group in the village of Albu Bali in Najaf, Iraq, on December 20, 2022.

Mourners attend the funeral of eight people who died in an attack by the Daesh terrorist group in the village of Albu Bali in Najaf, Iraq, on December 20, 2022. Karar Essa/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

20 Years Later, Terrorism Simmers from Iraq to Afghanistan, Officials Warn

Threats are rising once again, two decades after the American invasion that unleashed them all.

DOHA, Qatar—“No, it wasn’t worth it.” 

That’s how an advisor to Iraq’s prime minister responded to journalist Peter Bergen’s oft-asked question about the American invasion of Iraq. Bergen posed it on stage at a conference of counterterrorism professionals here just a few days shy of the 20th anniversary of the invasion’s start, and Mohammed Al-Darraji answered bluntly.

The human and financial cost of the American destabilization of Iraq left behind a failed state. And in recent weeks, new alarms are sounding about the security threats simmering from Iraq to Afghanistan that can be traced back to that fateful decision so long ago.

In their own remembrances this week, Western news pages and airwaves are filled with heartrending stories recalling the horrors of that war, the folly of nation-building, the unpunished culpability of the American politicians who ordered it, the way it changed the military, the lasting trauma of its veterans, and the relentless grief for those who died. Our collective sentiment for the Iraq War remains overwhelmingly negative, angry, and unsettled.

But looking forward, the outlook for Iraq, the region, and the adjacent global war on terrorism is once again alarmingly bleak. In the past month, generals, journalists, officials, and activists have issued new warnings.  

"Saddam [Hussein]'s brutal regime was replaced with a dysfunctional kleptocracy that can't deliver to its people," Simona Foltyn, an international journalist who lives in Baghdad, said at the Global Security Forum last week. 

The annual counterterrorism-focused event included a panel on Iraq, and gloom about the past war and the future was palpable. Despite five successful elections and relatively peaceful power transfers since Saddam, Foltyn said Iraq's fragile post-war political system is more entrenched than most outsiders realize. 

"There's almost an infinite level of fragmentation...that keeps destabilizing the country.," she said. 

And should democratic governance fail, Muqtada al-Sadr is still there, waiting to take advantage. 

Omar Muhammed, formerly known as the activist MosulEye, was less interested in reliving the invasion than highlighting Iraq’s long list of current problems, like water, energy dependence, and thousands of missing or encamped people from the war and later ISIS occupation. 

“Every day there is a new problem or a new challenge in Iraq. Every day there is more and more poverty,” and drinking water “is as scarce as any other material.” The U.S. invasion in 2003, he said, “destabilized the entire social stability of the country.” 

Gen. Erik Kurilla knows this. The commanding general of U.S. Central Command has been shuttling to the region at a frenetic pace. He told the Senate last week that ISIS, now based in Syria, “maintains the capability to conduct operations within the region and has the desire to strike outside of it.”

Kurilla likes to talk about ISIS as three parts. First is the “at-large” organization, about which he says, “I think we have contained ISIS, but the ideology is uncontained and unconstrained.” 

Second is the ISIS army in detention. “There are over 10,000 ISIS detainees spread across 26 different prisons in northeast Syria,” Kurilla said. 

Last year, 1,000 made it over the outside wall in a breakout and 400 were killed in a 10-day fight with U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces. 

Third is the camps for refugees and displaced persons, as at al-Hol, where 51,000 people live, over half of whom are children. “They're at risk from radicalization. About 50 percent of the camp holds some—espouses, some form of ideology according to the camp guards, the camp administrators, and the residents. And the other half are trying to escape ISIS.” Half of the internally displaced persons there are from Iraq. The repatriation rate back to Iraq is so slow Kurilla estimates it will take another four years to move them all out. 

It is all a direct result of the spiral of chaos caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By now it’s well documented that the invasion sparked a series of violent extremist terrorist movements and a corrupt trail of divided governments. Al-Qaeda gave way to the Islamic State has mostly morphed from the Iraq-Syria border regions clear into Afghanistan. There, with no U.S. troop presence since the evacuation of 2021, the threat from ISIS-Khorasan is much worse. 

“It is my commanders' estimate that they can do an external operation against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months with little to no warning,” which includes targets in Europe, Kurilla told the committee. He estimates ISIS-K could have the ability to strike the United States homeland in six months.

Since the U.S. withdrawal, the Islamic State in Afghanistan has tripled its attacks, increased propaganda, and is expanding to become a regional organization by "actively trying" to absorb minor groups. "IS-K is growing in strength." 

There has been a pile of informed ink written about the Iraq War’s 20-year legacy, much of it hard to read. And there is good documentation of Iraq’s difficulties today. But as the world (and the Pentagon) focuses on the pending Cold War with China and Russia’s hot war in Ukraine, we should also be reminded by this anniversary that there is simply more work ahead of us in Iraq—and because of it.