Washington, D.C, Dec. 12, 2011
Two hundred fifty-seven months after USAF first arrived in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia and free Kuwait, the Iraq mission finally came to an end. Only a handful of US military forces are to remain in Iraq to defend diplomatic installations.
"The last days were like a ghost town," said Col. Brent Bigger, 332nd Mission Support Group commander, of the final days at JB Balad, Iraq. "It was surreal when we went down … from 15,000 personnel to zero in 30 days."
This was a long time coming. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990, USAF airmen and aircraft were the first responders, touching down in Saudi Arabia just days later.
First on the scene in 1990, the Air Force was also last out of Iraq. USAF provided the reconnaissance, overhead protection, and airlift for a rapid and safe drawdown. Personnel recovery missions, aerial port operations, base management, and even Air Force-led convoy missions continued until every departing American was safely out.
Even now, most of USAF’s airmen and aircraft have not come home. They have moved on to other Middle East bases, where they will continue to perform their full range of missions.
No one knew Iraq would dominate Air Force operations and planning for 21 years. Within two weeks of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a variety of Air Force fighters, mobility aircraft, and ISR and battle management aircraft had deployed to bases around the Persian Gulf. A massive buildup ensued. The US began with forces needed to defend Saudi Arabia and added those needed to free Kuwait.
Desert Storm began with F-117 strikes on Jan. 17, 1991. For the next five weeks, airpower pulverized Iraq’s ground forces so effectively ground forces only needed 100 hours to defeat a demoralized Iraqi Army.
The war freed Kuwait but left Saddam in power. President George H. W. Bush noted how World War II had a definitive end, but "we have Saddam Hussein still there."
This would cause recurring problems.
Saddam would continually threaten his neighbors, terrorize his own populace, and violate the terms of the United Nations cease-fire. That April, the Gulf War coalition was forced to defend Iraq’s northern Kurdish minority.
Operation Provide Comfort, later renamed Northern Watch, launched the no-fly zones that defined the Iraq mission for the next dozen years. It protected and brought humanitarian aid to the Kurds.
Then, air attacks against the so-called "marsh Arabs" of southern Iraq brought on Operation Southern Watch. This no-fly zone barred Iraqi aircraft from flying in the nation’s south. The two no-fly zones left just a stripe across the center of the country where Iraq’s aircraft could operate.
USAF had the bulk of the no-fly zone mission, and tedious enforcement was peppered by occasional flare-ups. December 1998 saw Iraq harass and then expel UN arms inspectors. Operation Desert Fox responded with four days of air attacks on military facilities and suspected weapons sites.
Iraq never recognized the legitimacy of the no-fly zones and fired more than a thousand missiles at patrolling aircraft. The US launched more than 500 air strikes in response. No blockade aircraft were shot down by the Iraqis, but the danger was always there.
The no-fly zone years were overshadowed by the huge wars that bookended them, but they transformed the Air Force. In 1991, USAF was a Cold War, garrison-based force. It fundamentally restructured into an expeditionary force, with deployments to the Middle East a way of life.
Repeated Iraqi provocations, Saddam’s abominable actions, and American intelligence failures again brought the two nations to full-scale war. On March 19, 2003, a US-led coalition force launched a massive air attack on strategic targets while ground forces invaded Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Cruise missiles and F-117s led the way, as they had in 1991.
This time, however, US forces advanced all the way to Baghdad, with the stated goal of driving Saddam from power once and for all. President George W. Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1, 2003.
Unfortunately, the war in Iraq was far from over. Terrorist and sectarian violence flared up, and early efforts to quell the fighting and establish a functioning Iraqi government failed.
The violence escalated and peaked in 2005 and 2006. Finally, the combination of a "surge" of forces, new counterinsurgency strategies, and Iraqi rejection of violence and terror brought about a relative calm.
USAF enabled all of this, providing intelligence and close air support to ground forces, airlifting vital supplies to keep trucks off of the deadly roads, and filling in in many areas so the Army could dedicate more troops to ground combat.
Iraqi Freedom became Operation New Dawn in September 2010 when US forces ended their active combat role. The mission shifted entirely to training and advising so Iraq could defend itself when the Americans departed. USAF helped rebuild and mentor Iraq’s air force, which has progressed so far that it is now purchasing F-16s.
After follow-on negotiations with Iraq’s democratically elected government failed to agree on a small, sustained American military presence (because Iraq refused to grant US troops immunity from local prosecution), the US began preparations for a total withdrawal.
In 2007, there were more than 170,000 US troops at 500 bases in Iraq. By mid-November 2011, the US was still operating six air bases in Iraq. At the end of the year, all of this was done.
Tens of thousands of airmen served in and around Iraq since 1990. Airmen retiring today, after serving full 20-year careers, never saw an Air Force not involved with Iraq. Some 4,500 Americans died in Iraq just since 2003, and thousands more suffered life-changing injuries.
Top US and Iraqi officials say the withdrawal is not a divorce but the next stage in a long-term relationship. Let’s hope that is the case.
The Iraq mission changed dramatically and repeatedly, and USAF changed with it. The mission has changed once again. As always, the Air Force will be there when it is needed.