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The Gulf War 25 Years Later: a US Triumph that Spawned a Problem

In 1991, an American-led coalition waged war against Iraq, and won easily. In 2016, an American-led coalition wages war against the Islamic State, and is nowhere close to winning.
February 26, 2016, 3:05pm
Kuwaitíes aplauden mientras una camión de la Fuerzas Especiales estadounidenses se adentra en la ciudad de Kuwait recién liberada, el 27 de febrero de 1991. Imagen por Laurent Rebours / AP

The first Persian Gulf War, which ended 25 years ago to the day on Friday, seems like a distant memory in the age of asymmetric warfare and open-ended fights against irregular armed groups.

The war itself, though preceded by months of build-up, lasted all of a month and a half until coalition troops, led by the United States, entered Kuwait City on February 27, 1991. In the United States, it was one day earlier, because of time zones.

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The American-helmed operation to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait was initially a cathartic, vindicating win for the United States. The US military redeemed its post-Vietnam image and proved its technological might.

"Tonight in Iraq, Saddam walks amidst ruin," President George H.W. Bush declared in a victory address to Congress on March 6th, 1991. "His war machine is crushed. His ability to threaten mass destruction is itself destroyed."

The triumphant tone that characterized the president's address was the order of the day in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, as the war was code-named. "Although Saddam remained in power," wrote Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Al Qaeda's rise, "that seemed to be a footnote to the awesome display of American military force and the international coalition that rallied behind US leadership."

"After the Gulf War, suddenly the military were all superheroes and action heroes again and the prestige of the armed forces was very high"

Those victories look dimmer in 2016. The history of the first Persian Gulf War is being rewritten by the succeeding one; it is now the prologue to decades of American involvement in the Middle East. As journalist Rick Atkinson points out in Crusade, his lengthy account of the 1991 conflict, "the sense of the war as a watershed proved ephemeral."

"At the time [the Gulf War] may have looked like a fairly clear-cut, simple, reversing of aggression," said Dr. Richard Lacquement, Dean of Strategic Landpower at the US Army War College. "Our focus was on liberating Kuwait and making sure aggression did not pay… and that as a summary of what happened is very fair."

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But the First Gulf War wasn't as cut-and-dried as that, and now American strategic thinkers are going back to it and looking at its deeper implications — and teaching them to future Army officers.

"We were very fortunate in that we had many fewer casualties than anybody anticipated. So it looked, probably, more clean and sterile and simple," said Lacquement. "It isn't simple. These things are costly, and they do tend to have lingering effects. They don't tend to wrap up neatly."

These lessons are among those the US Army War College hoped to convey to its graduate students when it added a four-day Gulf War case study at the beginning of its graduate-level strategic studies course this academic year. "There's a larger strategic lesson," Lacquement said. "It's the idea that there is a continuum of how states interact, how our national security policy is shaped by our history, the ways that we interact with other states, and the way military history plays out."

"We were looking for a historical case that allowed us right at the beginning of the curriculum to show the students how to think about these key themes of national security policy in the context of a war at the strategic level," he said.

The ripple effects of Desert Storm are easy to point out today. Despite the swiftness of coalition victory, the retreat of the Iraqi army did not mean the end of conflict, but rather the beginning of deep American involvement; the US has been in the area since, maintaining bases in Saudi Arabia and in neighboring countries even before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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In fact, the symbolism of the ongoing American presence in the Gulf throughout the 1990s was a major grievance around which al-Qaeda rallied and morphed into a worldwide threat.

The presence of American "crusaders" was the subject of Osama bin Laden's 1996 fatwa, considered the terrorist group's original ideological manifesto for war against the US. Two years later, Ayman al-Zawahiri — who is now the leader of al-Qaeda — echoed him, declaring that for "over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

But in the heady aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait after six months of Iraqi occupation, those developments were still far away. The brevity and low apparent cost of Desert Storm were a huge psychological boost.

"After the Gulf War, suddenly the military were all superheroes and action heroes again and the prestige of the armed forces was very high," Dr. Ronald Spector, a professor of military history at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, said. "Before the Gulf War, the popular perception was that the military couldn't do anything right and after the Gulf War, there was a widespread popular perception that the military could do anything."

A US soldier on top of a Humvee guarding the US Embassy compound, in Kuwait City, February 28, 1991. Photo by David Longstreath / AP 

The humiliation of Vietnam, with Americans scrambling out of Saigon after failing to prevent the Communist North Vietnam from taking over the US-allied South, was just 16 years old at the time. The victory in Kuwait all but erased it.

"By God," President George H.W. Bush rejoiced, "we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

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In the intervening years, the strategic takeaways from Desert Storm have clearly shifted. Many early lessons "were misleading or turned out not to be applicable to other situations," Spector said. "The US military's clear technological superiority, especially through air power, gave a lot of credence to theories about the invincibility of advanced military hardware."

"Some observers suggested," says Spector, "that finally we'd reached a point where airpower alone could decisively cripple the other side. And, of course, the entire display of technological superiority by the US and the coalition forces impressed a lot of observers that this was the first round of what many people called the Revolution in Military Affairs." This was the notion that superior military technology and tactics had caused warfare as we knew it to profoundly change. The surprising speed with which the US overcame Iraq, at the time the world's fourth largest army, was proof that a new era had been ushered in.

Many analysts thought that "through the use of various electronic and technical means that it would now be possible to have total awareness of the battlefield, to shape the battle and to have a decisive advantage because of technology over a future opponent," Spector explained.

"Of course," he added, "that didn't exactly work out."

The opponent that's probably showing more than any other how American technological domination alone does not win wars anymore is, ironically, a distant offshoot of that victorious war: the Islamic State group. The terrorist organization based in Syria and Iraq itself owes a great deal to the expertise of a contingent of Saddam Hussein's former officers, and to the smuggling networks originally established to circumvent the sanctions that helped keep Saddam in check after Kuwait.

In 1991, an American-led coalition waged conventional war against Saddam Hussein's army, and won easily. In 2016, an American-led coalition wages an asymmetric war against the Islamic State in the same part of the world, and is not anywhere close to winning.

That serves as an excellent example of the ability of wars to ripple out into the future long after they have ended, and to have consequences that usually lead to future confrontations. A quarter-century after the last war America won, that's a lesson as valuable to the American public as it is to classrooms full of future national security professionals.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of US troops in the Gulf, gazes from the window of a small jet on his way to visit troops in the desert in Saudi Arabia. The photo was taken on January 13, 1991, four days before the start of the air campaign that marked the beginning of the Gulf War. Photo by Bob Daugherty / AP