Learning the Right Lessons from the War in Iraq and Syria: Archives of the Key Metrics from 2004-2019

The U.S. has a poor history of making effective efforts to learn the lessons of its recent wars, and it is already focusing on other strategic issues and the crises that are following the break-up of the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. It will be all too easy for U.S. policymakers and the Congress to ignore the need to learn from the years of conflict and to fail to preserve the data and institutions necessary to learn as much from the war as possible.

The U.S. also has a long history of learning too little and too late. The U.S. failed to provide a timely analysis of the lessons of the Vietnam War, although outside historians and analysts have since written some excellent work, and the later volumes of the 33 volumes in the U.S. Army’s official history of the Vietnam War eventually covered many key areas in depth. For example, Jeffrey J. Clarke’s Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973 should have been required reading for every officer and official going to both Iraq and Afghanistan, although it clearly suffered from a lack of full access to sensitive data that never became public after the war.

The U.S. made similar mistakes in learning from the first Gulf War. It rushed out a report to Congress called the Conduct of The Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress that grossly exaggerated the level of success in using airpower, understated the problems in creating an effective coalition, did not address the serious intelligence and policy mistakes that led to premature conflict termination without the proper conditions, failed to address the legacy and relevant lessons of the Iran-Iraq War, and failed to examine the post-conflict costs of failing to have an effective plan for conflict termination. Some excellent studies have since been written by outside analysts, and separate efforts by bodies like the U.S. Air Force Studies and Analyses Agency (AFSAA) have corrected some of the mistakes in the first official lessons report, but many of the data and facts have been lost and ignored.

The U.S. has so far made these same mistakes in dealing with its invasion of Iraq in 2003. It never properly analyzed the lessons from its failures to properly justify the need for an invasion or to prepare for the outcome of a successful invasion. It then let the effort led by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) collapse after 2011, did not create any official independent body to replace SIGIR to learn from the war, let much of the official open source data disappear from the web, and never established a process for declassifying masses of data that would have helped analysts and historians learn the right lessons with as much information as possible.

More broadly, none of these official assessments of the lessons of war seriously addressed the emergence of post-conflict regimes or the relative level of security and stability they created. They did not address the civil and military lessons to be learned from how conflicts actually terminated or the impacts of wartime decisions on the outcome.

At this point it is unclear whether any truly demanding official effort will be made to learn from the U.S. participation in the Iraq wars which actually lasted far longer than the Afghan conflicts. The U.S. first participated in ways that support Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, and it conducted its own tanker war against Iran in 1987-1988. It led a major coalition to free Kuwait in the first Gulf War from 1990-1991. It then conducted the equivalent of gray area operations in support of the Kurds and to eradicate Iraq’s efforts to retain its capability to launch missiles and use weapons of mass destruction from 1992 to 2003. The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, rapidly won a war that defeated and deposed Saddam, and then became embroiled in war with Sunni dissidents and extremists from 2003 to 2011, followed by a war against ISIS from 2013 that still continues against the remnants of the “caliphate” in 2021. 

Seen from this perspective, the U.S. has been engaged for nearly forty years, continuously since at least 2003. The lessons of this U.S. role have only been fully explored at even the military level through 2002, and no serious official open source analysis has yet been made of the war against the “caliphate” and its lingering aftermath.

The U.S. did, however, publish extensive official graphics and data on the war against the “caliphate,” and these do provide useful insights for open-source analysis. The Emeritus Chair in Strategy has collected these data over the years and is now making them available for general use. It should be stressed that this is only a small portion of the open source metrics, and that many were developed for public affair purposes and to promote a favorable view of the U.S. official approach to the war. They are, however, mixed with independent data and analysis, and many provide reasonably accurate unclassified pictures of the way in which the U.S. did view and conduct the war.

They have been edited to avoid duplicates, and the sources shown often reflect the fact they were given as handouts without full explanation of how and where they were generated. In many cases, this was done to avoid compromising the security of the actual source. In many cases, there is no way to provide additional information.

The packages of such data and analysis include:


Airpower, Counterinsurgency, the Use of Civilians as Weapons, and "Decisive" Force


Iran, Iraq, and the Challenges to U.S. Policy


Iraq After U.S. Withdrawal: U.S. Policy and the Iraqi Search for Security and Stability
Violence in Iraq in Mid 2013: The Growing Risk of Serious Civil Conflict


The Islamic State Campaign: Maps and Charts
Western Iraq in Maps
Iraq in Crisis


The Iraqi Economy and Failed State Wars
Failed State Wars: Graphics

“Failed State Wars” in Iraq and Syria
The Islamic State Campaign: Maps and Charts
ISIS and “Failed State Wars”: Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen
Constructing a New Syria? The Growing Impact of the Civil War
The “Failed State War” in Syria


Global Trends in Terrorism Through 2016
ISIS and “Failed State Wars”: The Planning and Analytic Challenge

The “War” Against ISIS
The Comparative Metrics of ISIS and “Failed State Wars” in Syria and Iraq


Iraq and Syria: Maps and Charts
The Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria: Metrics

Tracking the Trends and Numbers: Islam, Terrorism, Stability and Conflict in the Middle East


The Conflicting Maps and Metrics of the Iraq-Syria Conflict


The Wars in Syria: 2011-2019
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen: The Long-Term Civil Challenges and Host Country Threats from “Failed State” Wars

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.