The beginnings of the so-called War on Terror in the early 2000s were filled with promises of swift military successes. The most technologically advanced country in the world had set itself on a course of action, so what could go wrong? That line of thinking played into the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, as the conventional military engagements were easily won.
Operation Iraqi Freedom launched in March 2003. By that August, after disbanding the Iraqi army and promising to de-Baathify the government, U.S. forces found themselves under attack in what would turn out to be a lengthy insurgency. The guerrilla forces would go on to define the whole of the U.S. experience in Iraq — but right then? Well, things were going to be just fine, Lt. Col. Steve Russell told CNN.
“We’re seeing us turn the corner with these Fedayeen-type attacks,” Russell said. “Our soldiers here have done fantastic work, in either killing them or capturing them — going after their leadership.”
President George W. Bush was eager to highlight the progress the Iraqi army had made against the insurgents two years later, in 2005, when he quoted an “Iraqi first lieutenant named Shoqutt,” who describes the transformation of his unit this way: “I really think we’ve turned the corner here. At first, the whole country didn’t take us seriously. Now things are different. Our guys are hungry to demonstrate their skill and to show the world.”
Vice President Dick Cheney saw similar cause for optimism when he spoke with a Marine corporal a month later. “I think we’ve turned the corner, if you will,” Cheney said. “I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we’ll see that the year ’05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq.”
Fast-forward another two years, to 2007. By then, at least 3,000 U.S. personnel had been killed fighting Iraqi insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, the latter of which formed in response to the American occupation. The “surge” had sent as many as 160,000 U.S. forces to finally achieve security so the Iraqi government could take control. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote this about the bountiful achievements that were piling up:
Only last fall, the Marines’ leading intelligence officer there concluded that the U.S. had essentially lost the fight to al-Qaida. Yet, just this week, the Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, returned from a four-day visit to the province and reported that we “have turned the corner.”
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, admitted to Congress the very next year that “we haven’t turned any corners, we haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel,” despite still having more than 145,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.
It’s a line of rhetoric that knows no party, though, and the inertia of the wars has managed to pull along multiple administrations since then. “I think with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve turned a corner,” President Barack Obama’s second defense secretary, Leon Panetta, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2011. “We’re in the process of beginning to draw down in Iraq; we’re — you know, we’re in the process of drawing down, as well, in Afghanistan.”
As we know, three years later, the U.S. would be back in Iraq, this time fighting the Islamic State terrorist group, the latest iteration of the insurgents whom we had turned the corner against back in 2003. Even as the never-ending grip of the Forever War continued to drive U.S. policy, the “turned the corner” thinking carried on through the second Obama term and into the Trump administration.