On 2 August 26 years ago, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in the early hours of the morning and, by the afternoon of the same day, had concluded decisively the main objectives of their campaign to conquer and occupy the diminutive, wealthy Gulf state. Although this was perhaps the easiest military operation ever conducted by Baghdad, and was a resounding success, its resultant effect on the grand strategy of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and even the long-term fate of the country can only be described as catastrophic.
Since the creation of modern Iraq in the aftermath of World War I, it had always laid claim to Kuwait as a part of its territory. Amounting to not much more than a city-state focused around the capital, Kuwait City, and several miniscule villages, Kuwait was for a very long time a part of the Ottoman Vilayet, or province, of Basra. For those familiar with the region and its people, this should not come as much of a surprise, as the dialectical differences between the people of Basra and Kuwait are few, with several families on both sides of the border sharing common bonds of kinship.
Modern Kuwait itself actually has its roots as a British protectorate carved out of Basra while still under Ottoman control. The British, wishing to disrupt German-Ottoman plans to extend a railway from Berlin all the way to the Arabian Gulf at Kuwait, felt that their interests in India would be threatened by a European rival having access to a short sea route to the "Jewel in the Crown". Making alliances with the Al-Sabah family, the British proceeded to strong-arm the Ottomans into granting autonomy to the clan. The Al-Sabahs have been on the Kuwaiti throne ever since, at the whim of first the British and latterly the United States.
However, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was about more than historical claims; Iraq formally recognised Kuwait as a sovereign state in the 1960s, and only disputed aspects of the border. What is perhaps more important is how Saddam viewed his Arab brothers and neighbours and his perception that Iraq was betrayed by them.
As a result of the long and brutal Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Saddam felt that Iraq had been the frontline against Iranian expansionism and had prevented Ayatollah Khomeini from exporting his revolution into Arab lands. Indeed, Iraq suffered greatly and paid a heavy price to secure a military and, to a lesser extent, political victory. Although Kuwait and other wealthy Gulf states supported the Iraqi war effort financially, Saddam believed that Arab demands for Iraq to start repaying its wartime debts almost immediately after the ceasefire with Iran in 1988 was tantamount to betrayal.
The Iraqis arguably had very good reason to be furious. Their economy had taken a battering and it was too difficult to demobilise Iraq's million-man army as it would mean countless veterans would be unemployed. Iraq needed to start exporting oil again, but was thwarted when, in violation of OPEC quotas, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia began flooding the market, causing prices to drop and damaging Iraq's economy. This was exacerbated further by the Iraqis discovering that the Kuwaitis had been slant-drilling into their half of the shared Rumaila oil field, strengthening Baghdad's belief that the country was being subjected to economic warfare.
It was within this context that Iraq invaded Kuwait. After the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi military was viewed exaggeratingly as a kind of Middle Eastern analogue of the Prussian armies of the late 19th century. True enough, compared to other Arab armies, Iraq's was experienced, had conducted combined-arms operations and had enormous manpower. In the final two years of the war with Iran, the Iraqi military had demonstrated how much it had matured and developed; it was a source of pride for the Iraqi people.
However, Saddam not only overestimated his forces, but also played a part in hampering the efficiency of his officers by taking military decisions for them and limiting their initiatives. This was due to the president's long-standing fears of a military coup (probably justified, given Iraqi history) and after the war with Iran he returned to clamping down on the relative autonomy enjoyed by the officer corps. This made itself apparent when he sacked the Army Chief of Staff, Nizar Al-Khazraji, for advising him that the invasion of Kuwait should not be undertaken. Al-Khazraji fled the country.
Saddam's spirits may well have been high considering how quickly the Iraqi military smashed Kuwait's defenders. However, and almost immediately, the international community began to threaten and impose sanctions on Iraq. Moreover, as part of the propaganda campaign rallying public opinion against Saddam, members of the Kuwaiti royal family posed as normal members of the public, crying brazenly on camera and claiming to have witnessed Iraqi soldiers murdering babies by taking them out of incubators in hospitals. This was later exposed as an elaborate lie and subterfuge, but not before the princess-turned-nurse had lied to the US Congress and to the world on camera.
At the time, Saddam was urged to withdraw from Kuwait, but he did not want to show weakness as he had already announced the annexation of the pocket state as Iraq's 19th province. Rather than sending a punitive military expedition to Kuwait that would strike and then be withdrawn — which would have served as a stark lesson to neighbouring capitals — Saddam gambled all and decided to stay put. To leave following Western threats would have damaged his prestige, and exposed him to domestic political threats. Hence, the Iraqi leader decided to play a game of chicken with the world's remaining superpower, and ended up losing not only his prestige, but also any chance that Iraq could have a prosperous future.
The results of the invasion of Kuwait can still be seen to this day. Not only did it have the more direct consequence of a US-led coalition unleashing Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, but it also began the process of degrading the Iraqi state, economy and society, which reached its climaxed in the 2003 US-led invasion. Iraq today is facing the very real threat of disintegration and human catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. While we must look to the present rulers of Iraq when apportioning blame, we should not forget that the invasion of Kuwait was a strategic blunder that cost Iraqis their future. For that, we can only lay blame at the feet of Saddam Hussein, who allowed himself to be provoked into taking a monumentally catastrophic decision.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.