KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait – Operation Desert Storm lasted just over six weeks from first strike to cease-fire. But 20 years later, the decision to send more than 600,000 American troops to free a small, oil-rich, Muslim country that few Americans knew about has had a lasting legacy.
For Kuwait, it simply means liberation.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people, from children to heads of state, lined a stretch of highway outside of Kuwait City for a two-hour military parade of nations from the coalition forces that in 1991 repelled Saddam Hussein’s invading army.
Tanks, troops, armored vehicles, helicopters and barrel-rolling fighters jets streaming red, green and white smoke – the national colors – passed in formation before Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and other dignitaries including Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1991, and Spain’s King Juan Carlos.
It was a spectacle rarely seen in the world today. Saudi, Kuwaiti, French British, and other troops joined the relatively small contingent of roughly 175 Americans thundering down the road and above the grandstands.
“It is a terrific occasion,” Mullen said in a statement released by his spokesman, heralding the coalition’s “victory” over Iraq in Operation Desert Storm and thanking Kuwait for supporting the current massive U.S. logistical withdrawal.
On Kuwaiti television Friday evening, Mullen said, “To have watched Kuwait evolve over the many years has been incredibly positive in terms of the movement towards more representative democracy … in a way that recognizes the changes that are required.”
Victory is a word few American military or political leaders utter in Washington today. Just over the border, fewer than 50,000 U.S. servicemembers remain deployed to what is now known as the Iraq War. They are last remnants of a second – and much costlier – American invasion eight years ago that few predicted would take much longer to complete than Desert Storm.
“Well, it’s a different kind of war, these days,” said Lt. Gen. William Webster, head of Central Command’s Third Army, which commanded U.S. forces in the 1991 invasion and has stayed in Kuwait since, “and one of our toughest jobs is predicting what the next war will look like. We’ve never been very good at that, any of us. But I think this was a tremendous day that reminded us of our victory in 1991.”
At 2:38 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1991, the first Apache helicopter strike officially began Operation Desert Storm, followed by bombs and missiles exploding key headquarters in Baghdad and other targets across Iraq.
With the only audio feed working from inside the city, CNN aired live, glowing, green night-vision images from atop the al-Rashid Hotel of anti-aircraft rounds streaking skyward. The call by correspondent Bernard Shaw, a retired Marine, is now legendary: “The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated.”
Five months earlier, Iraq invaded Kuwait, executing a plan to swallow the country’s oil riches. Within a week, President George Bush denounced the invasion, Kuwait’s leaders asked for U.S. help and Air Force jets moved into Saudi Arabia for what was to be known as Operation Desert Shield, a defensive posture to contain Iraq’s advance.
As diplomats tried for peace, the Pentagon drew up war plans and coalition forces began lining the entire Saudi Arabian border of Iraq. U.S. Marines even trained in Oman for an amphibious landing in Kuwait, but it was never needed. The United Nations gave Iraq until Jan. 15 to withdraw.
On Feb. 24, after more than five weeks of airstrikes, the coalition ground attack began and tanks streamed across the desert into Iraq and Kuwait. It lasted four days; a cease-fire came on Feb. 28. Mullen and Webster were staffers inside the Pentagon.
“It was such a lightning victory that I never had to deploy from the Pentagon,” said Webster, who worked for Powell at the time.
With Iraq’s forces repelled and severely damaged, Bush decided not to occupy Iraq. But despite subsequent years of no-fly zones and economic sanctions, Hussein’s regime was able to recoup, recover and rebuild.
For the next decade, Islamic extremists and terrorists percolated in the Middle East, chafing at wealthy autocratic regimes in the region, and the Americans supporting them, while Hussein continued to threaten the U.S.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – Bush’s son now the president, his defense secretary now the vice president – the new administration quickly began planning a new campaign to re-enter Iraq and finish off Hussein’s regime. It launched in 2003.
The last U.S. troops are scheduled to depart Iraq by December 31 this year, though Defense Secretary Robert Gates has conceded it would be difficult for Iraq to maintain security should the entire American force exit as planned.
Webster said he’s not sure if 20 years from now the U.S. would be celebrating a second victory in Iraq, but for now, Kuwait certainly gives reason to celebrate.
“They’re a modern country that is striving toward democracy, and they are watching us,” he said. “It’s important for us to retain good relations with them because we need friends in the world, and they’re good friends.”