What if the US had not invaded Iraq in 1991?

Without the first Gulf War, there would have been no Al Qaeda – and no 9/11 attacks. Faisal Al Yafai imagines an alternative history

Five votes, that’s all it would have taken. In January 1991, five days before the first bombs were dropped on Baghdad, George HW Bush asked the US Congress for military authorisation. The vote passed, just, by five votes.

But what if it had not? Twenty-five years on from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it is worth pondering what might have followed if the annexation had occurred, but the response from the US and its allies had not.

What ifs, or alternative histories, are easy to imagine and fiendishly complicated to describe. But because politics is driven not merely by the vast movements of history, but by the small concerns of politicians and public, it is sometimes worth positing an alternate reality if it explains how we got here.

In the case of the 1991 US invasion, the alternative becomes intriguing because the war led, in a broadly straight line, to the attacks of September 11, 2001 – which led the US into a second disastrous invasion of Iraq, and created the conditions for the current destabilisation of that country and for the rise of Iran.


Read more about how the 1991 war impacted the Middle East:

How Saddam Hussein laid the foundations for ISIL's success

We paid a price for Saddam's Kuwait gamble


Without a 1991 invasion of Iraq, the US would not have stationed troops in Saudi Arabia – meaning that Osama bin Laden, a few years later, would not have been able to issue his “declaration of war against the Americans occupying the land of the Two Holy Places”.

Without that, Al Qaeda would not have vanished, but they might instead have focused their war against “apostate” Arab regimes. Without a focus on the US, the September 11 plot would not have taken place, meaning that the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 would never have happened. America today would be a richer, safer country.

If that sounds like a positive outcome, imagine how the Middle East would look.

Had Saddam Hussein succeeded in claiming Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province, he would then be sitting on an enormous financial windfall. Today, Iraq has about 12 per cent of global oil reserves, and Kuwait nearly 9 per cent. Iraq, then, would have controlled almost as much of the world’s crude oil reserves as Saudi Arabia.

Without being forced out, there would be no reason for Iraq to withdraw voluntarily. (Saddam Hussein said as much in an interview with US interrogators after his arrest.)

With so much money, Saddam’s repression of Iraq would have intensified. Shia communities, the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds would all have felt the brunt of this repression.

Without the 1991 invasion, there would have been no sanctions on Iraq and no enforcement of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Iraq would have had a free hand in repressing Iraqi Kurds and in settling Kurdish areas with Iraqi Arabs. Iraqi Kurdistan, as it exists today, would be unimaginable and therefore the wider Kurdish vision of Kurdistan would have remained a dream.

What about the GCC? The shock of the invasion of Kuwait was visceral – remember that, in 1991, GCC states considered Iran to be the greater threat and Iraq to be a “brotherly” neighbour.

But Iraq was also a prosperous, well-educated country. Could the GCC have looked across the Gulf at Iran and decided that Saddam, even if he occupied Kuwait, was the lesser of two evils? Or might, instead, the GCC have redoubled spending on defence, pouring money into weapons instead of education and infrastructure?

What would not have changed? Even an event as far reaching as the first Gulf War is only a part of a bigger story. In 1991, the Middle East was in the midst of a much-longer debate about the role of religion in public life and who had the right to speak for the faith.

Even without Saddam’s war, those questions would not have gone away. Saddam’s faith campaign of the 1990s was partly a reaction to the war, but it was also based on the reality of Islamism gaining momentum inside Iraq.

Even in an alternative timeline, that would have existed, and, indeed, with more money at his disposal, Saddam might well have sought to spread Salafist thought around the region.

Nor would the expansionism of post-revolutionary Iran have been different. Iran’s exporting of its revolution; its courting of Shia communities in Arab countries; its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and its tensions with Israel – all of those would have remained.

How those tectonic shifts would have played out is impossible to guess. Would the Arab Spring have reached Iraq in 2011? Would Al Qaeda have sought an audacious attack on an Arab country?

Whenever television shows run an alternative history episode, the characters always end up where they already were: they still fall in love, even if they take a different path to get there.

In politics, too, there are deeper currents at work – the Arab Spring was merely a manifestation of a much more deep-rooted malaise. The Syrian revolution could have taken very different turns.

In imagining what might have been different 25 years ago, we must not forget that even pivotal political events don’t come as a bolt from the blue. More often, they grow out of the existing soil. It may be comforting to imagine that, but for a vote in Washington in 1991, there would still be a functioning Iraq today. But what Saddam Hussein sowed in power was never likely to bear beautiful fruit.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai