Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Higher Education

In the early years of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi education system was well resourced, globally connected, secular, and open to women. The near collapse of Iraq’s education system began with the international sanctions regime of the 1990s and culminated with the United States invasion of 2003 and its aftermath.

During the war, Iraqi universities were stripped clean of books and basic equipment. Museums and university libraries were looted and many of their cultural artifacts and documents destroyed, despite pleas from the Pentagon’s own Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance that the U.S. military protect cultural heritage sites in Iraq. The U.S.-led De-Baathification process, initiated in 2003, led to the removal of half the intellectual leadership in academia. Many professors were kidnapped and assassinated during the violence that followed the U.S. invasion. Female students have meanwhile become targets of threats and intimidation by fundamentalist militia groups.

Far from the battlefield, American universities have paid a less visible price during the post-9/11 wars. The university system places greater emphasis on military research than it did prior to 9/11 and, as a result, diverts students and researchers from other career paths and pressing civil improvement projects.

Key Findings 

  • The Iraq war resulted in the decimation of Iraqi universities, through looting, violence against academics, and the removal of Iraq’s intellectual leadership.

  • The U.S. government has allocated a small fraction of the funds recommended by the United Nations and World Bank as necessary for rebuilding Iraqi universities.

  • Funds that might have been used to more earnestly tackle public health problems that kill many Americans, such as diabetes or heart disease, have been diverted towards a preoccupation with bioterrorism.

(Page updated as of April 2015)