Thirty-two years ago this week, the Gulf War commenced. On Jan. 17, 1991, after a deadline to withdraw from Kuwait was ignored by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered U.S. and coalition warplanes to begin offensive operations against Iraq. The opening night of airstrikes was the beginning of what proved to be a remarkably precise, coordinated, and well-planned military campaign with a clear and legitimate mission: expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, impose consequences on the Iraqi government for a wanton act of aggression, and ensure Hussein didn’t have the military capacity to do something similar in the future.

We know how the war ended. Tactically speaking, it was a resounding success for the U.S. and its coalition allies. Despite Iraq possessing the Middle East’s largest army at the time, Baghdad’s military was torn to pieces in a matter of weeks. Iraqi armored columns were sitting ducks for U.S. fighter and bomber aircraft, which neutralized the vehicles with precision. The Iraqis lost at least 2,000 tanks, 1,500 armored personnel carriers, and an estimated tens of thousands of troops in about two and a half months of combat. Diplomatically, the Bush administration assembled a broad coalition of countries, including adversaries like Syria and the Soviet Union, to join the campaign. The U.N. Security Council blessed military action two months before the campaign began, providing Washington with an iron-clad legal framework to use force if Hussein refused to comply.

In early April 1991, the war was over. The Iraqi army was badly deformed, and Hussein had no choice but to sign an extremely disadvantageous ceasefire agreement—the terms included strict limitations on what weapons systems the Iraqi army could possess, where Iraqi troops could operate in the country, and put the Iraqi government on the hook for $52 billion in war reparations that Baghdad finally paid off last year.

Yet the Gulf War was also notable for another reason: It kicked off a period in which U.S. military action in Iraq became the norm rather than the exception. Every single U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has engaged in some kind of military activity inside Iraq’s borders ever since.

Former President Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush as president, inherited two U.S.-enforced no-fly zones in Iraq, one in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country and another in the south. Hussein, who never believed those zones were legitimate, tested them on numerous occasions, forcing U.S. aircraft patrolling those areas to periodically engage in minor skirmishes with Iraqi forces. Clinton struck Iraqi military installations multiple times during his presidency, the first only five months into it, when U.S Navy ships fired 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Iraqi intelligence service in retaliation for a failed Iraqi assassination plot against Bush. Three years later, in 1996, Clinton authorized a series of air attacks to penalize Hussein for sending the Iraqi army into the Kurdish-controlled north. The most sustained period of airstrikes occurred in December 1998, when Clinton and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair bombed suspected Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities after Baghdad ended its cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors.

George W. Bush thought Clinton’s approach to Iraq was both piecemeal and wimpish. Some of Bush’s advisers, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, also served in his father’s administration. The latter, Wolfowitz, thought Hussein should have been overthrown during the Gulf War; as New York Times Magazine‘s Robert Draper wrote in his book, To Start a War, Wolfowitz proposed a plan that would have established an alternative, U.S.-protected and armed Iraqi government in southern Iraq to chip away at Hussein’s authority.

Wolfowitz’s dream of eliminating Hussein was realized after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Bush administration went on a full-court press convincing the American public that the possibility of Iraq handing over weapons of mass destruction to terrorists was simply too great to ignore. Hussein, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11 and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities turned out to be virtually nonexistent. The result: a lightning fast campaign to depose the Iraqi strongman, but a years-long U.S. troop occupation existing in the middle of a power vacuum and sectarian civil war.

An American soldier with the 325th Airborne
An American soldier with the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment stands guard alongside a road in Dohuk, Iraq, on May 11, 1991.
Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma via Getty Images

If Clinton inherited a U.S. mission in Iraq during his time, former President Barack Obama inherited an even bigger one: a nationwide U.S. counterinsurgency campaign consisting of 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq’s major cities and towns. Obama always believed the Bush-era regime change operation was a wholly unnecessary and unjustifiable war of choice, prefaced on scare mongering and false intelligence. Even so, it took Obama three years to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, completing the job in December 2011.

Three years later, the U.S. initiated yet another military operation, this time to beat back the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) as it easily overran the U.S.-trained, equipped, and corrupt Iraqi army in the north and west of the country. A years-long air campaign, combined with ground operations in coordination with the very Iran-linked militias that were killing U.S. troops years earlier, would continue into the Trump administration.

Today, approximately 2,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq with a never-ending mission of training the Iraqi military and assisting Baghdad’s counter-ISIS operations. If Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani had his wish, those troops would stay indefinitely.

We think of the Gulf War as an unquestioned success in U.S. military history. In terms of the mission set, this is a fair description. The war paved the way for three consecutive decades of U.S. military action in the Arab-majority country—and who knows, maybe three decades more.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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