Ten years on from the US-led invasion what are the prospects for this fractured country and can oil wealth end its misery?
The invasion of Iraq ten years ago was a violent and brutal affair. This may seem obvious, but sometimes it needs to be restated, otherwise the invasion can be seen as a discrete event that simply ushered in the administrative arrangements of the Coalition Provisional Authority, its direct rule of Iraq and the subsequent emergence of Iraqi governments under US-led military occupation.
It is striking, for example, that both the invaders and the Iraqi authorities remain coy about the numbers of Iraqis killed in the ‘shock and awe’ phase and subsequent military operations. In fact, it is not clear whether any real effort has been made to establish the true figures of this, the first of the many gruesome statistics that have marred the past ten years of Iraq’s history.
The significance of emphasizing this violence is that it was intrinsic to ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, but was also productive of much that followed. It was not simply that military force was used to destroy the apparatus that confronted the United States and its allies in Iraq, it actually helped to create the kind of Iraq that then emerged under the occupation. In President George W. Bush’s radio address announcing the invasion, he said unequivocally that the US would be applying ‘decisive force’ and that ‘this will not be a campaign of half-measures’. The mission, he claimed, was clear – it was ‘to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people’.(1)
It is worth reflecting on what these claims meant and the means used to achieve them.
In retrospect, the three elements of Bush’s ‘mission’ in Iraq look decidedly shaky and the debate will continue about whether Bush and others knew them to be specious at the time: there were no weapons of mass destruction; Saddam Hussein, although not averse to causing terror when it suited him, did not support the kinds of groups that the US had identified as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’; the actions of the US and its allies in Iraq led to a civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, caused the displacement and flight of some four million Iraqis and then delivered the apparatus of the state to a new oligarchy that maintains itself by a mixture of violence and co-optation.(2)
Regardless of what Bush and his advisers thought might have been possible in Iraq, there can be little doubt that he initially shared with Tony Blair the belief that the Iraqi people would be ‘freed’ simply by the removal of Saddam Hussein. A group of academics, including myself, who had been assembled to meet Blair in November 2002 tried to persuade him that Iraq was a far more complex society than the views coming from Washington would have him believe. For his part, Blair only seemed to want them to confirm him in his view that ‘Saddam Hussein is uniquely evil’. The stunned silence that met this request testified to the realization that they – and thus the Iraqis – were up against a vision that was both moralizing and simplistic and, more importantly, did not actually see the Iraqis at all. (3) The consequences were to be violently played out in the years that followed.
Even at this stage it was clear that the war in Iraq was a means to an end, or possibly to several ends, few if any of which the Iraqis themselves would be allowed to determine. Primarily it was to be an expression of the military and political power of the United States, launching the start of the recently labelled ‘American Century’, making a show of American might as a riposte to the attack of 11 September 2001 and all that had preceded it.
Some in the administration may have felt that it was also a way of reshaping the Middle East, planting the forces of the US squarely in the centre of the region, menacing Iran and Syria, keeping the Gulf states subservient and opening up Iraq’s vast oil reserves to development and exploitation.
For Blair, as his behaviour so eloquently testified, the chief purpose was that Britain should associate itself as closely as possible with the reassertion of American power, marking out its position as a special ally, distinguished from its decidedly lukewarm European neighbours.
This was accompanied by a good deal of moralizing about the spirit of freedom, the need to bring democracy to the Iraqi people, as well as the virtues of a liberal order and a liberal economy.
Some of it may have been sincere, but it was also used to denigrate those who had reservations about the morality and legality of a military invasion. More importantly none of it was backed up by any substantial understanding, or even effort to comprehend, what kind of society existed in Iraq. Once the invasion was underway and the military occupation took hold, the costs of this lack of interest became all too apparent.
Not understanding and then not much liking what they found in Iraq, the occupying forces tried to co-opt those who at least pretended to share their goals, and used violence and the threat of violence against those who were less enthusiastic.
From the start this created a polarized society and, dangerously, a society in which the principal way of expressing one’s political position was in the use of force – unchecked after the dissolution of all branches of Iraq’s armed forces in May 2003. It was then that the inadequacy of the forces of occupation to impose order across the country, let alone to prevent the wide distribution of weapons or secure the country’s frontiers, became all too visible.
The Iraqis tried to piece together their lives in the absence of a functioning state, exposed to the violence that came at them from all sides: from the forces of occupation; from the entrepreneurs whom the occupying forces had set up as their partners in ruling Iraq; and from the insurgent forces who claimed it was their duty, both patriotic and religious, to join the uprising. As the civilian deaths and the flood of refugees indicate, the human toll was devastating. The invasion and occupation had created this vortex of violence. Some of it was the direct violence and mistreatment by the occupying forces of Iraqi civilians, as the viciousness of insurgency and counter-insurgency played itself out, following patterns seen elsewhere and at other times: mass incarceration without trial; success measured in deaths inflicted on those who were post facto identified as insurgents; the use of torture both as a result of the desperate search for intelligence and as the outcome of the brutalizing effects of the contempt of the occupier for the occupied.(4)
The stage was set for a civil war that cost some tens of thousands of lives before 2008. The polarization of the Iraqi population, American recognition and reward of sectarian, ethnic and tribal identification, as well as the arming of some and the failure to disarm others had created a situation that invited inter-communal conflict.
This was in turn encouraged and exploited by regional powers and forces, alarmed by American ambitions. Far from being cowed, they saw the situation in Iraq as providing a chance for them to demonstrate the limits of American power.
Faced by these consequences, the US (by this stage Britain had retreated to a small enclave on the outskirts of Basra) simply applied more of the same: its troop strength was increased by 30,000, it raised armed militias to fight the insurgents – ‘the Sons of Iraq’ – and turned former insurgents into targets of their sponsorship.
It also oversaw the rebuilding, under Nuri al-Maliki, of a security state which rivalled in terms of numbers of men under arms that of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, for the US these measures did create the apparent security needed to allow the withdrawal the last American troops from Iraq in December 2011.
If one had to reflect on what lessons might be learnt from this catalogue of events one could identify three.
First, if a country is to be invaded and subjected to military occupation, it should be treated as an end in itself, not simply as a means to an end exclusive to the occupying power. This implies, among other things, taking the country, its society, the plural nature of its population and their aspirations seriously, answering to them rather than to a remote home constituency.
Second, the use of violence, whatever its motive, has its own baneful logic. The deeper and more prolonged its use, the more distinctive and disturbing the consequences will be.
Third, it must be assumed that any military intervention will have regional repercussions that will be beyond the control of even the best-planned invasion. This will provide opportunities for those who might not otherwise have dared to confront the power involved on its home ground, but who see the situation created by military occupation as ripe for exploitation.
Whether such lessons will be learnt as new opportunities and illusions present themselves is a moot point. Publicly funded academic analysis of the world is not unreasonably assessed for the impact it may have on public debate and public policy.
However, in the build-up to and in the prosecution of the war in Iraq, as well as in the handling of the occupation, this counted for little. It was sobering, indeed depressing, that knowledge carefully assessed by various publicly funded research councils simply went out of the window when those who made and executed policy confronted the situation in Iraq.
From the apex of the state, to the most junior public servant and soldier, with some honourable exceptions, the very situation seemed to call forth old epistemologies. They drew on a repertoire based not on contemporary advances in the social sciences or indeed on detailed knowledge of the country, but on the rich traditions of racism, imperial patronage and contempt for ‘subject peoples’ that echoed the very language of the British Mandate for Iraq in the 1920s.
This is not encouraging for the idea that lessons learnt in one field of operations will be transmitted to guide behaviour in another.
(1) President’s radio address 22 March 2003 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/03/2003032... [accessed 13 Jan 2013]
(2) Toby Dodge Iraq - From War to a New Authoritarianism (Adelphi 434-435) (London: Routledge for IISS, 2013)
(3) Personal recollection of meeting with Tony Blair and Jack Straw at 10 Downing Street, November 2002; see also Alan George, Raymond Whitaker and Andy McSmith ‘Revealed: the meeting that could have changed the history of Iraq’ The Independent on Sunday 17 October 2004
(4) Jonathan Steele Defeat – why they lost Iraq (London, IB Tauris, 2008) pp 141-162; Thomas E. Ricks Fiasco – the American military adventure in Iraq (London, Allen Lane, 2006) pp 270-297