21 May 2015
22 September 2015 will mark the 35th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war which lasted eight years. This was followed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the First Gulf War. In 2003 it was the turn of the US to invade Iraq. In other words, an Iraqi born in the year 1980 or after does not know what peace is.
On 31 March 2015, PM Haider al-Abadi announced the liberation of Saddam’s hometown Tikrit from Daesh by Iraqi security forces and popular mobilization units. Vice President Biden cautioned that the war in Iraq was far from over but sounded upbeat. There was talk about Iraqi forces getting ready for an offensive to liberate the entire Anbar province and later Mosul.
Then came the shock: On 17 May 2015 Daesh captured Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province underscoring the weaknesses of the Iraqi Army and leading to further questioning of Washington’s strategy to “degrade and defeat” Daesh. PM Abadi said that setbacks happen in any battle.
All of this takes me to the period before the US invasion of Iraq. The prospect deeply troubled Turkey. In our exchanges with our American colleagues we underlined that with the end of the Cold War Turkey found itself in the middle of three problem areas, namely the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. We said that we were already paying a high price for conflicts in the outbreak of which we had no responsibility. We tried to explain that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had already given us more than enough trouble.
Among others we asked them the following questions:
“What is your perception of the post-Saddam Iraq?
“Are you prepared to stay there over the long-haul?
“What kind of diplomatic groundwork do you intend to undertake at the UN?
“What kind of roles do you foresee for the various components of Iraq’s population?
“What do you think will be the attitude of Iraq’s neighbors and other Arab countries?”
We also underlined that Iraq was close to secularism; that an invasion would strengthen Iraq’s radical groups and spawn terror. We voiced our belief that regime change in Iraq could also be obtained through arms control, economic sanctions and a systematic effort to bring the people of Iraq in touch with the outside world. We expressed the view that this could require time but prevent instability.
Once it became clear that the invasion was to go ahead we said:
“Don’t even think of disbanding the Iraqi armed forces. Remove the top commanders who have been closely identified with Saddam Hussein but leave the rest. Otherwise there would be chaos.”
All we heard in response were generalities. I remember being surprised during one of these exchanges to hear that Iraq would become a “beacon of democracy”, a prosperous country and that people from poor Arab countries and others would go there to work and take democratic ideals back home.
Our advice was not heeded. Divisions within NATO and the EU were overlooked. The need for international legitimacy in the form a UN Security Council resolution was disregarded. The world was misled about Iraq’s WMD capability and links to al-Qaida.
Following his arrival in Baghdad, Administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq, Mr. Paul Bremer signed two of his “I hereby promulgate…”orders. The first order of the Bush administration’s czar in Iraq was on de-Ba’athification. It said that all public sector employees affiliated with the Ba’ath Party were removed from their positions and would be banned from any future employment. The second was about dissolving the Iraqi army. The former was rescinded and the latter became a subject of criticism and controversy.
Mr. Bremer was on CNN on 26 June 2014. He was reminded that the US had already suffered 4490 casualties in Iraq had spent 1.7 trillion dollars and was now sending troops there again. He was asked why. His response was “because it is in our interest”. He then spoke of a success story in Iraq before finally faulting President Obama for withdrawing all US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.
A recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Professor Joseph Stiglitz put the bill at not at 1.7 but 3 trillion dollars. And sadly, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi losses are seldom mentioned let alone those who were either internally displaced or sought refuge beyond Iraq’s borders. As for the criticism directed to the “early withdrawal” after eight years one may ask “when exactly were the Iraqis going to be allowed to take charge of their destiny?”
Today the world remains profoundly distressed by the continuing destruction of world’s cultural heritage by Daesh which has now reached the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. It is worth remembering in this connection that all Secretary Rumsfeld had to say was “stuff happens…” when Iraqi museums were being looted.
The invasion of Iraq has been a disaster with no end in sight. It has paved the way for terrorist groups such as Daesh and its likes. It has brought chaos to an already troubled region and beyond.
The challenges facing Iraq, the region and the world are huge. Daesh terror has now reached the depths of Africa. At some point it may surface surface in Central Asia.
Upon the fall of Ramadi, Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff for the U.S.-led coalition said that one may see episodic temporary successes but these typically don’t materialize into long-term gains. But “long-term” in the context of the war against Daesh cannot be that long.
According to a recent UN report more than 25,000 foreign fighters from hundred nations have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaida and Daesh, Syria and Iraq being by far the biggest destinations. Surely, these foreign fighters from hundred countries did not arrive in Iraq and immediately organized themselves into a combat force. A military structure set up by the disbanded Iraqi army’s Sunni officers was already there, ready to receive, train and organize them.
Regardless of the mistakes of the past and present it is clear that if Daesh continues to stand coalition’s assaults including air strikes, gain ground and an above everything else an aura of invincibility the situation will get worse.
President Obama has been reluctant to put boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria; he is right. He says military intervention can buy time but not resolve problems; he is right.
Last August during his interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times he said:
“We are telling every faction in Iraq that we will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you. We’re not sending a bunch of U.S. troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things. You’re going to have to show us that you are willing and ready to try and maintain a unified Iraqi government that is based on compromise. That you are willing to continue to build a nonsectarian, functional security force that is answerable to a civilian government…”
Again, he is right. Yet, even with US air support Iraqi forces have failed to stand up to the challenges of the battlefield. This is after years of training by US forces until their withdrawal at the end of 2011. It is also understood that the Baghdad government has not been able to bridge Iraq’s sectarian divisions.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2014 Mr.Obama said:
“… United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations…”
But the problem is that the US invaded Iraq and if Iraq is to fall apart the peoples of the region, in particular the Arabs will say that this was a US-Israeli project regardless of who made the fateful decision to invade the country.
Whatever happens with the Iran nuclear deal the US and Russia will have to put their other differences aside and engage in close cooperation in Iraq and Syria. The countries of the region are in disarray and only after their narrow sectarian interests. So it is up to Washington and Moscow to make a difference. Arab countries are now talking about a “unified Arab force”. Annex to the Joint Statement issued at the end of the US-GCC Camp David Summit refers to the setting up of a senior working group to pursue the development of rapid response capabilities, taking into account the Arab League’s concept of a “unified Arab force” to mount or contribute in a coordinated way to counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and stabilization operations in the region. Maybe Arab countries should assemble such a force sooner than later to confront Daesh and thus take a big step towards reviving Arab identity and restoring self-confidence. Low key participation in US-led airstrikes and the offensive against the Houthis won’t give them that.