looking back on iraq

It is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and nine and a half years since I first boarded a troop plane to Basra. I still find the scale of our failure astonishing. It was a war in which 179 British and 4488 American soldiers were killed, and over 40,000 wounded. A trillion pounds was spent by the coalition. And many many Iraqis died. What was the result? Most of us have no precise idea. Some switched off at the time of the invasion, enraged by “Blair and Bush”. Others still talk about the ‘success of the surge’ and feel that General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy, and 170,000 troops, created success. But in part because British newspaper editors don’t write long analyses of Iraq, we – I – don’t really know.

My experience on the ground in Southern Iraq in 2003, 2004, and 2005, was of chaos. Not even Iraqis knew exactly who controlled the provinces. Iranian militia fought nationalist militia; engineers, and professionals were pushed from their jobs, and often their homes. Women, who once walked with heads uncovered, were now frightened by Islamists into wearing full black abayas. The clinics, schools, and meeting-halls I helped to build, were looted, and abandoned. We – the coalition – knew pathetically little about the detail of Iraqi power, culture, and politics: inevitably, we picked the wrong allies, and made the wrong enemies. By 2006, 30 new mutilated bodies could be found every morning on suburban pavements in Baghdad. Many of the people who worked with me, and who had become my friends – from a female doctor, to a young Iraqi scholar – were dragged from their cars and killed.

When I returned to Baghdad, after the surge in 2008, violence had been reduced. It was again possible – with caution – to walk some of the streets. Perhaps eighty people were being killed a month, instead of eight hundred. And it seemed as though the US could have a workable relationship with an Iraqi government. Vice-President Biden said in 2009 that he would ‘bet his Vice-Presidency’ that 10,000 US troops would remain in the country for years to come – focused on training, and counter-terrorism. But over the last eighteen months, this relationship has unraveled First, contrary to the Vice-President’s predictions, the Iraqis have insisted that every last US soldier depart. They have refused visas to so many US diplomats that half the new multi-billion dollar Embassy is empty. As the last US troops withdrew, they were attacked by a Shia terrorist group; two months later that group was brought into the Iraqi government. The day that the last soldier left, the Shia Prime-Minister sent tanks to arrest the Sunni Vice-President. President Obama personally called the Kurdish leader – who had been one of the US’s closest allies – asking him to step aside and allow in a more balanced government. The Kurdish leader refused. Three months ago, Vice-President Biden begged the Iraqi Prime-Minister not to release an Iranian terrorist commander, (who had been arrested by British troops. The Iraqi Prime-Minister ignored the Vice-President, and released him. In August and September, Iraqi banks were teaming up with the Iranian government to break sanctions. Iranians were being allowed to ship weapons through Iraq to prop up the Syrian regime. And in December, the Iraqi Prime-Minister, who arrested 615 Sunni Arabs in an hour, a year ago, lined up his troops against the Kurdish militia. On one day last year, there were simultaneous attacks in ten cities, killing fifty and wounding two hundred.

Saddam – an extreme dictator – has gone. The media is much freer now. Many young Iraqis, and particular Kurds, are very grateful that the old regime has fallen, and are proud of their new culture. But the international community has not achieved its objectives – however often it redefines them. First, we aimed to create a ‘democratic Iraq, at peace with itself and its neighbours’. By 2009, we talked only of a stable, representative government, a place where terrorists could not operate, and “an ally”. Instead, after a decade, a trillion pounds, and more lives than anyone would want to count, we have helped to create a place, which sometimes looks like a corrupt and fragile democracy, and sometimes like a Shia rogue state – somewhere on a scale between Iran and Pakistan.

The question for Britain is what aspect of our culture, our government, and our national psychology, allowed us to get mired in such catastrophe? Everyone – including Cumbrians – should try to understand what happened. We need to reform the army, the Foreign Office, our intelligence agency, and the way parliament debates war, to make us more knowledgeable, more prudent, and more willing to speak truth to power. We must expose not only the politicians but also the generals and civil servants who failed to challenge the system, emphasise the disaster, or press hard enough for withdrawal. We must recognise how easily we exaggerate our fears (‘terrorism’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’) and how easily we hypnotise ourselves with theories (‘state-building’ and ‘counter-insurgency’). We must acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, power, and legitimacy. This was the biggest British overseas engagement since the Korean War, and our greatest catastrophe since the Boer War. (Suez was at least much shorter). It began only ten years ago. Parliament voted overwhelmingly for the war. 100,000 British soldiers and civilians served at some point in Iraq. Perhaps 200,000 Iraqis have been killed. And yet, society as a whole seems to be trying to forget it ever happened.

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