Nothing in recent history signifies a more abject failure of American, and by extension, Western foreign policy and military might than the pairing of the words ‘Iraq and Afghanistan’. Their utterance is enough to open a sore wound in those who were determinedly in support. Those who acted in vengeance or for Machiavellian reasons surely regret gambling away their legacy so dramatically. Tony Blair could not have imagined that despite bringing Labour from the shadows of opposition and securing three successive and emphatic election victories, his legacy would not just be tainted, but singularly defined by the false premise of the Iraq war. It is difficult to know how Bush Jnr. reflects upon his decisions, albeit to say his scarcity from the public eye may be a clue.
The verdict on those decisions becomes more damning when assessing the repercussions. Afghanistan remains divided between civilian Government and Taliban control. Well over a decade of attrition has not fazed the group and a lessoning of international forces has meant an ascendant Taliban and greater interference from regional vested interests. Farcically, those positioned to lead a civilian democratic Government were corrupt warlords and drug barons. The fallout of intervention and invasion in Iraq are far more visible and severe. A destabilised, fragmented and sectarian state with a debilitated economy and infrastructure. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion; with security, stability and armed opposition in the hands of Sunni and Shia militias, the seeds for ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) to later become ISIL were firmly sown.
This simplified overview is perceived by many today as the consequence of illegal, illegitimate and knee-jerk war, for which we have paid and continue to pay a heavy price. Those on the left, see it as wars based on lies aimed at political expediency. Analysts state the obvious, that not enough planning or post-conflict scenario mapping was done. The sentiment amongst many Muslims globally, including those in the west, has been that these were wars waged against Muslims (given the number of civilian deaths) through the occupation of ‘Muslim lands’.
Ironically this was the premise and raison d’etre of Al-Qaeda and 9/11. It was not an attempt to invade or dominate the US, but to compel it, as they saw, to lessen US influence and presence in the Muslim world. So what started as retaliation and self-defence for the mass slaughter of civilians on 9/11 gradually turned into a perceived attack on a global religious community, thus perpetuating the myth that Al Qaeda based their movement on a war on Islam. This perception fuelled the growth in size and appeal of militant extremist groups in the Middle East, not just Al Qaeda but also those such as ISI. Since then we have witnessed scores of terrorist attacks in western and eastern population centres (London, Madrid and Bali to name a few) – tentative evidence that terrorism and its appeal were on the rise.
However, beyond the focus on ISIL as the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq, there was an ostensible yet little spoken of upshot. It has set a negative precedent for conventional military campaigns, in particular the willingness to commit ground troops. While a reactionary and emotive military response got us into the mess that is now Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is military inaction that has allowed the problem to persist and worsen. What brings this to light more than any other factor is the most recent terror attack by ISIL on Belgium, hot on the heels of the Paris attacks.
In witnessing the furore and fallout following these, I could not help but ponder as to the lacklustre response juxtaposed with the gravity and symbolism of the attack. Not just this, but more so that those responsible admit culpability and are known to exist and direct such attacks from a defined territory straddling Iraq and Syria, to which they hold dearly as a pseudo-State. How can an enemy so flagrantly attack innocent civilians in western States, who have the military capability to respond, be so supine? The truth is there has been a response. However it has only been an aerial one. It is understandable why this may be favoured in order to conserve the life of soldiers and still get the job done. Except, following three years of aerial bombardment by the Coalition and Russia, ISIS’s hold on territory (with the recent exception of Palmyra) and ability to direct terrorist attacks abroad remains unperturbed.
When MPs voted in favour of extending airstrikes into Syria – in a divided Commons following fraught debate – the most salient counter argument was the ineffectiveness of an air campaign against ISIL without the support of ground troops. The passage of time since is testament to the measured objections of Kier Starmer, Julian Lewis and John Baron as well as the Foreign Affairs Committee. The meagre nature of Britain’s contribution to the Coalition since is further proof that the Prime Minister went to war for symbolic reasons and assisting close allies. A cause which clearly was not enough to attempt a vote in Parliament prior to the Paris attacks. The dubious claim of 70,000 strong moderate forces ready to support airstrikes has now also been shown to be smoke and mirrors, not least because rebel forces were engaged in the west against Assad, while the Kurds and ISIL held onto territory in the north and east.
Whereas Iraq and Afghanistan were examples of military excess, not only did they lead to the dire situation in Syria now, but the fear of failure has meant inaction and hesitancy which has exasperated the situation. Libya proved to be the test case for ‘intervention-lite’, where airstrikes were intended to lend a decisive blow to the incumbent regime. The immediate dislodging of Gaddafi was seen as a success of this approach, albeit there were ample armed ground forces that followed up the airstrikes.
In Syria, even the airstrikes came too late. Midway through the conflict, the international community was on the brink of launching airstrikes against Assad rather than purely ISIL. We may question why it had to take evidence of chemical weapons rather than just the severe loss of civilian life for intervention to be considered. At the time and more so with hindsight, it seemed naïve that Assad’s agreement to destroy his chemical weapons was somehow a guarantee of less civilian casualties. Rather it was a reluctance to militarily intervene and preference for a diplomatic solution.
Owing to the instability and continuing loss of civilian life, ISIL were able to gain in prominence and by 2013 the world had forgotten about Assad, resolute in fighting ISIL. But even with this most axiomatic of enemies, with no allies and antithetical to all that we hold dear in a modern civilised and humane world, we have been unwilling to either deal with the root of the problem that is Assad’s brutality, or tackle ISIL resolutely and convincingly on the ground.
The lessons and ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq wring loudly in the ears of world leaders, some of whom came to power on anti-Iraq platforms. They cannot fathom having to explain and justify the loss of soldiers’ lives in the pursuance of noble and morally just causes, when so many lives were squandered on hasty and illegitimate wars.