By Jim Greenhalf
Last month’s Chilcot Report into Britain’s part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq comprehensively rejected the explanations offered by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. It confirmed that Britain’s role in America’s ‘War on terror’ was an error of judgement.
The conclusions published by Sir John Chilcot’s committee of inquiry included the following points:-
. Peaceful disarmament options had not been fully exhausted by March 2003. Contrary to Mr Blair’s assertions in the House of Commons, Saddam Hussein possessed no chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction. There was no imminent threat to the west from Iraq’s president.
. UK intelligence failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that these weapons existed. United Nations’ weapons inspectors conducted 700 searches in 500 places and did not find evidence of WMD.
. The consequences of Invading and occupying Iraq were under-estimated. Mr Blair over-estimated his ability to influence America’s President George W Bush. The UK is not required to give the United States unconditional support whenever it asks.
. Memos published in the report reveal that Mr Blair several times told President Bush that public opinion in the UK and Europe was not in favour of regime change military action. Mr Blair confided that he could lose the support of “half of the EU”; nevertheless he despatched 45,000 British troops to Iraq as part of the American-led coalition. He also told President Bush that if the Iraq venture failed the whole region would “fall apart”.
Interestingly, these and many other points and can be found in a book published before Chilcot called Irregular War: Isis and the New Threat from the Margins. Compiled and written by Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University’s Peace Studies department, the 218-page book is part historical chronicle and part analysis. It is a timely reminder that all actions have consequences, usually unforeseen. This is especially the case with UK politicians who, against their better judgement, allow themselves to get carried away by the idea of Britain’s allegedly special relationship with the United States.
The book also has a proselytising purpose. This is evident here and there throughout the six chapters leading up to the final two in which Prof Rogers re-states his case. This is that unless the West urgently reforms its unregulated free market economics of the past 30 years, embraces more sustainable environmental policies and alternative energy sources, and finds another way of dealing with global terrorism other than by heavy-handed military action, much of the world will be in grave danger of catastrophe by 2045. Not so much Apocalypse Now but in the near future.
However, this Doomsday scenario does scant justice either to the book’s subject range or to the writing style of its author. Prof Rogers, a personable man who lives in Holmfirth, who has a small-holding and enjoys church bell-ringing, is more upbeat about the world’s capacity for and capability of resilience.
In the last of the book’s eight chapters, A Possible Peace, he reflects briefly on his career, saying: “When dealing with such subjects – potential nuclear annihilation, terrorism and political violence – over a long period (the best part of 40 years in my case), one has three options: drink, suicide or optimism. I don’t drink (much) and have not so far felt suicidal, so I must have chosen optimism, even if that optimism has been a little misguided at times.”
In retrospect my support and sympathy for Tony Blair thirteen years ago was also misguided. The same might be said of America’s policy of channelling hundreds of millions of dollars and weapons of massive destruction through Pakistan to supply the Mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union’s invading Red Army in the 1980s.
Anyone not aware of this recent history could do worse than watch the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Based on the real-life Texan Senator and committed anti-communist Charlie Wilson, the film celebrates America’s part in funding, equipping and training tribal Muslim fighters in this irregular war against the USSR. The irregulars won. But the long-term repercussions for the West were severe. “We fucked up the end-game,” the real Charlie Wilson said later.
Paul Rogers provides a masterly and important summary: “This long conflict lasted from 1980 to 1988 and was very much part of the Cold War environment. As such, it developed into a proxy war between East and West…In the latter part of the war foreign fighters , including Osama bin Laden and his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri, formed a small but significant part of the revolt, backed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) and the CIA.
“By the end of the decade the Soviets had gone, and bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others formed al-Qaeda (meaning the ‘Base’), which would take the idea of an Islamist sharia caliphate out beyond Afghanistan. During the 1990s bin Laden and his followers moved from Saud Arabia to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan, this time to aid the Taliban (‘student’) movement fighting the Northern Alliance warlords in a bitter civil war for control of the country.
“By the end of the 1990s, al-Qaeda had the features of a small transnational revolutionary movement, and was unusual in that it was rooted not in political ideology, ethnicity or nationalism but in religious identity…
“Looking beyond the earthly life, the eschatological element of al-Qaeda culture meant, and still means, that revolutionary change may be measured in many decades, if not a century or more. Recognising this is fundamental to understanding the persistence of al-Qaeda and other movements, including ISIS, but it is perhaps the one element in the Islamist outlook that has been least appreciated by Western analysts used to operating on a much shorter political timescale.”
In this respect George W Bush’s New American Century was extremely parochial in its world view. His ‘War on Terror’ against the ‘Axis of Evil’, compelling to some at the time, now look like titles of Austin Powers films rather than serious foreign policy. Against the Towering Inferno reality of the attacks on the World Trade Center that might seem flippant. Paul Rogers does not make such remarks himself. On the contrary, he frequently re-states the physical shock of 9/11, as the aerial attacks were seen virtually live on television world-wide.
What drives educated young men, as the 9/11 kamikaze killers were, to do such things? Israel and the plight of Palestinians provide only one answer; there are others. According to Prof Rogers the economic and social marginalisation of billions of people, from Afghanistan to Africa, is perhaps the most obvious. These are not the people without any hope at all, but those who subsist on or just above the poverty line of a few dollars a day. These are the people whose expectations are frustrated, either by autocratic rulers or by free market economics which benefit only the few.
Iraq blew up in the faces of the US coalition because the conquerors allowed the country’s social, economic and law enforcement infrastructure to degrade. As Chilcot found, neither the Americans nor the British prepared sufficiently for the aftermath of the invasion. There was no equivalent of The Marshall Plan that repaired Western Europe after World War 2. The treatment of Iraqis by triumphant US soldiers quickly withered the welcome that had greeted them. The liberators became vilified as invaders. Armed resistance followed. Those taking part in the insurgency against America’s finest had gained knowledge and experience from the irregular warfare against communists in Afghanistan. What happened in Iraq from 2006 became the template for other insurgencies elsewhere and horrors such as the Ramadan bombing in Baghdad which killed 250 people. Another of the consequences remains the millions of refugees pouring out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa where al-Qaeda and ISIS offshoots operate. Refugee camps may prove to be academies for a future generation of the disenfranchised and dispossessed.
“Whatever happens in the coming months and years, and whether ISIS thrives, just survives or declines, the conditions remain for other movements to arise from anywhere across North Africa, the Middle East or South East Asia. The lessons of three failed wars, with a fourth now in progress, are clear, and yet the belief still persists in clear-cut military solutions. Altering this deeply embedded attitude will be singularly difficult, even more so than changing economic thinking or responding to climate change, but has to be done,” Paul Rogers writes.
Just as Chilcot recommends that Britain learns the lessons of its failed military adventure in Iraq, Prof Rogers says the extent of these failures in Iraq and elsewhere, in Afghanistan Syria, Libya, has to be analysed in detail and the implications argued for forcefully and repeatedly. The most obvious of these, at least to me, is Britain’s docile willingness to be America’s poodle. If nothing else the dubious War on Terror should tell us that the time has come to free ourselves from the leash of the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which seems to come down to us doing whatever they ask. After 43 years we are freeing ourselves from the choke-chain of the EU; time to do likewise with the land of the star-spangled banner. The New American Century ethos of the past 30 years has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, mainly civilian, and many billions of dollars.
Paul Rogers could be depressed about the future: doing something about the circumstances that give rise to terror groups like ISIS is one thing; dealing with the murderous day-to-day reality is another. But Prof Rogers is optimistic. “For nearly a decade and a half, until around 1990, my research on international security focused on nuclear issues and the very real risk of what was called, in an anodyne phrase, a ‘central nuclear exchange’. If a global nuclear war had been fought, hundreds of millions would have died, and perhaps billions in the years that followed, and yet the two power blocs prepared and trained for just such a conflict.
“In the early 1980s the risk was real and we now know that we were lucky on several occasions to avoid a global catastrophe. Yet catastrophe was avoided, and while we still face serious problems, these do not include worldwide nuclear disaster…The next two decades are likely to prove pivotal in avoiding an unstable and insecure world, but there is immense potential for positive change and huge possibilities.”
. Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat From the Margins is published by I.B. Tauris.