As Iraq plunges towards civil war, it is worth remembering the dreams of those who thought they were building a better place.
Emma Sky was one of them. Although opposed to the 2003 invasion, the British academic decided to put her experience of the region to use in the country’s reconstruction, serving first in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the temporary governing body installed following the US-led invasion, and then as governor of Kirkuk, one of the towns at the heart of the present rebellion by the rampant Sunni militia.
“Iraqis had suffered for a decade under sanctions,” she told me a year ago for a radio programme marking the 10th anniversary of the war. “Before that, it had been the Iran-Iraq war, the Kuwait war, and all they’d lived with was turmoil and increasing poverty. So when America arrived in Iraq, people thought: ‘Wow, our country is going to turn into Dubai overnight.’ They could see that they were going to be wealthier, buildings would go up everywhere and their economic wellbeing would increase.”
But Iraq is no Dubai; it’s a disaster. The consequences of the dramatic events of the past few weeks could not be greater for the region and the wider world. The land grabs by the small band of jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have been stunning. City after city has fallen to a heavily armed and audacious band of little more than 1,000 men who make al-Qaeda seem tame by comparison. Iraq is falling apart.
Entire populations are being internally displaced. Many are likely to end up seeking asylum in Europe or anywhere that offers a modicum of peace and prosperity. A reverse journey is also being made; young men from the West are going to secret ISIS training camps to join the fight against the ruthless Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the hapless regime of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Their leader and secretive poster boy, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wants to establish a caliphate incorporating large chunks of both countries, both of which are artificial constructs courtesy of the British and French a century ago. From there, he hopes to extend further in the Middle East and beyond. The next brand of global terrorism will have ISIS competing with al-Qaeda.
Maliki, who has declared a state of emergency, is the author of much of his country’s misfortune. He has pursued a sectarian agenda against the minority Sunni population, turning his forces on largely peaceful protesters and forcing the vice-president out of the country (and slapping a death sentence on him, to boot). A Shi’ite with close links to Iran, he purged Sunnis from his government and disbanded some of their more moderate militias, breaking a promise to incorporate them into his regular army.
Any analysis of what has gone wrong in Iraq inevitably begins with George W Bush and Tony Blair. Bush went to war to settle scores with Saddam Hussein on behalf of his father, who failed to remove him during the first war in 1991. Regime change was his goal and he was open about it. Blair’s aim was the same but he was required to use sleights of hand to secure the legal authority he required. The rest is dodgy dossiers, non-existent weapons of mass destruction and history.
By the end of this year, Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry will finally report – after agreeing not to publish important correspondence between president and prime minister. This deal with Whitehall will deprive the report of some corroborating evidence, but the row is a largely confected one. The story is long known. Blair, while at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, gave his famous “I’ll be with you, come what may” assurance. He prepared for war among his tight coterie, but had to keep it a secret.
That is no way to launch a reconstruction, and that is where British domestic politics collide with the streets of Mosul and Tikrit. The speed and success of the original invasion in March 2003 reinforced the hubris of the Americans and the British. They believed, absurdly, that their vague notions of installing democracy would trump all the problems.
The US-led interim administration was a bickering mess. The removal of Iraq’s security and political elite spawned disgruntled and heavily armed militia. Bomb attacks began to take place daily. It took months for any proper public services to be restored, while chaos ensued on the streets. By this point, many Iraqis had despaired of their supposed liberators and were easy prey for factional groups. Having declared “mission accomplished”, Bush did not want to hear the detail.
The murder in a Baghdad bomb attack in August 2003 of the UN special representative to Iraq, Sergio de Mello, was a turning point. The respected Brazilian envoy was seen as one of few international figures who could reconcile the different factions.
It is not as if they weren’t warned. In the months leading up to the invasion, Blair received a stream of advice from experts warning of the potential conflagration. Arguments such as these were dismissed as defeatist. Instead, president and prime minister pursued the policy of the simpleton.
Blair now admits he underestimated the complexity of Iraq. “The biggest single lesson out of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is once you lift the lid off these very repressive regimes, out come pouring these tribal, ethnic and, in particular, religious influences,” he told me last year. The most important difference between 2003 and 2013, he maintained, “is a recognition that once you do lift the lid off – as you can see in Syria today or Yemen or Tunisia, Libya, wherever, Egypt – a fresh set of problems begin. That doesn’t mean to say you leave the regimes in place, by the way, but it does mean you have got to be prepared for a far longer engagement.” It was intriguing to hear, after all these years, a little contrition.
His logic of perpetual intervention has at least the merit of consistency. The only time order was properly established was between 2007 and 2011 during the American “surge”. The period from mid-2006 to mid-2007 had been the bloodiest in the conflict, with more than 1,000 US personnel and many more Iraqi civilians dead. The Americans had been holed up in their bases, making the occasional and invariably bloody incursion, but largely leaving the militias to wreak havoc.
It took the deployment of an extra 20,000 US personnel – a deeply contentious decision – to reinforce security and bolster the Iraqi government.
That government, however, soon became part of the problem. As ever, the occupying forces look for someone on whom they can rely. In Afghanistan, they found Hamid Karzai; in Iraq it was Maliki. When he became prime minister in 2006, he vowed to crack down on insurgents.
At the same time, he has always been a divisive figure, partly within the government itself, but more importantly in Iraq’s deeply divided sectarian landscape. Now, in the ultimate of ironies, the US is scampering towards Iran – its arch enemy for decades – in a bid to stem the advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
As Sir Kieran Prendergast, a former deputy to Kofi Annan at the UN, says: “I don’t know whether the Iranian government kneel down to pray, but if they did they should have been kneeling in thankfulness to the Bush regime for the boost which the Iraq war gave to the standing of Iran in the Middle East.”
The hasty retreat of the Americans from Iraq in 2011 has left the country gravely exposed to extremist groups. Just as intervention in Iraq has created a swath of problems, non-intervention has done so, too.
The decision to do nothing in Syria, then to threaten action a year ago, only to abandon the idea at the last moment, has damaged the credibility of the international community. It has also ensured that the world is confronted by two evils in that country: either the tyrant Assad or extreme Islamist forces of rebellion. The small band of moderates opposed to the regime is nowhere now to be seen, having been abandoned by the West.
It is one of the cruel ironies of the past few decades of Middle East politics that largely secular dictators, from Saddam Hussein to Assad, to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, even to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, have been seen to be the most capable of keeping their countries together.
That cruel realisation should not scupper hopes for a better future. But it does provide pause for thought. Having declared a decade of war over, President Obama is reluctant to become embroiled in Iraq again, but he is expected to agree to the limited use of air power to try to take out ISIS forces. Opinion polls demonstrate the extent of the jaundice among voters.
Increasingly, the US relies on unmanned drones: warfare shorn of the sensitivity of soldiers brought home in body bags. Politicians and the public are largely insulated from its effects. Drones can take people out, but they cannot build nations or better systems of government.
For all the despair and deceit on the road to war in 2003, it is worth remembering that many who became involved, both civilians and military personnel, did so for honourable reasons. They believed they could do something remarkable, replacing a dictator with democracy. That very notion now seems laughably naïve. Iraq has been let down not just by the West, but also by competing powers in the region, and political forces inside the country intent on pursuing sectarian vendettas and personal self-enrichment.
Iraq is close to becoming a failed state. Basic services are found wanting; living standards have fallen. Security is non-existent. Sectarian violence is out of control. Regional and global security is threatened; entire population groups are being displaced. The threat of terrorism has increased, while the West’s erstwhile enemy number one, Iran, has benefited. That is some scoresheet.
John Kampfner is author of Blair’s Wars. His latest book, The Rich: From Salves to Super-Yachts, will be published by Little, Brown in October