Lessons not learned: The ongoing destruction of Iraq

Lessons not learned: The ongoing destruction of Iraq
Comment: While the West remains disconnected from the reality of life and death in Iraq, ordinary citizens continue their fight for an alternative future, write Tristan Dunning and Damian Doyle.
8 min read
22 Aug, 2016
Iraqis continue to mobilise for an alternative future, after decades of foreign intervention [Getty]

Five years ago the United States - like many an occupying power before - once more unilaterally declared victory after the apparent success of the "surge" against their enemies - in this case the now defunct al-Qaeda in Iraq. In announcing the withdrawal of its last combat troops from Iraq, they essentially pulled up stumps, took their bat and ball and went home.  

And yet, al-Qaeda's off-shoot, Islamic State group, subsequently demonstrated that it was more interested in the long-haul version of the political game. Flash in the pan US measures such as "shock and awe" and "the surge" will not fix the Iraqi quagmire any time soon, despite its employment of hifalutin moral superiority and technological gadgetry. 

Indeed, not only does the war continue to drag on in a horrifically normalised daily basis, but pandemonium has also spread to Syria and the wider region as a whole. 

As the sectarian Iraqi administration set up by US dictates almost collapsed under the twin pressures of internal dissent and what are axiomatically called "foreign jihadists", the US was inevitably pulled back into the Iraqi morass.

Today, officially, the US still has around 3,800 military personnel in Iraq, plus hundreds more on "temporary" duty. It has launched over 9,500 air strikes against the Islamic State and other salafi jihadists, yet, after 13 years following the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and the functional destruction of the Iraqi state, there is no end in sight.

Just ask the Iraqi people. Even when the self-styled Islamic caliphate eventually falls, no-one has proposed any realistic end-game for the morning after the destruction of "evil".

This inauspicious anniversary of the supposed US withdrawal five years ago is nevertheless an apt time to reflect on the war. The recent publication of the Chilcot Report - weighing in at a mammoth 2.6 million words of navel gazing - gave the West reason to pause and question its self-righteous interventions in foreign countries too weak to resist or fight back in conventional ways.

No-one has proposed any realistic end-game for the morning after the destruction of "evil"

The Chilcot report largely documented what we already knew: Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair exaggerated the danger presented by Saddam Hussein, ignored intelligence reports in favour of his own intuition and disregarded warnings about the civil violence that the invasion was predicted to unleash. Moreover, the report noted that the US ignored UK concerns about what might happen after toppling Saddam Hussein's regime.

But everyday Iraqis couldn't care less about the West's self-indulgent wallowing vis-à-vis the implicit superiority of "our" legal and ethical traditions which led to the inquiry in the first place.  

Tony Blair's professed feelings of "sorrow, regret and apology" have no impact on the lives of Iraqis dealing with a collapsed state triggered by the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The West's ostensible political and ethical hand-wringing means little to people who must everyday contend with the bloody legacies that supposedly well-intentioned Western "intervention" – ironically predicated on ideas of international law, democracy and humanitarianism no less - helped to unleash.

Western navel gazing would be comical were the impacts of war not so tragic. The Chilcot Report is somewhat reminiscent of the maudlin quip by Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, that "not only will America go into your country and kill all your people. But what's worse, I think, is they'll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad."

Sometimes things are too true to be funny. And let's face it, the British and French are probably even more culpable of this given that their empires stretching over several centuries were often justified by notions of "White Man's Burden" and "Civilising Mission" rationalised by Social Darwinism. Just look at Libya today for a contemporary manifestation of such thought processes.

The disconnect between Western political discourses and the everyday reality of the Iraqi people was brutally showcased throughout July this year. Just prior to the Western media's fixation on the Chilcot Report, a devastating attack in Karrada, Baghdad, murdered more than 290 Iraqis.

Chronic insecurity is the most visible legacy of the 2003 invasion

The site of the atrocity is now a memorial, symbolic of the country's seemingly endless suffering and violence. It is conservatively estimated that 1,369 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the ongoing conflict in July alone.

The Karrada bombing was the largest of its kind since the de facto destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003. It yet again shattered the illusory belief that the Islamic State group is somehow a spent force, a notion that the US military is now taking care to pour cold water over.

Attacks like this are far more frequent than many in the West either realise or, from the viewpoints of our political leaders especially given the political and economic capital sunk into the Iraqi adventure, are prepared to admit.

Baghdad residents, when they're not navigating blast walls or queuing at security checkpoints, are violently assaulted on a near daily basis. Ironically – tragically - security checkpoints supposedly designed to protect, are increasingly attracting such attacks because of the mass congregations and bottlenecks that they create.

Chronic insecurity is only the most visible legacy of the 2003 invasion. The US decision to dismantle the Iraqi military and purge the bureaucracy - that is to say, sacking anyone with experience in providing effective security and governance - continues to cripple the Iraqi state.

Iraq is burdened with a dysfunctional political system and a corrupt elite

Former Iraqi armed forces personnel, arbitrarily sacked after the invasion for necessarily possessing ties to the Baath regime and relentlessly hounded afterwards for even the most tenuous connections, are now among the senior planning cadres of the Islamic State group.

Conversely, the new Iraqi security forces rely on international support to operate at even a quasi-functional level of competency. Similarly, governmental bureaucracy seems to be either incapable or unwilling to provide basic public services such as water and electricity.

Iraq is burdened with a dysfunctional political system and a corrupt elite. The system is based on ethno-religious quotas established by the occupation authorities which analysts predicted would lead to entrenched corruption and government inefficiency. National political power predominantly resides with formerly exiled politicians, already cosy with the US, who returned after the invasion.

Regarded by many Iraqis as "carpetbaggers" and outsiders, these politicians have little natural support base and have thus appealed to the baser instincts of ethno-religious sectarianism to augment their popularity.

Nevertheless, Iraqis continue to defy their dire post-invasion dividend. Ever since 2003, Iraqis have consistently taken to the streets to express their social and political grievances. In the last year in particular, a broad coalition of civil society and religious movements has emerged to stage large demonstrations against the ongoing depredations of the foreign backed elite.

Corruption, in their view, is responsible for creating the conditions conducive to the rise of the Islamic State

Protesters demand political reform that abolishes the sectarian quota system and brings corrupt officials to justice. They call for a technocratic cabinet and a civil state working to better Iraqi society. The Iraqi political elite castigates them for distracting from efforts to the fight the Islamic State.  

Protesters reply that they have one hand for fighting corruption and one hand for fighting terrorism. Corruption, in their view, is responsible for creating the conditions conducive to the rise of the Islamic State, and other opportunistic petty thugs aside, in the first place.

In April the pro-reform demonstrators entered Baghdad's "safe" Green Zone in protest of governmental inertia to enact security and accountability reforms. In a brazen act of symbolic nonviolent defiance, masses of protesters scaled the blast walls while security personnel approvingly watched on.

Many subsequently entered their own parliament - the very building which is supposed to represent them - presumably, and symbolically, for the vast majority of them, for the very first time. The government responded with violent repression but pro-reformers are back on the streets each and every Friday. Their protests presently focus on terrorism, security and demands for accountability.

Five years on from the US "withdrawal", the US-led invasion has left the country destitute and bereft of governmental structures; it has entrenched a political system easily exploited by sectarianism and corruption; and finally it left a security vacuum conducive to the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State.

The Chilcot Report, as response to this pandemonium, is little more than an exercise in Western navel gazing while Iraq continues to burn.

Nevertheless, Iraqis continue to mobilise to create an alternative future for a country beleaguered by decades of foreign intervention that have directly or indirectly killed millions of their people. This phenomenon is far more important than Western-centric introspection regarding its past and ongoing failings in the Middle East.

The agency of the Iraqi people is scandalously underreported in the international press and rectifying this is the first of many steps that we can take to aid Iraqis as they work to repair the ongoing damage wrought by our participation in the myopic invasion of 2003. 

Damian Doyle is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research is focused on the Sadrist Movement in Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @toaf

Dr Tristan Dunning is an adjunct research fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.  He is the author of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine published as part of Routledge’s Critical Terrorism Studies Series in February 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @trisdunning

The authors have a forthcoming chapter, "Politics or Piety? Problematising the Sunni-Shi'a Schism in raq" coming out soon in the edited volume, "Islam: Global Issues, Challenges and Perspectives of the 21st Century".

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.


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