Monday, March 25, 2013

US’s foreign wars: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan

The Daily Sun
Sunday, 24th March, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

I picked two new items in the papers on US’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that made me wonder about what made it go to these faraway lands, what price it paid and what it has achieved. Ten years ago, the US had started the Iraq war leaving the war on terror in Afghanistan to take out Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It came back to Afghanistan after removing Saddam Hussein from power and hanging him and achieving a regime change although it found no trace of the WMD that had took them there in the first instance.

It is now a decade since the US started the Iraq war and although Saddam Hussein is history, Iraq is far from becoming that model of democracy that the US promised to give the country once it became known that it had used the case of WMD as a false pretext to invade Iraq. In an engrossing article in The Washington Post, Professor Andrew J Bacevich stated that the United States has spent US$ 800 billion, sacrificed the lives of 4475 of its service men and women with an additional 32,221 of its troops injured in Iraq and asked a provocative question “So did we win?” He did not answer the question directly. Instead, he discussed a number of wars in modern history, including the First and Second Great Wars, and concluded that “battlefield outcomes thought to be conclusive often prove anything but.”

He discussed the First World War that started 99 years ago to show that although Great Britain was one of the victors of the war; the results were disastrous for it eventually. It went to the war among other objectives, “with a pretext for carving out the Ottoman Empire” but instead, the war “accelerated its demise.” He also discussed the 1967 Arab-Israel- war to show that although it ended with Israel victorious, it “saddled Israel with large, restive minority that it can neither pacify nor assimilate” and that the “ouster of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan” gave “rise to the Taliban.” In case of the Iraq war too, although the US has claimed that war ended successfully for it, the claim is a contested one. Neither peace nor democracy has returned there. The economy of Iraq is in shambles and by various estimates 1, 50,000 to a million people have been killed there due to sectarian violence that continues unabated.

Thus after all the huge sacrifices the USA made in terms of human lives and money, USA’s claim of victory in Iraq is at best a hollow one. In Afghanistan the US with its allies are still pursuing their objectives to establish peace and democracy there together with crushing the Taliban with very little time left to complete these tasks. In fact, as irony would have it, the US is now talking with the Taliban behind the back of President Hamid Karzai to ensure its safe exit from the country that President Obama has said would be achieved by end of 2014. As for peace and democracy, Afghanistan is as far from both as it was when the US and its allies entered the country in pursuit of President George’s Bush “war on terror.”

In a recent seminar in Dubai, experts on Afghanistan sat on the sidelines of the Emirates Literary Show to discuss which way the US involvement in Afghanistan was going.  The three speakers there were Sandy Gall, Abdul Bari Atwan and William Damrymple, all well known experts on Middle East and Afghanistan who raised the same concerns regarding Afghanistan that Andrew Bacevich raised in the context of Iraq. The conclusion was again the same that Andrew Bacevich reached on Iraq and other wars of the past that he described in the words of F Scott Fitzgerald, “The victor belongs to the spoils.”

All three speakers raised the question whether the West has lost the war in Afghanistan and answered in the affirmative. Abdul Bari Atwan said that “the Taliban are going to come back once the Americans leave the country.” William Damrymple reached the same conclusion and used a bit of history to confirm his conclusion. He said: “The truth be told, no one in history has been able to control the Afghans for long.” Sandy Gall also reached the same conclusion as his other two speakers, adding that the reason why Afghanistan will end as a failure for the West is because they entered the country with “no plan in place at all.”

It was thus no surprise that when the new US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who went to Afghanistan on his first visit to that country  recently could not even hold a joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai, the first time ever that such an unbelievable thing happened with a top US visitor . In fact, the Afghan President postponed his joint press conference with the new US Defense Secretary on what was blatantly a lame excuse of security although the press conference was scheduled to be held inside the Presidential, the most secure place in all of Afghanistan. The Afghan President did not stop there. He blamed the US for having a hand in the latest violence in Kabul that he used to postpone the press conference that he said was carried out to create the condition for US and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline.

The disappointing fate of US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the US administration. In his state of the union speech last February, the US President spoke strongly on the use of drones as a substitute to sending US troops to fight wars on foreign soil.  In fact, the underlying theme of that important speech was towards making his second administration inward looking with focus on domestic issues related to the economy, employment and healthcare. The theme also went well with the general thinking among the majority of Americans who are no longer interested in sacrificing their own men and women as well as their money for defending the cause of freedom and democracy on foreign soil.

The lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan together with the mood of most Americans against US’ foreign wars are important as the US administration comes under increasing pressure from Israel for attacking Iran to take out its alleged nuclear capabilities.  In his state of the union address, the President spoke firmly on his administration’s preference for the diplomatic option over the military one on Iran. The results from Iraq and Afghanistan together with the mood among most Americans should encourage the US President to push for the diplomatic option in his talks with the Israeli Prime Minister. The US President is in Israel at the time of writing this piece.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and the Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS

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