April 7, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The decade milestone of the Iraq war would have all but been forgotten in the United States had it not been for what has been happening in nearby Syria. A decade ago, the United States left the war on terror in Afghanistan unfinished and entered Iraq on premises that it was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and therefore had to be taken down. The US administration also argued that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda, the terrorist network accused to have carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Both the arguments to enter Iraq were very strong in the backdrop of the build up that was created by the western media following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Further, Saddam Hussein was projected as reincarnation of the devil for human rights violations his regime carried out in Iraq. Although the issue of human rights violation by Saddam Hussein on his people was a correct assumption; the primary reasons to enter Iraq, namely that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction and was harbouring Al Qaeda were proven wrong. In fact, it was revealed that the administration of President George Bush had misled the country delibertely on both the issues to take the country to war in Iraq.
That Iraq war has cost the United States in human and financial terms that are mind blowing. In fact, the costs have been so huge that even describing these as mind blowing would be an understatement. Statistics are powerful tools in analyzing costs of wars but in case of Iraq, statistics cannot correctly put across what the war has meant to the Iraqis as 10 years down the road, the country is still suffering deeply the scars of the war. For the United States, the scars are equally devastating. The financial costs alone have been so high that it would have raised hundreds of millions in the developing world out of poverty had the money been spent there. A research done at Brown University has come out with a figure of US$ 3.7 trillion as costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a strong hint that ultimately, the costs could reach US$ 4.4 trillion. A similar study at Harvard has estimated that the costs would cross the US 6 trillion!
In terms of lives lost, the Iraq war has been a human designed humanitarian disaster. The US alone has lost over 4000 men and women in uniform. Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq up to March this year has been 122,366. Unofficial estimates of civilian deaths are out by some sources as high as a million. There is no family in Iraq today that has not lost a near and dear one as a consequence of the US war in Iraq and in the violence that the country witnessed under US occupation and after the US helped establish a “democratic” transition in the country. The violence and civilian deaths, though greatly diminished, are still continuing.
These depressing statistics are making Americans both in government and in ordinary station in life take a critical look at the reasons for going to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and future involvement in wars abroad. In fact, both the administration and the Republicans in Congress have so far side stepped the fact that this year has marked the 10th year of the start of the Iraq war because there is very little to cheer about. It is now the generally held view in America that the US led Iraq war, the huge human and financial costs it made in that country notwithstanding, has not made the country democratic that was given by the US administration as a major reason for the war once it was revealed that Iraq neither possessed the WMDs nor were the Al Qaeda terrorists present there. Although the sectarian conflicts among the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds have been brought to some manageable limits, it cannot be said with any certainty that the sectarian problems that Saddam Hussein had pushed under the surface by force would not emerge again in the future. On the negative side, after one decade of Iraq under the US and US backed government in Baghdad, the influence of the Iranians in Iraq that was nonexistent while Saddam Hussein was in charge is very mush visible.
The reality in Iraq today has been the curse for Syrians who suffering atrocities worse that what Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein. The civilian deaths at the hands of the murderous Bashar al- Asad’s regime have already claimed 70,000 lives. More than 1.1 million have fled the country where they live in conditions “soaked and frozen by the chilling rains of the Mediterranean winter” that will no doubt claim many more lives. Richard Cohen has pointed to these facts in an article in the Washington Post recently: “The war threatens to destabilize the region. The Kurds in Syria’s north are restless. The Palestinians, refugees in Syria from their one-time homeland are refugees again in Jordan. Lebanon is awash with Syrians, fellow Muslims of a different sort. The ethnic nitroglycerin of that country- an unstable mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, various Christians and Druze- looks increasingly fragile.” The situation in Syria, if Bashar al- Asad is allowed to continue, will eventually threaten “US allies in Israel, Turkey in Jordan”
Richard Cohen went on to state in no uncertain terms that there is no chance of Bashar Asad either seeking exile in Moscow as some have suggested or retreating. He expects the civilian slaughter to continue and “bloodbath will follow bloodbath, a settling of scores from the recent past; the distant past and – just for good measure – the imagined past. Kill before you can be killed. It is the earliest form of hedging.” He analyzed wars as those of choice and necessity. He described the Iraq war as one of choice “and imbecility” and criticized the Obama’s administration for failing in Syria that he felt should have been a war of necessity for the United States.
Many other political analysts in the United States like Richard Cohen have likewise criticized President Obama’s lack of affirmative action in Syria, even those who had supported US’ intervention in Iraq and are now well aware of the costs to America and Iraq and the fact that the Bush administration had taken the country to Iraq on false pretexts. Although they are conscious of the fact that so far the US has not sacrificed a soul in Syria and have limited costs to millions in US$ as against trillions in US $ in Iraq, they are worried that if the US remains with its hands-off policy in Syria, it will encourage a human disaster much worse than Iraq.
They are also worried that the policy of the Obama administration will also adversely impact the standing of the United States in the region. According to one of them, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, the US influence is the region “is plummeting”. In another piece in the Washington Post, he has written that not just France and Great Britain but every neighbour of Syria “has been shocked and awed by the failure of the US leadership” and that it will not be Iraq but Syria that “will be the turning point when America ceases to be” indispensible nation as Bill Clinton had described the United States.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, CFAS