Three strategic consequences of the Iraq war stand out
by Robert Fry / June 1, 2016
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair after giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry for the second time, January 2011. The Chilcot report will be published on 6th July ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images
We now know that the Iraq inquiry will deliver its report on 6th July. Immediate attention will focus on the reputations of politicians, soldiers and civil servants that once glittered in public service but will not survive the verdict of John Chilcot. Yet far more important than traducing the guilty men is an audit of the strategic effect our intervention has had, in this country and globally. So, in the brief pause before publication, perhaps now is the time to take a cool look at the main consequences, and three stand out.
The first is the attenuation, confusion and perhaps long-term compromise of the campaign in Afghanistan. In 2002 the Taliban was not a coherent entity and Pakistan, having been bluntly asked if it was “with or against America” was proving an amenable partner. This was shown by the capture of Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed in Rawalpindi in early 2003 and the purging of the country’s intelligence services. Within Afghanistan the sense of a better future was palpable, in Jason Burke’s words: “everywhere one travelled… one found the expectation a new era of security, stability and prosperity was dawning.” The use of the word victory is perhaps oxymoronic in Afghanistan but had the West sustained that expectation we might now be reaching a different historical verdict on the campaign.
That it did not is partly the result of strategic confusion. In 2001-02 America saw Afghanistan as a place to kill bad guys rather than a venue for liberal intervention. And, indeed, the West could have completed that business and walked away, leaving Afghanistan to revert to medievalism. Instead it managed the worst of all possible worlds, which was to stay but without the appetite or resources to make a real difference. The moment passed and eventually soured.
To be fair to US military strategy, it did not claim to be anything other than punitive at this stage. But at the same time, US grand strategy was moving in the opposite direction, towards liberal intervention in Iraq. Sandy Gall observes in his book War Against the Taliban: “Why did it all go wrong in Afghanistan? It can be summed up in one word: Iraq.” He may be over-simplifying, but not by much. There was a complete lack of interest in Washington about Afghanistan in the vital years 2002-06 when the Taliban reformed and Pakistan began hedging its bets as to which side it was on. By the time the West returned with serious intent to Afghanistan in 2006, it faced a different situation.
The second consequence is a redefinition of the terms of engagement in the Middle East. Before 9/11, Shia Iran faced a Sunni encirclement with Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the west and Pakistan and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to the east. At a stroke, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 broke down the western part of the Sunni wall and replaced it with a Shia-led client state—along with the luxury of distance between the Iranian homeland and its main prospective enemies.
At the same time, the traditional Iranian influence was re-established in the west of Afghanistan and a contiguous area formed, within which Tehran pulls the strings. No matter how fortuitous the cause, the Iranians were not slow to consolidate their power among the 140m Shia living between Lebanon and Pakistan, in what King Abdullah of Jordan pejoratively nicknamed the Shia Crescent. Through a range of proxies Iran has meddled in Shia-dominated Bahrain, the eastern Saudi provinces and, above all, Syria, while engaging Israel through the surrogate of Hezbollah.
Whatever the motives, the legacy of Western intervention has been to transform the geo-strategic position of Iran by neutralising its immediate enemies, extending its influence in the near abroad and encouraging its national ambitions. At the same time, Iraq’s disenfranchised and resentful Sunni population created a fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaeda, and now Islamic State. In turn, this stoked the always incipient sectarian war within Islam which is about to be fought out on the streets of Fallujah, and has the potential to lead to war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. As if this wasn’t enough, within this crucible the next generation of jihadists is learning its trade, with untold consequences for the region and the West.
The third consequence is the forfeit by this country’s political and military elites of the confidence of the British people. The utility of military force has been a core assumption of British public life for at least a century and is the legacy of world wars fought in defence of liberal values. The unwritten compact assumed that British military force would be used in rules-governed situations, that it would prevail and that the results would be defensible and beneficial. At the outset, Afghanistan met these criteria but Iraq did not, as the huge anti-war rally in London in March 2003 showed.
Many subsequent rituals, from honouring of bodies of service personnel at Royal Wootton Bassett to the prodigious achievements of the Help for Heroes charity, speak to the desire of the British people to conduct a dialogue with the armed forces over the heads of the intervening elites. For the moment the compact is broken, as our reticence on Syria illustrates, and it may not be reformed.