Iraq War anniversary: What lessons have we learned, 20 years on?


“We are fighting over there,” sundry British politicians used to say, “so we don’t have to fight over here.”

It was a neat formulation, and what it meant was that the UK, or the West in general, was taking the fight to the lawless – whether in Afghanistan or Iraq – so as to pre-empt another atrocity akin to 9/11.

Twenty years after the UK joined the US in its assault on Iraq, however – a conflict, let us remember, for which there was no UN mandate and was opposed by many EU countries, including France – the UK is an enthusiastic party to another war that is being waged, if not exactly over here, then a lot closer to over here than anyone surely envisaged.

There are many differences, of course, between the wars in Iraq and Ukraine, not least the technological advancements of two decades and the new world of instant communications. There are sharp differences in the type of warfare: the war in Ukraine can be seen as an old-fashioned European land war for security and territory, while the Iraq war was fought, at the outset at least, largely from the air.

There is also a sense which the rights and wrongs are reversed: the US and Europe are united in seeing a moral obligation to help defend Ukraine from the unilateral and illegal invasion by Russia.

Over Iraq, not only was the West divided, but the US and the UK failed to gain a UN mandate for their intervention and then it turned out that Iraq no longer had the illegal stocks of chemical weapons that had been the pretext for the attack.

The war became an exercise in might-is-right regime-change, with disastrous results for the supposed beneficiaries, the Iraqis. It was repeated in Libya, with similarly anarchic results, and might have been repeated again in Syria, had not the UK parliament commendably said no.

But there are also similarities, some of them uncomfortable, which suggest that not as much was learned as could and should have been learned from the catastrophe that the Iraq adventure became.

And this is despite a brace of lengthy and expensive investigations – the Butler review and the Chilcot Inquiry – into how the Iraq war came about and what went so wrong. The first is that, in both cases, many opportunities were lost to avert the resort to arms, and subsequently to curtail the hostilities.

Before the attack on Iraq, there were negotiations; there were UN resolutions, there were inspections designed to uncover Iraq’s supposed WMD. But military campaigns have their own inexorable logic; once prepared, they are hard to stand down.

The UN is an inadequate instrument for preventing a war, once one party or another has decided that the use of military force is a realistic, or – to them, the only – option. The same might be said of Russia before it invaded Ukraine, but also the West’s failure to see that their rebuffs to Russian diplomacy and demarches in the half-year before the invasion were fatefully narrowing Russia’s options.

Second, experts were discounted. In the months before the Iraq War, there were extensive, and admirable, efforts to find out where and whether Iraq held what were termed weapons of mass destruction. Not only were none found, but authoritative reports that they had been destroyed were disbelieved.

Not only were the weapons experts discounted, but the Iraq experts – whose concerns for Iraq’s history and culture were ignored, along with their warnings that Iraqis were unlikely to strew flowers in the path of the US, or any other, invader.

Both Russia and Western countries can be faulted on the same score – Russia for apparently not understanding the changes that had taken place in Ukraine since the Soviet collapse, and similarly misjudging their likely welcome.

But policymakers in the West, too, failed – and still fail – to appreciate the historical roots of the conflict currently facing stalemate in Ukraine, and not heeding warnings from experts about the depth of apprehension in Russia as Nato increased its presence in territory it regarded as vital to its own security.

A third lesson concerns the disproportionate influence exerted by vocal emigres. The US Administration’s view of Iraq appears to have been swayed to a large extent by a circle of emigre Iraqis around Ahmed Chalabi, who presented himself as the natural post-Saddam leader of his country – but proved out of touch and unable to command the trust of his erstwhile compatriots.

In the US and the UK, emigre Ukrainians were preponderantly loyal to Petro Poroshenko, who had been elected after the Euromaidan uprising of 2014 toppled Viktor Yanukovych, deemed to lean more towards Russia.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, while emigres in the West overwhelmingly supported Poroshenko in the 2019 elections, they were out of tune with their compatriots, who voted by a landslide for Volodymyr Zelensky, a former lawyer, actor and producer, who was running on a platform that included negotiating an end to the five-year old conflict in the Donbas with Russia.

It took more than a year for most Western leaders (with the honourable exception of France) to switch their support to Zelensky – by which time the moment for broaching peace with Russia had largely passed.

Those now lavishly praising Zelensky’s war leadership should recognise that if they had been as enthusiastic following his massive victory in a democratic election, there might have been no war.

A fourth lesson might relate to the use of intelligence. The way that intelligence was used – or abused – in the US and the UK to justify the war on Iraq is well known, although, alas, no one’s career or reputation seriously suffered as a result.

The same countries’ use of intelligence before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – almost daily published reports of the mustering of hundreds of thousands of combat-ready Russian troops – has been presented almost as a rehabilitation of the intelligence services. After all, they can claim to be right.

But was this the point of releasing this intelligence information? These one-sided reports – which omitted to say that Ukrainian troops were massing on their side of the border with a view, as Russia believed, to trying to reclaim the territory controlled by pro-Russia rebel forces – seem designed to deter a Russian invasion by warning Moscow that their intentions were known. But the knowledge did not deter; arguably, it scared Russia into invading Ukraine while it still could.

A fifth lesson might be about considering the real interests of the people whose interests you purport to represent. Among the US objectives in Iraq, shared to an extent by the UK, was to liberate Iraqis from tyranny and bring democracy. What Iraqis experienced was destruction and anarchy.

The country’s Kurdish minority may have fared better, but they still do not have the independent homeland they craved. As yet, Ukrainians are adamant they will fight on. Theirs is a war, after all, being fought for the survival of the nation – which is the message from their Western supporters, too.

Every now and again, however, there are glimpses of another agenda on the part of some in the US and the UK, where the purpose is less to save Ukraine than to destroy Russia as a great power for ever.

To the extent that this agenda exists, so does the question: is this war really being fought for the benefit of Ukrainians, or are they being used for others’ selfish ends – and what might the consequences be?

And so to the last lesson: what has become known as “the day after”. This is the point at which the war in Iraq went so desperately wrong, with a military force inadequate to meeting the obligations of an occupying power; the dissolution of Iraq’s army, letting loose armed fighters to pursue their own clan wars, and years of disorder which fuelled jihadism in Syria and elsewhere.

The day after has yet to come in Ukraine. The Zelensky government has nonetheless shown considerable foresight in preparing, so far as is possible, for the logistics and financing of reconstruction – the scale of which grows by the day. But this is only a part of what lies ahead.

What, for instance, will be the damage from all the war deaths, disabling injuries and emigration? Will a civil peace even be possible in a country, replete with firearms, where in once occupied areas neighbours took different sides?

Twenty years on, Iraq still offers a graphic illustration of what happens when even the best-intentioned outsiders get “the day after” wrong. It must be hoped that, when the time comes, this might turn out to be at least one lesson learned.

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