US tanks pose in front of Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad, November 2003. Wikimedia
The recent bombing in the heart of a largely Shia district of Baghdad is now reported to have killed at least 165 people, including 25 children, and wounded 225.
Caused by a single large truck bomb, it is the latest in a series of attacks claimed by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. These incidents have added hugely to a civilian death toll now approaching the terrible losses of the height of the Iraq War a decade ago.
According to Iraq Body Count, the worst years since the 2003 invasion were 2007 (more than 29,000 killed) and 2008 (more than 26,000). There was a marked decline towards the end of the decade but even then more than 4,000 were killed each year in 2010-12, and more than 9,000 in 2013 as the impact of IS began to be felt. Since then, the situation has apparently peaked, but still remains desperate: more than 20,000 died in 2014, 17,500 in 2015, and 7,000 in the first six months of this year.
That the latest attack came just days before the publication of the Chilcot report makes for a tragically apt coincidence. And yet there is a real risk that in all the hubbub about Chilcot, Tony Blair, war crimes and the rest, two absolutely core elements of the tragedy of the War on Terror will be lost.
On the one hand, too many still hold on to the mistaken idea that the West was unprepared for the consequences of regime termination in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. And on the other, many think we’re beginning to get it right, destroying IS by intense remote warfare using airstrikes and armed drones and driving it from territory it controls.
Ready to rebuild
The West did not “lose the peace” in Iraq because it wasn’t prepared.
In early 2002, the assumption was that the post-war reconstruction and the development of Afghanistan could be left mainly to the Europeans, while the US led the fight to terminate Saddam Hussein’s rule. And the “liberation” of Iraq would have the bonus effect of thoroughly constraining Iran, which would face US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western allies in the Gulf, and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet controlling the seas.
The neo-cons always saw the Iranian regime as the real threat to the region; as the saying went in Washington, “the road to Tehran runs through Baghdad”.
At first, it seemed to work brilliantly, and Bush felt empowered to give his notorious “mission accomplished” speech barely three weeks after the fall of the Baghdad regime. What would come next was already thought out, and is brilliantly captured in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority really believed that Iraq could become a pure neo-liberal economic model state, with wholesale privatisation of all state assets, flat tax rates, minimal financial regulation and no trade unions. It is utter nonsense to suggest there was no plan; the point is that, as Chandrasekaran explains in excruciating detail, the plan failed dismally from the start.
In practice, quite a few Britons working with the provisional authority, including some from the Department for International Development, saw the tragedy unfolding and tried to counter it, but had far too little influence to have much effect.
Right track, wrong track
Then there’s the notion that the West is now “getting it right”.
The air war of the last 23 months has been far more intense than reported, with at least 30,000 IS supporters killed so far and inroads being made into the group’s controlled territory, especially in Iraq but also in Libya. But to forecast any kind of victory in the near future is hugely dangerous.
Over the past 18 months, IS planners have systematically set out to take the war to their enemies, and not just the Abadi government in Baghdad. We’ve seen a range of attacks in a number of countries, many inspired and encouraged by IS, and others with more direct involvement.
Tunis, Sousse, Brussels, Paris, Sinai, San Bernardino, Orlando, Istanbul and Dhaka – these are all part of a widening campaign, one aimed, in part, at stimulating anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred, as well as demonstrating IS’s continued power.
Even 15 years after 9/11, Western strategists still fail to see al-Qaeda and IS for what they are: transnational revolutionary movements rooted in an eschatological outlook which sees this earthly life as just one part of the process. At root, IS wants and needs war with the West, and the West is giving it just what it wants. Until that fact is confronted, the war will go on.
If this week’s debate over the Chilcot Report concentrates almost entirely on Blair and Iraq and does not even begin to recognise this wider dimension, it will have been a tragic missed opportunity to address where the West has really gone wrong.