What just happened? Lessons from a ‘free’ Iraq. or: Just what do you think we did, anyway?

After seven years of constipation, Sir John Chilcot finally released his report into the Iraq war1. We have officially been told what a lot of people expected all along: the Iraq war wasn’t necessary, was probably illegal, definitely poorly planned, had no post-war plan, and did not achieve the goal of a stable democratic Iraq.

For anyone who spent any time in Iraq during or after the invasion, I’d just like to say: no shit! Was there really anyone left with a reasonable doubt that the war in Iraq was a bad decision? If you’re not already convinced of that, 2.6 million words of analysis aren’t going to convince you. Neither can I, probably, but I will try.

A woman cursed me in Arabic the other day when I was shopping at my local Iraqi market, and I couldn’t even say she was wrong — her message was pretty clear, so translation wasn’t a problem. I am quite often embarrassed at the actions of the United States government, and the UK isn’t much better these days. That’s depressing, and we have to do something about it.

Unlike a lot of other people, I spent time in Iraq. Following the invasion I worked setting up satellite communications in-country: mostly in Baghdad and in the Kurdish region. We connected Iraqis and US military (and their contractors) to the Internet. For Iraqis, it was their first taste of the worldwide information superhighway, and for US-allied folks, it was their lifeline back to their families. In the early days everyone was positive, and I went to places like Samarra, Mosul, and Kirkuk without problems. I worked with Iraqis every day, and still have a lot of Iraqi friends, most of whom aren’t in Iraq ant more.

The positivity of those early days deteriorated quickly. There was no post-invasion plan to reconstruct even the basic infrastructure of Iraq, which the US and UK military thoroughly destroyed. The West gloried in the invasion, the quick and complete destruction of resistance. The only thing neocon hawks gloried in more was the cut and run out of the country — somehow the job in Iraq was done in just seven years, while we have military presences in Germany and Japan some 60 years later2. To think that the situation in Iraq was any simpler than the end of WWII is misguided.

Now, 13 years after the invasion, electricity is still sporadic — even in Baghdad3. Municipal water networks have failed and brought cholera outbreaks in the capital4. Floods have overcome unmaintained Saddam-era civil works5. In a twist of gallows humour Iraqis have been killed by electrical discharges from power lines in times of flooding6. The security situation is so bad that Iraq is by far the leading victim of terrorism in the world7: more than 17,500 people died from violence last year, and nearly 8,000 have already died in 20168. The prosperous, largely secular, and generally pro-West Iraqi state has been destroyed wholesale, and its population abandoned by those who sought to bring freedom.

Throughout all of this, it was clear that the driving reason behind the invasion — that Saddam’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and would use them against the West (or by proxy Israel) at any moment — was a complete fabrication. There was no nuclear programme, no stockpiles of chemical weapons, no biological agents. They’re not buried in a cache in the desert, known only to a handful of Ba’athist loyalists. And we knew they weren’t there — Hans Blix, the UN’s weapons inspector, said as much9. So did a British mercenary to me directly, in Baghdad, in 2004 — he said WMDs didn’t exist, and it didn’t matter, getting rid of Saddam was the important thing.

I’m no Saddam apologist. Saddam was a brutal dictator, and his sons Uday and Qusay were probably even worse. Yes, there were massive problems in Saddam’s Iraq — the state perpetrated war crimes against its own people. But the line we were fed on how we would solve that problem was a simpleton’s answer. If it was possible to simply unseat a ‘bad’ guy and put in a ‘good’ guy, that would be the right thing to do. But intervention is never simple, and our lack of thought and care has plunged the entire region into chaos.

Let’s be clear about this point. Our governments invaded Iraq, and tipped an already unsettled region over into anarchy. The body politic of the US and UK — that’s you and me (doubly) — bear responsibility for the actions of our representatives. If they lied to us, we need to hold them accountable. But for the actions of our governments, we are ultimately responsible — that’s what democracy is all about — both for the positive and the negative.

Both George Bush and Tony Blair have said that the world is better off without Saddam. Well, that’s total horseshit — the world is most definitely not better off. Nor is Iraq.

Iraq is in near-complete anarchy, with world-leading corruption10. ISIS has a well-known connection to former Ba’ath officers11 — just who do you think was trained to fly US-made military helicopters that ISIS took from Mosul’s military airbase? That ISIS exists at all is a direct result of post-invasion instability and our treatment of prisoners12. Our governments — the US and UK — bear the responsibility for this, and as the body politic we must recognise that and hold them (and ourselves) accountable.

After the first Gulf War — operation Desert Storm, as it was known — Saddam’s Iraq was under crippling sanctions, with a devastated infrastructure. Yet, within months, there was reliable power and security in Baghdad — with no ability to raise funds or legally import any parts. I used to make a joke that the Iraqi Summer was the real aggressor post-invasion — first Summer, it’s hot, there’s no air conditioning, but there’s no Saddam; second Summer, it’s hot, there’s still no air conditioning, but there’s no Saddam; third Summer, it’s still hot, there’s still no air conditioning, when we had Saddam we had air conditioning; fourth Summer, remember when it was hot, but we had air conditioning, wasn’t Saddam great at getting things done? It’s tongue-in-cheek, but the average Iraqi’s life is worse off because of the invasion, and there’s no solution in sight.

If this were limited to Iraq, it would be terrible, but not as awful as the situation we find ourselves in today. But the reality is that by destabilising Iraq, we created a power vacuum in the Middle East, and our treatment of prisoners, both after 9/11 and in the military actions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have allowed anti-West sentiment to grow to unheard-of proportions, and have led directly to the creation of ISIS.

Many people thought the the Arab Spring, and the ouster of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya would replace repressive regimes in the Arab world with democratic states. Make no mistake, we in the West were involved — through intelligence services, funding, and in some cases air strikes. It seems unlikely that ISIS could be as strong as it is now without intervention against Assad’s government in Syria.

A Kurdish friend of mine is from Halabcha, and was gassed by Saddam as a child. He went blind, eventually recovered his sight, and now runs a successful dry cleaning business in London. We were discussing the state of the Middle East the other day, and he stopped for a minute, considered, and said that even he would prefer that Saddam had stayed, and that the world was safer. Not fair, not right, but safer.

What we have to do now — all of us — is to resist the idea that we can (or should) wash our hands of the situation. We, whether through false representation or not, are collectively responsible not only for the collapse of Iraq, but for the rise of ISIS, and the ensuing Syrian refugee crisis. We must stand with refugees, who are in the majority honest, helpful, friendly, and hard-working. We cannot turn our backs on these regular people — if they’re from Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, or anywhere else. At the same time, we must press our allies in the region for additional civil rights reform. And we must hold those who took us into war, with no plan for what comes next, responsible.

There is no easy or quick solution to the problems of the Middle East. If we shy away from difficulty and retreat into xenophobia, punctuated by occasional interventionist streaks, we abandon our chance to bring peace to the world and endanger ourselves and our friends. We live in a world that is more closely connected every day, and we must live up to our responsibilities. After seven years, if no member of government is held accountable, we should all hold our heads in shame and ask forgiveness of the Iraqi people.


1 The Iraq Report

2 Spiegel International — Ex-US Intelligence Chief on Islamic State’s Rise: ‘We Were Too Dumb’

3 Wikipedia — Electricity Sector in Iraq

4 New York Times / AP — Rare Storms and Floods Bring Iraq to a Standstill

5 BBC — Iraq cholera outbreak caused by sewage in water

6 Business Insider / AP — Outrage builds as dozens of Iraqis electrocuted in floods

7 The Independent — The 10 countries where terrorist attacks kill the most people

8 Iraq Body Count

9 UC Berkley News — U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix faults Bush administration for lack of “critical thinking” in Iraq

10 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2015

11 PBS — How Saddam’s Former Soldiers Are Fueling the Rise of ISIS

12 The Guardian —  Isis: the inside story

Further Reading:

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Probably the most telling book about post-invastion Iraq. Adapted into the instantly forgettable film Green Zone. Read the book!

DC Confidential by Christopher Meyer
First-hand account by the UK ambassador to the USA during the run-up to the Iraq War. Damning of the Blair government in the extreme, it foreshadows publication of ‘with you, whatever’ by years.

Generation Kill by Evan Wright
Evan Wright accompanied First Recon Marine on the intial assult into Iraq. If there’s any better account of the lack of planning by the US military in the Iraq war, I don’t know about it. Made by HBO into a very good series.