"Mission accomplished" - 17 years on
After nearly 20 years of fighting, despite the sacrifice of thousands of soldiers, the US-led mission in Afghanistan looks to be ending in failure, while Iraq has become the defining disaster of the 21st century for the US and its allies. But things could have been so different.
On 1 May 2003, US president George W. Bush made a speech in front of a "mission accomplished" banner. He has since stated he regrets appearing in front of the banner.
"The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee."
So wrote the English poet Lord Byron in The Destruction of Sennacherib, published in 1815.
On February 29 2020, President Donald J. Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban.
Under the deal, the US and its allies will withdraw all forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. Despite fearful protests from women's rights advocates in Afghanistan, Trump is ready to leave Afghanistan to its fate if it means US service personnel can return home.
"It's time for someone else to do that work," said Trump, referring to efforts to fight terrorism in the country. Surprisingly, he identified the Taliban as the ones to do it - along with "surrounding countries". In essence, it was now somebody else's problem.
A waste of time..?
While many might feel uncomfortable about dealing with the Taliban, popular opinion in the UK and the US is not so different: many people now consider both wars as a failure. Countless words have been written about that over the years - but few have addressed the biggest question of all: what was it all for? And why did it all go so wrong?
The president seemed impatient to be done with the whole thing. "I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we're not all wasting time," he said.
It was a revealing remark.
Britain's role and the situation in Afghanistan today
The British deployment in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014 was called Operation Herrick. British forces mainly fought in Helmand province, in the south. The main objectives of the British in Afghanistan were:
To deny the Taliban control of Helmand province; and
To stop opium production.
Today, Helmand province is a Taliban stronghold, and a centre of opium production.
Half the country is now contested or back under Taliban control, according to US government figures provided by SIGAR in January 2019, and hundreds of people were dying every quarter in Taliban violence and coalition airstrikes. In the first half of 2019, more civilians were killed by the Allies (717) than by the Taliban (531), according to figures provided by the United Nations.
The total number of Afghan civilian deaths since 2001 includes 31,000 documented fatalities, but US educational organisation the Watson Institute estimates 111,000 dead and 116,000 injured in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016, based on reports from multiple sources. British military casualties in Afghanistan were 454 killed and 2,188 wounded.
Allied troops scan the landscape of Afghanistan, watching for hostile insurgents
It is also worth being aware that an additional 62,000 deaths and 67,000 injuries were reported in Pakistan for the same period, caused by Taliban and al Qaeda violence which spilled over into Pakistan after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Conflict in Pakistan included two major battles in the Swat valley, where tens of thousands of soldiers from the Pakistani army fought against the Taliban. Pakistan continues to have an ambivalent relationship with them, sometimes supporting them and sometimes fighting them.
The failure of Western diplomacy and politics
Much has been made over the years of the numerous failures of intelligence, political misjudgements, failures of procurement, and the failure of post-war planning, as well as the foolhardiness of trying to occupy two countries at the same time with insufficient forces for the job. I won't repeat those arguments in detail here.
But a large part of the reason for the failure of the west in the region, is the failure to understand the local culture, society and customs.
In particular, US hostility to Iran, the country located centrally between Afghanistan and Iraq, was a major factor - and one that is completely overlooked. In all my reading on the subject, I do not recall this ever being mentioned. The closest I've seen is allegations of Iranian involvement in insurgent activities.
There are two facts about this region which should have made it obvious from the outset, that an occupation was a bad idea, given the hostile state of US relations with Iran.
Most people in Afghanistan speak a dialect of the Iranian language; and
Most people in Iraq follow the official Iranian religion, the Shia faith.
The map (above) shows the language families of the region. The Iranian family of languages/dialects is in orange. Note how it covers most of Afghanistan; note also that Kurdish, spoken in the north of Iraq, is part of the Iranian family of languages.
This map shows the religions of the region. Most people in Iraq are Shia, the same as the Iranians. Note that even in the north, many people there are Kurds, and thus speak an Iranian dialect.
By invading both countries while keeping a hostile stance towards Iran, the West was setting itself up for failure. It was unrealistic to think that the locals would greet western troops as 'liberators', especially given the history of the West's relations with Iran and other Muslim countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, since the Ottoman Empire was carved up in 1918.
A brief history of transgression
The British and French carved up Syria and Iraq between themselves after the First World War; Winston Churchill advocating bombing the Kurds with mustard gas to "spread a lively terror" among them; and later on, in 1941, the British invaded Iran in alliance with the Soviet Union, deposing the ruling Shah.
The US also has a history of nefarious activity in Iran, most notably the CIA coup against Iran's democratically elected president Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh saw that Iran's oil was controlled by BP, owned by British and US interests. The great majority of the oil wealth was being extracted by the west, rather than being used to benefit the Iranian people. Mossadegh proposed to nationalise the oil, so that it could benefit the Iranians. In response, the CIA organised a coup and had him ousted from power. In his place, the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi ruled as a western-backed autocrat, jailing political opposition and buying heavily from western arms manufacturers. These events led directly to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the Shah. And since that time, the United States political establishment has been fiercely hostile to Iran.
The United States provided several billion dollars of economic aid to Saddam Hussein's government during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the US encouraged this attack, although no conclusive proof exists. What is beyond doubt is that Saddam obtained chemical weapons via a German company. The US provided intelligence and tactical advice to Saddam's army, including the use of satellite images. This support did not stop, even after it was confirmed that Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. At the time, US president Ronald Reagan attempted to conceal the responsibility of the Saddam regime by falsely attributing the Halabja attack to the Iranians. In reality, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons to bomb Iranian cities.
After 2003, Iran rightly feared being encircled at its eastern and western borders by hostile US forces. For Iran this was a matter of national survival. The following map makes clear why.
"How dare they put their country so close to our bases" - this map has been shared widely on social media. The point of this meme is to illustrate how the US is threatening Iran.
For the sake of factual accuracy (given that the above is an internet meme), a more objective look at US deployments in the region, provided by more credible sources, looks like this:
Note - this map only covers the Middle East plus Afghanistan, whereas the first also includes countries in Central and South Asia. Nevertheless, it corroborates the first map.
The insurgency in Iraq, and missed opportunities
When the insurgency in Iraq began in 2003/4, there were multiple factions competing for power. These factions included supporters of Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, as well as Iraqi nationalists, Iraqi Salafists (Sunni), and foreign Islamist fighters.
But there were also Shia militias, including the Iran-linked Badr Organisation (an Iraqi political party founded in Iran in 1982 which had a military wing led by Iranian officers) and the followers of Muqtada al Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric, who created the Mahdi Army in June 2003. The Mahdi army was the first major Shia group in Iraq to fight against the US occupation forces.
Rather than antagonising Iran, the United States and its allies could have worked to make Iran their number one ally in the region. With the ability of Iranians to speak the language in Afghanistan, and their shared faith with the majority of Iraqis, the Iranians would have been the perfect ally. As a neighbour of both countries, Iran's help could have been invaluable, and its influence over society in both countries would have been an enormous help.
Instead, the US continued to treat Iran as an enemy, subject to punitive US sanctions and hostile rhetoric. And the shortcomings of US management within Iraq (particularly disbanding the army, the government and the police) are well known. The result was the bloodbath we all are familiar with. Independent web project the Iraq Body Count lists a minimum of 185,000 documented Iraqi civilian deaths from violence since 2003. Including combatants, this number rises to 288,000.
The power of vested interests
Unfortunately, the US political establishment is dominated by lobbyists linked to Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which are keen to have the US work against Iran, for their own political interests.
Israel has its own quarrel with Iran, going back to the Islamic Republic's support for the Palestinian cause, while Saudi Arabia's monarchy opposes Iran partly for sectarian reasons (Saudi is a Sunni Arab monarchy while Iran is a Shia Persian Republic).
The irony for US claims of spreading "freedom and democracy" is that the citizens of Saudi Arabia have never seen a ballot box, while in Israel, the Palestinians face regular human rights violations. Iran, meanwhile, does hold regular elections. While imperfect, the country is rather more democratic than Saudi Arabia.
A cynic might note that sometimes, the supporting arguments (particularly those that reference human rights) made in favour of US military interventions are less than convincing. Women's rights were often mentioned, but I suspect that was more of a rationalisation, made after the critical decision (to war) had already been made.
A response to 9/11
In the first instance, the US wanted to avenge the 9/11 attacks. Rather than taking a sober look at who was responsible (fifteen of the 19 attackers were Saudi nationals; none were from Afghanistan, nor Iraq, nor Iran) and why (al Qaeda was reacting to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the US's support for Israel), the US leadership invaded Afghanistan to exact revenge.
The US invasion failed to have a clear objective for Afghanistan, beyond denying the use of the country for terrorist training camps. The intervention did nothing to address the actual root causes of the 9/11 attacks, which were the United States' relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In particular, Saudi Arabia's regime has been actively spreading the fanatical, hard line Wahhabist interpretation of Islam around the globe, using its oil money to fund schools that teach extremist ideas to generations of Muslim youth. The United States has been one of the key enablers of the Saudi regime, as the United States is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, and a major exporter of weapons to the Saudi armed forces. Saudi Wahhabism is essentially the same set of beliefs that al Qaeda adheres to. The US has been fighting al Qaeda with one hand, while supporting the regime that spreads Wahhabist ideology with the other.
Furthermore, in the very same video where he acknowledges responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden specifically referenced US support for Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as a motivation for his actions. The desire to strike back at the US was a major motivator for him; likewise, elsewhere he stated the idea of striking the twin towers came to him after watching footage of Israeli jets destroying towers in Lebanon.
American occupation forces pass under the Qaws an Nasr, the Victory Arch in Baghdad completed in 1989 by Saddam Hussein's government. The monument was constructed to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war, which Saddam started.
Rather than taking a moment to pause and perhaps reconsider its relations with Saudi Arabia and attempt to rein in Israel's building of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, the US political leadership decided on a more convenient target.
Just like the earlier attack on Afghanistan, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was driven by US political domestic considerations (the Bush administration was up for re-election in 2004; a short, victorious war is the oldest tool in the book for gaining popularity) as well as for Bush, the idea of finishing what his father started with the original Gulf War of 1991. Saddam was widely reviled in the West due to his reputation as a blood-soaked tyrant; while Iraq could offer little resistance, having been financially and militarily crippled by western sanctions and decades of demoralising conflict.
Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction" and the full machine of propaganda set out to demonise Iraq, falsely conflating the Saddam government with al Qaeda. In reality, Saddam's government was Secularist, and prayer was banned in the Iraqi army. Whereas al Qaeda is an Islamist movement that seeks to spread political Islam. Saddam opposed al Qaeda, but facts could not be allowed to get in the way of what was convenient. Saddam was a terrible dictator with much blood on his hands; but he had nothing to do with 9/11, nor did the people of Iraq.
Neither intervention had a clear sense of purpose or objectives. Neither solved America's problems. Rather, they had the opposite effect, embroiling the US in costly and destructive wars that only tarnished the country's image.
In files recovered from his computer during the raid on his compound in Abbottabad in 2011, Osama bin Laden's thinking was revealed. He planned to provoke America into attacking the Muslim countries, forcing the United States to spend heavily in blood and money, triggering popular resistance to the US in the Muslim world, the rise of jihadist groups, sowing division and chaos in the targeted societies, and weakening the US permanently.
Still image from video footage of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national. Bin Laden believed in jihad against the United States; he wanted the US military out of Saudi Arabia, the 'liberation' of occupied Palestine from Israeli control, and an end to US support for Israel, as well as to spread the radical Salafist/Wahhabist interpretation of Islam across the Muslim world.
Nobody doubts that the "War on Terror" and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq have been expensive. The cost of so much war since 2001 has been estimated at $5.4 trillion, according to figures provided by German data firm Statista in November 2019.
In 2001, the US national debt was $5.8 trillion. Today it stands at $26 trillion.
If the US had used the money it spent on the war on terror, on reducing its debt instead, the US national debt could have been virtually eliminated, or at least greatly reduced. Instead, the US now spends $378 billion every year just servicing the interest on its debts; that number is expected to double by 2028. Meanwhile, America's roads are full of potholes and its society has reached levels of inequality not seen in a century.
The decline of the United States has become a staple of political discussion since 2001, contributing to the election of Trump in 2016 on a non-interventionist platform with the slogan "Make America Great Again". For many observers, that decline runs through 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq.
George W. Bush once placed Iran in the "Axis of evil" - a collection of countries which the United States government considered as its enemies. But the real evil in this world is ignorance and its frequent companion, hubris.
Arrogant, ignorant, over-confident Western politicians go charging into the Middle East, a region they do not understand. They don't know the people nor the culture; they vastly over-estimate their own abilities; and they completely fail to do their due diligence properly.
One cannot also ignore the abuses that were carried out by US-led forces, such as the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Haditha massacre, the controversial "Collateral Murder" incident involving US Apache helicopter gunships, as well as the detention without trial of prisoners at Guantanamo bay in dubious legal circumstances.
I believe these incidents do not represent the majority of coalition forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan; I've read enough accounts of former soldiers to know that genuine efforts were made by some units to respect the population in their area of operations. But as with every war, some people exceeded the limits. Ultimately, the political leadership sets the culture; they set the objectives, and they set the rhetoric that is filtered down the chain of command to the troops.
In general then, the majority of Western troops do their best, but with the political leadership being what it is, they are often sent into action in the service of misguided policies.
The result, predictably, is failure.
The US lost 6,789 soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. British losses in Iraq and Afghanistan were 182 and 454 respectively.