Skip to main content

Western warmongers have all the answers, and they're all wrong

The wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan failed not because of noble errors, but because short-sighted Western interests trumped the needs of the people. And this is why the creeping return to war will fail again

Despite an almost total lack of public debate, Western military escalation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is on the rise.

Renewed military interventionism has been largely justified as a response to the meteoric rise of Islamic State networks, spreading across parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

Missing from government pronouncements, though, is any acknowledgement that the proliferation of Islamist terrorism is a direct consequence of the knee-jerk response of military escalation.

Discarded to the memory hole is the fact that before each of the major interventions in these three countries, our political leaders promised they would bring security, freedom and prosperity.

Instead, they have done precisely the opposite.

White man’s burden for Afghan freedom

In October 2001, as US special forces were roaming Afghanistan in the search for Osama bin Laden, Max Boot – a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations - wrote a gushing article in the Weekly Standard titled, The Case for American Empire.

“Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” he said.

“Occupation would be a temporary expedient to allow the people to get back on their feet until a responsible, humane, preferably democratic, government takes over… Is this an ambitious agenda? Without a doubt. Does America have the resources to carry it out? Also without a doubt.”

Fifteen years into the war in Afghanistan, it is patently clear that this imperial dream is nothing more than a self-soothing fantasy. President Barack Obama has reneged on a promise to withdraw US troops, and will instead keep 9,800 there in 2016 – and has said that at least 5,500 will remain in the country indefinitely.

The Taliban, far from being destroyed, is resurgent like never before. IS is now active in Afghanistan, and its reach is growing.

Billions have been invested in this failed long-haul military effort – while the economy, infrastructure and basic public services remain underdeveloped, broken and ineffective.

Instead, in the name of promoting democracy, the West has cynically supported fraudulent elections, endemic corruption, and warlord cronyism.

According to the new Human Rights Watch World Report 2016, under the US-backed "democracy" in Afghanistan: “Little progress was made in reining in abusive militias, reducing corruption, promoting women’s rights, and reforming the courts.”

The West’s response to this has been to turn a blind eye, because the corrupt regime we’re backing there by definition constitutes "the good guys".

“Donors have been all too willing to ignore abuses taking place rather than using their influence with the government to end them,” said HRW’s senior Afghanistan researcher, Patricia Grossman.

This hasn’t stopped Boot from touting himself as an expert on what the US should do next in Afghanistan.

Blaming the troop withdrawal itself for the failure of US counterinsurgency operations, earlier this month Boot proclaimed: “Afghanistan is not lost even now. A greater US commitment can still save the democratic government in Kabul and stop a Taliban takeover.”

What democratic government in Kabul?

Boot conveniently ignores that the acceleration of the Taliban’s insurgency did not begin under Obama, but intensified under the Bush Doctrine.

Between 2002 and 2006, the number of insurgent attacks increased by 400 percent, and the number of deaths from these attacks increased by more than 800 percent. Between 2005 and 2006, IED attacks more than doubled from 783 to 1,677, and armed attacks near tripled from 1,558 to 4,542.

From 2006 to 2007, insurgent attacks increased by a further 27 percent.

Neither Bush nor Obama have shown much interest in addressing one of the key material causes behind the Taliban insurgency.

According to Richard Armitage, a former deputy US secretary of state under Bush from 2000 to 2005: “We had substantial information that there was direct assistance from the Pakistan government to the Taliban between 2002 and 2004.”

In fact, intelligence of this nature has continued to pour in seamlessly since then until today. But Pakistan is still the West's "ally" in the "war on terror".

Civilising missions in Iraq and Syria

Similarly, Washington Post veteran David Ignatius was one of the most ardent cheerleaders for the 2003 Iraq invasion, which he described as “the most idealistic war fought in modern times – a war whose only coherent rationale, for all the misleading hype about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda terrorists, is that it toppled a tyrant and created the possibility of a democratic future. It was a war of choice, not necessity, and one driven by ideas, not merely interests.”

Ignatius also criticised commentators who wrote “darkly about America's designs on Iraqi oil, or a conspiracy to enrich Vice President Cheney's old friends at Halliburton… It would be nice, in a weird way, if the Iraq war were anchored to such worldly interests. But it isn't.”

He went on to write an astonishingly glowing portrait of one of the war’s chief architects, then Pentagon war-planner Paul Wolfowitz, praising his deference to Arab intellectuals – like the late Ahmed Chalabi, who we now know fabricated the threat of Saddam’s WMD in cahoots with his Bush administration backers.

Never mind that State Department and UK Foreign Office files prove unequivocally that opening up Iraq’s considerable oil resources to global markets was a major strategic goal of the 2003 invasion. Or that Cheney’s Halliburton made $39.5bn from the war, largely from no-bid contracts.

No, despite that, Ignatius claims he admits his support for the war was a “mistake”, because the war itself was just a “mistake” – but he remains strangely unable to this day to acknowledge the neoconservative’s “worldly interests” behind the war.

Despite that, Ignatius still thinks himself qualified to advocate solutions to the rise of IS across Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, he thinks, the solution is obvious: more military intervention to empower Sunni insurgents to fight IS – a prescription that ignores how al-Qaeda in Iraq arose directly in response to the US surge which empowered Sunni tribes, many of whom had previously fought alongside al-Qaeda in the first place.

Meanwhile, the US has built up 3,700 "boots on the ground" in Iraq, and the Pentagon is complaining that more are needed.

At least Ignatius has Max Boot to back him up. He recently recommended that the “necessary troop size” in Iraq ranges “from 10,000 personnel (according to General Anthony Zinni, former head of Central Command) to 25,000 (according to military analysts Kim and Fred Kagan)”.

He even threw in the idea of breaking up Iraq, a process he euphemistically calls “nation building”, without the slightest sense of irony about the failure of such hubris in creating the current crisis:

“The United States should lay the groundwork for a post-conflict settlement in both Iraq and Syria that does not necessarily require keeping both political entities intact.”

On Syria, Ignatius suggests in The Atlantic that the US should consider working with al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, to undermine IS.

"Some Qatari officials have told me they think Nusra can be split into several factions, and that many of its fighters can be co-opted by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey into less menacing groups that reject foreign terror operations.

"This may be wishful thinking, but it’s worth exploring. The message to Nusra should be that attempts to spread terror outside Syria will provoke devastating US and allied attacks.”

He says this might help the US build a “strong” ‘moderate’ opposition, paving the way for violent regime change. 

“The shattered nation can gradually be stabilised if the United States and its allies seriously commit to building a new Syrian force that can help fill the vacuum, post-Assad.”

He adds that the US will need to work with people from the incumbent Baathist establishment, fostering an opposition that “can merge with ‘acceptable’ elements of the Syrian army to manage a transition from Assad”.

Conveniently absent from his tragic tale of America’s “feeble”, “weak” and “feckless” approach is the US role in deliberately fostering the militants – a process that Ignatius blames solely on US allies, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Turkey.

Never mind that Obama’s former Pentagon intelligence chief Michael Flynn has confirmed that the Pentagon anticipated the rise of an IS-type entity in Iraq and Syria as a direct consequence of US support for Syrian jihadist groups. This support, he said, was funnelled through our allies, the Gulf states and Turkey.

And unsurprisingly, Ignatius seems oblivious to the inherent contradiction in calling for “a political solution – jointly brokered by the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia” while demanding that the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey accelerate their war drive to topple Assad, backed by Iran and Russia.

Cheerleading for ‘democracy’ in Libya

Sadly, this sort of nonsense is routinely regurgitated by defence think-tanks and policy groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

Consider the abysmal track record of Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

“What will Free Libya look like?” he asked in a Telegraph comment in 2011. Celebrating Libya’s rebel forces as “one of the more cohesive and forward-thinking armed opposition movements to have emerged out of civil conflict in recent years,” he downplayed the danger from “Islamist factions”.

He claimed they were “an entirely different flavour to those that percolated for decades in Afghanistan – less steeped in prolonged guerrilla warfare, without major state sponsors like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and in the shadow of an internationally recognised rebel committee”.

In a jubilant op-ed for the Conservative Party’s Middle East Council, Joshi continued this thread: “Libya’s new rulers can now legitimately claim to have crossed the line from wartime to the democratic transition… The war in Libya has been an unqualified military success.”

But Joshi’s unashamed propaganda published on the website of the incumbent War Party overlooked key facts.

In March 2011, Nato-backed Libyan rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi openly admitted that al-Qaeda jihadists who had fought Western troops in Iraq were fighting on the frontlines to topple Gadhafi. “Members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting the invader,” he said.

According to former CIA officer Bruce Reidel at the time, “There is no question that al-Qaeda’s Libyan franchise, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is a part of the opposition. It has always been [Muammar] Gaddafi’s biggest enemy and its stronghold is Benghazi.”

Canadian intelligence files show that senior Nato leaders knew military action would likely lead to “a long-term tribal/civil war” in Libya, especially if “opposition forces receive military assistance from foreign militaries”.

The opposition, intelligence agencies confirmed, were strongly tied to al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups.

The same batch of declassified Pentagon intelligence reports that former Pentagon intelligence chief Flynn acknowledged as accurate, documented close ties and weapons transfers between the US-backed operation in Benghazi and al-Qaeda affiliated rebels in Syria.

In 2014, Flynn told the Armed Services Committee that the very “militias that won the revolution against the Gaddafi regime are now also threatening both the transition process and overall security.”

The presence of IS fighters in Libya is thus a direct consequence of the Nato strategy that pundits like Joshi championed. Not that he can bring himself to acknowledge this while trying to distance the Nato intervention from those predicted consequences.

Now the British prime minister, David Cameron, plans to dispatch 1,000 British troops to lead a US and EU 6,000 strong coalition to stop religious fighters from consolidating their control of a dozen of Libya’s major oil fields.

The sad truth is that a significant portion of the pundit class that keeps trying to tell the public and government what to do, are clueless – and their ludicrous track records prove it.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, religious-fuelled insurgencies has been a direct product of a toxic combination: US and UK led military interventions, occupations, withdrawals, re-calibrations, and on and on and on; the ongoing billion dollars of support for the very groups that Western forces are fighting, by US and UK allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, among many others; and the installation and protection of corrupt, fraudulent, illegitimate regimes dressed up under the guise of "democracy promotion", all the while securing access to lucrative regional oil and gas resources.

The fundamental reason the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya failed is not because of noble errors, but because in all three cases, short-sighted Western interests trumped the needs of long-oppressed local populations.

And this is why the creeping return to war will fail again.

- Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: An Islamic State fighter watches as a missile launches into the air (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.