Blankets or Bullets: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and intervention
The Iraq war as a liberal, humanitarian intervention could have been valid, a bold statement I know, and not one I fully support but it’s worth looking at important issues from alternative angles in order to understand them. Some would paint it as a them against us, a west against the east or the ever divisive, them against the faith. It was a strategy mandated under for example the genocide convention to which Great Britain is a signatory, this is how Iraq should have been approached. Take a look at the Universal Declaration of Human rights, we’re all meant to uphold this but some countries don’t even subscribe to it. How does your current government or faith measure up? Utilising certain axiomatic clauses in the UN charter would have been to a great benefit for Blair’s government (and the alliance with the US) in the public arena if they were used in prominence as a measure of legitimacy for invasion. The sad and troubling fact with hindsight is, however, that it was justified under a search for weapons of mass destruction which were never found, and this was to the detriment of all future uses of such a humanitarian interventionist policy and the posture with which it could be delivered. Personally, I am largely anti-war but then you never get a positive answer when you frame something as a war. As an ex-soldier and a communications liaison to places like Pakistan I’ve seen enough conflicts to know what results from them. Although, I also wouldn’t wish to let regimes perpetrate heinous crimes with impunity, especially whilst we might condemn certain things and draw up treaties to prohibit them. So it’s worth looking at military intervention from that perspective too.
The invasion, liberation – whatever label you give it – of Iraq was to depose the Hussein family who were a totalitarian and autocratic regime not desired by the majority of Iraqi people. Millions of Iraqis and those in neighbour states want a democratic reform to succeed in their respective countries and they deserve to see it through to fruition with the aid of the rest of the world. It may appear to be exporting democracy down the barrel of a gun but force was, at the time, the only viable option short of letting Saddam continue unopposed. To trivialise the effects of the Hussein dictatorship on the Iraqi people as a justification for acquiescence would be a terrible thing and is exactly the attitude of much of those that oppose pre-emption and those that care not to learn about such things but still have an opinion. Saddam’s regime invaded neighbour Kuwait and aggressed again, the regime harboured terrorists in plain sight that promoted Jihadist ideals which was exposed through the testimony of many within the Iraqi government and military. It had invaded Iran and intended to invade again thus propagating the image of constant aggression to neighbouring states. Although nuclear weapons were not found there is ample testimony for their existence, attempted acquisition and development, even without that Saddam did use chemical weapons against his own people in Halabja which is just as heinous. Perhaps “his own people” is an error though, the Kurds who were the victims of chemical attacks probably didn’t identify themselves as his people, what with there being 35 million of them and never being recognised as a people in their own right. Saddam also refused to give an account of the missing in his campaigns, disassociate from terrorist links and refused to follow UN sanctions resulting in his forces firing upon multi-national planes when trying to enforce the no fly zones. The live and let live attitude to Saddam’s regime most definitely cost more lives than the invasion. In light of these factors to abdicate the mandate of international responsibility with regards to Iraq would have been a tremendous error. Further, to have done so would have led to an opinion that such totalitarian regimes can continue without opposition, relying on the voices of the international community’s collective obscurantist persona to cry out in protest of intervention.
The intervention in Iraq came about 10 years too late in my opinion and when it did was under false pretences which was a blunder that seems to bolster the position of a passive, turn a blind eye, anti-war movement; even when there is a need for such action. People seem to hear war and assume risk which is correct, war has its costs but as an international community to stand by and do nothing the risk is too great in many cases and can be devastating. So is it then justifiable and appropriate to have an absolutist moral objection against intervention? Perhaps it is but I would argue that the application of intellectual honesty and moderation of our emotional predisposition is needed here to make a proper decision, and also that to endorse such a view is to abdicate our responsibility on flimsy grounds. A more reasonable and realistic attitude may be be to endorse a consequential reasoning process and take all variables into account, not just moral outrage at the prospect of intervention.
Indeed, look at Syria, the hesitation the UN has in intervening (waiting for the USA and UK to jump in first) is largely due to the Iraq war and also because of Afghanistan a country we knew was creating radical after radical but chose to do nothing about until after September the 11th. Some people still think retaliation against terrorist organisations (note retaliation not the aggressor) and the backing of alliances with the US wasn’t for them. To them I say talk to the local Afghan as I have when I was a soldier, and consult the ex-Muslim community about the beliefs of these groups – reading the Quran helps here too. Read the reports on Afghanistan pre 9/11 reports that received no congressional or public interest in the US or UK until after the attacks and investigate the atrocities of the Taliban under Bin Laden abroad (the USS Cole), and even in Muslim majority countries against other Muslims that most seem to remain ignorant of. Do that, and I think it can readily be concluded that pre-emption not just intervention (to stop terrorist elements) in some cases was needed. Where intervention is needed it is tempered with caution which is as it should be although for caution to bind us to inaction when human rights abuses are being perpetrated is a great concern.
To help Syria for instance stave off further human rights abuse, international law needs to be abided by and a proper plan formulated with allies with a truthful justification for legitimacy established. President Assad Alawi shows no such interest in international law, rather he brands the uprising of his own people as a terrorist movement (Al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra, jihadist and Islamists elements do exist), whilst simultaneously ignoring the will of his people in the first instance, before these Jihadis thought to lend a hand. He also politically attacks the UK when the notion of arming the rebel contingent is explored. William Hague in an interview with the Guardian on this issue says we cannot rule out anything, after all, it is the UK that has sent much non-military aid already, in his words “Britain are the people sending food, shelter and blankets to help people driven from their homes in his name”. The view of Hague is that to avoid the conflict continuing for months or years a military intervention may be needed. This is in fact true, there can be a solidly built case for a military based humanitarian intervention on moral grounds when the risk to loss of life is great in a neighbouring state (we are all neighbours under humanity). On practical grounds it must be considered that not to intervene at some point could cause further destabilisation within the region as Syria implodes under its own revolution.
I am almost certain this will get worse, perhaps it might take the use of chemical weapons to push the international community into a military intervention. I am less certain of the mechanism of such help as it seems to lift the arms supply embargo and supply weapons that might fall into oppositional hands could be more problematic, but that just illustrates the point. It is a calculation in lives and conflict longevity versus risk, and measures should only be taken after careful, and importantly transparent consideration. It is of course impossible to be sure that weapons wouldn’t end up in the hands of the Islamist Jihadis now. Perhaps the only means of intervention would be direct, boots on the ground or drone strikes but one can easily predict the reaction to that. The same people who think the Taliban is western propaganda, and Iraq was solely for oil (of course oil runs parallel with the liberation and other efforts), will whip up a furore and claim the international community had no place interfering in ‘Muslim lands’ again, and that the intervention is a war on Muslims. A point to note here is that the Syrian people did not elect the rebels in the fight against Assad, and we can be reasonably sure that many Muslims do not want the Islamist element of the faith representing their fight. Thus if intervention is needed it should be explicitly stated who it is that it is in favour of regardless of their internal alliances. The UN and western elements must indicate thier willingness to help the people but simultaneously condemn the jihadist and Islamist element.
Should intervention of this sort come to pass of course people will hark back to the shambles that was the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A regime change in Iraq was needed and In post Saddam Iraq it is naïve to expect a country to go from autocracy to democracy without some turbulence in the transition. Especially when the establishment of a theocracy to supplant the dictatorship is easier than the implementation of democracy due to an easily followed (already followed) religious proclivity. It is also worth noting and understanding that an eastern democracy may not be identical to a western one because of many intricate issues. To argue that the current Shia-Sunni struggle in Iraq is a result of the war is to think that such issues didn’t pre-date it, they did. This is a constant struggle within Muslim communities (and i say communities because there are many) that cannot be overlooked with its most vicious conflict in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Musilms do actually seem to be the biggest victims of terrorism driven by the faith after all, it may be helpful if they could just see that much of it comes with direct scriptural authority (even is there are contradictory verses), rather than claiming it’s due to ignorance of Islam or related mantra designed to cater to a cognitively dissonant mindset.
Alas this does not seem to be forthcoming any time soon. The main aim of Al-Qa’ida elements in Iraq and Pakistan for example could be seen as the extermination of Shia’s rather than a war against the west, although the war in Iraq has galvanised this anti-west opinion. This conflict is mirrored in the somewhat sectarian uprising in Syria between the Shia and Sunni, moderate and extreme antagonists. This again leaves the UN and the west as a whole in a precarious position. Should we intervene to end the fighting, and I say we because even though some might like to, if you stand idly by you could be seen as complicit or apathetic in the suffering of others. How then should we do it? In this conflict it seems necessary to intervene but how can it be done without seeming to be pro-Sunni, anti-Shia or the reverse as well as avoiding accusations of supporting Al-Qa’ida? The French opposed an Al-Qai’da element in Mali recently, and were not appreciated for it by many in the Muslim world. Again a contentious, possibly disastrous decision looms with regards to international interest, hinting at the inept and underhanded way these things have been handled in recent history. I personally hope that if it is resolved that intervention in Syria is necessary in a military sense, that at least the UK government will have the good sense to learn from it’s mistakes. To get on the television and into the media, stating explicitly, the real reasons for why it is necessary and what they hope to achieve. This in my view, can only be done by a multi-national force, where all nations share a part in responsibility and commitment perhaps with Arab nations in prominent positions within it; not waiting for the USA to commit first and shoulder the blame for any and all outcomes. The other option is to push for peace talks, disarmament, the suspension of Assad and a transitional government to be established under UN supervision – the preferred option for us all. Most of all, I would one day hope for the abolition of this notion that the west, and the east are somehow always going to be opposing forces. So is it bullets or blankets and will either be enough?
A recent article I found after I published this article that demonstrates the Sunni-Shiite observation – The New Yorker by Basharat Peer.