The errors of Iraq are being repeated – and magnified

This has to be the beginning of the end. The UN mandate for the western occupation of Iraq expires next month, to be replaced by a US-Iraq treaty about to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament. This sets a limit of three years on the presence of foreign troops. It is sovereignty for slow learners.

With radical Mahdists demanding an immediate withdrawal, the treaty will hold only if honoured. Accordingly, it plans an end to ground operations next year, when British troops will anyway be leaving. Barack Obama is most unlikely to backtrack on the timetable.

Britain and now the US are both led by men whose heart was never in this war, and want only to get out with some dignity intact. The much oversold “surge” has offered such a screen. War fever has given way to war weariness. Nobody has a clue what will happen next in Iraq, and ever fewer care.

The wreckage will probably be the same patchwork of feuding provinces and sheikhdoms as was always going to follow Saddam Hussein’s downfall, with each arguing over the spoils of the country’s phenomenal oil wealth.

Iraq will be divided between the Kurdish north, the Sunni west and the Shia and pro-Iranian rest, the lines of confederation being decided by the resolution of militia power on the ground. The country will not be pro-democracy, pro-western, pro-Israeli or whatever fantasy seized the American (and British) neocons in the moment of madness that sparked this whole ideological escapade. Only when the west has gone will locally initiated reconstruction be secure. But the scars of 2005-07, when Iraq was the most hellish place on earth, will remain for a long time.

Never in recent history has a western intervention been so misguided and so bungled. On Monday the former lord chief justice Lord Bingham savaged the British government’s decision to join the invasion as “a serious violation of international law”, so much so as “passes belief”. He castigated its failure to curb its own and the American abuse of human rights during the occupation.

He might have added such outrages as the driving of 2 million Iraqis into exile, the abandonment of Iraqi collaborators, the failure to restore public services to their condition even under Saddam, the continued “cleansing” of Christians, and the desecration of heritage sites.

After five years of occupation and £7bn of public money, London’s finest minds joined with those of Washington to reduce what should be one of the world’s richest countries to shambles. Iraq is still an economic and social basket case compared with its neighbours, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

The occupation has vindicated TE Lawrence’s view that the imperial mindset can never comprehend the Arab world. The incompetence in every department has been so astonishing as to strip the Atlantic powers of practical and moral claim to be the world’s policemen in the 21st century. That is the true measure of the Bush-Blair legacy.

As things stand there is still no inquiry into the legality of the invasion and no response from the former attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to Lord Bingham’s accusation, other than that it all seemed all right on the night. There is no audit of the billions the war has cost UK taxpayers. There is no explanation to the families of 176 dead British soldiers as to why they died, beyond the vacuous claim that they were “fighting terrorism” when they were not.

The reason not to let Iraq slip un-mourned into history is that the episode has one last service to perform. It should teach a lesson that foreign expeditions undertaken in a spirit of jingoist revenge, with a crazed optimism and no strategic plan, are usually a bad idea.

That lesson could not be more relevant, as the identical error is being made in Afghanistan and by the same two men who privately or (in Obama’s case) publicly expressed reservations about Iraq. In his last utterance Gordon Brown himself seemed blind to the parallels, talking as if one more push, one more hearts-and-minds campaign, should send Johnny foreigner back to the hills so decent people can walk the streets of London in peace.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has grown increasingly exasperated with the blatant failure of Nato to bring security to his country. He is no fantasist. He knows that he is powerless outside his capital, except where a genius for wheeler dealing can keep the drug lords in funds and the Taliban at bay. The Taliban are gaining ground and he is running out of time to negotiate with their leaders with leverage behind him.

Hence last week’s outburst, in which Karzai indicated his determination to talk with the Taliban and offer safe protection to Kabul for their former leader, Mullah Omah, for that purpose. Should the Americans object, he replied that “if I say I want protection for Mullah Omah, the international community has two choices, remove me or leave”.

Meanwhile, a private war is being fought by US special forces against anyone with a gun in the east of the country, the bombing of Pakistani villages so capricious and counter-productive as to suggest a lack of all tactical control. In the south the British have no strategy except to re-enact the Zulu wars at exorbitant cost in money and lives. The Helmand campaign is magnificent but mad.

Publicists are being hired to assert that Afghanistan is just fine “in part”, like the curate’s egg. The reality is that even Kabul is no longer safe for foreigners. The conflict is far more intractable than Iraq, since the staple crop is not oil but opium and since the border with Pakistan is hopelessly unstable. Throughout history this land has been the theatre of defeat.

Last month Taliban operating out of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier territory cut the Khyber Pass, a crucial supply link into Kabul, which can be traversed only in massively armed convoys. This is precisely the trap into which invading forces have been sucked for a century and a half, be they British, Russian or now American. As a blunder it ranks with marching on Moscow. Yet Nato has done it. Nobody reads history.

The error of Afghanistan is far more serious than the error of Iraq. If the resulting insurgency is now exported to Pakistan, both errors will seem peccadillos. Pakistan is the sixth largest state in the world, and nuclear-armed.

The awful prospect is that Obama and Brown may feel too weak to learn from Iraq and pull back. They will blunder on, not to a clean defeat but to something far worse, a war of attrition whose poison will spread across a subcontinent.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/19/iraq-aghanistan-withdrawal-brown-obama