IRAQ : THE SCOURGE OF A USELESS WAR
Ahmed Abdel Hadi Chalabi
The Second Gulf War began on the night of March 19 2003 following the same ritual as its predecessor (the First Gulf War started on the night of January 16 1991) over ten years before : first came the electronic jamming to block all radio communications, then missiles were launched to destroy the Iraqi command and control system, aerial defense installations and the electricity network, bombings then focused on Saddam Hussein's units and military infrastructure and finally civilian infrastructure was targeted (with the sole exclusion of oil installations) before a full scale land invasion was launched. The same script with the same results: in 1991 the fall of Iraq came about after 45 days (February 28 1991), in 2003 by mid April the Baathist regime had already collapsed.
Exactly as during the First Gulf War, also in 2003 the United States dedicated their entire attention to the military aspects of the conflict, without preparing adequate replies to what should have happened after the fall of the dictatorship. The rhetoric on the exportation of democracy used by President George W. Bush postulated the reply: the Iraqis will acclaim the Americans as liberators, a democratic opposition will replace Saddam and terrorism will disappear from the region. This was the same dreamlike approach of 1991, when US forces did not enter Baghdad because - as Bush father thought - the Iraqis would have gotten rid of their dictator themselves.
There is no doubt Saddam Hussein was a brutal and bloody tyrant, nor was there any uncertainty on the fact that several opposers would have been happy with his defenestration. But this is where the first mistake comes in: the United States had based their entire strategy on the Iraqi National Congress (Al Moutammar al Watani al Iraqi, INC), a group trying to gather all those opposing the Baathist regime. It was an organization though that did not represent the Iraqi people, nor was it deep rooted back home.
The INC was lead by a controversial figure, Ahmed Abdel Hadi Chalabi, whose name first came to light in the 90s following the issuing of an international arrest warrant by Jordan for the bankruptcy of a local bank, Petra Bank. Chalabi had been convicted to 22 years in jail. Self proclaimed innocent, Ahmed Chalabi claimed he was politically persecuted. After he fled though none of the clients were reimbursed. The money had disappeared with Chalabi.
The founding of the INC opened a door a opportunity for the Shiite Iraqi, especially financially. The organization received conspicuous funding from the US Administration, the CIA and was favored among the British. Ahmed Chalabi claimed he had contacts in Iraq, he formulated political solutions for the post-Saddam, he supplied his financiers and sponsors with information from a series of sources he managed in Iraq. Obviously, most of the information was on Weapons of Mass Destruction that, once the war was over, were never found.
But just like Bush, Ahmed Chalabi wanted the US to wage war against Saddam Hussein. The information he provided were paid for by the CIA and the INC was turned into a flourishing business. At a time when US authorities were basically looking for an excuse to attack Iraq, Chalabi provided his political patrons what they wanted to hear.
Disinformation rather than information? It surely wasn't an insurmountable ethical issue for someone like Ahmed Chalabi.
Besides from Chalabi's personal and financial interests, the biggest problem was that the INC had no grip on the Iraqi population and once Saddam Hussein was ousted they would not have been able to impose their guide to the country. The only true opposition to the Iraqi dictator sat in exile in Tehran; the Shiite clerics that returned to the country after the conflict proved they had tighter links with the Ayatollah's regime rather than with the Americans.
But here comes the second mistake: the war against Saddam destroyed all civilian infrastructure with detrimental effects on the lives of ordinary people. Electricity was absent or rationed, fuel had to be bought on the black market (a paradox for one of the major oil producing countries), both the water and suers systems had collapsed, bridges and roads destroyed, hospitals were lacking supplies. The Iraqis could well have acclaimed the US troops as liberators, but they would also have expected their country to be rebuilt. Once again the United States focused more on the military aspects of the invasion and not on the effects on civilians. As we write today, after 10 years the reconstruction of Iraq has not been completed.
Then, once the invasion was over, the US named a proconsul like Paul Bremer - a career diplomat - whose task was to lead the country in the transition to a new democratic Iraqi authority. Bremer lead what was known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, a de facto US lead government. The CPA immediately committed the third and probably most serious mistake: starting from May 23 2003 all members of the Baath party and all members of the army were dismissed and excluded from any future government posts. The Iraqi army was disbanded and declared illegal. The ban extended to the members of Security Courts and even the Olympic Committee.
Membership to the one party Baath was often dictated by need (as happened in Italy during fascism, when school teachers were obliged to join Mussolini's party in order to teach) and did not represent, at least in the majority of cases, a proof of guilt or collusion with the regime. The dismissal of this mass of people had terrible social effects. First of all it followed religious lines: if the Shiites were discriminated under Saddam, now it was the Sunni's turn. Secondly, in a basically state-run economy, public employment was a life line for millions of families who were suddenly left destitute.
Based on 2003 data, out of 24 million Iraqis and 6.1 million males with ages from 15 to 49 (thus enlistable for the army), the Iraqi National Army counted on 390 thousand men, 20 thousand were enlisted in the aviation and 100 thousand were policemen and law enforcement officials. To this, we have to add 600 thousand reservists and paramilitaries. Bremer's edict, regardless of whether it was a right decision or a wrong one, left 1 million Iraqi families without a salary for an estimated total of 4 to 5 million people. To this we have to add the 20% of Iraqis with full time public jobs and 21% of Iraqis with part-time positions. We're talking about nearly 10 million people, over half of the country's population.
Paul Bremer's mistake generated another paradox: a country ruled by a cruel and bloodthirsty dictatorship that was once free from terrorism became the world's terrorism central. Terrorists could now rely on the support of that part of the population, Sunnis in majority, that had been socially marginalized and left without any economic means to rely on. The fight against the US invaders and emerging Shiite clerics became a struggle for their lives. In a few months time the Iraqis not only lost access to electricity, water and fuel, but they also lost their most precious asset: security.
Saddam Hussein could have been the worst leader on earth. He denied liberties, but granted security. And here comes in an underestimated cultural aspect of Iraqi people. Democracy and freedom have a value if we recognize their importance. We need time to appreciate them, time the Iraqis never had. If at the end of a dictatorship a country falls into anarchy and chaos there is little we can do to value democracy as it stands today in Iraq.
Ousting Saddam without any credible political alternatives also brought to light all the contradictions afflicting Iraqi society that the dictator had managed, manu militari, to contain: the Sunni-Shiite dissension, Kurdish secession.
The clash between Sunnis and Shiites was the inevitable consequence of a Sunni minority rule and grip onto power through the Baath and a marginalized Shiite religious majority. The conflict inverted the roles replacing an injustice with another injustice: Sunnis were now marginalized and Shiites in power. Saddam's regime ruled through the use of force, something impossible after his demise. After all, the army was made up by Sunnis and once they were dismissed they joined the ranks of the opposition and the guerrilla. The Americans and the British tried to set up a Shiite lead national army, but results have been disappointing.
The issue of the new Iraqi National Army and of its continuing impotence is another piece of evidence of the US lack of preparation in dealing with complex issues. The United States initially denied Iraqi authorities the possibility to reconstitute civilian ministries, but foremost the Defense Ministry. All government tasks were under the allied controlled CPA. In June 2004, realizing this policy was backfiring, there is a change of attitude. The CPA is dissolved, an interim Iraqi government is formed and a new organism called IRMO (Iraqi Reconstruction and Management Office) is created. The IRMO is tasked with financing the reconstruction of Iraq and of assisting all new Iraqi ministries in executing their tasks. In other words, each ministry is put under international, or rather anglo-american, tutelage.
In this context the Defense Ministry is reconstituted. It is flooded with cadres lacking any military experience. Their ranks were the result of nepotism or trade. A Shiite civilian with insufficient military background is appointed minister, the Secretary General is a Kurd from Massoud Barzani's group, while military intelligence is handed over to a Kurd from Jalal Talabani's faction. After all, the Kurds were the only ones with military experience thanks to their Peshmerga units, but they had no interest whatsoever in having a new Iraqi National Army to fight their independence claims. But the issue was not only the appointment of the wrong people at the head of the Ministry, nor the lack of military experience of the cadres, but the US distrust of Iraqis. The United States began a pseudo training of the military cadres to counter the Sunni armed opposition, but carefully avoided supplying the units of the newly formed Iraqi army with adequate weapons. The fight against the insurgents was basically lead by the US army and by General David Petraus, whose rapid rise to the head of the CIA was as fast as his demise. If the Sunni armed opposition still continues to carry out attacks and acts of sabotage it is because of the decisions taken back in 2004.
The dismissal of the Sunnis and their joining the ranks of the rebels also created a link between these communities and Al Qaeda's jihadists, whose majority are Sunnis. This tie continues to date.
The rise to power of a Shiite leadership in Iraq has also reshaped the balance and the game of alliances in the Middle East strengthening Iran. US unpreparedness is striking once again. It was inevitable that if a Sunni dictatorship was brought down and replaced by a new Shiite authority with ties to Tehran this would have lead to a reshaping of the relationship between Iran and Iraq. Furthermore, from a geo-strategic point of view, the disappearance of one of the strongest armies in the Middle East and the advent of chaos would have stimulated the appetites and aspirations of neighboring countries. It wasn't difficult to identify Iran and its hegemonic aims as one of those countries. After all, it was the United States that had funded and armed Saddam Hussein in his fight against Iranian expansionism in the 80s.
With regard to the Kurdish issue, the Peshmerga militias were the only ones that had fought against Saddam Hussein whilst he was still in power. They then helped the US troops defeat the Iraqi dictator. At the end of the war the Kurdish independence claims resurfaced once again. If the dream of a Kurdish State is not juridically possible at the moment, the Kurds already have some form of independence. The weakness of the central government in Baghdad has allowed the Kurds to form a Federal region with ambiguous powers. Commentators could point to the fact that the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, is Kurdish. But this does not say anything on the Kurds' loyalty to Iraq.
Iraqi Kurds profit from the oil extracted in their region, the Peshmerga act as an army in their territories, foreign investments (mainly Turkish ones) are flooding their land. They have become a de facto State within a State. Once again the question is whether the United States had envisaged such a scenario or if this is yet another byproduct of the lack of attention - or shortsightedness - of US policy. Turkey perceives Iraqi Kurdistan as a market for its products, but the Kurdish issue remains a delicate internal affair since the majority of Kurds live within Turkish borders. A stronger Kurdish Iraq could lead the way for other Kurdish communities in the Middle East. And the region needs everything, but further motives for instability. Nevertheless, the recent stances taken by the PKK in Turkey and the statements from its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan could lead to a positive solution to the long-standing problem. But still, Iraqi Kurdistan could end up being the first and only pseudo-country for the Kurds.
Analysts can debate over the fact that any war ousting an autocratic regime as the one lead by Saddam Hussein is justified and is worth being fought. This principle could be valid if foreign policy was guided by the ideals of international justice and not by national egoism. But this has never happened. In the case for the war in Iraq there were strictly personal motivations (the Bush family's grudge against Saddam Hussein), targets for world and regional influence, interests for the control of Iraqi oil fields. The latter casts some serious doubts over the US legitimacy to wage a war. If the international community (or the US who often take over this role) were to fight all the dictators still in power, there wouldn't be enough armies to fight them all off. It suffices to say that Bashar al Assad is still in power and no one has raised a finger to kick him out.
Any appraisal of the war in Iraq should be based on what the conflict has cost, both economically and in terms of human lives, and what has been achieved.
About 5.000 allied troops have perished (4.488 Americans), 32 thousand people have been wounded, 200 thousand Iraqi civilian victims (over a total of around 1 million Iraqi deaths), 2.2 trillion dollars spent and what has this achieved?
Iraq is today a country ravaged by instability and civil war and fragmented among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Attacks are on a daily basis and reconstruction is not yet complete. Iranian influence has grown stronger and the new Shiite leadership is deploying the same corruption and nepotism as during the good old days under Saddam Hussein. It should be enough to remember that on the day of the decennial of the war in Iraq 61 people were killed and 200 wounded in attacks. In 2012 there have been almost 5.000 deaths caused by insurgents or terrorist attacks. The Iraqi State is also adding to the toll with 130 death penalties last year and the 18 executions carried out in March 2013. Regardless of international requests, post Saddam Iraq is continuing in its old habits.
Is this what President George W. Bush had in mind when he stated on May 1 2003 from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln "mission accomplished"? Or is this the future of Iraq the newly appointed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel envisages when he say "war has been completed"?