LONDON: There is a remarkable article in the latest issue of the American Jewish weekly, Forward. It calls for President Bush to be impeached and put on trial “for misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC sent his legions into Germany and lost them”.
To describe Iraq as the most foolish war of the last 2,014 years is a sweeping statement, but the writer is well qualified to know.
He is Martin van Creveld, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the world’s foremost military historians. Several of his books have influenced modern military theory and he is the only non-American author on the US Army’s list of required reading for officers.
Professor van Creveld has previously drawn parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, and pointed out that almost all countries that have tried to fight similar wars during the last 60 years or so have ended up losing. Why President Bush “nevertheless decided to go to war escapes me and will no doubt preoccupy historians to come,” he told one interviewer.
The professor’s puzzlement is understandable. More than two years after the war began, and despite the huge financial and human cost, it is difficult to see any real benefits. The weapons of mass destruction that provided the excuse for the invasion turned out not to exist and the idea that Iraq could become a beacon of democracy for the Middle East has proved equally far-fetched.
True, there is now a multi-party electoral system, but it has institutionalised and consolidated the country’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal divisions — exactly the sort of thing that should be avoided when attempting to democratise. In the absence of anything more positive, Tony Blair has fallen back on the claim that at least we’re better off now without Saddam Hussein. That, too, sounds increasingly hollow.
The fall of Saddam has brought the rise of Zarqawi and his ilk and levels of corruption in Iraq seem as bad as ever. Noting that some two-thirds of Americans believe the war was a mistake, van Creveld says in his article that the US should forget about saving face and pull its troops out: “What had to come, has come. The question is no longer if American forces will be withdrawn, but how soon — and at what cost.” Welcome as a pullout might be to many Americans, it would be a hugely complex operation. Van Creveld says it would probably take several months and result in sizeable casualties. More significantly, though, it would not end the conflict.
“As the pullout proceeds,” he warns, “Iraq almost certainly will sink into an all-out civil war from which it will take the country a long time to emerge — if, indeed, it can do so at all. All this is inevitable and will take place whether George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice like it or not.”
This is one of the major differences between Iraq and the withdrawal from Vietnam. In Vietnam, it took place under a smokescreen of “Vietnamization” in which US troops handed control to local forces in the south. Of course, it was a fairly thin smokescreen; many people were aware at the time that these southern forces could not hold out and in due course the North Vietnamese overran the south, finally bringing the war to an end.
Officially, a similar process is under way in Iraq, with the Americans saying they will eventually hand over to the new Iraqi army — though the chances of that succeeding look even bleaker than they did in Vietnam.
“The new Iraqi army is by all accounts much weaker, less skilled, less cohesive and less loyal to its government than even the South Vietnamese army was,” van Creveld writes.
Worse still, in Iraq there is no equivalent of the North Vietnamese regime poised to take power. What will happen once the Americans have gone is anyone’s guess, but a sudden outbreak of peace seems the remotest of all the possibilities.
Not surprisingly, many who in principle would argue that the Americans had no right to invade Iraq in the first place are apprehensive about what might happen once they leave. The conference organised by the Arab League in Cairo last week was one example: it called for “the withdrawal of foreign forces according to a timetable” but didn’t venture to suggest what that timetable might be.
With or without American troops, the war in Iraq has acquired a momentum of its own and threatens to spill over into other parts of the region. There are four major issues: terrorism, Sunni-Shia rivalries, Kurdish aspirations, and the question of Iraq’s territorial integrity — all of which pose dangers internationally.
Back in July 2003, terrorism in Iraq seemed a manageable problem and President Bush boldly challenged the militants to “bring ‘em on”. American forces, he said, were “plenty tough” and would deal with anyone who attacked them.
There were others in the US who talked of the “flypaper theory” — an idea that terrorists from around the world could be attracted to Iraq and then eliminated. Well, the first part of the flypaper theory seems to work, but not the second.
As with the Afghan war in the 1980s that spawned Al Qaeda, there is every reason to suppose that the Iraq war will create a new generation of terrorists with expertise that can be used to plague other parts of the world for decades to come. The recent hotel bombings in Jordan are one indication of the way it’s heading.
Contrary to American intentions, the war has also greatly increased the influence of Iran — a founder-member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — and opened up long-suppressed rivalries between Sunnis and Shias. The impact of this cannot be confined to Iraq and will eventually be felt in the oil-rich Sunni Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia) that have sizeable but marginalised Shia community.
Kurdish aspirations have been awakened too — which has implications for Turkey, Syria and Iran, especially if Iraq is eventually dismembered.
With a fragile central government in Baghdad constantly undermined by the activities of militants and weakened by the conflicting demands of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, the demise of Iraq as a nation-state sometime during the next few years has become a distinct possibility.
The effect of that on the regional power balance is difficult to predict, but at the very least it would bring a period of increased instability.
No one can claim that any of this was unexpected. The dangers had been foreseen by numerous analysts and commentators long before the war started but they were ignored in Washington, mainly for ideological reasons. There were, of course, some in the neoconservative lobby who foresaw it too and thought it would be a good thing — shaking up the entire Middle East in a wave of “creative destruction”. The result is that even if the US tries to leave Iraq now, in purely practical terms it is unlikely to be able to do so. Professor van Creveld’s plan for withdrawal of ground troops is not so much a disengagement as a strategic readjustment.
An American military presence will still be needed in the region, he says.
“Tehran is certain to emerge as the biggest winner from the war ... Now that Iraq is gone, it is hard to see how anybody except the United States can keep the Gulf states, and their oil, out of the mullahs’ clutches. “A divided, chaotic, government-less Iraq is very likely to become a hornets’ nest. From it, a hundred mini-Zarqawis will spread all over the Middle East, conducting acts of sabotage and seeking to overthrow governments in Allah’s name.
“The Gulf States apart, the most vulnerable country is Jordan, as evidenced by the recent attacks in Amman. However, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Israel are also likely to feel the impact. Some of these countries, Jordan in particular, are going to require American assistance.” As described in the article, van Creveld’s plan seems to imply that the US should abandon Iraq to its fate and concentrate instead on protecting American allies in the region from adverse consequences.
A slightly different idea — pulling out ground troops from Iraq but continuing to use air power there — is already being considered in Washington, according to Seymour Hersh in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine. The military are reportedly unhappy about this, fearing it could make them dependent on untrustworthy Iraqi forces for pinpointing targets.
One military planner quoted by the magazine asked: “Will the Iraqis call in air strikes in order to snuff rivals, or other warlords, or to snuff members of your own sect and blame it on someone else?”
Focusing on air power has obvious political attractions for the Bush administration, since it is the safety of US ground troops that American voters are most concerned about. But, again, that would not amount to a real disengagement and would do little or nothing to improve America’s image in the region — especially if reliance on air strikes increased the number of civilian casualties. The inescapable fact is that the processes Mr Bush unleashed on March 20, 2003, (and imagined he had ended with his “mission accomplished” speech six weeks later) will take a decade or more to run their course and there is little that anyone, even the US, can do now to halt them.
In his eagerness for regime change in Iraq, Mr Bush blundered into a trap from which in the short term there is no way out: the Americans will be damned if they stay and damned if they leave.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service