On 1 May this year, it will be exactly 11 years since the then US president, George W Bush stood on board the USS Abraham Lincoln and said of the US-led invasion of Iraq, ‘mission accomplished’. It was not exactly the most accurate statement, even by Bush junior’s standards. Despite the coalition troops having officially departed Iraq at the end of 2011, the mission, such as it was - and is - remains steadfastly unaccomplished. The insurgence is still surging, and Iraq’s government, led by the divisive prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is still begging the US for military help, a request to which President Obama relented a few weeks ago when he agreed to send over missiles and drones.
In fact, the situation in Iraq, a country supposedly liberated over a decade ago, looks to be deteriorating, not improving. The infrastructural basics, from healthcare to public sewerage, are still in a parlous state. The Shia-dominated government, seemingly set against Iraq’s minority Sunni population, appears to be as illegitimate as ever. And according to IraqBodyCount.org, the number of civilians killed last year as a result of the continued insurgency – about 9,000 – makes 2013 the deadliest year since 2008.
In a grisly irony, given the ‘war on terror’ rationale for much of recent Western interventionism, it now seems that the principal beneficiaries of the US-driven destruction of Saddam Hussein’s tinpot tyranny, beginning with the brutal UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in the 1990s and culminating in the 2003 invasion, have not been ordinary Iraqis, but a range of al-Qaeda spin-offs and affiliates, backed by various Middle Eastern states jostling for position in Iraq.
Just last week it emerged that Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad dominated by Sunnis disenfranchised by Maliki’s administration, had fallen into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Militants from this al-Qaeda-admiring group, one swelled by fighters crossing the border from Syria, are now to be found patrolling Fallujah’s streets in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. If this is ‘mission accomplished’, it’s difficult to imagine what mission failure would look like.
The lesson of Iraq for those who persist in championing Western intervention is salutary, but unlearnt: external agents, in this case from the West, destroying a nation’s state, no matter how cruel its rulers, does not magically create democracy or emancipate a people. Instead it creates a vacuum where authority and order used to be. In lieu of a social movement that has constituted itself as a potential source of authority in the course of a political struggle for power, the removal of a leader simply leaves a space into which forces extrinsic to the people can fight for bits of power, exert influence, and launch political land grabs.