Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Did the US Learn Anything in Iraq?

by PATRICK COCKBURN

President Obama is likely to announce in the coming days that he will withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. Many of these soldiers will end up in Afghanistan where the Taliban is getting stronger and the US-backed government weaker by the day. How much has the US learnt from its debacle in Iraq?

One lesson not learnt in Washington is that it is a bad idea to become involved in a war in any so-called “failed state”. This patronizing term suggests that if a state has failed, foreign intervention is justified and will face limited resistance. But the greatest US foreign policy disasters over the last generation have all been in places where organised government had largely collapsed.

There was Lebanon in 1983, when 242 US marines were blown up in Beirut, Somalia 10 years later, and Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The lesson, which applies to nowhere more than Afghanistan, is that societies with weak state structures devise lethally effective ways of defending themselves.

I remember an Iraqi neurosurgeon, who had just successfully defended his hospital in Baghdad against looters with a Kalashnikov in 2003, saying to me: “The Americans should remember that even Saddam Hussein had difficulty ruling this country.” Iraq was never like an east European autocracy. Even under Saddam every Iraqi owned a gun. Iraqis would not fight for Saddam’s regime, but they would fight for their own ethnic or sectarian community or their country. An error made by the US was to imagine that just because Shia and Sunni Arabs hated each other that Iraqi nationalism was not a potent force.

This conviction that a victory has already been won is leading American commentators to assume blandly that the US can leave behind 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq without any Iraqi objection. This would also be contrary to the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with enormous difficulty and after prolonged wrangling last year.

The greatest source of error for the Americans in Iraq was not a policy mistake but an abiding belief that they alone made the political weather. Anything good or bad which happened was the result of American action. Thus if the Sunni insurgency against American forces started to come to an end in the second half of 2007 it must be because of the “surge”, as the 30,000 extra US troops and more aggressive tactics on the ground were known. The real reason for the fall in violence had more to do with the Shia victory over the Sunni in an extraordinarily savage civil war, a reaction against Al-Qa’ida, and the ceasefire called by the Mehdi Army to which belonged most of the Shia death squads.

If the US intervention in Iraq proved anything it was that the Americans never had the strength to shape the political and military environment to their own liking. Yet well-reviewed books on Iraq still appear in which Iraqis have a walk-on role and when somebody pushes a button in Washington something happens in Baghdad. These misconceptions are important because the mythology about the supposed success of the “surge” is being promoted as a recipe for victory in Afghanistan.

This would not be the first time that false analogies between Iraq and Afghanistan have misled Washington. I was in Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002 and one of the most striking features of the conflict was the lack of fighting. The warlords and their men, who had previously rallied to the Taliban, simply went home because they did not want to be bombed by US aircrafts and they were heavily bribed to do so. There was very little combat. Yet when I went to Washington to work in a think-tank for a few months later that year the Afghan war was being cited by the Bush administration as proof of America’s military omnipotence.

It is difficult to believe that the Obama administration is going to make as many crass errors as its predecessor. So amazed were the Iranians to see President Bush destroy their two most detested enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 that some theologians held that such stupidity must be divinely inspired and heralded the return of the Twelfth Imam and the Shia millennium.

The reinforced US military presence in Afghanistan risks provoking a backlash in which religion combines with nationalism to oppose foreign intervention. It is this that has been the real strength of movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Mehdi Army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan which the US wants to eradicate.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.

 

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
Libby Lunstrum - Patrick Bond
Militarizing Game Parks and Marketing Wildlife are Unsustainable Strategies
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail