Connecting the Dots: The Search for Meaning in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria


What a stark reminder of how short the road is between heresy and received wisdom.

Even in the mainstream press, today the majority view is that the intervention in Iraq was a barely veiled disaster.

In excess of 100,000 civilian casualties, 4486 American soldiers dead, 32, 226 wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent. The statistics are mind numbing.

And all for what?

With the exception of a recent spate of stories concerning the US rethinking its distinctly white elephantine, imperial embassy in Bagdhad’s not-s0-green zone, memories of the painful episode in Iraq are receding fast. Although images of Shock and Awe, Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and Fallujah occasionally return, spectre-like,  to haunt the popular conscience, it is clear that less than a decade after the invasion began, most people prefer forgetting to remembrance.

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The fierce anti-Western backlash now on display across Afghanistan in the wake of the latest outrage against Islam has hammered home a point which should have been clear from the outset of this ill-starred adventure. If NATO policy planners had read even a brief history of that country they would have concluded that foreign occupation is not sustainable. Having deftly rid the country of Al Qaeda bases back in 2001, the focus should have turned immediately to peace-building, reconstruction and development. Instead, the operation was conventionally militarized, and then sidelined by Iraq.

Were those making the decisions ignorant of Pushtunwali, the fate of British and the Russian armies – not to mention Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan – the weakness of the Durand line, or Pakistan’s interests? Were the  assisted jailbreaks, treatment of detainees, defections, desertions, or the response of the Afghan people to the night raids, drone attacks, dead children, and bombed wedding parties not enough to give pause? What of the video showing soldiers urinating on corpses, testimony concerning the “hunting” of Afghan civilians for sport, or pictures of snipers  posing next to a stylized Nazi SS banner,

Taken together, ignoring both the burden of history and the signposts from the present amounts to analytical incompetence bordering on negligence.

Now, inevitably and at great cost, it has come to this. From Kunduz to Kandahar and from Herat to Jalalabad, the streets ring out with chants of “Death to America”. Following a spate of killings, NATO has withdrawn its trainers and advisors from the very army, police and government to whom “hand-over” is scheduled to take place in 2014.

Amidst the contested apologies, the promises of yet more investigations, and the pledges to punish those responsible, the disarray in Washington and Brussels is palpable and complete. As was the case in Viet Nam, all of the promises of progress on the ground are being shown to amount to little more than wishful thinking, if not wilful deception.

If this is not the end of the affair, then it certainly should be.

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Like Iraq, Libya, too, has disappeared from the headlines. But there, amidst great sanctimony, fanfare and self-congratulation, victory was declared as the legions, and the press, quickly moved on.

Such declarations were at minimum premature, and could be seen as such at the time. In the interim, the internal situation is little improved.

Some troubling indicators include the:

If this qualifies as success, I shudder to think of what might constitute failure – and that is the general direction in which the Libyan state seems headed. It will be at minimum ironic if, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt, eventual elections produce a distinctly Islamist outcome.

Not unlike the Mujahideen morphing into the Taliban, this would represent blowback, big time.

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What does this legacy of abortive intervention, and the passing of the Arab Spring into something more closely resembling a bleak winter tell us about Syria?

Looking at that hornet’s nest, and connecting the dots from recent experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, a few things, at least, seem clear.

Nasty dictators are bad, but for Syria (and the world) state failure and a descent into anarchy would be even worse, especially in such a volatile region as the Middle East where the prospect of war with Iran is already being mooted.

The actions of Russia and China, in the UN Security Council and elsewhere, might seem reprehensible.  But they are far from inexplicable in the wake of what has been interpreted as NATO’s patent overstretch of its legal authority in Libya.

Internal Syrian politics are dizzyingly complex, and outcomes impossible to engineer by remote control. Intercession by outsiders, in effect taking sides in a civil war, is to be avoided. It would erode the legitimacy of the resistance, and open a Pandora’s Box of related problems.

Arming the fragmented, disparate opposition could make matters worse rather than better. The provision of humanitarian assistance through credible organizations such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent, however, is morally imperative and Canada should contribute generously.

The UN, Arab League, Turkey, and others have come together in the emerging Friends of Syria contact group. Canada might usefully play some kind of supportive political role in that initiative.

Sadly, resource reductions, with more to come, have damaged Canada’s diplomatic potential. DFAIT’s analytical and assessment capacity has been undercut, and all options for progressive engagement in Syria – or most anywhere else – have been rendered unnecessarily difficult.

To once again quote Robert Fisk: “The only thing we ever learn is that we never learn.”