Iraq, Blowback and Lessons Unlearned: Reaping the Whirlwind

Under relentless pressure from the jihadist movement Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the political collapse and territorial disintegration of Iraq in recent weeks has been striking. If not reversed, the emergence of a radical Islamist enclave is likely to cause serious security problems for decades, both in the Middle East and beyond.

That has been the focus of most reporting to date, but the big picture implications are even more profound.

To be sure, the roots of the present crisis are complex and tangled. They can be traced back at least to the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire following World War One, and the subsequent division of the territorial spoils by Britain and France according to the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

That said, and notwithstanding Tony Blair’s apparent amnesia, much of the current disaster appears directly attributable to the ill-fated decision on the part of the USA and its coalition allies to intervene militarily in Iraq 2003 – 11. As it happened, much of the “shock and awe” was reserved for the invaders. That colossal strategic error cost some $1.7 trillion, resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Iraqis and 4800 coalition soldiers, and, together with the Great Recession, spelled the end of unipolarity – American international dominance.

While those costs are extraordinary, the longer term damage may prove even greater. The ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq may be only the beginning, and could give rise to further developments inimical to peace, progress and prosperity, both in the region and further afield. The obvious hazards are related to Islamic extremism, sectarian strife, civil war, ethnic partition – and oil.

Of even greater concern, however, is the continued militarization of international policy.

Just at the moment when it appeared that the ill-starred Global War on Terror might finally be winding down, ISIS gains in Iraq, reinforced by the conflict in Ukraine, have again brought defence to the fore. Yet hard power is a blunt and destructive instrument. The diversion of scarce international policy resources in that direction, and away from diplomacy and development, is troubling.

Moreover, this crippling blowback from the failed eight year occupation and counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq could have been foreseen, and hence avoided.

Unfortunately, though, and as author and Middle Eastern analyst Robert Fisk once quipped, “the only thing we ever learn is that we never learn”.

Blowback is a term drawn from the lexicon of intelligence analysis. It typically refers to the unintended consequences of actions taken abroad by national governments in pursuit of perceived interests. The pattern is recognized and well-established… and the world is still reeling from many such miscalculations.

Perhaps the most widely cited case study in blowback is the transformation of the one-time Afghan Mujahedin “freedom fighters” into the murderous al Qaeda terrorist organization. Supported for years by the CIA, Pakistan several Persian Gulf states for resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, this disparate group of Islamic anti-Communists were dropped and forgotten following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.  Over time, and under Osama bin Laden’s  leadership, the former Mujahedin morphed into a global network of violent Islamist cells, the headquarters of which returned eventually to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to plot the 9/11 attacks.

A second well-known example was the 1953 US/UK- supported overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran in favour of a western proxy (Shah) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was himself deposed and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1979 Iranian revolution. The storming of the US embassy and hostage crisis followed.

Other instances of blowback include Israeli support for Hamas against the PLO during the 1970s and 80s  (Hamas is now considered a mortal enemy, while the PLO is a regular party to negotiations); US government assistance to right wing regimes and paramilitaries in Central America (leading to the kidnapping and killing of American citizens and contributing to the flood of narcotics into American cities), and; the USA’s  Indochina wars of the 1960s and 70s (which turned the Domino theory into a self-fulfilling Southeast Asian prophecy).

The US and its partners invaded Iraq in 2003 under pretext of eliminating weapons of mass destruction and in response to an alleged terrorist threat related in some unspecified way to 9/11. The former proved non-existent, and the latter was a chimera conjured by neoconservative ideologues in the Bush administration. It is acutely ironic that today Iraq is on the brink of becoming very much the kind of place which the invasion was mounted to forestall – a violent epicentre of instability and a haven for Islamic extremists. In the confusion which has ensued, US relations with its longstanding Persian Gulf allies have become strained, while the US at the same time finds itself sharing a range of common interests with its-arch foe (and Gulf state nemesis) Iran.

All of this represents blowback of the first order.

Lessons for decision-makers? Foreign military interventions – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – rarely deliver as advertised, and frequently blow back. In the face of rising insecurity, it is almost always better to focus on the use of alternative international policy instruments, especially diplomacy and development, while retaining the perspective necessary broach a vexing range of even larger challenges. More attention to issues such as inequality and basic human needs, public health and pandemic disease, climate change and diminishing biodiversity is urgently required.

Collective action of that nature would enhance our survival prospects, undercut the roots of political violence and religious extremism, and produce conditions more conducive to the promotion of human rights and democratic development.

Take away? Because an over-reliance on coercion can cause blowback, armed force is unsuitable as the centre-piece of world order and grand strategy in the 21st Century.