The Guardian view on Iraq, 20 years on: the costs of war | Editorial

It did not take long for anyone to realise that the Iraq war was the disaster that many had predicted; not much longer than it took to confirm that it was launched on a lie and that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Whatever relief or joy was felt by Iraqis at the fall of Saddam Hussein’s violent and oppressive regime, it was soon subsumed by the horror of what followed. The body count and wider damage have not stopped rising since. When the 10th anniversary arrived, Islamic State (IS), birthed by the war’s fallout, had yet to make its frightening rise to establishing a “caliphate”. Two decades on from the beginning of the war, with the “shock and awe” assault of 19 March 2003, we are still fathoming the impact of the US-led and UK-backed invasion.

The toll has been felt most of all, of course, within Iraq itself. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the violence that followed. The Costs of War project estimates that several times as many may have died from knock-on effects. More than 9 million Iraqis were displaced. Thousands of coalition personnel, mostly American, were killed. Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on improving lives were instead squandered destroying them. Much of the Pentagon spending went to just five huge corporations.

The catastrophe was compounded by the failure to plan for what came next. Iraqis watched as power stations and national treasures were looted, while American troops guarded the oil ministry and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, glibly dismissed the turmoil: “Freedom’s untidy”. The security vacuum and de-Ba’athification strategy fomented sectarianism not only in Iraq itself, but far beyond its borders – and fuelled terrorism that has proved not only most deadly in the region, but has taken lives in the west, too. Later decisions such as support for Nouri al-Maliki made matters worse.

The invasion curtailed hopes of stabilising Afghanistan, by drawing away attention, resources and troops. It strengthened and emboldened Iran. It reinforced North Korea’s conviction that it was essential to acquire and defend WMDs. It hastened the end of the brief unipolar moment and undercut visions of a rules‑based global order. A military adventure conceived by many of its players as a brash reassertion of US supremacy in the wake of the September 11 attacks only weakened and undermined the country – all the more so after the horrors of Abu Ghraib and wider brutality against civilians. Russia and China took note. So did the global south, hindering efforts to garner support for Ukraine. It was hardly the first time America’s foreign policy had clashed with its declared ideals, but it had not been so public and inescapable since Vietnam. Liberal interventionism was badly discredited. The refugee flows produced by regional instability, along with IS-led or -inspired attacks in Europe, contributed to growing ethno-nationalism and fuelled support for Brexit.

Iraq currently appears relatively calm. But US troops are still present due to the ongoing battle against IS. Though there is now a government, following a year of deadlock after elections and an outburst of violence in Baghdad, the state remains unable to keep the lights on or provide clean water. Politicians and officials have pocketed billions.

More than half of Iraqis are too young to remember life under Saddam Hussein. Some now aspire to a society and government that looks beyond sectarianism and towards a brighter future, as the 2019 Tishreen movement, and the re-emergence of participants in 2021’s elections, showed. Yet the low turnout underscored that others have given up on democracy, thanks to those who boasted that they were bringing it to justify their war. It may be many more years before we fully reckon the effects of the catastrophe unleashed two decades ago.

Source: US Politics -


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