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D. Miller: The Impact of Iraq on the War on Terror

The Impact of Iraq on the War on Terror: An Objective View.


By David Miller

It is unlikely that history will be kind to George W. Bush. His election through a partisan vote in the Supreme Court polarised public opinion even as his first term in office begun and it quickly became fashionable for many people around the world to declare themselves to be an opponent of the President and his doctrine. However, Mr. Bush appeared to have redeemed himself in the aftermath of September 11. He took charge of the situation, showed strong leadership in a time of crisis and reassured the American people that he was the man to lead them in their ‘war on terror’. There was the possibility that history may have told a different story.

However, since the attacks, Mr. Bush has undone much of the good work by distorting the ‘war on terror’ and America’s search for security with the invasion of Iraq. The war never received universal support in the US or around the world and the White House and its British allies did themselves no favours by trying to justify their actions at the United Nations using somewhat flimsy evidence. Nevertheless, the push to Baghdad proceeded with speed and images of the statues of Saddam Hussein being toppled, Mr. Bush declaring hostilities over while having landed on an aircraft carrier and Saddam and his henchmen sitting in the dock gave the impression that the Coalition won the war. Yes it did but in the years following these events, the Coalition lost the peace.

The war has become the United States’ nightmare. Mounting casualties, no defined exit strategy, human rights violations and Iran and Syria’s slowly extending hegemony over a de-stabilised Middle East have led to record disapproval rates at home and abroad for the President. Mr. Bush and Tony Blair continually advocate that the fall of Saddam Hussein will still in some measure bring about the defeat of Osama bin Laden even if there was no evidence to suggest that Saddam was closely linked to al-Qaeda or that Iraq in any way participated in the attacks on New York and Washington. Yet Mr. Bush linked them together by launching the invasion and the problems in one country affect public opinion for campaigning in the other. The White House may say that the war in Iraq has brought democracy to that nation but it has also brought inter-communal fighting that has imploded into civil war. It has also stretched the Coalition armies thinly across various theatres of combat and forced them to rely on local military units to accept a greater role in the policing of Iraq and Afghanistan; a task for which they are still a long way from being ready to carry out.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, nothing has scared the American public more than the prospect that their armed forces will be drawn into another intractable guerrilla conflict. Over the past three decades, the US military has spent billions of dollars developing technology and tactical plans to try and ensure that such a scenario did not happen. Greater emphasis has been given to air power and the capability to engage an enemy using, fighter planes, helicopters and cruise missiles. Tanks and armoured vehicles were fitted with state of the art technology so soldiers could identify the enemy at a distance and American military doctrine became one of fight at range rather than risk lives in close quarter combat.

The type of strategy was never going to be suited to the War on Terror nor the war in Iraq once these campaigns disintegrated into a non-conventional, intra-state form of warfare rather than the clash of two armies in open combat which the US military spent so much money and effort training for. Intra-state conflict has no time frame on it and objectives such as the destruction of an opposing military formation or the capture of a city can be meaningless. In this type of war, the enemy simply hides among the local population, who as they become more disgruntled offer sanctuary and support, only to re-emerge at a time of their choosing to carry out their attacks. These fighters are no longer easily recognisable to the Coalition forces that are increasingly on the defensive. The Coalition can respond through search and destroy operations or the overwhelming use of conventional weaponry, such as aircraft and artillery. But as Israel is discovering in its war with Hezbollah, such tactics are not always effective against an invisible enemy, do not help build relations with the local population and without good intelligence have little chance of producing tangible results. The campaign for the hearts and minds of the local people is perhaps the most important battle of an asymmetric conflict because without it, insurgents are able to operate much more easily within their sympathetic populations.

There are two ways through which the Coalition can extract itself from the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan and re-focus the direction of the War on Terror. The first is through a quickened rebuilding of the local economies and infrastructure as well reconstituting the solidity of the Iraqi and Afghan Governments. In Iraq especially, the Coalition is failing to demonstrate to the local population that their presence can bring benefits to them as the death toll mounts with the onset of a civil war. Yet the quicker the local police and military forces can assume control of security in each country and the governments infused with stability and influence then the Coalition forces can begin to withdraw.

If the Coalition withdraws its forces before having conclusively defeated the insurgent and al-Qaeda elements in Iraq and Afghanistan, then it has to ensure ongoing support for local forces beyond re-arming and training them. Under this second scenario, the US and Britain continue to fight these wars but they do so by proxy instead of with their own forces. There are opponents of the Bush Administration who accuse the US of undertaking such actions at present with its support of Israel and anti-Islamist forces in Somalia, yet such a tactic is one that has been used in warfare for centuries and certainly by more countries other than the United States. Nevertheless, it is an option should the Coalition decide to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan sooner rather than later.

Supporters of the Bush Administration and the War on Terror may argue that the campaign in Iraq is the price for ensuring political freedom and democracy to oppressed populations and ridding those regions of terrorists and that these basic tenets of the Bush Doctrine remain sound. Yet those living under the constant threat of suicide bombing in Baghdad or Taleban resurgence are unlikely to see things that way and nor does the growing chorus of opponents to the Iraq war that believe America is distracted from fighting its most dangerous adversary. In the meantime, the Coalition tries to reassure the world that it is not being dragged into long and costly guerrilla wars. Both the wars in Iraq or on terrorism are not over and each is one that the Coalition could easily lose as its focus and efforts are spread rather than limited to certain key objectives. Try as he may, Mr. Bush will not be able to disentangle Iraq from the hunt for al-Qaeda and as a result, history is unlikely to be kind to him or his doctrine.

*************

David Miller is a writer from Christchurch.

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