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 today’s mainstream press, the majority view is that the intervention in Iraq was a barely veiled disaster.
In excess of 100,000 civilian casualties, 4,486 American soldiers dead, 32,226 wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent: The statistics are mind-numbing.
And all for what?
In the wake of the latest outrage against Islam, the fierce anti-western backlash now on display across Afghanistan has hammered home a point that 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 the British and 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?
Ignoring 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 Following a spate of killings, NATO has withdrawn its trainers and advisors from the very army, police, and government to whom “handover” is scheduled to take place in 2014.
Amid the contested apologies, promises of yet more investigations, and pledges to punish those responsible, the disarray in Washington and Brussels is palpable and complete. As was the case in Vietnam, 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.
Like Iraq, Libya, too, has disappeared from the headlines. But there, amid 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 continuing prevalence of armed militias independent of central government authority;
Ubiquitous tribal, regional, and sectarian divides; and
If this qualifies as success, I shudder to think of what might constitute failure. It will be 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.
What does this legacy of abortive intervention, and the Arab Spring passing into something more closely resembling a bleak winter, tell us about Syria?
Looking at that hornet’s nest, 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.
Still, connecting the dots from recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and then applying those lessons to Syria, I fear that Robert Fisk’s comment may again be the most apt: “The only thing we ever learn is that we never learn.”
Photo courtesy of Reuters.