Monday, 23 February 2015

The lesson of ISIS: be careful what you wish for

Back in 2003, the West went to war in Iraq because it decided the world would be a better place without Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. It did that against the advice of many, none better placed than the weapons inspector on the ground, Hans Blix, who doubted there were any weapons of mass destruction there. The US in its wisdom, or at least in what passes as wisdom in George Dubya Bush, decided Blix and co were wrong and, with the fervent support of Britain under Tony Blair, waded in.

That was what we wished for.

Dubya, source of wisdom in the West at the time of the 2003 invasion
Showing his sureness of human touch

Once in Iraq, the West discovered that Blix had been right, and there were no weapons of mass destruction there. But it stuck firmly to its guns: it may not have been necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s weapons, but it was nonetheless a marvellous step to have rid it of him.

So that was what we wished for.

Because Saddam Hussein’s power base had been Sunni Arabs in a predominantly Shia nation with a large Kurdish minority, and because the Sunnis had been massively over-represented in the military, the West disbanded the old Iraqi army and set out to put in place a democratic constitution in which the majority would find its voice.

Democracy was what we wished for.

Elections returned a Shia-dominated government which set up a new, Shia-dominated army and, in its weakness, became a puppet of the West’s great bogeyman in the region, Shiite Iran. Sunnis felt disenfranchised and marginalised, and Kurds began to agitate for increased autonomy for their region. So we propped up the government in Baghdad and supplied it with lots of lovely weaponry.

A strong central government dependent on us is what we wished for.

The bitterness among Sunni Arabs created fertile ground for extremists to launch a movement. That gave ISIS its opportunity in Iraq. The disgruntled Sunnis have since had time to be completely disabused with their supposed liberators, but in the meantime ISIS had gained a foothold from which they could tackle the new Iraqi army with its lovely weaponry. ISIS pushed towards them, watched them disintegrate, captured and murdered large numbers of soldiers while the others hightailed it back to Baghdad, and then collected all that lovely weaponry for itself. So we started bombing ISIS.

A Middle East free from terrorist extremism is what we wished for.

Kurdish Permerga
Gutsy, determined, but without the heavy weapons they need
ISIS turned its attentions to the north of Iraq where it ran into the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurds. ISIS had good American kit, captured from the Iraqi Army; the Peshmerga had AK47s and courage. Western airpower helped them resist. But the Western powers wouldn’t arm them, because that might strengthen their drive for independence from Iraq.

A strong central government in Baghdad was still what we wished for.

As an article in today’s Guardian explains, now the Peshmerga sit facing ISIS lines on the approach to Mosul, an Iraqi city being terrorised by its cruel occupants. The West would like ISIS kicked out of Mosul, but isn’t sure it wants the Peshmerga, who have the will but not the means, to do it; we’d rather it was the Iraqi government, but though we’d probably supply it with the means, no one after the last debacle can possibly imagine it has the will; as for the unfortunate inhabitants of Mosul, while almost anything would be preferable to their so-called fellow Sunnis of ISIS, as Sunni Arabs there’s little comfort for them in the notion of finding themselves under the control of either the Kurds or the Shiites.

So today the West hesitates. It is perhaps thinking about what it should do next. Maybe it’s wondering what it should really be wishing for.

That might have been an intelligent thought back in 2003. But since we’ve let the ISIS genie out of the bottle, it may be a little too late.

Because now there really is a weapon of mass destruction loose in the Middle East.

ISIS about its ugly work.
Now there's a weapon of mass destruction in Iraq

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