In 1986 Margaret Thatcher welcomed to London the Afghan mujahidin leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar, a man with a reputation for savagery, praising him as a “fighter for freedom”. In 2002 the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, injured during the US invasion of Afghanistan, made his escape with the help of Hekmatyar, now an Afghan warlord. And in 2003 Al Zarqawi founded the extremist group which has become the “Islamic State” and is terrorising whole regions of Syria and Iraq.
By John Gittings, former assistant foreign editor and chief foreign leader-writer at The Guardian and author of 'The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq' (Oxford University Press, 2012)
This article first appeared on the author's blog, posted on 26 August 2014 and is reproduced with his kind permission. British forces are once again facing the prospect of greater involvement in Iraq after Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General recently said any request for military assistance from Iraq would be “considered constructively”. “The international community has a responsibility to stop the advance of the so-called Islamic state,” Rasmussen added.
As Iraq is falling apart or, more accurately, as Iraq is falling further apart, some politicians who supported the 2003 invasion are beginning to acknowledge that it might not have been the wisest decision. But they couch their regret in the most limited of terms. Asked in The Observer whether the current chaos made him regret supporting the war as a minister in Blair's government, David Miliband says: "I regret it because I made a decision on the basis of upholding the norms of respect to weapons of mass destruction, and there were none."
And Hillary Clinton has written in her new book Hard Choices: “I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,” she wrote. “And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong.”
Strategic experts and commentators often talk in similar terms these days about the spread of Al Qaeda extremism as an “unintended consequence” of the war or, in the term favoured by the CIA, as “blowback”.
These are all dubious alibis for having made the wrong, perverse, and fatal decision back in 2003 to launch what the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan rightly called an illegal war. They are dubious for two reasons:
First, the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or, if he still had the remnants of ones previously made, or the precursors to making new ones, that this issue could not be dealt with by the UN inspectors, was widely challenged on good evidence by critics of the war. Their scepticism was bolstered by numerous signs that the case against Saddam was being dressed up, as in the notorious “dodgy dossier”.
We should recall what Robin Cook said in his resignation speech on the eve of the House of Commons (18 March 2003) debate:”Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term—namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s…Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years? Only a couple of weeks ago, Hans Blix told the Security Council that the key remaining disarmament tasks could be completed within months….”
Second, there was no shortage of predictions at the time that unleashing a Western war on a key Middle Eastern country in the Muslim world would pour fuel on the flames. As Tam Dalyell said in the Iraq debate: “What could be more calculated to act as a recruiting sergeant for a young generation throughout the Islamic and Arab world than putting 600 cruise missiles—or whatever it is—on to Baghdad and Iraq?”And from Charles Kennedy, then leader of the LibDems: “The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.”
Critics of the war were derided then for suggesting, as the dissenting Conservative MP Douglas Hogg had in the debate, that “the probability is that thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people will be killed or injured on all sides.” But they have been proved disastrously right, and the correct phrase should not be tens but “hundreds of thousands”. We should regard these wrong decisions, taken in the teeth of reasoned doubt and opposition, as leading not to “unintended consequences” but to “reckless consequences”. It was wrong from the start -- which means the original Afghan war against Soviet occupation – to support such armed insurgency, and we may reflect on the following tale.