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The unsuccessful wars of
Afghanistan and Iraq




Jonathan Power

May 14, 2003

LONDON - The latest polls tell us that a majority of American public opinion doesn't care that much if no proof comes to light of Iraq possessing significant numbers of weapons of mass destruction. Not just for President George Bush but for America as a whole it has been "a good war".

Nevertheless, deep down the Administration is a little nervous about the course of events in Iraq. How else to explain the rapid change in American senior personnel supposedly running Iraq? But it can't be that concerned about its long-time bete noire, nation-building, as otherwise it would have asked for a sizeable appropriation in the 2004 budget for reconstruction in Iraq. But not only did it not ask Congress for any money for Iraq, neither did it for Afghanistan. The old jibe that America only does wars not peace has a sad ring of truth. If one wanted to be nasty one could also ask where is "Osama bin Laden"? Didn't George Bush tell the world that the purpose of its war in Afghanistan was to "smoke him out"? Just as he told us the purpose of regime change in Iraq was to get rid of weapons of mass destruction.

Many of us (including the then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell) who saw a place for sanctions as the primary tool to be used against Iraq from the time of its 1990 invasion of neighbouring Kuwait on, were browbeaten over the years by the neo-conservative argument that a quick war brings about less suffering to a society than years of sanctions. Now we see in Iraq how wrong such an accusation was. If Iraq was limping along after suffering the consequences of two wars (one with Iran and one with the U.S.-led coalition) and then also a decade of sanctions, the deprivation and suffering are as nothing compared with today's havoc.

In February a Canadian-sponsored team spelt out the likely vulnerability of Iraq if war went ahead. It warned that Iraq was on the edge. Already, it said, close to a quarter of Iraq's children were suffering from malnutrion and the country's water and sewerage had not recovered from their crippling during the 1991 war. The facts were there for all to see and by the standards of any concept of the "just war" theories of the religion that George Bush is very publicly attached to, the reasons given for going to war do not match the terrible outcome of the invasion. A "feel good" factor in the polls is no substitute for hard and honest thinking about how best it might have been to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq. It should have dealt with Al Qaeda with the same kind hardworking application of coordinated police work- which is what gave Israel Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi exterminator-in-chief, France "Carlos", the ubiquitous terrorist, and which in fact has led to the detention already of a good number of the senior operatives of Al Qaeda. The bombing of Afghanistan contributed not one wit to that, other than killing more innocents than were killed in the twin towers of New York.

Likewise, the means and the end have not been matched in Iraq. It was long clear, even before the U.S. investigators of  weapons of mass destruction turned up so little, that the 1991 war, the previous UN inspections and the sanctions had effectively disarmed Iraq, not just of most of the weapons of mass destruction it was trying, rather unsuccessful, to develop but also of ordinary military strength. How many fighter planes did Iraq put in the air in this war? If my counting is correct it was plus or minus zero.

It is in fact rather good that Washington does not want the U.N. too involved. If the U.N went in to administer the country in the effective way it did in East Timor and Kosovo it would only serve to pull the American chestnuts out of the fire. Frankly, the U.S. made this mess, so the U.S. should clean it up. And then it will learn, as it is slowly learning now, what is the real cost of war compared with its alternatives and that, indeed, there were alternatives. America has to come to realize this, even if it has to learn the hard way instead of the wise way.

The other war aim was to make the Middle East safe for the sprouting of democracy. Democracy is a long, long way away in Iraq. That has become obvious the last month. The U.S. contribution to democracy in this part of the world seems to be a tolerance of torture against detainees and the locking up without any legal rights at all terrorist and war crime suspects in Guantanamo and the sanction of a policy of brute force by the Israeli occupation of much of Palestine. This doesn't mean that those working in the diplomatic, military and aid arms of the American and British governments are not trying their hardest to make democracy and governance work in Afghanistan and Iraq but that their efforts are simply Sisyphean within the political parameters laid down for them by George Bush and his British war-making ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mainly bad is coming out of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am beginning to doubt if even time, that friend to so many recent lost American causes, is likely to be on Washington's side on this occasion.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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