It’s also nearly three years since the end of US operations in Iraq. In December 2011, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister said "I think we are all happy that the American soldiers are returning home safely to their families and we are also confident that the Iraqi people and their armed forces, police, are in a position now to take care of their own security.”
Genuinely, I’m not making that up.
As I type today, the Iraqi government is continuing to lose ground to ISIS, despite over 1700 pounds of American bombs and many billions of dollars of western military technology and training in the hands of the Iraqi army.
This is merely the latest in a long list of examples of Western intervention, which has done very little other than perpetuate ethnic and religious tensions within the region. In particular, it should come as little surprise that anti-western feeling has spiked in the region; the logic flows very clearly. US led coalition forces swooped in and indiscriminately bombed ‘targets’ in the region, killing a ridiculous number of people. The ensuing wars and various drone attacks, including those in Pakistan, resulted in at least 174,000 civilian casualties. Whether these people were enemy military targets, Taliban insurgents, terrorists or completely innocent, they had one trait that united them: every single one had friends and family who loved them. There is no greater tragedy than losing a loved one, and this is not the first time that grief and anger has been put towards an extreme political cause.
But the birth of ISIS can be traced even further back than this. In the first half of the twentieth when the British and French divided up the Ottoman Empire they had many different factors to take into account. How will we ensure peace between Sunnis and Shias? Can we trust them to rule together, or should they be divided into different states? What about the demand for a Jewish homeland, can we offset that against Muslims who currently control Palestine? How about ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Yazidis, shall we give them each their own separate state?
Presumably, this was all too difficult for these Western Imperialists who, as it turns out, didn’t know everything. Instead, they said “f**k it”, got a ruler out, drew some lines, wished everyone good luck and ran off home. As a result, the recent history of this region has read like a Puzo novel.
And yet, despite the elongated history of western forces sustaining the instability of the region, and despite how much of a hypocrite I may sound writing this, I would argue that we now have no choice but to go back into the region to combat the Islamic State.
The fact is ISIS are killing people in huge numbers, killing them horribly and killing them indiscriminately. Up to 10,000 aid workers, journalists, civilians and military personnel have already been targeted and punished with sickening deaths. They do not have to abide by any international treaties or law, they are a law only unto themselves, meaning torture, inhumane execution and everything in-between can, and will, be used. And herein lies the main justification for intervention.
Western military forces are not perfect. I’m not saying that this war will not produce civilian casualties. I’m not saying that there isn’t a chance that western forces won’t commit actions which contravene international rule (as they did in the last gulf war). But, crucially, if there is any wrong doing committed by western forces, they can and should be held accountable by their democratic government.
Take Abu Ghraib, the systemic use of torture and violation of human rights by American soldiers in and Iraqi prisoner of war camp. When knowledge of this reached the media, it created a huge backlash and resulted in the imprisonment of eleven American soldiers and closer media scrutiny of military actions. Closer to home, Marine A was found guilty of unlawfully executing a Taliban insurgent and as a result is currently serving a jail sentence.
Who do we want having the balance of power in the region? An unaccountable, rogue, fundamentalist terrorist state? Or a democratically accountable, highly trained and scrutinised liberal state?
The point is this, thousands of people are dying already as a result of ISIS and there is no force in the region big enough to counter it effectively, the Kurds are giving it a good go on the Turkish border, but lack the resources to defeat them. A US led coalition is the only group with the power to defeat them quickly and clinically, preventing a protracted war between local factions and quasi-national factions which could last years.
And for once, we’d be entering the area with support from neighbouring states. Jordan, UAE, even Saudi Arabia and Iran have signed up to help destroy the Islamic State, potentially the only time that these nations will team up with the West and actively ask for help in the region. For such a vast change in Saudi and Iranian policies, they must be viewing ISIS as an extremely active and dangerous threat.
They’re feared with good reason, occupied territories contain oil fields crucial for providing the financial backing for the Islamic State. Beyond that, they have seized American military technology from defeated Iraqi forces, meaning that ISIS is now the richest and best armed terrorist organisation in history and they are only looking to expand. What happens if they continue their expansion? Could they get their hands on nuclear weapons which may be present in the area? If they did there is no question they would be willing to use it. They must surely be stopped before they become an even bigger danger to the Middle-East and even, eventually, to the West.
Intervention here is not a question of Western imperialism, it is a question of solving a humanitarian crisis by destroying a dangerous and ever growing terrorist organisation. Failure to act now could see the region enter a decade long war with different factions looking for power in a volatile region. It could get ugly, and nobody likes to see military personnel not come home, but the stakes are too high to let a rogue state gain control in an oil rich and unstable region.
The aftermath? It won’t be pretty. There will be a huge power vacuum and different claims to legitimacy. Maybe the West can do what they failed to do a century ago and failed again to do as they left Iraq: listen to the different groups, and set the agenda towards stability and peace in the long term and solving local, not western, interests.