Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Looking back on Iraq

This week’s column below: In the week of the anniversary of 9/11, I wanted to reassert something important and to my mind, self-evident, but sadly politically contentious.

 That is that the reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Tony Blair and George Bush was the correct one. I have tried to imagine an alternative world where the US and its allies did not invade Afghanistan and then Iraq.

For a start off, this scenario is so unfeasible that it is difficult to imagine. It would have required a US president of unimaginable forbearance and preparedness to take risks with US national security to have gone through a terrorist atrocity on that scale and not gone after Al-Qaeda in its home base, and then not gone after Saddam Hussein as the next major threat to the US. I doubt they would have remained president for longer than a single term.

As it was, both decisions have been proven correct.

Al-Qaeda has not been destroyed, but its leadership has gradually been decapitated and its strength is many, many times lower than it was in 2001.

There have been successful attacks in London, Bali and Madrid among other places, but nothing on the scale of 9/11. There has not been another successful attack within the US.

While some of this is down to counter-terrorism work that we will not learn the full story of for many years, much of it was because of the conventional effort to remove the Taliban from power, and hence deprive Al-Qaeda of a whole country it was using as a base of training and operations.

Additionally, the people of Afghanistan, while still enduring war and hardship, have not had 10 more years living under a Taliban regime that had zero regard for the most basic human rights.

Iraq was not directly linked to 9/11 but Bush and Blair’s decision to remove Saddam from power was a direct result of it. After 9/11 had demonstrated what a mass casualty attack on a major western city looked like, they assessed that they could not afford the risk of allowing a new threat to the west to develop. In the case of Saddam this would have involved marrying the potential redevelopment of WMD which would cause casualties ten or a hundred times higher than 9/11 to ballistic missile technology the North Koreans were selling to anyone prepared to pay, under the control of a man who had no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people at Halabja, let alone against foreigners. I never subscribed to the view that Iraq was invaded because of battlefield chemical weapons that Saddam might have had in 2001. It was about the strategic nuclear, biological or chemical weapons he wanted to redevelop and could have by 2011 had the west not intervened when it did.

That we are now in 2011 and there is not a dictator in Iraq threatening us with WMD is something we should all be grateful for, as even more so should the citizens of Iraq’s regional neighbours.

As in Afghanistan the benefits of regime change have been immense. Iraqis have had 10 years free of Baathist dictatorship and systematic human rights abuses. The Kurds and Marsh Arabs are free of the threat of genocide.

The human cost of these two wars has been terrible both for soldiers and civilians. About 10,000 Afghan civilians and 2,000 NATO soldiers have died in Afghanistan, about 100,000 civilians, 5,000 US and allied troops, 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, and 55,000 insurgents in Iraq. Everyone was someone’s parent, child or loved one. Many more have been maimed or had their lives disrupted and traumatised. It is worth noting though that these figures are nothing like the 58,000 US deaths and 500,000 Vietnamese ones in a 20th century conflict the wars’ opponents often compare them to. And that the vast bulk of the deaths have been caused by the insurgents, not by the west.

In a better world these deaths would not have happened. But that better world would only have existed if Al-Qaeda had not existed to launch the 9/11 attacks. For once Al-Qaeda was set on its path of slaughter, the only alternative to war in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been political capitulation to Al-Qaeda (what would that look like – a Caliphate in the Middle East controlling global energy supplies and running 20 countries like the Taliban ran Afghanistan?) or acceptance of ongoing terror attacks from a secure base in Afghanistan; and in the case of Iraq Saddam left in power and able to oppress his own people and to threaten the west with a new generation of WMD.

The US and the UK chose the better of two available futures after 9/11. It is not a pretty or perfect world we live in, in many ways it is ugly, terrifying and full of human tragedy, but it is a lot better than the alternatives would have been.


Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here


Photo: Jayel Aheram

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • Your explanation for the justifications for intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is correct. What is disturbing is the extent to which you feel obliged to apologise for these interventions. I believe that history will see Bush’s and Blair’s courageous decisions to be the crutial initial actions that kickstarted the eventual democratisation of the entire Middle East, the solution to the Israel-Palestine problem and the transformation of Islam into a moderate and tolerant religion.
    None of the above, of course, will be achieved in one generation but neither was the unification of Europe after 1914 or the defeat of communism after 1917 but the commonality between all of these changes has been the determination of ‘good’ (democracy) to overcome ‘evil’ (dictatorships) together with the leaders prepared to make the big, difficult moral choices.

  • I agree with you about Afghanistan- it was entirely necessary, depleted AQ of resources, money and protection, and surely prevented further attacks (although the failure to allow the taliban a stake in the political process after the invasion was a mistake).

    As for Iraq, I could not disagree with you more. Sure, Saddam wanted further WMD, but he had been prevented from developing any since the 1st Gulf War by sanctions, no-fly zones and periodic bombings of key infrastructure when needed. This tactic was hardly great as it left Saddam, who was undoubtedly evil, in power. But it was surely better than a war which killed rather more than 100,000 civilians, created a million refugees, provided a new base for Islamists and handed a massive strategic advantage to Iran.

  • Totally agree with Will. Invading Afghanistan in 2001 was a considered but proportional and appropriate response to the Sep 11 attacks (and, before them, USS Cole, African embassy attacks, etc). Most MidEast Muslims understood the logic of this. Virtually all thoughtful commentators agreed that nvading Iraq would alienate general Muslim support when the battle against violent Muslim organisations still needed this.
    Even Saddam’s sanction-weakened Iraq remained a staunch bulwark against Al-Qaeda and Iran. Regime removal changed this for no effective regime, destroyed Iraq’s effective state service network, and opened the borders to the terrorism that hadn’t been there before.

  • You are misguided on Afghanistan and Iraq. Your understanding of the issues is lopsided. You certainly have no grasp of how muslim communities react to foreign invasions. It is not without reason that war in Afghanistan continues for the last ten years with the US wanting some kind of deal with the Taliban. People are mislead by British and American media and individuals like yourself in separating the Taliban from the Afghans. No, the Talibans are also Afghans. The difference being between spiritual and secular Afghans. Both are very conservative Muslims.

    War on Iraq was about Iraq’s oil wealth. The rest are made up stories.
    Iraq has been destroyed in more than one way.

    What is important and it should happen is that after every war declared or undeclared there should be a War Crimes Tribunal to which war participants and all combatants who are deemed or have actually committed war crimes should be referred. This can still happen.

    What is also important is that those whose Foreign Policy is for direct intervention in other countries committing war should be liable for war damage and full reparations to rebuild these countries and compensations to its citizens.

    If the the staggering costs of war were to become a huge payment liability there would be less rush to wars.
    George W Bush was wrong and Tony Blair was wrong. History is already beginning to prove this.

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