Iraqi conflict evolves as result of US war on terror

At least 50 people die in series of car bombs on Iraq invasion 10th anniversary


Ten years ago, on the 19th of March 2003, prompted by 9/11, the United States and her allies invaded Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Iraq invasion ran concurrently with Operation Enduring Freedom – the invasion of Afghanistan. Both operations are regarded as crucial lynchpins of the ongoing US “global war on terror” – the longest war in US history.

The purpose of the global war on terror is to destroy or disrupt Islamist terror groups such as al-Qaeda and to deny them a physical safe haven in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere internationally. The invasion of Afghanistan drove the leadership of al-Qaeda into neighbouring Pakistan. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden, one of the principal architects of the Twin Tower attacks was assassinated by US forces in Pakistan in May of 2011.

In the interim, al-Qaeda networks have exfiltrated back to North Africa and the Gulf states of the Middle East. In response, the US has committed considerable forces to sub-Saharan and trans-Saharan Africa as part of two major – less publicised – African military campaigns. The African missions are designated “Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa” and “Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara”. The recent hostage crisis at the Amenas gas plant in Algeria and French military action against Islamist resistance groups in neighbouring Mali in January are linked to the ratcheting up of the global war on terror in North Africa.

Ten years after the US invasion of Iraq, the consequences of military intervention there – and globally – are becoming more apparent. The invasion certainly ended Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Hussein was deposed by May 2003, apprehended in December of that year and executed by a Shia-led regime in December 2006. No weapons of mass destruction, however, were discovered in Iraq. Al-Qaeda were not tolerated in Iraq by Hussein during his dictatorship. Ironically perhaps, the US invasion prompted an influx into Iraq of al-Qaeda-styled jihadis such as Abu Musab al Zarqawi – and thousands of other self-styled radicalised Sunni extremists.

‘Sons of Iraq’
Zarqawi was located and assassinated in June 2006. The US then re-armed and re-aligned the Sunni community within Iraq along geographical and tribal lines as part of its “Sons of Iraq” programme. Iraq is now an armed camp divided along ethnic lines between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish elements. The current Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad – with close links to Tehran – is poorly rated by the Brookings Institute and other organisations in global rankings of political freedom.

The costs of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are staggering. In fiscal terms, the Costs of War Project – a report published by the highly respected US Brown University in 2012 – estimates the cost of the invasions at $4 trillion. At a time of global recession and austerity – when we are newly accustomed to calculating liabilities in billions – this figure is truly astonishing. It translates as three-quarters of a million dollars for every minute fought of the global war on terror over the last 10 years.

Human cost
The human costs are more disturbing. More than 6,600 US troops have been killed. Almost 50,000 suffered physical injuries requiring evacuation to the US. More than 250,000 former combatants have filed for disability pensions with the US Veterans Administration.

For civilian casualties, Brown University poses a conservative estimate of 300,000 deaths – attributed directly to combat. They raise the civilian death toll to about one million when taking into account “indirect causes” such as “malnutrition, damaged health infrastructure and environmental degradation”. In addition, it estimates that 7.4 million people have been displaced by the war.

Politically, this has resulted in an unanticipated paradigm shift within the Middle East region. As a direct outcome of US military intervention, there now exists a Shia-dominated axis which stretches from Tehran, via Baghdad and Damascus, right through to Hizbullah in Beirut on the Mediterranean coastline. This has fundamentally altered regional stability between Shia and Sunni interests. A new conflict has already begun. Iranian Republican Guard Commandos are now fighting in Syria alongside troops loyal to the beleaguered Assad regime. Meanwhile, Sunni jihadis are flocking to Syria from all over the Arab world to fight in this proxy war between Shia and Sunni hegemony in the wider region. To complicate this further, Iran appears on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapon. The US fears that if this were to happen, it would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East between Iran and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia.

Principal threat
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq therefore, President Obama must contend with an ongoing and alarming range of rapidly evolving security threats around the globe. On a global level, renewed nuclear proliferation is emerging as the principal threat to world security in the new century. US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, while cutting back spending on US ground forces has increased investment in US Naval and Air Force assets – including air-launched and drone munitions. The Americans have also begun to shift many of their assets into the Pacific theatre.

The most immediate and serious threat to US interests and global security, however, remains the stand-off between Israel and Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme. Israeli and US intelligence sources estimate that Iran will be capable of developing a viable nuclear device by June 2013. President Obama has already stated that the US will not tolerate the prospect of a “nuclear Iran”.

Thus, the stage seems set for some sort of military confrontation.

In 2012, the US moved three aircraft carrier groups into the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea and doubled the number of minesweepers assigned to the Straits of Hormuz. The Israelis have also acquired munitions and refuelling technologies that would enable them to make the 1,500km flight from Israeli Air Force bases near Tel Aviv to Tehran.

All of this is high-stakes poker. Aside from the problems associated with domestic politics and the fiscal cliff, 2013 will continue to present profound security and defence challenges to the US President .

Tom Clonan is The Irish Times Security Analyst

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