The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war serves as a unique opportunity to measure the costs of the intervention, to assess the successes and failures of the goals of the war and to assess Australia’s obligations.
Let’s start with the costs. According to official figures, 4486 US military and 319 other coalition troops died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which cost US taxpayers $806 billion. No reliable public estimate exists on how much the war cost the Australian taxpayer. In Iraq the cost was much higher. Although estimates vary on the exact figures, approximately 162,000 Iraqis have died and an untold number injured. The war has also resulted in around 1.24 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees, and many people have migrated out of Iraq since 2003.
What makes these costs so alarming is that while some measurable progress has been made, by and large the Iraq war abjectly failed to achieve its central goals. When evidence for either Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction program or links to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda failed to emerge in the wake of the war, the coalition partners were forced to re-frame the war. The goals were threefold: to topple Saddam Hussein and bring peace to the long-suffering Iraqi people; to replace the autocracy of the Ba’athist regime with the Western liberal model of democracy; and to transform Iraq into a prosperous state governed by a free-market economy.
As to the first goal, it is certainly true coalition forces toppled Saddam and his entire regime in just six short weeks. He was later captured before being put on trial and finally hanged on December 30, 2006. However, the coalition forces failed to adequately prepare to secure the nation beyond Saddam’s rule. From 2006 until around 2008, Iraq witnessed a particularly dark and unprecedented period, with grim and complex battles fought between the occupying forces, the Iraqi armed services, and various insurgent groups and terrorist organisations, as well as those between competing ethno-religious sectarian militias.
While Iraq today is not as violent as in 2006-08, it remains one of the most violent places on earth. Following the final withdrawal of all coalition troops at the end of 2011, violence has escalated again. In 2012 alone, 4568 civilians were killed in attacks across Iraq, including many conducted by a resurgent al-Qaeda. The irony here barely needs to be stated: there was no credible al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the coalition forces staged the intervention in Iraq — but there certainly is now.
The second key goal, to bring the Western liberal model of democracy to Iraq, has a complicated legacy. On the one hand, the Iraqi people are to be admired for having embraced democratic mechanisms and institutions. Iraq today has a rich variety of media outlets, a complex web of political parties and civil society organisations and a strong culture of dissent as is evidenced by the frequent protests — none of which were permitted under the former regime.
However, one of the unfortunate consequences of the war and the effort to bring democracy to Iraq was that many key ethno-religious political factions viewed it as an opportunity to pedal their own relatively narrow and very divisive political rhetoric. Foremost among these is Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who, since coming to office in 2006, has used every trick in the book to tighten his stranglehold on power. This is nowhere more obvious than at the 2010 elections when, despite having narrowly lost, Maliki not only clung to power but expanded his own portfolio to include the powerful defence and interior ministries. More recently, Maliki has cracked down hard on Iraqi protesters. The irony of having replaced the Ba’ath with an Iraqi political elite who look more like authoritarians than democrats is not lost on the Iraq people — even if it gets little mention elsewhere.
The third and final goal, to transform Iraq into a beacon of prosperity driven by a free-market economy, also has a complicated legacy. A 2011 report from the Centre for Global Development ranked Iraq as the worst-performing middle-income country in the world on all eight of the Millennium Development Goals (extreme poverty, hunger, education, gender equality, child health, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, and water). Yet, at the same time, Iraq’s GDP (purchasing power parity) has skyrocketed in recent years to an estimated $155.4 billion in 2012, making it 62nd in the world. In other words, while major Western oil companies extract billions of dollars in revenue from Iraq’s rich natural resources, many thousands of Iraqis continue to live in destitution among the nations crumbling and insufficient infrastructure.
Despite the enormous human and financial costs, Iraq is not more peaceful nor prosperous, and only marginally more democratic, than the nation that was so violently invaded 10 years ago.
All of this raises deep questions about the political responsibilities and moral obligations of the United States and its key coalition partners, such as Australia.
While various Australian governmental and non-governmental organisations run a handful of important programs across Iraq — especially in agriculture, human rights and mine-clearing — these programs fall well short of meeting the many urgent needs of the Iraqi people. Australian politicians and policymakers could use the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war to launch a renewed effort on three urgent, pragmatic and achievable fronts: education, security and continued democracy building.
Iraq’s education sector is decades behind international standards. The Australian government could do much to train Iraqi teachers, fund schools and streamline the process of knowledge sharing and exchange between the Iraqi and Australian education sector.
In terms of security, the Australian government and military must continue to work closely with the Iraqi Security Forces on training programs. Without adequate security, Iraq could well slip backwards into the grim days of 2006-08 and, worse still, it could become a “breeding-ground” for international terrorism.
Finally, Australia would do well to stick to its stated goal of supporting universal human rights and fostering democratic participation in the region. By setting up capacity building initiatives for Iraq’s non-partisan media, unions and civil society movements, Australia could greatly enhance Iraq’s fledgling democracy and ensure that it does not return to the authoritarianism of the Ba’athist era.
Australia is in a unique position to achieve these three very realistic goals. While we were part of the “Coalition of the Willing”, Australia’s role in Iraq is generally perceived as having been less heavy-handed than the US or UK. The war has left behind a problematic legacy for Australia, but what we do next will determine how we are perceived in Iraq, in the Middle East and across the world.
Undertaking the above key initiatives would make good on Australia’s commitment to the initial goals of the war — and help create a more peaceful, democratic and prosperous Iraq. We owe the Iraqi people that much at least.
This article was first published in Crikey on 25 March 2013.