Iraq is not the only war

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a poor metaphor for the campaign against ISIS. Our thinking needs to be informed by a wider range of historical precedents.


It’s not clear exactly who said “he doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it” nor in fact whether that’s exactly what they said. But the sentiment is clear enough and indeed sensible enough. For example, there’s a good case that it was an advantage that when the 2008 financial crash threatened to tip over into a depression, the man running the most powerful central bank was a historian of the Great Depression.

However, ignorance of history is not the only danger. A short or selective memory can be as dangerous as no memory at all. To see why consider the case of General William Westmoreland. In January 1968, he was commander of American forces in Vietnam. And he had a good idea of what the next phase of the War was going to be.

A decade and a half earlier the Vietnamese Communists had been fighting not the Americans but the French. The climactic battle of that conflict came at a remote base called Dien Bien Phu. The French allowed the base to be surrounded – it was fortified and they could resupply it by air. And they hoped that it would provide the opportunity to draw the guerrillas out into the open. However, the French were to fall into their own trap. The communists had managed to drag artillery guns up the steep slopes of the surrounding hills. The resulting defeat convinced both the French public and government that they had to get out of Vietnam.

General Westmoreland assumed the Communists were attempting to re-enact the same script only this time with the Americans playing the part of the French. So he interpreted a Vietcong offensive against Khe Sanh, an American base near the Laotian border, as the first stage of a ‘Dien Bien Phu II’. And he began sending his troops to reinforce Khe Sanh and other outlying bases.

But the attack on Keh Sanh was not the main event but a distraction. There had been recasting on the Vietnamese side too. The Communist leadership from the time of Dien Bien Phu had been replaced by more dogmatic communists. They sought not a simple military victory but to start a mass uprising. Therefore, they were planning to target not outlying bases but the cities of South Vietnam – the very cities from which Westmoreland was transferring troops to prevent another Dien Bien Phu. So when the Viet Cong launched a offensive across South Vietnam during the Tet holiday, the Americans were poorly prepared. The spectacle of Communist guerrillas managing to breach the gates of the US embassy in Saigon helped to convince a large chunk of the American public war was unwinnable. In its way the misguided parallel with Dien Bien Phu would eventually have the same result as Dien Bien Phu, a western power retreating from Vietnam as the communists spread their influence.

Psychologists have an expression for what afflicted General Westmoreland. It’s called ‘availability bias’ and involves:

“The giving of preference by decision makers to information and events that are more recent, that were observed personally, and were more memorable. This is because memorable events tend to be more magnified and are likely to cause an emotional reaction.”

That creates a tendency to focus on historical precedents that are recent and emotive even if they are not necessarily relevant or informative. I fear it is beginning to afflict many of those debating military action against ISIS.

In recent days it has been common to hear it said that ‘bombing Syria shows we have not learned the lessons of invading Iraq’. But the lessons of the Second Gulf War are probably not the right ones to be applying to the present situation.

That’s not to say the 2003 invasion is not important for understanding what is happening now. The chaos that resulted created the conditions for the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the group that has now mutated into ISIS. But that’s context – it doesn’t follow that the invasion then is a good analogy for the aerial campaign now underway.

For starters, Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2015 are not the same place. There are of course important similarities: they are/were Arab nations in the same region ruled by vicious Ba’athist governments drawn from a religious minority. But there are also pretty important differences. For example, the majority of Iraqis are Shia, whilst most Syrians are Sunni. And crucially, for all the horrors of Sadham Hussein’s Iraq there was a modicum of peace and stability, and jihadis were largely unable to operate. That evidently is not true of Syria today. We cannot push the country into civil war because it’s already embroiled in one.

The two operations are also substantially different. The current campaign is not about taking over Syria and trying to reshape it into a liberal democracy. Its objective is more modest and essentially negative: degrade and ideally destroy ISIS and its capacity to kill people. Therefore, there is no plan – a handful of special forces aside – to send in ground troops. We will not therefore find ourselves once again acting as the quasi-imperial rulers of a chunk of the most volatile region in the world.

There’s also a defensive element to our actions in Syria that was absent from the Iraq War. We face not the theoretical possibility that we might be attacked with phantom WMDs but a terrorist organisation that is actually trying to carry out attacks in the UK. More importantly, ISIS is attempting to conquer territory in Iraq and Kurdistan. In that regard what we are seeing is less like the Second Gulf War and more like the First – which was fought in defence of Kuwait.

So what historical precedents would be more apt?

In a recent interview with Vox, Stathis Kalyvas a Yale professor specialising in insurgencies suggests a number of parallels for ISIS. He points to among others the Tamil Tigers, Shining Path and the Algerian FLN.

Looking more broadly, we could locate a number of parallels for the Syrian civil war. The conflicts that ripped apart the Congo and the Former Yugoslavia involved sharp sectarian divides, horrendous abuses and meddling regional powers. The Balkan example is the more encouraging in this context: wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were quite quickly brought to an end once Western air power was applied. By contrast, despite the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, it took years for the violence in the Congo to abate – indeed it has never fully done so. There’s no consensus about how many people have died as a result but it appears to be millions. The difference may be down to Congo suffering from a variant of  ‘the resource curse’ – its mineral wealth allowed gave rebel groups both the means and the incentive to continue fighting. Extractive industries are a less important part of Syria’s economy than Congo’s but any solution will need to work out what to do about its oil. And as Iraq has larger oil reserves it might actually be the harder country to stabilise.

Another worrying precedent is the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is perhaps the best illustration of the difficulty of eliminating a terrorist group from the air. Rather than destroying Hizbullah it wound up broadening its base of support within Lebanon. People rallied to the group as they appeared to be the ones defending the nation from the hated aggressors.

One piece of recent history that is surprisingly absent from the debate about Syria is the last time ISIS was defeated. Back in 2006, chunks of Iraq was under the control of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the group was routinely killing coalition soldiers. Then the US shifted strategy. They focused on winning the confidence of the Sunni tribes. They were eventually persuaded to turn on an AQI and the group faded to the margins. That was until the Syrian Civil War gave the group – now renamed Islamic State – the chance to return.

None of these examples is a perfect analogy for the present situation – no precedent ever is. One could well suggest others or query the conclusions I have drawn from them. But that is the point. If one is doing that then you are thinking about the dilemmas we face more deeply than somebody whose only reference point is the Iraq War.


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