This war is far from over

Published by The i paper (18th February, 2019)

How little they learn from history. Just 16 years ago President George W. Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier under a banner declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’ and proclaimed his triumph in Iraq. Still wearing his flight suit to look ‘hot’ for the television news as he stood above the Persian Sea, this foolish president said the United States and its allies had ‘prevailed’ in their invasion. ‘We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide,’ he said. ‘We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous.’

This was, remember, a president so ill-informed about the Middle East he needed an aide to explain the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Yet this did not deter him from launching a disastrous invasion of Iraq in harness with Tony Blair to oust a dictator and impose democracy. Instead their forces ripped open fissures both ancient and modern. Their shameful legacy is the chaos, the conflict and the carnage that still corrodes vast swathes of these lands – made all the worse after other nations such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey piled in to push their own agendas at the expense of so many killed, maimed and displaced people.

Yet as Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate crumbles down the road from where I write this article in eastern Syria, another US leader seems to be making the same mistake. This time it is Donald Trump – a president so brash and unpredictable he makes his Republican predecessor appear almost like a brilliant diplomat – as he claims another victory for America in the bloodstained region. He has already said ‘We have won,’ and that IS has been ‘wiped out’, adding over the weekend that it was ‘100 per cent’ victory as he lectured Europe over captured jihadis.

Now bear in mind that just one year after Bush’s vainglorious claim of victory, a new insurgent group was formed that pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden. This was the body that evolved into IS. Aided by key members of Saddam Hussein’s overthrown regime, it grew to become the world’s most feared terrorist organisation as it plunged the region into new depths of disorder. Its self-declared “caliphate” ruled over one-third of Iraq and big chunks of Syria while inspiring losers, bigots and thugs from around the globe to rally round its infamous black banner.

So yes, the caliphate has collapsed – and this is, without doubt, great news. An Islamist group’s audacious attempt to create a nation, using it as a launchpad for attacks in other countries, has been thwarted by a motley combination of military forces and its own grotesque ambition. IS used savagery to impose its medieval creed on eight million unfortunate people and digital technology to lure misguided recruits to its ranks. Now it has shrivelled to a tiny enclave on the border by the Euphrates, where a few hundred fanatics hide among human shields and tunnels bored between houses as they make their state’s last stand.

But while the battle is on brink of being won, the war is far from over. Last week in Iraq, birthplace of the barbaric group, I heard people hark back to the stability of Saddam Hussein’s rule, such was their despair over shattered lives. This is a land filled with crushed cities and empty villages. Jobs are scarce, pay is low. Children play in streets rather than sit at school desks. There is dark talk of ethnic cleansing, tribal tensions, sectarian militia burning down houses, ancient scores being settled, arrests for ransom cash and risible ten-minute trials for those accused of jihadism.

It is not hard to detect the toxic conditions for a fresh insurgency – even if Trump does not keep his daft threat to withdraw US forces, risking a Turkish assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria. In Idlib, a group that emerged from IS ranks still dominates an area of three million people. Foreign fighters elsewhere will become desperate, barred from returning home, while I heard tales of IS forces re-emerging at night to demand food and cash from villagers. Overseas branches exploiting the group’s chilling brand are also active in other conflict-scarred corners of the planet. 

Islamic State may have abandoned pretence of statehood but it has simply reverted to its formative days by launching hit-and-run terror attacks and assassinations. Even in this moment of defeat, it is far stronger than when almost broken by the US surge, another attempt to impose order just four years after Bush stood on that aircraft carrier deck. Note how an IS magazine reminded followers their situation by 2008 was so dire that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their leader, had said: ‘We now have no place where we could stand for a quarter of an hour.’ Six years later, they rode in triumph into Iraq’s captured second city.

This is a region of festering sores, some dating back centuries and others prised open by foreign powers using local people as pawns. We looked on in horror at the inflammation of an anachronistic ideology that adapted with startling alacrity to social media to spread its message of hate and repression. And this found fertile terrain, even in midst of our own prosperous societies. So instead of endlessly claiming victory, there needs to be more humility in the search for solutions both at home and abroad. Otherwise that tide may turn yet again since the day of final victory remains very distant.

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