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What Australia owes Iraq 10 years after the war began

One decade after the beginning of the war in Iraq, is the country better off? Is the region safer? And did the war accomplish its goals? Deakin University’s Dr Benjamin Isakhan assesses where Iraq is at.

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 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. ”

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.

* Benjamin Isakhan is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University and the author of Democracy in Iraq: History, Politics, Discourse

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Why is the rest of our media only concentrating our attention on “US costs”?

  • 2
    benjamin isakhan
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    That’s a very good question, klewso. What do you make of that?

  • 3
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Because they don’t want us looking too closely at how we got involved - who propelled that drive?
    The similarities to the US “motivation”?

  • 4
    michael crook
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Wont be too many comments on this one we dont like acknowledging our sins. The John Hopkins university figures are a lot higher with up to a million Iraqis dead. In brief, the invasion of Iraq was a war crime, no different from the invasion of Poland some decades before. And I mean, no different. John Howard is a war criminal who should face the international war crimes tribunal. Our obligation to leave stability is a given, but we dont live up to our obligations. The final analysis? We invaded Iraq, turned it into a rotting cemetery, and poisoned the ground and people with depleted uranium for one reason and one reason only, ….because we could.

  • 5
    Heeba Isa Khan
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Greetings Dr Benjamin Isakhan

    This article is excellent in so much as the variation from the typical MSM approach.

    Your name is fascinating too, Benjamin Isaac Khan. it’s awesome and very beautiful.

    Looking forward to more articles from you.

    Cheers

  • 6
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    The cost of the war to Iraq is immeasurable. The cost to Australia is our reputation - we are confirmed as a US lapdog rather than an independent thinking nation.

  • 7
    David Ritchie
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I have never doubted the huge human and $ cost to Iraq from “the coalition of the willing’s” involvement; and your article spells it out yet again.
    Klewso makes a very good point and one I’ve always wondered about - exactly how much has it cost Australia?
    Finally, vis a vis Syria…..replacing a secular regime (whatever its many faults) with warring sects/clans/tribes might be a result both Syrians and their neighbours come to regret.

  • 8
    benjamin isakhan
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Heba - thank you for the compliment. My father is an Assyrian Christian and that is where the name comes from.
    Zut alors - I think you are right. The war has cost Australia a lot in terms of its reputation.
    David - yes, there are many similarities between iraq and Syria. Although the key difference is that the situation there was not triggered by external intervention (so far!)
    Thanks all for your comments

  • 9
    David Ritchie
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Benjamin - unfortunately very few of us (esp Gov’ts) learn anything from history and so I pray that “…external intervention (so far!)” stays that way. We have to be very careful about what we wish for!

  • 10
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Benjamin:

    thanx for the clear eyed, accurate summary of the human & economic costs of this imperialist war for oil.

    Seeing the Oz’s Chris Kenny & Lord Downer of Bagdad attempt to put a positive spin on this disaster is a sad indictment of our political & media class.

    And today Iraq teeters on the edge of sectarian violence & political instability….and some amongst us wonder why they want to commit violence against Australia.

    If I were them, I’d be in the thick of it, in the same way as I would if some bully boy foreign force invaded Australia just to take over our resources.

  • 11
    GF50
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your view, one that unfortunately is not likely to hit the MSM/LNP willing alliance against truth and humanity.
    I like your suggestions as to how, we the Australian people, should make reparation to the people of Iraq.
    A mutually beneficial solution.

  • 12
    Heba Isa Khan
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I promise this will be my last comment, Benjamin, and I apologize for being slightly off -topic, but the Assyrian Christians have always fascinated me.

    I think I spelled my name..” Heba ” correctly this time, I am sure you realized my intent. LoL!

    As an independent researcher, I have tract the Assyrian Christians ( Church of the East ) to as far as Kerala and Western China, ever since the exploits of Mar Toma and others who followed after him.

    Theologically, I always admired them for their refusal to refer to Miryam as the V M and many other nuant theological points as well, but that might have something to do with the blood that runs through your veins.

    Note: Some posters here ( including myself ) are suspicious regarding the application of democracy from a global perspective. As with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and now Syria, many of us see democracy being used as a pretext masquerading as US world hegemony aka globalization.

    As you are well aware, there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    All the best! ! !

  • 13
    AR
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Ben - you didn’t really say that the situation in Syria is not due to external intervention did you? Saudi, Qatar & Bahrein?

  • 14
    Ian
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    I am interested to know what measurable progress has been made in Iraq since the invasion. The sectarian violence that we now see in Iraq was encouraged by the US as is made evident by the Guardian UK’s expose, “James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq” and other sources. Iraq is also very far from being a de facto democracy imo.

  • 15
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Monday, 25 March 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    I think most of us had underestimated just how fragile Iraq was. In a sense Sadam Hussein’s regime was a symptom of the place. Beneath the violence and the swagger was a place in ruins from terrible warfare and repression, over a long period. And it was not even a real state, so much as a post Ottoman convenience for those who carved it out of the old provincial governance of that empire. It is such a divided place without any organic origins that would unify them in the way that nation states have in Europe. Without the dictatorship, in some ways, the place is nothing but a politic of convenience, almost in the same way as it started life as a state. Its heterogeneity is its curse.

  • 16
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    …. The legacy and how much the actions of a government, generally regarded, by some, as being such “grate economic managers”, subsequently continues to cost us?

  • 17
    Blaggers
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    A very dark period in our history. I’ve always thought at best we should have only had a non military supporting role, improving health and education.

    Agree with all comments. Great point klewso. Probably only will come out once msm get their man in. Agree whole heartedly with Michael crook re Howard the war criminal. He who made Aus the lap dog(btch) of the US. Makes my blood boil.

  • 18
    GF50
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Love the thoughtful expression of the comments:)

  • 19
    benjamin isakhan
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for your very positive and insightful comments. I am glad the piece has stimulated such a discussion.

  • 20
    Ian
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    What, I wonder, were the opposition saying in parliament or doing about Howard’s decision to take part in the invasion?
    As far as our foreign policy is concerned there is precious little difference between the major parties.

    This destructive foreign policy should be an election issue. WE SIMPLY CANNOT CARRY ON LIKE THIS.

  • 21
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Luckily Alexander Downer was able to tell be Iraq was a good idea in The Drum - no facts or anythign required by him…

  • 22
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    On a lighter note let’s acknowledge the Iraq War wasn’t a total disaster for everyone: a handful made a motza on the Oil For Food programme. Thanks, Alexander - on your watch.

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