Category Archives: Iraq

The Iraq War Ten Years After – The national security archive papers


“The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned out to be a textbook case of flawed assumptions, wrong-headed intelligence, propaganda manipulation, and administrative ad hockery, according to the National Security Archive’s briefing book of declassified documents posted today to mark the 10th anniversary of the war”, introduces the national security archive its webpage where they publish a number of documents related to the US and UK decision to invade Iraq. The documents are hugely interesting and should not be missed in any teaching on the Iraq war.

These are just a few observations of mine:

All documents confirm what every keen observer knew from the start, namely that Bush administration grossly exagerated the WMD risks if not using outrightly false information, that the US administration did not think one little second about the aftermath of the invasion, that the UK followed to lick boots.

But they also show that a major mind frame of the time was the conception that the invasion would run smoohtly like a repetition of WWII invasion of Germany: run them over, bomb the baddies out, de-baddy the society (De-Ba’athification they call it), dispossess the big industrial complexes and run them by corporate boards (like IG Farben or Volkswagen), introduce a decentralized political system, and you’ll get a stable, democratic society. As if there had been no Cold War, no decolonization, no fall of the Berlin wall, no globalization talk, no internet, no change of the world and if baddies were simply baddies. World politics in Hollywood standards.

Colin Powell’s speech to the UN appears almost like a comic strip rather than a serious discussion of potential war. Especially the slide “Iraq is Harboring Terrorists, Including Al Qaida”. One wonders if there are, today, any other terrorists than Al Qaida … Joke aside, it was, after 9/11 entirely sufficient for a Secretary of State to put up a slide like that with an extremely vague and superficial organigram and to yell “fire”….well, looking at France’s talk of “terrorists” in Mali it is still sufficient today…if you want to play war, just yell “terrorists!”, how simple.

There is also an uneasy question of academic complicity that creeps up. All these false and erroneous CIA reports for instance…they were written by so-called experts: area experts, political analysts, engineers, anthropolgists, lawyers etc. People who had been recruited because they had excellent degrees, probably because they came from fancy universities, and because they had already shown that they were good at writing such kind of stuff. Because they had been well trained in our universities… which seemingly entirely failed to produce the critical thinkers and to diffuse the critical knowledge we are supposed to be producing.


The deadends of counting the dead


In his article “The Libyan Model?” Vijay Prashad points out that there has not been yet a forensic mission to Libya, counting the dead before UN Security Council resolution 1973 or after in order to assess if the humanitarian intervention was really humanitarian. This lack of serious counting of the dead is not an exception and any account of dead in armed conflicts remains fiercly disputed. In some cases like the wars in Sierra Leone estimates vary enourmously, ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 (similarly the numbers put forward for the IDPs in Sierra Leone vary from 250,000 to 4.5 Million, the latter meaning that almost all of the country’s population was displaced).

In Congo, the estimates even vary in numbers of millions, with the International Rescue Committee advancing 5.4 million dead while the Human Security Report of 2009 contended that “only” 3.9 million people died (a summary of the debate can be found here). In those conflicts were forensic missions have been deployed, they sometimes have found much lower numbers than those put forward during the conflict by policy makers and observers in NGOs, think tanks or media. In the case of the war in Bosnia, the figure of 250,000 dead circulated for a long time until it was corrected to be rather around 100,000 in 2005 (see notably the works of Ewa Tabeau and others).

Much of the confusion in accounting for the dead derive from the varying methodologies and the conflation of numbers of battle casualties with civilian deaths (see Adam Roberts on this) and in this latter category the conflation of civilians killed in military actions and “war-related” deaths which may include death by diseases, malnourishment or psychological trauma, whether induced by exposure to violence or by the consequences fighting had generally on the lives of people through economic breakdown, expulsion and flight, breakdown of essential infrastructures etc. Counting the dead is by itself an extremely difficult exercise, so does it really matter?

As the Congo disaster neatly shows, the real problem is that numbers actually do not really matter in the decision whether to intervene or not. Rather they appear to be tools in the political battles over the question if an intervention is justified or not. At the times of the Kosovo war, Tony Blair heralded a new age of humanitarian intervention with reference to 2000 Albanians reportedley killed; in Congo we are talking of millions and in Darfur of hundreds of thousands killed. When it arranged the US Department of State under Colin Powell, they swiftly produced the “Atrocities Documentation Survey” in 2004, which, the authors, mainly lawyers of the Coalition for International Justice, claimed to be based on “hard” statistic facts. Subsequently, Powell declared that the situation was well to be called a genocide, yet that this would not change US policy in Darfur. When Colin Powell was replaced by Condoleeza Rice, the State Department changed the assessment team, the assessor’s expertise (public health instead of law) and, surprise, found a much lower number of deaths, leading to the conclusion that the situation could not be labelled genocidal (see for a full account the excellent article by Ron Levi and John Hagan: Lawyers, humanitarian emergencies and the politics of large numbers in Dezalay/Garth 2012: Lawyers and the Construction of Transnational Justice, p. 13-47).

This came in handy as the Bush administration had to fight back extremely high, some would even say genocidal estimates of war deaths in Iraq. Yet, the debate over how many people died subsequently to the military invasion of Iraq has not yielded any slightest change in policy, even though the WHO estimate of 104,00 to 223,000 is appalling enough. All these number games only show that minimum conditions of just war, mass atrocities on the one hand, and the criteria of commensurability of means, are simply irrelevant in the decision making for or against interventions. What seems much more important is the political bartering over military interventions and this can or cannot be based on reliable or unreliable figures.

However, if carefully analysed and cautiously contextualized, those figures and their debates are extremely relevant for our understanding of conflicts. First of all, they demonstrate (of course, one wants to add) how widespread and generalized armed fighting is and the stretch of the social capillaries affected by armed combat. Second, it can give an indication of the social groups affected, the geographic areas and of other characteristics of fighting groups. It is here where careful contextualization is, however, extremely important in order to avoid biased (hence, conflict reproducing) accounts of what happened. Third, as Guha-Saphir and van Panhuis pointed out almost 10 years ago, they can tell a lot about the state of the population’s health before the conflict, which is in turn an important indicator of conflict causes.

If it is not for a thorough examination of world power politics, then it is at least for the sake of research that thorough forensic missions to war zones should be undertaken.

As an example of diverging numbers, I have summarized below the numbers found for the conflict in Sierra Leone:

Death count Distinction combatant/ non-combatant? Displaced/refugees Secondary source Primary source
50000 No Half of population Nnadozie, Emmanuel/ Abdulmelik, Siham, 2009, The role of te private sector in Sierra Leone’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts, in Besada, Hany, From Civil Strife to Peace Building: Examinig Private Sector Involvement in West African Reconstruction, Waterloo, CA, Wilfrid Laurier U.P., p. 146
20,000 No Half of the population Douglas, Ian, Fighting for diamonds, in Cilliers, J., P. Mason, et al. (1999) Peace, profit or plunder? : the privatisation of security in war-torn African societies, Halfway House, South Africa, Institute for Security Studies. p. 175
75,000 No Half of the population refugees, 4.5 Million displaced (adds up to more than the population in 1990) The heart of the matter report, p. 8
No 1999: 600,000 in neighbouring countries; 2/3 displaced inside Reno, William. 2003. Political Networks in a Failing State. The Roots and Future of Violent Conflict in Sierra Leone. Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft(2).
50000 to 75000 No Half of the population Mateos, Oscar, Beyond greed and grievance, in Bowd, R., A. B. Chikwanha-Dzenga, et al. (2010) Understanding Africa’s contemporary conflicts : origins, challenges and peacebuilding, Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies. “some UN agencies”





Was there a war in Iraq? Aaaaah, well, yes, no, uhm, dunno….


Was there a war in Iraq? John Tirman asks in the Huffington Post. Yes, “there was a war, started by the United States, pursued in violation of international law, and resulting in the deaths and displacement of more people than virtually anyone cares to acknowledge. If it’s not mentioned, it just might not have happened, at least for those who urged it on” he pursues in his paper after having looked at many different ways the US public and pundits are trying to forget already what has happened in Iraq. Just another way of forgetting is to endogeneize the fighting in Iraq by presenting it as just again an episode of an ancient struggle between ethnic or religious groups that has just been provisionaly buckled down by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The explanatory pattern is strikingly similar to the one used for the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, in Congo and other places: ancient conflicts which existed since the age of time and which a brutal, dictatorial regime stopped only through force, hence, making them briddle up once that brutal regime is gone.

John Tirman asks why there is this forgetting…and yet, the answer is obvious. By presenting these wars as internal affairs, the barbarian equivalent to the pub brawl of some aborigines in a far away country, responsibility of global and third actors is denied. This endogenization and denial are among others reflected in the data sets used in many quantitative studies. The Correlates of War project lists Iraq once in its Inter-state war set as inter-state conflict “Invasion” in 2003, and once in its “Extra-state war” data set for 2004…and that’s it. Otherwise no Americans, British or others seem to have been involved in any fighting in Iraq (or Afghanistan for that matter) — or at least not to the point to make into the COW dataset.

The PRIO dataset is somewhat clearer here as it lists the United States, alongside the other states of the coalition, as “side A 2nd” next to Iraq (side A) versus diverse groups on side B, and this from 2004 on. This still does not fully account for the particular responsibility of the United States in this mess but it does, at least, point to them and their allies as participating in an armed conflict although the main conflict is seen to be between the government of Iraq and rebel groups (Interestingly, Iran is not mentioned as being “side B 2nd”…). The US responsibility is nicely dilluted in the mass of countries appearing to be participating as secondaries. Yes, there was a war but the US was somehow but maybe not really or just a little involved….