There’s a lot to regret about the US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The human cost must take the top spot, followed by the subsequent wars that they led to; nobody would ever doubt the evil of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and even now I won’t claim to know whether leaving him in power would have been more preferable than what followed, but the violent ascendency of Iran as a regional power is about as regrettable an outcome as you can get.
The same holds true for Afghanistan, with the botched withdrawal of coalition forces allowing the Taliban to come rushing back to reclaim what they’d lost two decades earlier.
At issue is how the Middle Eastern misadventures have affected the West’s political psyche. With thousands dead and trillions wasted, any protracted military campaign abroad will be considered doomed to fail before it has even begun. The idea that victory in the field and the subsequent establishment of any democratic state in Iraq and Afghanistan were ever realistic goals are now popularly and properly perceived to be ludicrously fanciful, and subject to the pious smirking of those who claim they always knew matters would end in disaster.
There is, in my view, a lot to learn from the wars of the 19th century, especially as very few of them ended in occupation. The Crimean War dealt the Russian Empire a heavy military blow that it never quite recovered from; the Second Opium War shattered Chinese delusions of being the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of the earth and avenged the murder of Indian and British troops; and the Abyssinian campaign was a costly endeavour launched solely to rescue a handful of British civilians.
This latter conflict was very much in my mind before the British prisoners held by Russia were released: say what you want about the Victorians, but they did more for their people than express concern. Would the pathetic entity of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ have been able to stand up to a Royal Navy task force? Don’t make me laugh. But we’d never have the will to send one. Even funding Ukraine’s war effort feels costly with the ongoing energy crises.
The idea of dispatching our own forces abroad to fight is not going to find favour with the British public – not when the last truly successful campaign military expedition that did not involve the Americans was the Falklands War.
This is, I think, a great pity. By refusing to risk engaging nuclear-armed powers, the West shames itself and vindicates the sneering sceptics who claim that Washington and London will verbally champion democracy, truth, and justice, but do little tangibly. This is particularly poignant with the dual problems of Russia and Iran; admittedly going to war with Moscow might be taking matters a little far due to the Russian Federation’s vast nuclear arsenal, but the mullahs in Tehran, that is another matter.
This is not simply because Russia’s nuclear capabilities are – regrettably – functional, while Iran’s is frequently hampered by Israeli Air Force pilots armed with the world’s most effective bunker-busting bombs. Indeed, Russia’s military performance this year suggests that it would stand no chance against the likes of the US Marine Corps and the British Army, but while the idea of Western troops marching to Saint Petersburg and Moscow is superbly splendid, it is sadly completely fanciful.
Leaving aside the nuclear issue is the fact that the majority of the Russian people support Putin’s regime. Trying to occupy a hostile Russia is the sort of daunting task that would not appeal to Western military planners. For proof, just look at Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign from over 200 years ago.
Iran, however, would be a true war of liberation. The people have made their voices heard, and though they have already paid a price in blood, they currently have little to show for it. The trouble is, any prospective Western military campaign would be judged against the template of the failed Iraq and Afghan wars. In both of those cases, the West was hardly going in as a liberator, whatever its claims were at the time. Doubtless, Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath party were hardly popular, but the people of Iraq had justifiable cause to regret how the regime was toppled. in a way that the Iranians probably wouldn’t.
It would have been a better idea in both Iraq and Afghanistan to enter Kabul and Baghdad, smash the places to bits, get rid of the regimes, wave a warning finger at the locals, and then leave. It worked well enough in the 19th century and would have worked in the 2000s.
But the ‘moral West’ doesn’t do that – it can’t remove foreign governments and then leave their people to their own devices, especially not if the locals subsequently make a mess of everything themselves, while Washington and London get blamed.
The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were catastrophic, and need not have happened to achieve the goals they’d set out on – and the same is true for Iran. The West could easily support those who want to overthrow the theocratic dictatorship and the tyrannical Islamic Revolutionary Guard, help the leaders of the protests organise elections and the creation of a provisional government recognized by and given an international mandate.
This would lead to a new era of friendship between Iran – rid of its theocratic totalitarianism – and the West, including a possible rapprochement with Israel.
Of equal importance, this would also send a message to Putin that the West is prepared to cut off his suppliers, and show that it still has an iron fist in the velvet glove it likes the wear. But given the level of coherence and courage this would need from our leaders, I suppose this is just as fanciful as NATO troops parading on Red Square.