Why US does not have a good track record in countries it has intervened and pulled out of
“We will end America’s longest war after 20 long years of bloodshed,” US President Joe Biden had said addressing the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan.
The longest war it may be, but the US occupation of a foreign land and the chaos it leaves behind are hardly new. In the past two decades alone, there have been many such interventions, the most significant of these being the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spurred by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, both were launched by then US President George W Bush purportedly to annihilate Al-Qaeda and related terror organizations. The strategic locations of the regions and their vast oil reserves too have been cited as peripheral reasons for the wars.
Interestingly, just between 2018 and 2020, the US undertook 12 ‘combat or potential combat via surrogates’ activities around the world, according to a paper published by researchers for Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute. Many of these actions have been in Africa and West Asia.
US in Iraq
The US invaded Iraq in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, claiming that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Though Hussein had used biological and chemical weapons during the Gulf War, he had agreed to unconditionally give them up after the ceasefire of 1991. Their destruction had been overseen by the United Nations following the war.
However, the US and United Kingdom, under George W Bush and Tony Blair, respectively, claimed to have intelligence that Hussein had stockpiled dangerous quantities of WMDs. The UN Security Council, though, remained unconvinced of this evidence, with a memorandum submitted by France, Russia and Germany saying “while suspicions remain, no evidence has been given that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction or capabilities in this field.”
Years later, the United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan said the war on Iraq was illegal and violated the UN Charter. Independent inquiries into the aforesaid intelligence by both the US and UK governments deemed the war as unnecessary. Republican Senator John McCain, one of the staunchest proponents of the Iraq war at the time, termed it a “serious mistake” in his 2018 memoir The Restless Wave.
Regardless, the Bush administration invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, leading a coalition of troops from the UK, Australia and Poland. The forces overthrew the ruling Ba’ath government, installing a West-backed elected government in its place, and disbanded the Iraqi army, leading to a power vacuum and the eventual destabilisation of the country. These highly-trained military members later joined forces to form the Al Qaeda of Iraq which later became a part of the Islamic State of Iraq, which eventually morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Even after the withdrawal of US forces in December 2011, Iraq saw political instability, sectarian conflicts and insurgency, resulting in a civil war in 2014. This prompted a second US intervention. The crisis is ongoing.
Us in Libya
The US-backed bombing in Libya, which resulted in the collapse of the 42-year-old government, cannot quite be referred to as an invasion because it did not involve foreign troops on the ground. The military intervention by a multinational coalition under NATO was carried out by airplanes and missiles, and lasted over seven months.
The bombing campaign began in March 2011 after the UN Security Council passed a resolution approving strict sanctions against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the establishment of a no-fly zone over the country’s airspace. The trigger? Since early 2011, Gaddafi’s security forces had been clashing violently with anti-government protesters in different parts of Libya. The pro-Gaddafi forces had threatened to unleash violence over rebel groups in Benghazi, the second most-populous city in Libya.
To establish the no-fly zone, US and British ships, on March 19, rained precision missiles to take down Libya’s air defence systems. Following this, the NATO-led coalition, with significant support from France and Canada, enforced the no-fly zone, a naval blockade and an arms embargo against the regime until Gaddafi’s execution in October 2011. After the government collapsed, the ground situation deteriorated, and tensions between the various ethnic and religious groups in Libya rose to the forefront. Since then, Libya has seen a second civil war and a rise in Islamist insurgency.
US in Syria
Following the Syrian Civil War of 2011, the US had been providing underground support to select rebel groups fighting against the autocratic regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In 2014, a US-led international coalition began brutal airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants in the country. Under Obama’s command, the US launched tens of thousands of drone strikes, even in civilian neighbourhoods — in 2016 alone, US dropped 12,192 bombs in Syria, according to estimation by the Council of Foreign Relations.
The US had, however, refrained from military action against the al-Assad government until April 2017. That changed with a chemical weapon attack in Khan Shaykhun area in northwestern Syria that killed and injured hundreds of civilians. The US blamed the Russia-backed Assad regime for the attack. Citing this, on April 17, the Trump administration launched a missile attack on a Syrian airbase controlled by the al-Assad government.
There was status quo until December 2018, when Trump, against counsel of his advisors, declared that US troops would “soon” be pulled out of Syria. The announcement was met with a flurry of resignations by top defense officials and advisors, including his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. As of now, the timeline and scope of withdrawal of US troops remains fluid. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues airstrikes against militia groups in Syria till date.
US in Afghanistan
The US has a protracted history with Afghanistan. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11 attacks orchestrated by Al Qaeda, the US forces invaded Afghanistan to fight the terror group and its host Taliban. With the support of the UK government and its military forces, the US toppled the Taliban regime and established a West-backed government led by President Hamid Karzai. However, the Taliban regrouped and insurgency took root, prompting Obama, who had been elected to office under the promise of ending the Afghan occupation, to inject more than 30,000 US troops into the fight in 2009.
The first serious attempt at withdrawing foreign troops from the country came under President Trump, who signed an accord with Taliban in Doha in 2020, promising a conditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Joe Biden, who took office three months before this deadline, pushed it to August 31 and began a phased withdrawal, which culminated in the frenzied scenes that have unfolded in Kabul since Sunday. Taliban has now returned to form a government almost two decades after they were ousted from power by the US.
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