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The Passchendaele Mud Has Been Replaced with the Desert Sand of Libya and Iraq

Ludicrous claims that current interventions prevent a worse alternative are little believed but the war continues says Lindsey German

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'Theatres of war stretch from Afghanistan to Libya, some of the major cities of the Middle East are in ruins, and the danger even now of further escalation is real.'


As I watched the official commemorations of the battle of Passchendaele earlier this week, it struck me as odd that we still mark the anniversaries of a war which no living person can have fought in, and which was followed by a second war only a generation later which was even more costly in terms of human lives. We are approaching our own military anniversary next month: the war on terror will have been in existence for 16 years. Yet it will be marked without the pomp and pageantry or attendance by the great and the good at any of its battlefields.

Indeed, its incredible longevity is barely remarked anywhere, but this war has now gone on longer than the two world wars put together. While its casualty figures are lower, they must now – even on the most conservative estimates – number over 1 million dead, with millions more displaced and made refugees, and millions deeply affected physically or mentally by their experience of war. Theatres of war stretch from Afghanistan to Libya, some of the major cities of the Middle East are in ruins, and the danger even now of further escalation is real.

The failure to analyse, or even as much as comment, on the war is a poison in the body politic -  combining an unquestioning acceptance of its existence with a refusal to seriously assess its manifest failure. We have just gone through the fourth election where this country has been engaged in a war but the vast majority of our politicians refuse to treat it as a matter for debate.

The debate that does occur in domestic politics is instead about two issues: Muslims and terrorism. In the minds of the media and many politicians they are the same thing. The poison from the war does not only affect people in the countries invaded, occupied and bombed – it directly impacts on people in Britain. We are locked in a vicious circle of war against mainly Muslim countries which in turn leads to a growth in terrorism and which then leads to a growth in Islamophobia and attacks on Muslims who are denounced as terrorists and extremists.

Islamophobia had existed before 2001 but after that time it took on a totally new impetus in western society, coupled as it was with an increase in anti-terror laws, far more draconian than those introduced at the height of the IRA campaigns in Britain in the 1970s. Far from reducing the levels of terrorism – which was after all the avowed aim of the original war – they have grown, especially since the development of Islamic State, originally formed in a prison in British occupied Iraq back in 2007.

The defeats of IS in Syria and Iraq in recent months are unlikely to see the end of terrorist attacks in the west. The many civilian casualties caused by bombing in cities such as Mosul and Aleppo will lead to bitterness and the creation of further terrorist groups. In addition, western policy itself has aided terrorist groups.

This can be seen most clearly in the example of Libya, where the Manchester suicide bomber was a young Libyan who had been allowed back into Libya to fight against Gadhafi in 2011, and according to some accounts trained with IS.

The multi sided civil war in Libya which has continued since the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011 has seen increasing western intervention. Failure to achieve any sort of peace led western powers including Britain to demand the recognition of a UN backed government in order for that government to be able to invite further intervention by western powers under international law. This agreement, brokered in 2015-16, saw the presidency council in hock to assorted militias. It also saw the intervention of British special forces involved in military operations against IS.

British intervention is not a thing of the past in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – not forgetting tis role in Yemen – but is very much current, and is only helping to fuel continued fighting in these countries.

The war was not about dealing with terrorism, let alone making the Middle East and South Asia safer. It was always about imperial reach and strategic power, and the need to control the politics and resources of the region. There is no sign of this changing, nor indeed of any sign that the major powers in the world have learnt any of the lessons of the war’s failings.

Instead, the Passchendaele mud has been replaced with the deserts of Libya and Iraq. The ludicrous claims that these interventions prevent a worse alternative are little believed, but the war continues because those in power are determined that it should.

The news that a general from the US Marines is now running the White House illustrates this enduring belief in military success, even when we have seen the opposite. The fact that in the past weeks Trump has imposed sanctions on variously Russia, Iran and Venezuela, and is heading for further conflict with North Korea, suggests that empires in decline can still be highly dangerous. An anti-war movement is not optional, but an essential part of our political armoury.

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