How long will our interest last when the soldiers go?

Natasha Walter
Thursday 27 March 2003 01:00
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Some optimistic commentators are now saying that the protesters may not have stopped the war, but they are having an influence on the way it is being waged. Certainly, it's hard to believe that military commanders and politicians would talk so emphatically about the need to avoid civilian casualties and to set up humanitarian efforts alongside the military campaign if it wasn't for the volatility of opinion at home.

If George Bush and Tony Blair were playing this one out in front of supportive governments throughout the world and cheering people in their own countries, then much more indiscriminate aerial bombardment might have been the order of the day.

But nothing can alter the fact that war is bloody and that this one is getting bloodier every day. Nothing can muffle the effects that shells and bombs have on the vulnerable human bodies that stand in their way. So anyone who was against the war is feeling pretty helpless right now, and that makes it hard for peaceniks to talk about the aftermath of the war with anything except despairing pessimism.

That is understandable, but it shouldn't stop us from trying to see through these black times, and to ask whether the future can bring something better for the ordinary people now facing such destruction.

Time and time again, George Bush and Tony Blair have excused their military adventure on the grounds that it will bring a better future for the Iraqi people. Earlier this week, Tony Blair said, "The Iraqi people have been let down before. My message to them today is that we will not let you down again." If this rhetoric sounds hollow, that is because it is too similar to the words that he used at just this point in the military adventure in Afghanistan. "This time we will not walk away from you," Blair said in October 2001, rhetorically addressing the Afghan people. "We have given a commitment and we will honour that."

Since then – in just a year and a half – Afghanistan has dropped off our radar. No, it's worse than that – it has not just been forgotten, it is being entirely misrepresented. Although it is still a chaotic, brutalised country where women are afraid to show their faces, cities lie in ruins, and power remains in the hands of warlords, it is now being held up by the US administration as a success story and a template for what should happen in Iraq.

But harsh as things are in Afghanistan, things may be harsher still in post-war Iraq. At least the campaign to remove the Taliban had the backing of the international community, so the new authority could call on money and expertise and personnel from the UN. In Iraq, in contrast, the fury over the split caused by the invasion makes it hard to imagine – despite Tony Blair's current efforts to build bridges between the US and the UN – that the UN will be involved. Instead, the US is preparing a unilateral effort to reconstruct the state, by putting in place a military occupation for at least two years, with a civil administration that will be led by a retired general, Jay Garner. They intend, they say, to pass power back to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, and leave as soon as they can.

Naturally, those who dissented from war will agree that the occupation must end as soon as possible. But the danger is that as soon as the soldiers depart, so too will any sense of responsibility from American and British politicians.

All the experts I have read and talked to are deeply sceptical at the idea that a stable democracy could be set up in a couple of years in a state that has had no democracy for so long, especially if there is no UN presence to underwrite the fairness of the process and to help provide a legal framework for dealing with abuses of the past. Much has been written about the fissures in Iraqi society, between Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Arab, secularist and fundamentalist. Such divisions don't make a democracy an impossibility, but they do suggest that it can't be set up overnight – or if it is, that it may not be there in the morning.

The danger is that while victory produces a good media story, with happy children given chocolate by smiling Marines, the long, slow, boring task of building a new state is not nearly so attractive. All the journalists who reported on the battle in the murk of the sandstorms will leave once they have to report on the new constitution in a murk of legal argument. And when George Bush and Tony Blair lose the next election, or the one after that, their successors will have no interest in the fallout from their old military adventures.

And then, whatever kind of state the Iraqis find themselves with – however fragile or however autocratic, a new Afghanistan or a new Saudi Arabia – they will be ignored so long as they pose no threat to us.

It is down to all of us, those who opposed the war and those who supported it, to say that this wouldn't be good enough for the people of Iraq. They have suffered enough. We have an ongoing responsibility to them now. That responsibility is not about bombing them if they fail, but about supporting them and their struggles towards freedom with every particle of aid, expertise, personnel and diplomacy that they ask for. We will have to press our leaders, not just tomorrow and next week, but for years to come, to go on supporting the civil society that must now be built in the wreckage of the country.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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