The thirty-year war: past, present, future

The prognosis of a thirty-year war looked outlandish as Saddam's regime toppled, persuasive as Iraq's insurgency erupted - and now less plausible amid American forces' retreat. But two core issues continue to give it life.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 January 2012

In early April 2003, United States troops were moving towards Baghdad in the early stages of the bombardment and occupation of Iraq. Their campaign was already facing many problems and intense fighting, but political leaders and media exuded confidence that the war would soon end.

A few analysts took a different view. A column in this series, which by then had been running for just over eighteen months, linked the war aims of the George W Bush administration to the potential for a long conflict (see "A thirty-year war", 4 April 2003). It said:

"Gulf oil will be the dominant energy source for the world for upwards of thirty years. If the US neo-conservatives establish a paradigm of clear-cut western control of the region, with Iraq at its centre, then the stage is set for a conflict that lasts just as long.

The Iraq war may be over within three months or it may take longer; in either case, it has the potential to signal the development of a much more sustained conflict. Whether this occurs depends on a key variable: the endurance and success of the Bush administration's conception of international security, the essential requirement for a New American Century".

The larger view

Within a couple of months it looked as if the new American century was very much back on track. Saddam Hussein's regime had fallen, and the leader was being hunted down; the war seemed over, a few armed "remnants" or "holdouts" (in the jargon of the time) apart; and planning was underway to instal large American bases in strategically important parts of the country. Above all, Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority was all set to transform the Iraqi economy into a living emblem of a true free market - with minimal financial regulation, a flat-rate tax system, and wholesale privatisation of state assets.

Iraq, in this vastly ambitious but wholly serious plan, would be a model for the middle east, in turn laying the foundation for a long-term American presence to be entrenched in the region. This would be effective in constraining the US's real enemy - Iran. For a US in control of Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east, backed by command by the US navy's reconstituted fifth fleet of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, would ensure that Tehran behaved itself.

In the event, intractable Iraqi realities exposed Washington's ideology-driven objectives as fantasy. The outcome in Iraq was instead a protracted war in Iraq that cost well over 100,000 lives, with hundreds of thousands more seriously injured and millions displaced or made refugees. In the first theatre of the "war on terror", Afghanistan, the ongoing post-2001 conflict escalated further from 2005, also inflicting an enormous human toll.

The scale of the reverse was such that within five years, a US presidential candidate could campaign in 2008 on the promise of ending the Iraq war and even seeking to find an exit from Afghanistan. With the result that by the end of 2011 most US troops had left Iraq and there was a realistic expectation that a withdrawal from Afghanistan (however achieved) would be well underway by 2014.

The complicating factors

The spectacle of American personnel returning home, when set against the military conditions and political calculations of the mid-2000s, suggest that the prognosis made in 2003 that a thirty-year was in prospect has already been disproved by events.

After all, the Iraq war - considered as a single continuous conflict - lasted less than a decade, though the country is now mired in renewed violence and political controversy (see "Iraq oscillates between bombings and political crisis", Deutsche Welle, 19 January 2011). Moreover, the idea of the "new American century" is now hardly discussed (except in negative terms) and Barack Obama's policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan is favoured over that of his predecessor. But two elements complicate the picture.

The first is that the United States is not leaving the region. The Gulf remains hugely important to its strategic thinking; links with Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the Emirates are firm; and the key base at Diego Garcia is as vital as ever. Moreover, in a little remarked development, US collaboration with Israel has increased substantially in recent years, not least in equipment, tactics and especially training (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007).

True, there are far fewer American "boots on the ground" - part of an overall trend in US military thinking, borne largely out of the disastrous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The corollary is more emphasis on power-projection through carrier battle-groups and amphibious forces, as well as on special operations and remote warfare using armed-drones.

A significant example in current circumstances is what is happening in the Gulf. The carrier battle-group (that is, an aircraft-carrier supported by a flotilla) headed by the USS John C Stennis has now departed to Singapore and thence back to the United States, to be replaced by the Carl Vinson carrier-battle group. In addition, though, yet another such group headed by the USS Abraham Lincoln has joined the fifth fleet in the region. While described as a "routine" deployment, this means that the Pentagon plans to keep two carrier battle-groups in the region for at least until April 2012.

This also makes it likely that the US navy will deploy one of the groups through the Strait of Hormuz to the fifth-fleet's headquarters in Bahrain in the coming days, quite probably coinciding with planned exercises by the naval units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps

These manouevres are deeply connected to the second element - Iran and its status. The biggest single setback for the US security posture in the region is the failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan ventures to bring Tehran under control. The road to Tehran may well have run through Baghdad, but somewhere along the way it got lost.

Iran is beset by internal economic and political problems, which are reinforced by sanctions; but a decade of war in its environment has left it with far greater influence in Iraq and quite a lot more in Afghanistan than at the start. Tehran's presumed nuclear ambitions make it a more acute threat in the eyes of Israel and US hawks. And Iran is at the centre of the Gulf region, which retains its place as the world's most important source of oil and natural gas.

The Iraq template

Much in the middle east has changed even since 2003, including the Arab awakening with its huge promises and now uncertainties (especially Syria, a close ally of Iran). But two fundamental realities are as much in evidence as before the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime: the Israel-Palestine crisis, and an Israel-United States-Iran nexus wherein Tehran is perceived unequivocally as an enemy.

The column of April 2003 concluded that "if...a saner approach to international security develops, the beginnings of a peaceful order could be shaped". A sequel published in August 2008 concluded that "unless there is a decisive shift towards a different security paradigm" the conflict "may indeed be measured in decades not years" (see "The thirty-year war, revisited", 4 August 2008).

Several years further on, the new American century is in suspension and the neocons are in transition, while direct conflict around the Gulf has for the moment diminished. But in this different context the larger assessment regrettably stands: without resolving the core issues of Israel-Palestine and Israel-United States-Iran - and in the absence of that saner approach to international security - the frame of a "thirty-year war" looks all too realistic.

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