Wars of Decline: Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya

This article assesses the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in terms of their legality, their consequences - local, regional and global - and their impact. It describes the growing impotence of western powers in reshaping global politics by force. Rather, it argues, the flawed application of organised violence as a tool in the defence and projection of western power has dissolved the grandiose project of the ‘American century.’

David Held Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
12 December 2011

Ten years have passed since the explosion of violence in the heartlands of the west on 11 September 2001. The attacks of 9/11 posed fundamental questions about the principles, rules and means by which we live, conduct foreign policy, and manage relations with others. The disastrously-conceived ‘War on Terror’ presaged upon the use of military instruments of power has wrought enormous death and destruction across the broader Middle East. The intervening decade has seen the rise of a new pattern of warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq and, now, Libya. These wars have weakened the very structures of international law and multilateral institutions that underpin international society. Yet the stretching of the United Nations mandate authorising the NATO-led intervention in Libya also demonstrates the continuing inability of international rules to limit or constrain the use of coercive power. 

This article assesses the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in terms of their legality, their consequences - local, regional and global - and their impact. It describes the growing impotence of western powers in reshaping global politics by force.  In addition to straining western relationships with the Arab and Islamic world, they have given added impetus to the shift in the global order. A new balance of power is emerging that the west simply did not foresee a decade ago, as China and other emerging economies engage in commerce, economic assistance and the projection of soft power across the world. In just ten years, the flawed application of organised violence as a tool in the defence and projection of western power has dissolved the grandiose project of the ‘American century.’ 

What follows is a three-stage analysis of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Each case-study begins with the political pretext and legal positions for going to war.  We then examine the nature and trajectory of the military operations. Finally, we reflect on their results, both in terms of the massive loss of life and material destruction as well as their wider geopolitical consequences. Each of the conflicts was highly distinct, yet left a common legacy of failing states and fractured societies. We end with a section that considers the larger themes of where this leaves international society, the rule of law, and a multipolar world order - in a state of flux, transition and uncertainty.


9/11 and its aftermath

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC were acts of atrocity directed against the United States and the whole of humanity in their utter disregard for the sanctity of life and violation of all international norms.1 They demonstrated the negative challenges posed by the contemporary nature and form of globalisation as providing new channels for mobilisation and political action.2 The form of international terrorism unleashed by Al-Qaeda (beginning in 1998 and continuing after 9/11) was facilitated by the freer movement of people, money, and ideologies in a world more densely interconnected than ever before. Al-Qaeda was part of a wave of violent non-state actors conducting asymmetric operations across traditional state boundaries, and taking advantage of the global spread of ideas and technologies to maximise its visual impact in the twenty-four hour global news cycle.3 

This rise of violent non-state armed groups introduced a destabilising new dimension into world politics as they operated beyond the rules-based international system established to regulate relations between states. Intense globalising processes also challenged existing security paradigms as they reconstituted notions of time and space and intersected localised patterns of violence with global processes and events.4 9/11 was the transformative moment that should have set in motion a genuinely new approach to the security implications of globalisation. Yet, as Cronin noted as early as 2004, the George W. Bush administration sought to explain the new threats to international security from transnational non-state actors in familiar state-centric strategic terms.5 

The primacy of ‘national security’ responses to 9/11 highlighted the emerging paradox between the growing complexity of collective ‘global’ issues and the weak (and resolutely still state-centric) means for addressing them.6 In the United States, the George W. Bush presidential administration securitised the threat from international terrorism to justify its adoption of ‘extra-ordinary’ measures resting on a particular interpretation of events, rather than established international law.7 Framing the ‘War on Terror’ in this way rested on assumptions of US world leadership, primacy, and a deeply unilateral view of the world. Yet, Tony Blair’s premiership aside, this viewpoint was not widely shared in the international community, with significant consequences for the legitimacy and acceptability of the US as a world leader.8 

The underpinnings of the ‘War on Terror’ were laid out in President Bush’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress on 20 September 2001. Bush declared that, “we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism…Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists… any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”9 This set out a framework for attacking a country (Afghanistan) accused of sheltering terrorists (Al-Qaeda) that was one of the twin pillars of the ‘War on Terror.’ The other was the notion of pre-emptive war, as laid out in the September 2002 National Security Strategy. Together, they became the ‘Bush Doctrine,’ as the bellicose president stated that “In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action.”10 

The Bush Doctrine was controversial from the outset. Critics focused on its disregard for international norms and its ambiguously vague and potentially overarching content. Eminent military historian (and founder of the International Institute for Strategic Studies) Sir Michael Howard argued bluntly that, “the USA claimed a hunter’s license to use force anywhere in the world and the right to dispense with all the restraints of international law that they had done so much to create.”11 Another leading military and strategic thinker, Hew Strachan, questioned whether freedom could ever be a strategy in itself, and warned that “the conflation of words like ‘war’ and ‘terror,’ and of ‘strategy’ and ‘policy’…contributes to the incoherence of the response’ that followed 9/11.12 More polemically, the leading French analyst of political Islam, Olivier Roy, has suggested provocatively that, “with American public opinion whipped up to a frenzy,” the USA was “determined to punish the guilty…and people were prepared to pay the price, whatever the human and financial cost.”13 With the USA breaking with the constraints of international law, a dangerous signal was also sent to other powers. For it cannot be coherently argued that all states bar one must be bound to the rules and established practices of the postwar multilateral system.



The Bush administration reacted to 9/11 with immediate military action. Military operations in Afghanistan commenced on 7 October 2001, four weeks after 9/11. To begin with, they enjoyed popular domestic support and broad international sympathy as the Taliban regime harboured Osama bin Laden while he planned and orchestrated the atrocities of 9/11. A lightning campaign by the US-led international coalition and the Northern Alliance routed Taliban forces and seized control of the major cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul and Kandahar in less than two months. Prominent Afghans came together in Bonn in December 2001 to agree on a pathway to political transition, and established the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA). In Tokyo in January 2002, an International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan pledged over $4.5 billion for reconstruction, as the international community vowed not to ‘forget’ the country, as had happened at the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989.14

Separately from Operation Enduring Freedom, on 20 December 2001 UN Security Council Resolution 1386 established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This had an initial six-month mandate to assist the AIA develop its national security structures and forces. NATO assumed authority for the ISAF mission in August 2003, and expanded its geographical remit far beyond the initial focus on Kabul. NATO took overall responsibility for security in Afghanistan in October 2006, although significant numbers of US troops for counter-insurgency operations remained – and continue to remain - outside its chain of command.15 

These early gains were significant. By early 2002, the threat from the Taliban had been significantly reduced, although acts of terrorism by Al-Qaeda affiliates continued in Bali, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. But the situation in Afghanistan began to unravel as US attention shifted inexorably toward effecting regime change in Iraq. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in January 2002 accused Iraq, Iran and North Korea of supporting terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction.16 In 2002, the administration focused increasingly on defining the concept of pre-emptive war, and, in 2003, on conducting the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It looked away at precisely the formative period when sustained engagement in peace-building and post-conflict recovery was needed to embed and expand the initial achievements in Afghanistan. 

Beginning in 2002, the outlines of a guerrilla resistance against the US presence in Afghanistan emerged as the 10,000 US and ISAF troops and nascent Afghan National Army failed to secure the countryside beyond Kabul.17 This occurred, in part, as US troops were diverted to Iraq, just as fighters that had melted away in 2001 began to reorganise in smaller insurgent networks and groups, and as state and sub-state networks in Pakistan lent their support to spoilers and insurgents in Afghanistan. In addition, it occurred as a result of the inability of the Afghan government and security forces in Kabul (and their US and NATO partners) to do anything to prevent these developments; and, not least, in local and regional reactions to abuses of governance, rampant corruption and the escalating drugs-based shadow economy at the heart of the government of President Hamid Karzai. All these factors added up to a damaging erosion of local legitimacy and support for a government increasingly perceived as propped up by international military backing.18 

Nowhere was this more understood than in the south-eastern province of Helmand, to which a brigade of 3,300 British soldiers were deployed in March 2006. A small contingent of American special forces had been based in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gar since 2002. It had not attracted much attention and had sustained almost no casualties over the four years to 2006. By contrast, the British immediately ran into stiff local resistance as they acted as a magnet for Taliban troops.19 Lacking local awareness or knowledge (symbolised by then-Defence Secretary John Reid’s infamous statement in April 2006 that, “we would be perfectly happy to leave again in three years' time without firing one shot"20) and broken up into operationally indefensible ‘platoon houses’ across Helmand, British forces barely held off the waves of Taliban attacks on their positions. Their position was further complicated by the explosion of the narcotic economy as Helmand became the opium production and smuggling hub producing up to two-thirds of the poppies of Afghanistan.21 

A nexus of insecurity developed from the activities of traffickers, drug warlords, Taliban commanders and organised corruption, eroding (in increasingly wider circles) the Afghan government’s legitimacy and ability to govern. Its scale also undermined local perceptions of British motives in Helmand, as further infusions of troops and civilian personnel stubbornly failed to reverse the rising levels of violence and criminality.  By 2011, the number of British troops in Helmand had risen from 3300 to more than 9000 at a cost of nearly £5 billion in war-related expenditure. Writing about his experiences of serving in the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Helmand between 2007 and 2009, British Intelligence Officer Frank Ledwidge concluded that, “the British had found themselves out of their depth and without the numbers to deal with the absolute necessity of bringing about the security that (arguably) their activities had so damaged.”22 The Ministry of Defence did, however, find time to arrest an officer accused of ‘leaking’ civilian casualty figures and charge him with breaching the Official Secrets Act; doubtless these were deemed too embarrassing and sensitive to reveal to a suspicious public.23 No such figures have been publicly released, but estimates range upwards from the tens of thousands for the ten years since 2001. 

After a decade of war in Afghanistan, the situation today is bleaker than ever before. By mid-2011, ISAF had swollen to more than 130,000 troops and suffered nearly 2800 fatalities, with each year since 2003 being bloodier than the one before.24 Indeed, the International Crisis Group (ICG) summarises how “security has deteriorated across the country, with the highest civilian casualty rates since 2001, and the insurgency is spreading to areas previously considered relatively safe, including the provinces around the capital Kabul.” It notes that war-related civilian deaths in the first half of 2011 were 15% higher than in 2010, and that the Taliban has expanded beyond its traditional Pashtun base to establish shadow governments in central and eastern Afghanistan as well. With “a central government crippled by corruption and deeply dependent on a corrosive war economy” and Afghan security forces (even after ten years of funding and international assistance) “unable to enforce the law, counter the insurgency or even secure the regions where the transition has already begun,” the ICG concluded pessimistically that there was virtually no prospect of stabilising the country before the end of the planned US and NATO withdrawal and handover of security duties to the Afghan government by December 2014.25 The recent stoning to death of a woman and her daughter just 300 metres from the governor’s office in Ghazni city – scheduled for imminent transfer to Afghan security control – provided a grisly example of the extreme limitations of functioning authority after ten years of western intervention.26



Military operations had commenced in Afghanistan in 2001 with broad international support. This provided the campaign with initial legitimacy that was enshrined through United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1378, 1383, 1386, 1401. They stood in direct contrast to the pre-emptive, legally dubious and globally controversial US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Years of rising tensions between the Saddam Hussein regime and the international community over Iraqi disarmament culminated in Resolution 1441 on 8 November 2002. Adopted unanimously, it stated that Iraq was in material breach of its 1991 Gulf War ceasefire obligations relating to the possession of weapons of mass destruction. However, it fell short of permitting direct military action in the event of Iraqi non-compliance. Instead, UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, returned to Iraq and reported increased (though far from complete) Iraqi cooperation and disclosure of information. Yet Bush and Tony Blair rejected Blix’s findings and, despite failing to secure a second UN resolution authorising the use of force, launched military operations on 20 March. 

The invasion of Iraq thus began without UN Security Council authorisation and occurred against the backdrop of unprecedented global protests and mass opposition. Yet in a meaningful sense this did not matter, for the invasion was about the Bush administration demonstrating (to domestic constituents and international observers alike) its determination to deploy overwhelming and (mostly) unilateral military force in response to the new form of asymmetrical warfare that struck US soil on 9/11. The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn argued that, “They were heady times in Washington in 2002, as the final decisions were being taken to invade Iraq. It was the high tide of imperial self-confidence.”27 As previously mentioned, the 2002 National Security Strategy bundled together the issues of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction with the notion of rogue states operating at the periphery of the international system. These ideas meshed with Bush’s rhetoric about the ‘Axis of Evil’ and the neoconservative dream about the possibilities of ‘remaking’ the Middle East, starting with regime change and radical transition to a free-market utopia in Iraq.28 Moreover, the State Department, which, alone in the administration had looked into post-Saddam scenarios through its Future of Iraq project set up in 2002, found itself bypassed and marginalised by the Pentagon, which had done very little post-war planning itself.29 

Such post-conflict ideas as there were rested on little knowledge of – or interest in – the Iraqi political and social order, by the Bush administration and its ally in London. To the extent they reflected anything at all it was the overpowering ‘group-think’ of a closed circle of Beltway insiders and their contacts with exiled Iraqi politicians.30 In November 2002, six leading UK-based academics familiar with Iraq were invited to Downing Street to brief Tony Blair and then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. One of those attending, Charles Tripp, recalled in 2007 how “Straw thought post-Saddam Iraq would be much like post-Soviet Russia and could thus be easily pigeonholed as that strange creature, a ‘transitional society’,” while “Blair seemed wholly uninterested in Iraq as a complex and puzzling political society, wanting confirmation merely that deposing Saddam Hussein would remove ‘evil’ from the country.”31  

Official ignorance reinforced a lack of strategic vision and planning for post-war scenarios that afflicted British policy-making, just as in the US. This failing covered both the military (which issued a divisional plan for post-conflict operations 15 days before Basra fell on 6 April 2003) and the Foreign Office (whose unit for post-war planning was set up just three weeks before the invasion of Iraq commenced).32 They were not helped by the late change in British war plans as their initial intention to invade northern Iraq fell through, following Turkey’s decision to deny its territory as a platform for the invasion. This caused a hurried switch in the objectives of Operation Telic to invade from Kuwait and take control of Iraq’s southern provinces instead.33 Yet British officials remained uncertain as to their legal responsibilities in their areas of occupation even after they entered Iraq, and were totally unaware of how poor initial conditions in Basra had become over decades of neglect, persistent conflict since 1980, and international sanctions after 1991.34  

The successful invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in less than three weeks quickly soured. Initial plans for a short occupation and rapid transition to Iraqi authority were reversed when the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army and enacted a sweeping de-Ba’athification law. Acts of atrocity, such as the killing of seventeen civilian demonstrators by American soldiers in Fallujah in April 2003 and the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands of Iraqis further disabused any notions of ‘liberation.’ What little international legitimacy remained was stripped away following the United Nations’ withdrawal after the death of its Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello in August 2003.

All these factors provided fertile ground for the beginnings of an insurgency against what was turning into a brutal and prolonged occupation. In his book The War Within, veteran investigative journalist Bob Woodward cites General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, stating that President Bush reflected the “radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, ‘Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you’ll succeed.’ ”35 The disastrous reliance on overwhelming force resulted in operations that little distinguished between enemy combatants and innocent civilians. Iraqi casualties rose massively, but General Tommy Franks’ infamous comment that “We don’t do body counts” reinforced perceptions that ‘collateral damage’ simply didn’t register or matter.36 This perception was reinforced when a US judge dismissed all charges (citing inadmissible evidence) against Blackwater military contractors who had indiscriminately shot to death seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad in September 2007 while clearing a path for a convoy.37  

Against this backdrop of poor and confused leadership, post-occupation Iraq remained a zone of conflict and multiple insecurities as political and militia groups filled the vacuum created by the fragmentation of state structures and political authority.38 In part, developments followed the logic of ethno-sectarian divisions enshrined in the post-Saddam political settlement laid down by the occupying powers in 2005. The coalition also adopted a deeply-flawed counter-insurgency plan reliant for transitioning responsibility on an Iraqi government penetrated by sectarian interests and far from a politically neutral ‘honest broker’ capable of governing in the interests of all Iraqis. As David Kilcullen has noted, this focus on transition before stabilisation worsened the sectarian violence by increasing the state’s capacity to project power (and violence), as protection and predation became two sides of the same coin depending on ethnicity or sect.39 In conditions of state fragmentation and the hollowing out of its administrative and (legitimate) coercive functions, the Iraqi government effectively ceased to function as a viable entity in control of the sum of its territory between 2005 and 2007. 

The results for the Iraqi people have been catastrophic. Civilian deaths remain a matter of dispute owing to official uninterest in keeping figures. They range from an Iraq Body Count figure of 103,819 by December 2009 to a contentious survey published in The Lancet that suggested a much higher number of 654,965 excess deaths by June 2006 alone.40 These measures of human insecurity were magnified by the displacement of more than four million Iraqis as a result of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. By the middle of 2007, the International Organization of Migration reported that approximately two million Iraqis had fled to neighbouring countries, primarily Syria and Jordan, and a further 2.2 million were internally displaced within Iraq. This represented the largest displacement of peoples since the expulsion of Palestinians from the newly-created state of Israel in 1948.41  

Although levels of violence have dropped substantially since the sectarian slaughter peaked between 2005 and 2007, Iraq remains today one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with levels of daily violence that would be unacceptable in almost any other context. And what have been the consequences of the huge loss of life and material destruction that have arisen from the decision to go to war on false grounds? Iraqi state structures collapsed in 2003 and the country remains a failed state eight years later. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has shown no sign of relinquishing power voluntarily, and political decisions remain vulnerable to predatory instincts. Following the humiliating (to London) expulsion of British combat forces in 2009, US combat troops are set to leave – against their will – on 31 December, yet the Iraqi security services lack the capability to replace them. 

The geopolitical consequences have also been as profound as they were unanticipated to American and British eyes. Iran has been the big winner as it has carved out areas of strategic depth in neighbouring Iraq. This should not have been unforeseeable; as early as February 2003, before the invasion, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, warned Bush that he would be “solving one problem and creating five more” if Saddam Hussein was removed by force. Two years later, in 2005, he was blunter still, as he complained that the United States was “handing the whole country over to Iran without reason.”42 Turkey, too, has made significant economic and commercial gains, and positioned itself to make a (not entirely uncontroversial) return as a major regional actor. In the Gulf, the west’s close strategic and commercial allies view the empowerment of a Shiite-led Iraq with deep suspicion, and have responded by ramping up sectarian tensions in defence of their own (Sunni-dominated) regional interests. By any calculation, and whatever one thinks of the legality or otherwise of the invasion, Iraq is decidedly MISSION NOT ACCOMPLISHED. 



Any political benefits that might have accrued for the US and UK from their withdrawal from Iraq were offset by the intensifying military operations in Afghanistan. Belated recognition that the campaign was failing to meet any of its political or military objectives led to the plan to transition to Afghan control by 2014. Yet within months of this decision, NATO found itself embroiled in yet another civil conflict, in Libya in March 2011. The resulting seven-month conflict reopened old divisions in the international community about the applicability and deployment of the use of force. It also raised troubling questions about the legal interpretation of Security Council mandates, and about the motivations guiding western policy-makers and their local and regional allies in bringing about regime change in Libya. 

Libyans in its second city Benghazi rose up against the 42-year regime of Colonel Gaddafi on 15 February 2011. Their uprising spread rapidly across Libya but met fierce and determined resistance by government security forces. International condemnation of the attempts to put down the rebellion mounted rapidly as Gaddafi reverted to the international pariah he had been prior to renouncing his weapons of mass destruction in 2003. In mid-March, reports that the regime was on the point of retaking Benghazi led to urgent calls by sections of the international community – led by France, the UK and Qatar - for intervention to forestall a feared retributive massacre of its civilian population. On 17 March, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 demanding an immediate ceasefire and authorising the international community to establish a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from the regime.43

Resolution 1973 passed with five abstentions in the Security Council. Five regional powers and emerging economies all abstained – Germany, Brazil, India and permanent representatives Russia and China. This reflected deep misgivings at the haste with which advocates of the resolution were making the case for intervention on the basis of unproven and unclear allegations. Nor were they alone, as the internationally respected International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in a report in June that, “Much remains to come to light about the way in which the anti-Qaddafi rising began…much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the resistance movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators…”44  

On numerous occasions the international media whipped itself into a frenzy about the supposed atrocities being committed by the regime. However, evidence for their having taken place is proving rather harder to substantiate in many cases. The ICG’s North Africa Project director Hugh Roberts spent months investigating a story on Al Jazeera on 21 February (quickly picked up by news outlets around the world) that the Gaddafi regime was using its air force against peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli and elsewhere. After finding no documentary evidence or eyewitness accounts to corroborate it, he concluded that, “The story was untrue, just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue.”45 Similarly, Amnesty International failed to find evidence for claims of mass rape and other human rights violations allegedly conducted by the regime, contradicting both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.46  

The Libyan intervention is unsettling in other ways. The initial UN mandate for a No-Fly Zone with its limited justification for the use of force to protect the civilian population in Benghazi was far exceeded by NATO. Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, wrote recently that the limited mandate from the UN was disregarded almost from the outset, and that, “NATO forces were obviously far less committed to their supposed protective role than to ensuring that the balance of forces within Libya would be tipped in the direction of the insurrectionary challenge.” He makes the important points that Russia and China would almost certainly not have merely abstained had the true intent of NATO objectives been disclosed at the time of the Security Council vote, and that it is “extremely disturbing that a restricted UN mandate to use force should be totally ignored and then no action taken by the Security Council” to censure NATO “for unilaterally expanding the scope and nature of its military role.”47  

Professor Li Weijian, Director of the Department of West Asian and African Studies at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, alluded to the problematic nature of the intervention in an interview with the leading Arab political magazine Al Majalla. An expert on China’s relationship with the Middle East, he criticized “the unparalleled degree of chaos and destruction which is mainly due to the fact that transition of power from the Qadhafi regime to the NTC was not natural. It was rather achieved by outside intervention and the use of force and thus today’s instability throughout Libya as well as the inhumane treatment of the Libyan dictator should not be surprising to observers.”48 These comments tap into deeper Chinese apprehension about ‘western norms’ supposedly driving concepts such as humanitarian interventionism, and such as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ initiative. An article written on Chinese perspectives on global governance back in 2008 contains a phrase that eerily summarises (and anticipates) China’s scepticism about the potential misuse of such actions: “interventions must be authorised by the Security Council and must not be unilaterally hijacked by great powers, notably the US.”49  

The practical consequences may be far-reaching if concepts such as Responsibility to Protect become discredited or associated with militaristic western-centric approaches. Events in Libya have, to a certain extent, crystallised and confirmed many of the concerns expressed by non-western policy-makers about these supposedly ‘universal’ norms. The impunity with which certain NATO members stretched, manipulated and ignored the UN mandate in Libya certainly makes it more difficult to organise international consensus for humanitarian missions in the future. Qatar’s high-profile role in rallying Arab support must now be reassessed as its involvement in arming and funding a plethora of militia groups in the country becomes murkily apparent. Already these sub-state (and unregulated) networks are undermining the National Transitional Council, prompting its oil and finance minister to state that, “It's time we publicly declare that anyone who wants to come to our house has to knock on our front door first.”50  

Nor is Libya to date much safer than under the stifling dictatorial rule of Colonel Gaddafi. Western military intervention has once again turned a dysfunctional and repressive autocracy into a violent polity teetering on the brink of a failed state. The civil conflict built upon and magnified existing territorial and tribal tensions and created potent new flashpoints. These include flashpoints between groups that deserted the regime early on in the uprising and others that only did so once the outcome of the struggle became clearer, between opposition figures who fought in Libya and others in the diaspora who have since returned to Libya, and between territorially-based groups of fighters, notably competing (and clashing) groups of fighters in Benghazi, Misrata and the Nafusa Mountains. In addition, revenge attacks on groups and individuals seen as having supported the Gaddafi regime have escalated and, in some previously-loyalist areas such as Sirte, new militias have unleashed a “reign of terror” against them. A report drawn up by Ban Ki-Moon for the Security Council and leaked to The Independent reportedly claimed that more than 7000 new “enemies of the state” had been arbitrarily detained by rebel groups across Libya, with many being tortured in private jails outside the control of the new government.51 

More than 300 militias currently operate in Libya, and the country is awash with weaponry, much of it taken from unregulated arms dumps. To this is added a fractious and unresolved political situation and lack of national consensus on crucial issues such as the formation of a national army or reintegration of former regime supporters.52 Tensions between the militias and the easy availability of guns means that disputes are far more likely to be resolved through force, creating further bad blood and grievance. A gun battle between two competing militias on a highway near Tripoli over the weekend of 11-12 November killed up to fifteen people and may be a harbinger of things to come.53 The arrest of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on 19 November also reveals the uncertainties of power in Libya: whether the group that holds him will hand him over to a newly-forming Libyan government, and under what conditions, is far from clear. Parallels with the lethal and overlapping low-intensity urban conflicts in Iraq for access to and control over localised resources and the spoils of power are becoming more apparent by the week.


The decade of decline

In the space of a decade the project of the American Century has dissolved. The shock of 9/11 has been magnified by the subsequent western military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The Obama administration is less stridently ideological and less fixated upon the crude projection of raw power than its predecessor, and professes a greater regard for multilateralism and the rule of law. Nevertheless, the recent developments in Libya demonstrate the continuing attraction to western policy-makers of the use of force to manage international problems. Yet two of the three interventions of the past decade have been resounding failures that have not achieved their political, far less military, objectives - and Libya looks as if it is heading in the same direction. The past decade has shown how western powers, led by the US and the UK, are largely impotent forces in reshaping global politics. This stands in direct contrast to the multi-dimensional deployment of power and influence by emerging economies, which have presaged a global power shift wholly unanticipated in western policy circles a decade ago. 

The wars of decline have exposed the shortcomings in the US’s predominance in a multipolar world with multiple layers of political authority and centres of economic gravity. Furthermore, the asymmetric warfare characteristic of the opposition to western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has revealed their vulnerabilities to more ‘primitive’ forms of combat. This modifies the grandiose projections made after the initial victory over the Taliban and before the invasion of Iraq by advocates of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs,’ and it reveals the limitations of technology alone to reshape military operations.54 Pakistan’s furious reaction to NATO’s cross-border air strike which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on 26 November also demonstrates how the mistaken use of force can undermine and harm regional relationships that have taken years to construct.55 In both Iraq and Afghanistan the quick and easy attainment of conventional military success gave way to prolonged civil conflict and violent local resistance. Libya is showing signs of going down the same road, but still policy-makers in western capitals appear to believe that they can influence or even determine the political and economic choices of leaders they think they control. 

Yet their conceit ignores the shift away from the west of the balance of global economic power. Recent academic research on the ‘world economic centre of gravity’ has tracked its shift 4800 kilometres to the east since 1980 and set out empirical evidence about a rebalancing global order.56 The rising economic power of China, India and the other emerging economies inevitably translates into greater political leverage as well. The success of non-western oil companies in securing oil and gas contracts in Iraq’s license bidding rounds in 2009 and 2010 is one indicator of this. So are China’s $4 billion copper mining contract and the Indian mining companies lining up to make deals to tap Afghanistan’s reputed $ 1 trillion of mineral resources.57 Yet another is the unseemly reaction of former US Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan (and close Bush confidante) Zalmay Khalilzad when a client of his private investment firm, Gryphon Capital Partners, lost out to the China National Petroleum Corporation in a competitive tender for oilfields in northern Afghanistan. Khalilzad had lobbied intensively for the deal, and in response his son accused the Pentagon of betraying US interests by not advising the Afghan government to favour companies from coalition partners in Afghanistan.58 

The bigger picture is completed by the manifest failures of the Washington Consensus and the Washington security doctrine to prevent economic and financial meltdown and military quagmire. Western economies remain mired in deep-rooted difficulties while emerging economies lead the way out of the global recession of 2007-9. This is measured through evolving changes to global structures of production, trade and finance, the rise of the BRICS, and flows of investment from oil-producing nations to help ‘bail out’ beleaguered companies and institutions in the west. All these developments are rapidly turning the status quo on its head and will have far-reaching consequences for the balance of global power. It is, however, far from clear that western leaders have grasped and assimilated this transformative shift, as the rush to intervene in Libya even after the debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq shows. Yet history warns us that empires in decline are dangerously prone to flailing out as they attempt to retain the status quo and reverse their decline. 

The huge costs of these wars, in addition, creates immense new pressures on the domestic politics of the countries involved, The costofwar.com website claims that the total amount of money spent by the United States on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan currently stands at $804 billion and $478 billion respectively, making a total $1.28 trillion.59 An alternative figure has been provided by the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who calculated that the war in Iraq alone had cost $3 trillion in the five years to 2008. He came to this figure, which far exceeded the Bush administration’s then-appropriation of $600 billion for operations in Iraq, by taking into account future obligations (accrual accounting) such as the provision of health care and disability pensions to returning veterans.60 In Britain, the Helmand operations are costing an estimated £4 billion each year, and by 2010 the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeded £20 billion. Moreover, a House of Commons defence committee report accused the Ministry of Defence of trying to disguise the real figures, and added that the government had significantly underestimated the cost of the Libyan intervention when it requested parliamentary authorisation in March.61 

Ill-conceived foreign policy comes back to haunt the exchequer of many western countries struggling now with excess debt and low growth. The opportunity costs of these wars in the context of the current turmoil in the global economy seems excessive by any standard. The sums involved could have created vital reserves to help shore up vulnerable economies. It is regrettable to recall that the weakening and disruption of western economies formed part of Al Qaeda’s varied agenda.

After 9/11 the United States and its principal allies could have grounded their response in the rule of international law and multilateral institutions. They could have used the powerful international solidarity to go after the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity to, in the words of President Obama, “dismantle, disrupt and defeat Al Qaeda.” Yet they did not.62 In choosing to invade Iraq the Bush administration and Bush’s British ally rode roughshod over considerations of international peace and security, and disregarded the United Nations and the post-war international architecture. NATO continues to bomb Afghanistan even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, which also hosts a resurgent Taliban that is once again destroying Afghanistan while destabilising the fragile nuclear-armed Pakistani state. The intervention in Libya exceeded its UN mandate as NATO wilfully misrepresented the nature and intent of its actions to tip the balance of power against Gaddafi. It is difficult to see Libya avoiding the sort of lengthy civil strife that has resulted from the external interventions and acts of imposed regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. The terrible irony is that the attempts to resist terrorist violence in the decade after 9/11 have ended up weakening the very structures of law and constraints on the use of force that have formed the cornerstone of the international system and bedrock of global security since 1945.


1 David Held, Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), p.11.

2 Andrew Hurrell, ‘One World? Many Worlds? The Place of Regions in the Study of International Society,’ International Affairs, 83(1), 2007, p.135.

3 Klejda Mulaj, ‘Violent Non-State Actors: Exploring their State Relations, Legitimation, and Operationality,’ in Klejda Mulaj (ed.), Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics (London: Hurst & Co., 2010), p.2.

4 Damian Grenfell & Paul James, ‘Debating Insecurity in a Globalizing World: An introduction,’ in Damian Grenfell & Paul James (eds.), Rethinking Insecurity, War and Violence (London, Routledge, 2009), p.7.

5 Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘Behind the Curve: Globalisation and International Terrorism,’ in Michael E. Brown, Owen R. Cote, Sean M. Lynn-Jones & Steven E. Miller (eds.), New Global Dangers: Changing Dimensions of International Security (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p.448.

6 David Held, ‘Global Challenges: Accountability and Effectiveness,’ Open Democracy, January 17, 2008.

7 Morten Kelstrup, ‘Globalisation and Societal Insecurity: The Securitisation of Terrorism and Competing Strategies for Global Governance,’ in Stefano Guzzini & Dietrich Jung (eds.), Contemporary Security Analysis and Copenhagen Peace Research (London: Routledge, 2004), pp.112.

8 Barry Buzan, ‘Will the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ be the New Cold War?’ International Affairs, 82(6), 2006, p.1102.

9 ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,’ September 20, 2001, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/print/20010920-8.html (accessed November 7, 2011).

10 Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.147.

11 Michael Howard, Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace (London: Continuum Books, 2006), p.219.

12 Hew Strachan, ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy,’ Survival, 47(3), 2005, p.52.

13 Olivier Roy, The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East (London: Hurst & Co., 2007), p.1.

14 http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/middle_e/afghanistan/min0201/summary.pdf (accessed November 9, 2011).

15 Cyrus Hodes & Mark Sedra, The Search for Security in Post-Taliban Afghanistan (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies Adelphi Paper 391, 2007), p.45.

16 President Delivers State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/print/20020129-11.html (accessed November 9, 2011).

17 See, for example, Paul Rogers, ‘Afghanistan: The Evolving War,’ Open Democracy, November 3, 2002; ‘Afghanistan Still Burning,’ Open Democracy, February 13, 2003; and ‘Afghanistan and Iraq: Regroupment or Insurgency?’ Open Democracy, June 11, 2003.

18 Antonio Giustozzi, ‘Afghanistan: The Patrimonial Trap and the Dream of Institution-Building,’ in Denisa Kostovicova & Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic (eds.), Persistent State Weakness in the Global Age (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p.79.

19 Hodes & Sedra, Search for Security, pp.45-46.

20 ‘Half-a-decade in Helmand,’ UK Ministry of Defence, June 3, 2011, http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/MilitaryOperations/HalfadecadeInHelmand.htm (accessed November 10, 2011).

21 ‘Heroin Production in Afghanistan: Helmand, Nangarhar and Badakhshan,’ United States Naval Postgraduate School: Culture and Conflict Studies, April 14, 2009, p.3.

22 Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), pp.94-95.

23 ‘British Army Officer Arrested Over Military Secrets Leak,’ The Daily Telegraph, February 4, 2009.

24 http://icasualties.org (accessed November 11, 2011).

25 International Crisis Group, FAQ Security in Afghanistan, last updated August 23, 2011, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/key-issues/security-in-afghanistan.aspx (accessed November 10, 2011).

26 ‘Afghanistan Mother and Daughter Stoned and Shot Dead,’ BBC News, November 11, 2011.

27 Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (London: Verso, 2006), p.2.

28 Toby Dodge, Iraq’s Future: The Aftermath of Regime Change (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies Adelphi Paper.372, 2005), pp.5-7.

29 Greg Muttitt, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (London: Bodley Head, 2011), pp.53-54.

30 Cockburn, The Occupation, pp.26-30.

31 Charles Tripp, ‘Militias, Vigilantes, Death Squads: The Grammar of Violence in Iraq,’ London Review of Books, Vol.29 No.2, January 25, 2007, p.30.

32 David H. Ucko, ‘Lessons from Basra: The Future of British Counter-Insurgency,’ Survival, 52(4), 2010, p.133.

33 Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars, p.18.

34 Testimony of Dr Nemat Shafik (Permanent Secretary, Department for International Development, 2008-9) to the Iraq Inquiry, London, January 13, 2010, http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/45193/20100113-shafik-final.pdf (accessed November 13, 2011).

35 Bob Woodward, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008 (London: Simon & Schuster, 2008), p.4.

36 ‘Counting the Civilian Cost in Iraq,’ BBC News, June 6, 2005.

37 ‘US Judge Dismisses Charges in Blackwater Iraq Killings,’ BBC News, December 31, 2009.

38 Toby Dodge, ‘The Causes of US Failure in Iraq,’ Survival, 49(1), 2007, p.88.

39 David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (London: Hurst & Co., 2009), p.126.

40 http://www.iraqbodycount.org/; Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doacy and Les Roberts, ‘Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey,’ The Lancet, October 11, 2006.

41 Patricia Weiss Fagan, ‘Iraqi Refugees: Seeking Stability in Syria and Jordan.’ Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Occasional Paper 1, 2009, p.2.

42 Quoted in Nawaf Obaidi, ‘Stepping into Iraq: Saudi Arabia will Protect Sunnis if the US Leaves,’ Washington Post, November 29, 2006.

43 ‘As U.N. Backs Military Action in Libya, U.S. Role is Unclear,’ New York Times, March 17, 2011.

44 ‘Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (V): Making Sense of Libya,’ International Crisis Group MENA Report No.107, June 6, 2011, pp.3-4.

45 Hugh Roberts, ‘Who Said Gaddafi Had to Go?’ London Review of Books, Vol.33 No.22, November 17, 2011, p.17.

46 ‘Amnesty Questions Claim that Gaddafi Ordered Rape as Weapon of War,’ The Independent, June 24, 2011.

47 ‘Libya after Gaddafi: A Dangerous Precedent,’ Al Jazeera Opinion, October 22, 2011.

48 http://www.majalla.com/eng/2011/10/article55227243 (accessed November 15, 2011).

49 Lai-Ha Chan, Pak K. Lee & Gerald Chan, ‘Rethinking Global Governance: A China Model in the Making?’ Contemporary Politics, 14(1), 2008, p.9.

50 ‘Minister in Tripoli Blasts Qatari Aid to Militia Groups,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2011; ‘Tiny Kingdom’s Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011.

51 ‘Leaked UN Report Reveals Torture, Lynching and Abuse in Post-Gaddafi Libya,’ The Independent, November 24, 2011.

52 ‘Reining in Militias Priority for Libya’s Prime Minister,’ Sydney Morning Herald, November 2, 2011.

53 ‘At Least Six Are Killed as Libyan Militias Clash on Coastal Highway Near Tripoli,’ New York Times, November 13, 2011.

54 David Calleo, ‘Unipolar Illusions,’ Survival, 49(3), 2007, p.74.

55 ‘Pakistan Ordes US to Leave Airbase in Row Over Deadly NATO Assault,’ The Guardian, November 27, 2011.

56 Danny Quah, ‘The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity,’ Global Policy, 2(1), 2011, p.9.

57 ‘Indian Firms May Land Iron Ore Mining Contract in Afghanistan,’ The Times of India, October 31, 2011.

58 ‘War-Forfeiteering,’ National Review Online, October 5, 2011.

59 http://costofwar.com/en/ (accessed November 24, 2011).

60 Joseph E. Stiglitz & Linda J. Bilmes, ‘The $3 Trillion War,’ Vanity Fair, April 2008, http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/04/stiglitz200804 (accessed November 24, 2011).

61 ‘Britain Spent $18 Billion on War in Afghanistan, Figures Show,’ The Daily Telegraph, July 28, 2011.

62 See David Held, Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), ch.4.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData