Operation Iraqi Freedom – 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom is the name given to the invasion of Iraq on March 19 2003. Its objective was ‘regime change’ – a euphemism for the removal of Saddam Hussein from his post as leader of Iraq, and his replacement by a ‘democratically elected’ Iraqi government with whom the USA could ‘do business’. The casus belli was, according to US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the ‘clear and material threat’ posed to their countries by Iraq’s ‘proven’ possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD).

Having failed to win support from either the United Nations (UN) or the UN Security Council for UN Resolution 1441 (‘to disarm Iraq’), Britain and America cited Iraq’s ‘breach of 17 prior UN resolutions’ and went to war anyway. Operation Iraqi Freedom ended as a conventional war on April 10 2003, though Saddam was not captured until December. That same month, a US battalion commander in the town of Abu Hishma summarized Iraqi Freedom’s success: ‘With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can persuade these people that we are here to help them.’

Now – long after Saddam Hussein’s execution, the ruination of Iraq’s economy and the effective sequestration of its valuable oil assets – Iraqi Freedom’s legacy of civil strife between Sunni and Shi’ite and Kurd merely multiplies the bitter ashes of the entire episode.

As the UN’s Inspector said before it began, there never were any WMD. Bush and Blair lied about them, having planned to go to war with Iraq a whole year earlier. Iraqi Freedom is an ongoing disaster for Western democracies, for Iraq, and for truth itself. It shames us all.

When: March 19-20 to April 10 2003

Where: Iraq

Death toll: By 2009 the total number of deaths as a direct result of the invasion and its aftermath had been estimated at 1,366,350. Nobody has ever counted the injured and displaced in Iraq.

You should know: As early as July 23 2003, a US game company issued a PC game called ‘F/A-18 Operation Iraqi Freedom’, offering players the chance ‘to fly the Marine and Navy’s workhorse fighting machine, the F/A-18 Hornet, as navigated above Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and the Gulf during Iraqi Freedom’.


The Kursk Disaster – 2000

Some time over the weekend of August 12-13 2000, while on a naval exercise inside the Arctic Circle, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea with all hands on board. The entire 118-strong crew perished on the Oscar II class submarine, built in 1994. According to the Russian navy, it had not been carrying nuclear warheads so there was never a danger of radiation leaks. A desperate Russian rescue operation over the following days, in which other countries including Britain offered their assistance, failed to establish radio communication with the stricken vessel, still less gain access to save the crew. Rescuers’ efforts were hampered by the icy waters, stormy weather and poor underwater visibility.

No one will ever know for sure what caused the disaster. The explanation generally held today, and one borne out by the findings of the official Russian inquiry, is that it was due to a faulty torpedo exploding as it was being prepared for use. The Russians admitted afterwards that the liquid fuel they had been using in their missiles was known to be unstable in certain conditions. As the captain struggled to bring the submarine to the surface there was a second and much bigger explosion – most likely another warhead – which tore a hole in the bow and probably killed most of the crew instantly. This explanation is supported by reports of two underwater explosions picked up by Western agencies monitoring the area at the time, as well as by the physical evidence of the wreck when it was finally brought up from the seabed by a Dutch salvage team more than a year after the accident. Public reaction in Russia to the authorities’ handling of the disaster was hostile, with victims’ families branding the official inquiry a whitewash.

When: August 12 or 13 2000

Where: Barents Sea, off the Arctic coast of Russia

Death toll: 118 Russian sailors died.

You should know: Vladimir Putin, who had taken over as president of Russia from Boris Yeltsin at the start of the year, was on holiday at the time and did not return immediately to Moscow. His handling of his first major crisis in office was widely criticized for its inadequacy and lack of sensitivity.


Iraq Invasion of Kuwait – 1990-1991

In the late 1980s, after the failure of his long and costly war against Iran, which had lasted for most of that decade, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein started to cast around for a new target for his warmongering aspirations. His sights alighted on another neighbor, the small but oil-rich Gulf state of Kuwait. On August 2 1990, under the pretext of a border dispute over oil exports and distribution arrangements, Saddam launched a large-scale invasion of Kuwait with more than 100,000 troops backed up by 700 tanks. Kuwait was quickly overrun and in no time. Saddam was declaring its annexation by Iraq. With customary bellicose rhetoric he threatened to turn the capital, Kuwait City, into a ‘graveyard’ if any other country dared to challenge the ‘take-over by force’.

The response of the United Nations was immediate and decisive. Meeting in emergency session, the Security Council called on Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait and imposed sanctions until it had done so. Saddam, however, gave no indication that he would bow to UN demands. Over the following months a US-led Coalition force involving troops from 30 countries was assembled. It was widely assumed that Saddam would back down in the face of intense international pressure, but when he failed to respond to a UN ultimatum for withdrawal, the Coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm on January 17 1991, a major offensive to expel Iraq and liberate Kuwait. For more than a month a sustained and devastating aerial bombardment of key military targets, including the Iraqi capital Baghdad, brought the country to its knees. When the ground forces finally moved in at the end of February the conflict was effectively over; within days the Iraqi army had fled, Kuwait was free, and a ceasefire had been declared.

When: August 2 1990 to February 28 1991

Where: Kuwait and Iraq

Death toll: Iraqi casualties are unknown, but estimates of military deaths range as high as 100,000. Some 3,500 civilians are thought to have died in the bombing raids, tens of thousands more from diseases and other effects of war. Coalition troops lost 381 lives, including a number from so-called ‘friendly fire’ incidents.

You should know: What has become known as the First Gulf War must rate as one of the most unequal engagements in the history of warfare. The Coalition forces’ equipment, resources and firepower were vastly superior to that of their Iraqi opponents.


Palomares Incident – 1966

Although some progress towards detente had been made with the signing in 1963 of the Test Ban Treaty between the USA and the Soviet Union, there were still plenty of itchy fingers around nuclear buttons when, on January 17 1966, during a routine mid-air refueling operation off the Mediterranean coast of southern Spain, a US B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker aircraft. The B-52 was patrolling the European skies on a typical Cold War sortie when the accident occurred at 9,000 m (30,000 ft). Both planes crashed to the ground outside the fishing village of Palomares in Andalusia, killing the entire tanker crew and three members of the bomber crew; the remaining four crewmen managed to parachute to safety.

What made this mid-air collision no ordinary accident was the fact that the B-52 bomber was carrying a nuclear payload comprising four H-Bombs. Three bombs crashed with the plane; although the hydrogen cores remained intact, the non-nuclear explosives in two of them detonated upon impact, contaminating a wide area of agricultural land with plutonium dust. Although the American authorities played down the significance of the incident, the massive clear-up operation that followed gave ample evidence of how worried they were. Two thousand US servicemen were involved and blanket embargoes were placed on the local tomato crop and fishing industry.

The fourth bomb, which had been jettisoned over the water, was eventually found on the sea-bed after an intensive 80-day search by more than 30 ships. The Palomares incident remains the worst accident ever to have occurred involving American nuclear weapons; the clean-up and subsequent compensation claims are said to have cost the USA over $180 million.

When: January 17 1966

Where: Palomares, Andalucia, Spain

Death toll: Seven US crewmen were killed in the accident. Whilst there were no direct civilian casualties on the ground, the local population are still given annual medical checks to this day.

You should know: As recently as October 2006 the USA and Spain agreed to undertake a further clean-up of radioactive land in the Palomares area.


Operation Eagle Claw – 1980

Now it seems either breathtakingly arrogant or plain mad, but in 1979 global diplomacy had no public voice for, nor knowledge of, Muslim fundamentalism. When President Jimmy Carter, as Commander-in-Chief, sent in his newly formed Delta Force to rescue 53 American hostages seized with the US Embassy in Tehran, he was behaving as the heads of superpowers had behaved since Roman times. An embassy has always physically represented the ‘national soil’ of a country. An invasion of it is an act of war.

Carter’s may have been a knee-jerk reaction, but it seemed reasonable: Britain felt the same way when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The difference was the circumstances that forced Carter to hedge his entire bet. The Shah of Iran – a long time ‘client’ of NATO – had only recently been forced out, and might conceivably return to nominal or real power. The antagonism between Iran’s new, civilian politicians and its religious leaders under Ayatollah Khomeini was neither understood nor resolved. Eagle Claw had to look like a ‘punishment’ raid, not war. Nobody must be offended.

Eagle Claw was inspired by the Israeli success at Entebbe in 1976, but it was much more complicated. Several huge C-130 transports had to land ‘in the Iranian desert’, wait while nine helicopters deposited Delta Force ‘specialists’ in Tehran itself, and after roughly 24 hours to cover the ‘extraction’, pick up the hostage group from Tehran airport (secured, improbably, from any opposition!) and fly them somewhere with decent hamburgers. A sandstorm reduced the airworthy helicopters to five and exhausted the pilots beyond the endurable. Eagle Claw was aborted – leaving eight dead in a desert fireball after a C-130 transport collided with a helicopter, the hostages in captivity, the global influence of Iran’s student fundamentalist group massively enhanced, and Carter’s presidency in ashes. The hostages were released to mark incoming President Reagan’s inauguration.

When: April 24 1980

Where: The Iranian ‘desert’

Death toll: Eight US servicemen died and America suffered a disastrous humiliation, enabling Khomeini to consolidate his grip on power. From being an embarrassment to the new regime, unskilled at the propaganda game, the 52 remaining hostages became a major bargaining chip. Eagle Claw cost Carter a second term, and shocked America’s allies (who had been neither informed nor consulted about it) into forming premature policies preferring sanctions to any show of force. The mission’s failure created the political suspicion that led, eventually but unerringly, to George W Bush’s 2002 inclusion of Iran in his ‘Axis of Evil’.

You should know: President Carter said (April 25 1980): I ordered this mission… to reduce the tensions in the world that have been caused among many nations as this crisis has continued.’


The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan – 1979-1989

Since time immemorial Afghanistan has been riven by tribal, ethnic and religious conflict. In its harsh geography, authority expands and contracts beneath a patina of centuries of shifting loyalties. The process of forming reliable alliances has been too subtle for foreign invaders – including Alexander the Great, the Moghuls, the British (repeatedly), and in 1979, the Russians. The USSR had promoted its own interests for years with a massive aid program, until in the 1970s Afghanistan ‘voted’ a communist government to power. Urban communism, backed only by the military, was a direct challenge to deeply entrenched Muslim culture and belief. Countryside protest became nationwide revolt, and the USSR invaded Afghanistan in defense of the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ of surrounding the mother country with kowtowing, client communist states.

On Christmas Eve in 1979 Russia flooded the country with troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft. They thought they were fighting the usual, unruly dissidents, but their enemy was Islam itself: common religious cause over-rode internecine tribal antagonism. From Russia’s point of view this redefined the mujahedeen to include every town, village or farm that sheltered them (voluntarily or not). During the next ten years Russia razed the heart and soul out of Afghanistan’s rural culture, ably assisted by the actual mujahedeen guerrillas, who gratefully accepted the CIA’s $2.1 billion investment in their resistance, and grew too excited by weaponry to care who got damaged in the cross-fire. Russia, confined to heavily fortified enclaves, hemorrhaging young lives to no conceivable benefit, threatened by its own allies with trade sanctions, and pressurized by international moral censure, gave up. Using the pretext of the botched, 1988 Geneva Accords, its armies fled with indecent haste. Afghanistan was a wasteland, robbed of its culture, its civil structures and democratic potential. And thanks to Russia, worse was yet to come.

When: December 24 1979 to February 15 1989

Where: Afghanistan

Death toll: Of the 620,000 Russians who served in Afghanistan, 15,000 were killed and 54,000 wounded. The country is still carpeted with land mines. Hundreds of thousands of Afghanis died, and millions fled as refugees to Pakistan. With traditional tribal structures irrevocably fractured by the war, new alliances have been forged linking the refugee communities with both Taliban fundamentalists and Afghani ‘tribal nationalists’. The USA must share the blame with the USSR for playing an almost genocidal game of one-upmanship in this period.

You should know: Zbigniew Brezhinski of the US State Department confessed years later that the US had planned to support Russia’s Afghani opponents five months before the USSR invaded: ‘On July 3 1979 President carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the Pro-Soviet regime in Kabul… The day the Soviets officially crossed the border, l wrote to President Carter: we now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War…’