Thirteen years later

Last Sunday the last British combat troops left Afghanistan, and so a chapter of our history ended. Looking back, it is weird to realise that I do not remember, as I do with Iraq, the beginning of the war. In 2001, I was 6 years old – just conscious enough to be able now to recall 9/11, much too young to have any concept of what was happening in its aftermath.

And yet, the war in Afghanistan featured heavily in my growing awareness of the world around me. Almost every news bulletin I watched during my childhood or teens seems to have featured another death or injury, another debate about whether the international forces were doing more harm than good, another question about whether we would ever be able to leave behind a country stable enough to keep going.

The jury is still out. On the plus side, little girls can now go to school, and no one gets their hand chopped off for stealing (or not stealing) a loaf of bread. The Taliban has been seriously weakened, although not, as the Americans would have us believe, to the point of defeat. I don’t think many would be willing to put money on the Afghan army being able to keep the insurgency where it is now, but at least Kabul seems safe. There is little chance of another take over.

Yet in blood-soaked Helmand, and in countless other areas, especially in the wilderness near the Pakistani border, the rule of law is still a distant ideal. Tribal leaders still hold more power than the central government, itself hardly an emblem of hope. It took three months this summer for a new president to be announced, after each side made claim and counter-claim of election fraud. At least the venal ex-President, Hamid Karzai, is no longer in power, but the deal which settled the deadlock (with one candidate, Ashraf Ghani, becoming President, while the other, Abdullah Abdullah, Prime Minister) leaves the government, and the country, divided. The democracy which the West claims to have brought to Afghanistan is little more than a charade.

Was it worth the nearly 3500 ISAF fatalities, not to mention the countless civilian casualties? I honestly do not know; it is impossible to say what could have been if there had been a different response to 9/11, if George Bush had not declared a war on terror.

I wonder if, in 2001, when I was still learning how to spell, anyone seriously thought troops would still be in Afghanistan when I was at university. It would be pleasant to think that now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, we could put the war on terror to bed too. But now Western planes are again flying missions over Iraq, and Syria too – more limited action, yes, but still with no end in sight.

The fickle media

The news this summer has been particularly grim; ebola has ravaged Western Africa, massacre has ranged from Ukraine, to Iraq, to Israel-Palestine. These events have rightly dominated the front pages and news bulletins, accompanied by haunting photos of the civilians caught up in them – a little girl in a Gazan hospital, a young boy forced to flee Mosul, the thousands of people who lined the route from Eindhoven air base to Hilversum in the Netherlands travelled by the hearses which carried the bodies of those killed on flight MH17. The world felt these people’s pain.

But the newspapers have only so many pages, the news programs have only so much time, and new events replace old. The media has to keep one step ahead of waning public opinion, which gets bored of a story within just a few days. Profits matter. And so we no longer hear of the war in Syria, where the death toll is now 160,000. Nor do we hear much of Libya as it crumbles, forcing the US and Britain to close their embassies. In Europe, we hear little of the thousands of children who have turned up, starving, scared and alone, on the Texas/Mexico border and who face an uncertain future. The crises in the CAR and Mali are unreported outside France, and we have long forgotten the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls whose story once captured the world’s attention.

Ignorance is the precursor to powerlessness. You have to know about a problem to do something about it, and the media has a duty to keep people informed. The media should not just reflect society, but also lead it. It should remind people of problems which are long-running, not just headline-grabbing ones. That is how public opinion is formed, and how change happens. For public opinion is a stronger force than people give it credit for. Israel is terrified of going so far that it loses American backing or inflames the boycott movement. Putin’s meddling in Ukraine is based on calculations about popularity at home. But because these issues aren’t going to be addressed for long, those causing so much damage will simply get away with it, as the media moves on.

Iraq and the West are haunted by history

Once again, Iraq is tearing itself apart. The country’s existence as a cohesive whole is now in more danger than it was at the height of the civil war in 2006/07, when the yearly civilian death count was over 20,000. Now, with a disintegrating Syria providing an ideal base for terrorism, Iraq is being threatened by ISIS, a group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Much of the debate swirls around the controversies of Western intervention. Two apparently contradictory questions are being asked again and again: did the 2003 invasion set up the conditions for ISIS’s emergence (namely, the severe weakening of the Iraqi state, and the dominance of Nuori al-Maliki’s Shia government over minority Sunnis)? And, even so, should the West act again, to save the Iraq it spent so much blood to create?

But there is one Western act neglected in the endless news articles and opinion pieces, and it is the one perhaps most crucial in understanding ISIS’s determination to redraw the map (and, as it happens, sheds a lot of light on the recent history of both Iraq and Syria): the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917. As WWI put strain on the empires of France and Britain, the countries’ diplomats drew up a plan for a quasi-independent Middle East; dividing their territory into countries with arbitrary strokes of a pen. Thus, the region’s countries never lined up with its nations, and the stage was set for the next 100 years of bloody strife.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement failed, crucially, to distinguish between Sunni and Shia Arab areas, resulting in the formation of countries with sizeable minorities and powerful majorities. Sometimes, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is the minority group which wields power – often by force. It is hard to overstate the feelings of animosity between Sunnis and Shias, especially in the most polarised countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon); there hasn’t been peace between the two groups since the great schism after Muhammad’s death.

Al-Maliki’s divisive style of government has not helped matters, but it is naïve to blame the Prime Minister for all of is his country’s woes. Iraq is a product of Western imperialism – and in many ways should never have existed in its current form. ISIS is abhorrent for many reasons, but its rejection of arbitrary borders isn’t one of them; it is based, instead, on an embedded historical narrative.

So we have to ask ourselves, is Iraq’s integrity really our paramount priority? In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the West advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and now many countries exist where once stood just one. Surely the same right cannot be denied to the peoples of the Middle East. And yet, the consequences of the dissolution of Iraq are hard to fathom, both within its current borders and worldwide. Having misguidedly brought the country into being, the West is bound to defend it. There is no righting the mistakes of history.

On Syria – a briefing

I do not remember the Rwandan genocide, nor the Bosnian war; Vietnam and Korea remain raw for many, but are history to me. Instead, I am of the Iraq/Afghanistan generation – I have grown up in a post-9/11 world where foreign policy has been dominated by the War on Terror. The lessons I have learnt warn of the dangers of an over-powerful executive (remember the scandal of Parliament’s Iraq vote?) and fabricated evidence. The military interventions I have known have been ill-defined and impossible to end, and may well have led to more civilian deaths than would have occurred if the West had stayed away. The events I have witnessed ever since I was just six years old have, naturally, made me quite sceptical about the West’s capacity to do good in the Middle East.

However, despite all the lessons that must be learnt – particularly from Iraq – it is time the spectre of that now-past era stopped inducing rash policy decisions on and hyped-up media coverage of Syria. The situation is different now, and clear thinking is needed. To do justice to the complexity of today’s events and the immense human suffering happening right now, we need to be making decisions which are not coloured by fear. And yet the events of the past two weeks have exposed the extent to which the West is still afraid.

It all started on the 28th August when news came that the Assad regime had probably crossed the ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. For the best part of a week, governments around the world scrambled to find enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the attack had indeed taken place, and that it had been perpetrated by the regime. UN weapons inspectors, already in the country investigating alleged previous chemical weapons usage, fought for and won access to the newly affected areas – rebel held suburbs of Damascus.

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This is where things started to unravel in the West’s response. David Cameron, the British PM, rushed headlong into a parliamentary vote without waiting for either UN or US intelligence. Although this was foolish and led to a deeply embarrassing defeat, Cameron was sending a signal: that unlike Tony Blair, he respects the workings of parliamentary democracy. The defeat itself was also political rather than strategic; the proposed motion promised another vote and more evidence before any actual military action could occur, and was intended to be merely symbolic. Here, Labour was equally as foolish as the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the real problem actually came when, following their defeat, Tory cabinet members overreacted. Too quickly, Cameron et al promised that there would not be another vote on military intervention and that any British involvement in Syria was simply off the table. This, they implied, showed that they respected the voice of Parliament. In reality, they have silenced that voice on the world’s most important issue and, in the process, relegated the UK to the children’s table of global politics. When it dawned on them that this was all rather embarrassing, the government quickly employed some verbal slight-of-hand and altered its message: there would not be a second vote unless the situation changed dramatically. It is safe to say that, given the vagueness of that condition, no one actually knows whether Britain may still get involved.

Focus quickly shifted to the US, where everyone expected President Obama to announce cruise missile attacks. But he, too, decided to surprise us by asking for a Congressional vote. He, too, seems to be mindful of the image of an over-powerful executive. However, there was no need for Obama to seek approval; unlike the British PM, the Presidency is designed to control foreign policy. Indeed, Congress hasn’t declared war since the US entered WWII in 1941. So, why is he bothering? Put simply, Obama wants Congressional Republicans to share the blame if intervention goes wrong. And yet, he is taking a huge risk. If he loses the vote (many members of Congress may vote against him in light of the strength of anti-war public opinion), it is hard to see a way forward. Will he simply make use of his prerogative powers and bomb Assad anyway? This may be better than become a ‘do-nothing’ Commander-in-Chief, but would still constitute political suicide. He may take some confidence in the fact that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and effective opposition leader, has signalled his support. But it will have been a long ten days for the President when Congress finally votes tomorrow.

The future of American foreign policy, and that of the democratic, developed countries it leads, now rests in the hands of the 112th Congress. So, in fact, does the future of Syria. That is more than a little worrying.

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So there’s your round up of what’s happening on the Syria question in Western politics. Now, here’s what I think.
 
I mentioned earlier that, thanks to circumstantial conditioning, I am a sceptic about intervention in the Middle East. But I am also a natural humanitarian; and I think it is time to act for three main reasons. Firstly, despite everything, I do believe that the West still has a role in imposing some basic morality, especially when it comes to preventing the mass murder of civilians by their own government.  I cannot forget the picture of a crying child among dead bodies, and I don’t think politicians should either. We have a duty to protect.
Secondly. the use of chemical weapons is against international law. In an increasingly globalised world, it is time to take such law seriously and to enforce them. There is no chance of getting Assad and his merry men to the Hague anytime soon, and so military action is the only way to do this. There is also a moral hazard problem here; if Assad is allowed to go unpunished there will be no reason for him – or any other despot – to refrain from using such nasty weapons. Do we want that to be the message we send to the regimes of North Korea or Pakistan? Just remember, 25 years after Saddam Hussein killed 5000 Kurds in a chemical attack on the town of Halabja, he was still murdering thousands of his people and unsettling the entire region.
Which leads me on to my third and last point. Letting the war rumble on as it is will increase the rate at which it spreads across the Middle East. As I have argued before, the Syrian civil war is not just a conflict between regime and rebels, but between Sunni and Shia. Already, the level of violence in Iraq is rising after years of tapering off. Tensions in Lebanon, whose civil war took place all too recently, are beginning to flair again. The once-secure monarchy of Jordan is being destabilised by huge numbers of refugees – as is Turkey, which has problems of its own to contend with. The sooner this ends, the quicker calm can be restored and a regional war avoided.
And so, against all instinct, I am advocating Western military action in Syria. To prevent the deaths of soldiers and unnecessary escalation, it is vital that politicians keep their promises and do not put boots on the ground. To prevent causing civilian deaths and even more dangerous acrimony between Islam’s many branches, it is vital that the West does not go in for regime change but instead uses targeted cruise missiles to disable Assad’s military capabilities and stop further breeches of international law. That way, it is possible to learn the lessons of Iraq and still do the right thing.
 

Only questions

Sometimes there is a problem to which no one has an answer, to which there is no answer. So it seems with the Syrian crisis – the ‘worst war of our time’ as one Newsnight reporter put it yesterday. Sorry Obama, Cameron and Hollande, for all your good intentions you’ll just have to wait this one out – there’s nothing you can do.

Since last week’s White House confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s forces, the pressure to arm the rebels has grown and Obama has finally bowed to it. But he was right to express concern in doing so – there is nothing the West can do to stop any arms ending up in the hands of the jihadists who are already gaining strength and support. No one wants a repetition of what happened after we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this mind-blowingly accurate book) – the Taliban made us miss the Soviets, and missing Assad is a sickening thought. If we were going to arm the rebels, we should have got on with it 18 months ago before the Islamists took control.

Even without the Islamist element to worry about, it is hard to ignore the harsh fact that more weapons generally means more death. Let’s not forget; 93,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria, many of them women and children and non-combatants. But that is not to say that the reasons given for arming the rebels are flawed – they’re just as sensible as the ones against. Proponents of the policy point out that, with his forces pushing back rebel lines, even taking back much of Aleppo, Assad has no incentive to enter any settlement which could lead to a peaceful transfer of power. Change the situation on the ground and his political rational will have to shift, sending him running for the negotiating table.

Still, I am inclined to believe that arming the opposition cannot have a positive outcome and so the question remains: what is to be done? The humanitarian in me cannot counternance not taking any action at all. A Libya-style no-fly zone is pretty much out of the question; Syria is too big, too spread out, to be comprehensively covered, and Assad’s air-defence systems are very advanced (thanks in no small part to his dear friends the Russians). The West, then, should give up on the fanciful idea of changing the balance of power and start doing what it can to stop people dying. The enormous sums of money which could be spent on arms should be spent instead on bullet-proof vests and helmets, on food and blankets for the homeless, on doing something to make the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan more than a living hell. These are the things which can be done without any risk, solely benefiting a population which, having spent two years living in a warzone, desperately needs help.

We will feel that this is inadequate – that our only thought should be to stop the bloodshed. But we can’t; the situation is too complex for any interference to be successful. Indeed, the Syrian conflict needs to shed the veil of the Arab spring and be seen for what it is, a proxy war between Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad on one side and Iraq and the West on the other. Put simply, it is just a small, bloody episode in the never-ending Sunni-Shia war. It is spreading over boarders – tensions in Lebanon, not-long dormant after the civil war, are rising again, and Turkey and Iraq are struggling too. The unrest threatens to engulf the entire region in bloody sectarianism – this is no place for American guns.

Happy New Year! 2011 in review

It’s been quite the year. Let me take you back in time and show you how the world changed – mostly for the better.

January and February saw most of Europe glued to its television screens as people in the Arab world joined together in open rebellion against the despots who have ruled the Magreb for decades. At the very beginning of the year we watched first Tunisians and then Egyptians throng the streets of their capitals in huge and unprecedented numbers. We watched in awe. By the 14th January, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali had resigned and he quickly fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab spring had been born. Within a month Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-serving strongman had suffered the same fate. Millions of people leaped up the ladder to democracy. What I think captivated the West so much was the sheer power of people. We hadn’t seen popular anger erupt like that since the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, long before I was born. We were fascinated by so much change.

As Winter turned to Spring, Japan was hit by an immense earthquake and tsunami – the strongest on record. Supply lines were destroyed and thousands of homes were destroyed when whole villages were washed away. As if that was not enough, it was not long before a new disaster unfolded. The tsunami had critically damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which soon began to leak radiation. Fears of meltdown and comparisons to Chernobyl resonated. Thousands more people were evacuated and, as other nuclear power-plants were shut-down due to public pressure, northern Japan started to suffer power cuts. Obviously, the disaster was awful for those whose lives were destroyed, but the real tragedy for the wider world might be the political shift away from nuclear power. This is sad, considering well-managed nuclear power production is one of the cleanest and greenest forms of energy. It’s bad name – which it had nearly lost – has now been reinforced by natural disaster and political failure.

In the same month, NATO launched its mission to protect civilians in Libya by creating a no-fly zone. Many warned that the problem was similar to that of Iraq in 2003 and that intervention would lead to the same disasterous consequences, which caused America to take a back-seat. Operations continued throughout the Summer, with NATO strikers disabling Colonel Gaddafi’s military capabilities in a bid to help the rebel fighters. Libya sunk into a deadly civil war.

April was gobbled up by the royal wedding – which rendered BBC News unbearable. Along side such important news the battles in Libya rumbled on. It seemed that the advantage switched sides almost daily – but the deathtoll mounted swiftly and steadily. As anger mounted against Gaddafi, Syria’s President Bashar Assad also saw increasing dissent on his streets. The military were sent in to cities, and have been engaged in running battles with peaceful protesters ever since.

May saw the Liberal Democrats destroyed by a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which also exposed the worst of British political campaigning. It also saw the arrest, after 15 years on the run, of Ratko Mladic – the Bosnian Serb general who was responsible for the Srebrenicia Massacre of 1990 in which 8,000 died. He went to trial in the Hague, raising the possibility of some justice finally being served. Then there was the big one – the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks of 2001. He was killed by US marines in a raid on his compound in a military town in Pakistan. The location of the West’s most wanted man raised some eyebrows and the once forced-cosiness of American-Pakistani relations has completely disappeared, with the US doubting the loyalty of its key ally in the so-called War on Terror. News of the death spread a somewhatd disturbing joy in America and scenes of people partying at Ground Zero raised fears of revenge attacks. Even if the press and politicians mismanaged the event, Osama bin Laden is unlikely to be missed.

The Summer was dominated by a few major stories. Fighting in Libya and Syria continued, as NATO dropped more bombs and Gaddafi looked weaker and weaker. The quick and relatively peaceful ends of Tunisia and Egypt’s regimes seemed from a different age. Closer to home, the phone hacking scandal put an end to Britain’s most-read rag, The News of the World, whose reporters had hacked the voicemail messages of – well – everyone, but things really came to a head when it emerged that they had access the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager. Public outrage gave the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, no choice but to close the paper. It also lead to a review of the relationship between media moguls and politicians, the police’s relationship with journalists, and the standards of the press industry as a whole. The Leviston Inquiry into all this is ongoing. The media will never be the same again.

July and August were stressful months for Northern Europe, which was having a bad time of it anyway (see below). In July a far-right extremist, Anders Behring Brievik, set off a bomb in Oslo, the capital of Norway, before going on the rampage at a youth camp for young members of the Norwegian Labour Party. He killed 77 people. Amongst the horror, grief and anger, another emotion was present – surprise. The ‘War on Terror’ lead by America and Europe has concentrated so much on Islamic jihad that people could not believe that a European country had been attacked by a Christian native. It later emerged that Brievik had been protesting against the adoption of a multicultural society in Norway, and particularly the tolerance of Islam. This shocked the country, which prides itself on its acceptance and peacefulness. August saw violence erupt again, this time when several English cities witnessed mass riots and looting, reminding on lookers of the 1980s. The riots started as a protest in Tottenham, London against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in mysterious circumstances. Anger broke out into violence and the looting started. The police reacted poorly, and with a sense of hopelessness. It seems that people took this as an allowance to break the law, and over the next few days riots erupted all over London, as well as Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Although community leaders continued to blame the shooting, most of the rioters were just out to get free stuff and enjoy breaking the law. The Labour Party took the opportunity to do some cuts-bashing – blaming the lack of youth centres and job opportunities. The Tories responded by putting their tough-on-crime hats on, and got down to the business of putting people in prison. The political fall out was almost entertaining, but the violence was not. For four days the authorities had no control of the streets, and communities suffered arson and looting that destroyed homes and businesses. Whatever your political views, no one can disagree that these were sorry days for England.

Over the latter half of the year we were repeatedly shown the uselessness of the European Union as well as the incredible and unnerving power of the financial markets. European leaders repeatedly failed to reach an agreement to sort out the continent’s sovereign debt problems and save the Euro, but did manage to prevent complete collapse. Summit after summit ended in bitter political wrangling. Eventually the EU managed to force out the Greek Prime Minister, whose country’s debt was threatening to bring down the Euro. Many worried that the Union was showing too much control over the domestic politics of its member states, but the markets calmed. Not long after, the crisis claimed the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s maverick Prime Minister. The failings of the Euro had a silver lining after all. Both countries now have technocratic governments which are working to reduce their deficits. Although this state of affairs is democratically questionable, the markets seem a little happier. A deal to write-down some of Greece’s debt has also been reached, finally. However, the Euro is not safe. Talk of increasing fiscal unity and even a ‘two-speed’ Europe is both pleasing to the markets and terrifying to politicians. The Euro will (probably) survive 2012, but whether it is recognisable in a year’s time is anybody’s guess.

In Autumn the Arab spring was renewed. After the fall of Tripoli (Libya’s capital) into rebel control in August, the country was nearly free. However, Gadaffi loyalists continued to put up a bloody fight, especially from his stronghold of Bani Walid and his hometown of Sirte. It became clear that, to get anything resembling peace, Gadaffi had to be caught. Questions bounced around the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli: would he be found? would he be tried in Libya or at the Hague? was he even in the country. It was widely known that members of his family had fled into neighbouring Nigera, but no one knew if he had been among  them. However, in late October these questions proved futile. Sirte and Bani Walid fell, and Gadaffi was found by rebels hidng in a gutter in his hometown. He was killed in the chaos of his arrest (according to the rebels, although supporters say he was shot on purpose). The political arm of the rebel movement, the National Transitional Council (NTC) now had full control of the country. There is now a long road ahead – first to reconciliation and then to democracy. This may be harder for Libya than for other Arab countries, as it is deeply divided along tribal lines and because the civil war has brought a lot of guns onto the streets. However, the dictator is dead, and that is no bad thing. In Syria, on the other hand, things are still very grim. The army is still fighting with defiant protesters and the Assad regime is showing no intention of relaxing its grip. Thousands have been killed, with tens of thousands more arrested. As international sanctions begin to bite and the violence gets ever worse, it looks as if Syria is heading towards civil war. Because it is such a big regional power, such a conflict will have untold consequences. However, the Arab spring has also seen some successes recently. Tunisia held its first elections in four decades, which were said to be free and fair by international observers. The event passed without violence and all parties accepted the results. They will now begin to draft a constitution. The West will take heart that although an Islamic party secured the most votes, it is of a mild nature and did not win a majority. It has pledged to work with secular parties. Democracy in the Middle East does work.

2011 also saw the end of both American and Brittish military action in Iraq, nine years after the bombing of Baghdad and the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Since then, Iraq has been battered by sectarian violence, which the coalition troops have failed to stop. However, Iraq is now more stable than it has been since the invasion, so in some ways the mission has been a success. With the end of Labour governance in the UK, questions about the ethics of the Iraq war have become muted. One thing is clear, however, the Iraqis – for all the problems they face – are glad to see the end of foreign occupation. Politics in Iraq is still fractious. As the last US troops crossed the border into Kuwait, the main Shia faction pulled out of Parliament, leaving millions of Iraqis unrepresented and destabilising the government. A few days later, the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant on charges of terrorism for the Vice President, Tariq al-Hushemi, after he declared that bomb attacks on Baghdad were so organised that they must have been carried out by the government. Mr al-Maliki is a Shia, Mr Hushemi is a Sunni.

Many, many other events have shaped 2011 – from the start of the Republican nomination race in America, to the creation of South Sudan, to the threatening of Putin’s power in Russia, and finally the death of Kim Jong-il. These events will be changing the world for a long time – stay tuned for my predictions for 2012. Happy New Year.

A weekend of news

I was expecting a quiet start to my Christmas holidays, but this weekend a lot of blog-worthy stuff has flashed across my telly. Therefore I find myself back at the keys, having thought I had time for a break.

A tropical storm caused flash floods in the Philippines, which devastated coastal towns and killed 650 people. Whole villages were washed away, which means there are now thousands of homeless. More than 800 people are still missing. A massive aid operation is desperately needed; the US and China have already pledged support.

This weekend marked the anniversary of the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself alight having been refused a permit for a stall by the authorities. The horror at the scale of his disillusionment triggered protests that led to the Arab spring. It is almost impossible to say whether popular anger in the Middle East would have exploded without this catalyst, but Bouazizi will be remembered forever for changing the politics of an entire region.

A sombre presenter on North Korean state television announced to the nation the death of Kim Jong-il, the Communist dictator who had ruled the country since 1994. Under his leadership the country became completely isolated, as it developed nuclear weapons and continued its war with the South. The country was subjected to sanctions that crippled the economy, and several badly handled natural disasters led to mass starvation. Most North Koreans live in poverty, especially when compared with their Southern counterparts. Politics in the country has always been a secretive and dodgy affair, and with the death of Kim Jong-il more doubt has arisen. The Kim family is the only Communist dynasty in existence, and Jong-il was in the process of handing over power to his son, Jong-un. Almost nothing is known about him, but there are rumours that he is ‘unready’ to rule. Western leaders will be keeping a close eye on this mysterious country over the next few months of uncertainty. They will be hoping, but not expecting, that the new leader will open up his country and improve the lives of his people.

And as if all that was not enough news for one weekend, Sunday also marked the end of America’s war in Iraq. Nine years ago, the war started with the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Since then, troops have been fighting a guerrilla war with both Sunni and Shia militia – who have also been fighting each other. Media reports vary, but it is accepted that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since 2003, along with 4,487 American and 139 British troops. In America, people have conditioned themselves to believe that the war has been a success. And yes, a brutal regime has fallen. However, the plight of civilians has worsened. They have endured years of daily bomb attacks, militant Islam has grown and the government is a mess. Even as the last vehicles of the last American convoy rolled across the border into Kuwait, the main Shia faction pulled out of Parliament, lurching the country into political crisis. Most importantly, women have lost freedom and equality – the percentage of girls in education is now just above sixty. This is not likely to increase – especially as the government’s main priority is security. Politics in Iraq may be more pluralistic, but the liberal democracy the Americans envisaged when they first bombed Baghdad nine years ago is no where to be seen.

A new country

Over night Libya’s rebel army made the much-anticipated advance on Tripoli and we awoke to an almost-finished battle for the city. The rebels used a two-pronged approach, coming both from Ziltan to the West and Zawiya to the East, forcing Gaddafi’s forces to fight on two fronts. As of this morning the rebels were claiming to hold 80-90% of Tripoli, although the BBC was struggling to verify these figures. The rebels’ political wing, the National Transitional Council (NTC) – now recognised by most countries as the legitimate government of Libya – says that there are only ‘pockets of resistance’ left in the capital, although gunfire and heavy weaponry can still be heard throughout the city.

Everyone is now almost, if not completely, certain that Gaddafi is going to go in the next few days. Last night his most influential sons Saif al-Islam and Mohammed were captured and are now being held. This leaves their father even more isolated. And as I write there is a gun battle outside Gaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli – where it is conceivable he could be. The rebels say that they plan to secure Tripoli by Wednesday and are confident that once this happens the regime will fall.

So Gaddafi’s effectively gone and his forty-two years of dictatorship are over. This is surely a reason to celebrate. But more difficulties lie ahead. Libyan society is very tribal and divided. These divisions have been held together by Col Gaddafi’s iron grip, but in the manic days ahead they may once again rear their heads and fighting may break out. As well as this, troops once loyal to the regime may continue to oppose the NTC, even when they have no-one left to protect. And even if fighting does come to a swift end it will be extremely hard to bring democracy to a country that has not experienced it for four decades. The NTC has been fighting for control for five months now and it would not be surprising if it was reluctant to give it up. This means that the move towards free and fair elections will be slow and painful, even if everyone acts nicely.

There are two big problems facing Libya’s immediate future – NATO and Islamic extremism. The former seems to be sticking around while the rebels call for it to leave, which is slightly awkward as they are on the same side. NATO seems intent on claiming some of the glory, although in recent history many of its heads of state have been very pally with Gaddafi. By sticking around, unwanted, they it is doing more harm than good to its reputation. Journalists in the UK have been quick to remind politicians and the public of the lessons of Iraq. I think this is a bit of an over the top comparison. NATO did not invade Libya, it prevented the massacre of innocent civilians and helped topple an undemocratic and ruthless regime. It did not deploy troops. Crucially, it was invited in. Nevertheless, it should not surpass its mandate of protecting civilians. It also should not try to demilitarise Libya, or impose any of its other ideas about government as it did in Iraq. If it leaves Libya a few days after Gaddafi it wíll have done a good job.

One of the jobs the NTC will have to do in the coming weeks is decide who should be allowed to run in elections, whenever and however they take place. There are two groups who may be causes for concern – ex-Gaddafi supporters and religious fundamentalists. It is unclear what the NTC will decide or how the public views the two groups and integrating them into the new society of Libya will be very difficult. But legally excluding either will only lead to more political strife, especially after Gaddafi’s repressive rule. Safeguards must also be put in place to prevent another breakdown of the constitution and ensure that no one person takes complete command.

It is clear that Libya is at a turning point – and one from which there will be no return. If the next few days and weeks go smoothly it is reasonable to hope that Libya can reach a state of peaceful and functional democracy. Keep your fingers crossed.

Eight years later, Britain leaves Iraq

When the first images of bombs lighting up Baghdad were broadcast, I was eight years old. That, to me, is an astonishing fact. Since 2003, 179 British soldiers have died in the operation that brought down Saddam Hussein. Countless American and NATO troops have also been killed. Some 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in the fight against insurgants. And now, weirdly, it is over.

British combat operations actually ended in 2009 when troops pulled out of Basra – the UK’s main base – which explains the lack of media coverage. However, since then, navy personnel have remained in the country to train their Iraqi counterparts. The last British navel officer left Iraq at midnight this morning.

The operation has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Ministry of Defence. The British public never supported the war – indeed, most disagreed with it – and the whole thing is generally viewed as a huge mistake. The anger felt over Tony Blair’s decision to join the American-lead forces probably cost him his job.

So how did the coalition fail and how did it succeed? It accomplished its main goal quite early on when the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. It did, kind of, set up a democratically elected government – but it is riddled with corruption and the elections were disasterous. The security situation remains perilous. Crucially, Iraqis do not appear to believe that the mission was worth it. Life for them is often only vaguely better, if not worse, than it was in the days of Saddam. It will be interesting to see how things turn out in light of 2011’s Arab spring.