Open Letter to the Anti-Occupation Movement
It is becomingly increasingly clear to all but the most ideologically blinkered that the occupation of Iraq has been a disaster. The Lancet estimated that the death toll amongst Iraqis since the invasion was in the order of 100,000, perhaps higher. Amongst the occupying forces, the US has now lost more than 1,400 soldiers and the UK almost 90. This doesn’t even mention the hundreds of thousands who have been injured and rendered homeless or forced to flee from their homes. Despite all of this, the occupation continues at the time of writing and looks set to do so for the continuing future. If we are serious about bringing this state of affairs to an end we have a duty to consider the strategies we have been pursuing and if we find them lacking to institute a change in strategic direction. This easy is an attempt to suggest one possible such strategic direction in the hope of generating debate.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 there was a massive level of anti-war activity, reaching its apotheosis in February of that year with 1.5 million people on the streets of London and millions more in simultaneous protests across the world. Activist and author Milan Rai suggests that the anti-war movement scared the government sufficiently that they seriously considered pulling British troops out of the planned invasion. Today, although the violence continues there is a far lower level of activity. The protests on March 19 this year will no doubt be large compared with those around other issues, but will have little if any effect on those in power and pass off largely unknown by the vast majority of the population. If we wish to influence the elites currently running the occupation than we must seek to raise the costs of that policy so that they exceed the benefits, something we are at the moment unable to do.
Those costs which have been imposed on the occupation have been almost exclusively at the hands of the armed insurgency. This is surely obvious to anybody, regardless of their opinions on some or all of the groups who have taken up arms against the occupation. It is worth noting here that the resistance is not a homogenous group as some insinuate, but rather an assortment of groups of groups with few if any links, some of whom are openly hostile to each other. The divided nature of this group will no doubt affect its effectiveness, particularly if some groups continue their apparent strategy of targeting Iraqis from other ethnic groups. Whether the insurgency can force the US out remains to be seen, but it is certainly not a given.
One of the most important elements in any strategy for the liberation of Iraq on the part of western activists is the development and dissemination of serious, useful analysis. In the run up to the war the Stop the War Coalition and many other groups focused on simplistic sloganeering which ensured a broad-based movement, but left people unprepared to deal with the radically different political situation which came with the consolidation of the occupation and the emergence of armed resistance. Unfortunately the Stop the War Coalition continues in this vein, limiting itself to demanding that the troops be brought home, but offering little on why this should happen. Fortunately other groups and individuals are moving in to fill this group, Iraq Occupation Focus and Rahul Mahajan being two who spring to mind.
Perhaps the most important task of activists at the present time is outreach. Polls suggest that a majority of the population broadly agree with us and my own experience in campaigning seems to back that up. Despite this our ability to attract and mobilise those people has been more limited. There are, of course, real questions about how we go about doing this. Public meetings are a potentially useful tool, but often attract those who are already converts to the cause. In my opinion, Nottingham Stop the War is on the right lines here, with a regular stall in the city’s Old Market Square on Saturday’s and a roving stall moving through the likes of Ilkeston, Mansfield and Kirby-in-Ashfield. These distribute flyers, allow activists to engage with normal people and also make their presence known to a potential audience of thousands. Nottingham Stop the War has also sought to develop its links with local trade unions with some success, an effort which could perhaps be extended to churches and religious groups, if not further.
On a more practical level, activists could, and in my opinion should, target firms profiting from the occupation. Voices UK organised an event along these protests during September last year. Dressing up as fat-cats and pigs they toured the offices of firms such as AMEC and Bechtel. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), few of these firms have much of a presence outside of London, but some, such as Shell and HSBC are virtually ubiquitous and easy to get at, while others such as AMEC are possibilities, but would require a little more research.
The tactics which could be employed in this regard are numerous and varied. No doubt pickets and protests would be utilised initially, but we should seek to use all means at our disposal. Easily organised letter writing campaigns to the company itself or local papers could potentially generate positive results. Boycotts are another possibility, but would probably have to be co-ordinated nationally. More militant tactics such as property destruction should not be dismissed and have been utilised with some success by animal liberation campaigners. We should seek to learn from such groups, but the negative publicity that they have attracted, arguably to the detriment of their cause, should also be borne in mind.
This approach should be coupled with the targeting of any and all representatives of the British state with particular emphasis on Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. This could include protests outside barracks and recruitments centres or against visiting government ministers, all of which has happened at one point or another in and around Nottingham. The question of recruitment is a particularly important one, with reports suggesting that there has been a major fall in army recruitment recently, apparently as a result of the chaos in Iraq. This is something we should seek to encourage as far as possible.
Another tactic which should not be forgotten is the targeting of pro-war MPs. This has been something which various groups have engaged in and should continue, regardless of the party from which they come. There is obviously much more which could be said here about the strategy to be followed by anti-war groups as we head towards a General Election. My own views on elections would stretch to an essay in themselves and so I will simply comment that we should seek to ensure the issue of the occupation is at the forefront during the campaign and I believe that there should be at least one and ideally a series of events, protests or stunts on the day of the election itself.
One issue which has largely been ignored by anti-occupation activists has been the question of whether or not we should support the trade unions emerging in Iraq. It is worth interjecting at this point that I reject the flawed analysis of many Trotskyists and fellow-travellers which seems to equate a tool for the defence of working class interests (i.e. trade unions) with a potential revolutionary agent (i.e. the working class in toto). Nevertheless economic exploitation of Iraqi resources lies at the heart of the occupiers’ project and unions are a potentially important source of resistance to this. Many union leaders have thrown their hat in with the occupation and I do not wish to suggest that we should support any organisation uncritically. No doubt there is a potential debate as to how far this support should go and this is a debate which must be had urgently.
Some have sought to set support for unions against support for the resistance. In my opinion this is a largely artificial, meaningless dichotomy flowing from mistaken analysis. Given that the resistance is a diverse assortment of groups with differing aims and sometimes violent divisions to suggest that we could or should support it as a whole strikes me as a silly proposition. More concretely there is a consequentialist case to be made for supporting trade unions. It is far from clear what we can actually do to “support” armed resistance movements in Iraq and it seems that such support amongst British activists doesn’t seem to go beyond vacuous rhetoric, which is meaningless to the Iraqi people and of no consequence to our leaders. By contrast there is the possibility of fundraising for Iraqi unions and for solidarising with them, particularly if and when they come under attack from the occupying forces (as has happened on a number of occasions).
No doubt there is a great deal which this essay misses out. I have merely sketched out the bare bones of an anti-occupation strategy and it is for the movement as a whole to fill in the details if they think it is accurate. If not (and no doubt there will be much that some or many will disagree with) then I urge people not to dismiss what I have written, but instead to engage with and improve upon it. The occupation is now almost two years old, Iraqis continue to die on a daily basis. Insofar as we have failed to prevent this state of affairs from continuing, their blood is on our hands. For their sakes, and for our own decency, we owe it to them to do better.