Author and freelance writer. Sometimes in London more often elsewhere




Persuasive writing


By James Maclaren, Mar 14 2018 11:20AM

Following the brazen attack on a former Russian spy on the streets of an English city which to date has not provided the inspiration for an espionage tale, the UK and with less enthusiasm its allies ponder how to respond to an act of state terrorism. The reason for outrage is obvious: the use of a highly specialised nerve agent on the streets of a city better known for its dreamy Cathedral spire and traditional country market raises the bar on the murky intelligence sparring with the Russian state which has either decided to operate outside of accepted international rules of behaviour or, possibly worse, has lost control of the most deadly of weapons a class of which it continues to develop and refine.

The UK is bracing itself for the usual reciprocal expulsion of diplomats and will find a catalogue of measures which they hope will satisfy domestic demand for a tough response while making its anger at the Russian action clear. The Government is keen not to repeat the debacle of the Litvinenko affair where its slow steady reliance on judicial process simply confirmed the Kremlin’s opinion that Britain has become a weak state vulnerable and easily bullied. It will have noted the decline in the strength and capability of its armed forces, the political divisions which prevent unified action and the slow integration of financial and economic links which make decisive reprisals difficult to swallow.

It is no longer the binary age of the Cold War and the last twenty years have seen a progressive economic integration into western markets which make many of Britain’s allies uneasy at the prospect of moving beyond the ritual declarations of outrage and support. It seems likely that whatever package of punitive measures are put in place, the problem of a long-term strategy as to how to deal with a Russia which is willing to operate outside of international standards remains.

Russia remains a deeply insecure nation that demands respect and needs attention. It craves the empire it never really had and feels deeply the humiliation inflicted upon the country by foreign powers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its grievances include, the expansion of NATO up against its borders, a string of western military interventions undertaken with scant regard for Russian opinion and a desire to be free of the encirclement it feels, despite the vastness of its lands. An encirclement made more obvious by the rise of the nations of the Far East and in particular China whose wealth and power now dwarfs that of Russia.

In Putin it has a leader who is an unreconstructed product of the old order, when Soviet power, weight and influence, in particular by the United States, could not be ignored. As he engineers a further landslide victory in the forthcoming presidential elections, his grip and hold on the Russian establishment is stronger than ever. Despite the western mockery of pictures of a bare chested middle-aged man riding horseback in the Urals or fishing on a Siberian lake, to a Russian people who enthusiastically believe their own propaganda he is all-powerful.

In truth, economically Putin has been a failure. The economy continues to perform badly compromising the autocratic leader’s strategic ambitions for Russia. The economic marginalisation that is coming for Russia is set to one side while the state-owned media machine whips up the scapegoats of western sanctions to explain poor economic performance and generates support for foreign adventurism, which includes the seizure of Crimea, intervention in Syria and meddling in US and other elections.

The reconstruction of Russia’s military capability is a priority for Putin and represents a source of national pride. The rusting and rotting hulks in the harbours at Vladivostok and Murmansk must have been a source of irritation to the Russian leader and the reclaiming of Russia’s status as a great power begins with investment in the military tools that accompany such standing. As a Cold War era aircraft carrier chugs steamily through the English Channel and analogue non-precision cluster bombs are directed onto Syrian suburbs there is some way to go to achieve the military might that Russia clung onto during the heyday of the eighties. But we are back to Tupolev bombers circling Norway and the British Isles, submarine probes of the Swedish coastline, development of the modern domains of warfare such as cyber and of course as the events of Salisbury remind us, Russia has not lost its affection for the development and use of chemical weapons.

The real response to a Russia that will not conform to international standards of behaviour is to challenge it where it feels strongest. Russia adopts the tactic of the street gang-leader who demands respect with shows of strength and aggression. In the Cold War President Reagan recognised this and did what should always be the approach with bullies, he stood up to them. In the case of the Soviet Union he simply outspent them, forcing Soviet defence expenditure to over 15% of its GDP, a share that no countries economy could ultimately afford. It did so without the US economy having to pause for breath. Since then defence and security priorities have changed. The US and NATO have transformed themselves in a world police, focussed on the defeat of Islamic based terrorism and undertaking stability operations. With misgivings and warnings from some, military capability and force structures have moved away from the ability to conduct state on state conflict to meeting transnational threats. This may have to change.

So, what does this mean for Britain and what should the longer term British response to Russia be?

Britain is able to demonstrate some leadership by responding to the development of the Russian military capability in kind. It has a far bigger economy than Russia which could easily find the necessary defence budget increases to demonstrate to Russia that it cannot throw its weight around unchallenged. It can use the increase to fill the gaps in conventional warfare capability which have emerged as the UK’s armed forces have been hollowed out in favour of other political and domestic priorities. The arbitrary defence of meeting the NATO minimum GDP spending should be thrown out. It is in any case a spending limit which reflects a different set of strategic challenges.

Britain has to do this because it is unlikely that any other European nation has the mettle to go beyond statements and words that are as weak and feeble as those from Moscow are sneering and scornful. With a US that has returned to a position which follows national self-interest, there is no other credible western power with the capability and will to show the leadership the European Continent requires. In time its allies will realise that a resurgent Russia suppressing its fundamental weaknesses is a threat which must be addressed. Without leadership and example this will be a slow tortuous route to understanding that will be characterised by crisis and appeasement as Russia flexes its muscles. There will be no good news for many years.

Showing leadership in confronting Russia reflects Britain’s historical past in being prepared to do what is right rather than selfish or popular. The international community will respond, and Britain will not be alone in ensuring Russia learns to conduct its affairs within the accepted codes of behaviour or it will face consequences it cannot ultimately afford.

By James Maclaren, Jan 22 2018 08:33AM

Shortly the Government will release yet another defence review. In it, we can expect to see UK military capability conveniently redefined under the Treasury imposed expenditure threshold and expect it to say little other than re-emphasise the threats, present the cornerstone of UK defence policy as NATO membership and laud its special relationship (for which we can read reliance) upon the United States. It is unlikely to consider the flaws in this assessment, or consider what, in a post-Brexit environment, will be Britain’s role in the world. The principle purpose of defence review appears to be to address the gaping deficit in the Department’s budget. This most recent mini-review follows hard on the heels of a supposedly complete review in 2015 and is the third since 2010. To the cynical, UK defence reviews have become too political, too scripted and too frequent.

Ministers are proud of the UK’s record in meeting the NATO expenditure target of two percent, one of only four countries in the alliance to do so. While they gloss over the creative accounting necessary to maintain this achievement and prefer not to dwell on the mismanagement and budget raids which have slowly hollowed out the UK’s military capabilities. They prefer to point to increases in the military’s equipment budget headed by new RAF combat aircraft and the re-emergence of carrier strike capability. Not much will be said about the Army, which in particular looks in need of refreshing, particularly in the high-intensity combat area. The combined effects of sustained operations in Afghanistan, under-recruitment and reconfiguration to concentrate on operations short of high-intensity have left it ill-prepared to face a resurgent Russian military capability.

To many the need for a defence review seems unclear – what in the nature of threats and challenges to national defence has changed that much? The UK managed to navigate the end of the Cold War without a defence review and it was only the politically motivated Labour Party manifesto commitment to its SDR in 1997 that brought about the first defence review since Dennis Healey, another labour defence Secretary ripped up the defence song sheet in 1967. The answer that will be given to Parliament will probably be not much. But in truth a great deal has changed to Britain’s strategic situation and there is now, more than ever, a need for a proper review which does more than the usual exercise of packing a great deal of foreign and defence policy padding around what is essentially strategic defence mismanagement.

Part of the padding refers to some assumptions and constraints that Government is unwilling to confront with fresh thinking. For example, that NATO is a cornerstone of our defence policy or that the NATO inspired 2% spending commitment is the correct level of national treasure to invest in meeting the national interest. Recent defence reviews have broadly come to the same conclusions and followed the same narrative, the role of Trident, NATO, relationship with the United States are unquestioned and are taken as cardinal laws. As Britain considers its role in the world after departure from the EU then confronting some of these unchallenged rules of defence policy may be unavoidable.

Defence capability follows trade. The power of the Royal Navy was founded upon the need to protect the nation’s sea lines of communication. In a world where the UK begins to see its trade interests expand beyond the European continent, then a steady reversal of the Healey doctrine of withdrawal East of Suez will take place. It will do so at a time when the world has become to look significantly more dangerous than the decades in which Britain hibernated into the European cave and carried out its Cold War. Britain will need to stand on its feet again and to do so will have to have the capacity to act militarily and potentially unilaterally. International solidarity has limits and while NATO may just serve its purpose as a bulwark against Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, it is unlikely to have the appetite or resources to support its members whose national interests have moved beyond the continent or usual reach of the alliance. To suggest that Britain should continue to be Europe-focused for defence while it

s trade and commercial interests reach far wider, is not logical and defies the lessons of history.

An increasing reliance on internationalism for national defence faces challenge in three areas. One is that countries with different interests and outlooks cannot always be expected to support one another. US patience with Europe is stretched. Presuming that it would be willing to support British interests as it seeks a wider global role is asking a great deal. Second, Internationalism genders a false sense of complacency which is created by a multinational approach to capabilities and capacity. It allows nations to comfort themselves that renouncing a national capability is OK, because it is still there, just provided by someone else. But whether that is true or not depends upon the circumstances that it can be called upon. Britain’s interests will diverge from many NATO member states, and the need for autonomous capability that may no longer be available from an alliance partner will increase.

There is a third concern which has remained largely unspoken. The Americanisation of European armies has been continuing for some time. The reliance upon US leadership, military philosophy doctrine and procedures, never mind its unmatched range of capabilities is almost total. Any force operating in coalition with the US is obliged to follow its methods and conform to its organisations. Nowhere is American exceptionalism more evident than in the conduct of military affairs. It demands and expects from its allies, and it ignores that with which it does not agree.

The problem is that many feel the American way just does not work! The American way of war is weighted towards technology often at the expense of grasping the political, environmental and situational nature of conflicts. Americans assume the domination of technology will prevail and this leads them on a vast and expanding journey to build increasing technology and complexity into weapons systems. It is arguable whether the American idea that networking technology directing precision munitions has actually revolutionised warfare or has provided the crushing advantage over its opponents. Not only does a case exist to say that this view of war is flawed, it is too expensive for allies such as the British to follow. To do so requires expenditure on equipment so costly that forces and capabilities which may have greater utility, particularly in the lower end of the conflict spectrum must be sacrificed to pay for it. Continuing to support unreservedly the ability to ‘plug-in’ into US capabilities will result in possession of a few exquisite and tiny capabilities incapable of autonomous action. This presents a problem to a UK required to operate beyond the NATO umbrella or without the support of critical allies. Numbers still matter if a nation is to be able to win wars, or at the very least conduct major conflicts at scale.

The gaps in other capabilities which attempting to maintain technology alignment with the US creates, requires the UK to rely heavily upon US help during military operations. Key ‘enablers’ such as heavy airlift, command and control, strategic intelligence, reconnaissance, air to air refuelling give the Americans a de facto veto over future UK military operations. The US has never been shy of exercising such a veto if it perceived to be in their interests to do so. While the Government would point to existing UK capabilities in all these areas, they do not exist at the level required to conduct strategic autonomy. Slowly, but irrevocably, since 1967 and probably before then, the commitment to NATO, Europe and the US, with the exception of a brief ad hoc hurrah to the South Atlantic in 1982, British operational coherence to respond to national strategic requirements has been eroded.

The American military philosophy adopts essentially a centrist approach to the conceptual art of war. While it loves to consider itself an advocate of the manoeuvrist approach and decentralised command, it truth it seldom practises what it teaches. The US love of detail extends throughout its military organisations. The use of operational art, a military philosophy enabling junior commander’s freedom of action allowing rapid decision making within a broader intent, is quoted often, but practised little. The stove-piped juggernaut of American military planning and operations is widely emulated among European allies who seem unable or reluctant to challenge whether the huge planning organisations and the military bureaucracy they create, either work for the conflict they are in, or are right for their own organisations and capabilities. They mimic without question.

More worryingly as the challenges of the future strategic environment are confronted the reliance on the US may expose the largest flaw of all. They lose their wars, or certainly do not win them.

In recent years, Britain has been dragged into wars of the US making in which it has offered sufficient forces to share solidarity but not enough to make a difference or alter the strategic direction of a conflict. These half-wars, high in human cost and expensive have demonstrated British strategic weakness. There is an argument for a significant increase in the amount of national hard power which Britain can deploy accompanied by an increased reliance upon its own military philosophy and notions of using combat power which are both distinctive and effective. It is normal for the UK to deploy small formations and individuals to conflict environments and achieve success through their own wit and resources. To do so they understand the human environment and the interactions and interdependencies between combatants and civilians. This is at odds with an American approach which utilises mass, kinetic effect and centralised control, but which is less agile and able to adapt.

It is not as the misquoted Churchill speech suggests that Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, but a rebalancing of UK national interest into a global trade environment will require Britain to be able to defend its wider trade routes and interests. This will as true over the next decades as it was in Napoleonic times.

The need to lift our defence sights beyond the edge of Europe, be able to engage in high-intensity conflict without reliance upon American support and not necessarily in a way dictated by the US, means the willingness to develop a national defence strategy that will cost more than the comfortable, presentationally satisfactory limit of 2% of GDP.

The UK cannot aspire to global significance while hiding behind the European curtain of defence cooperation and limits on expenditure. In Europe, defence expenditure is largely about territorial integrity with minor participation in low risk small operations managed and led by others. The British defence challenge just became bigger. Increasing the UK defence budget to 3% of GDP is not just about filling in the deficit caused by bad management, it’s about changing the shape of UK defence strategy and building capability to meet future needs. Its deeper message would be that Britain is serious about becoming globally engaged and is willing to plot its own course on the world stage.

By James Maclaren, Nov 29 2017 11:25AM

The Brexit debate has been injected with some Irish blarney as the stakes for arrangements concerning the three hundred mile land border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are raised. Dublin knows its moment of influence is passing. If a decision is made in December to move the Brexit negotiations to Phase 2, discussion on future UK and EU trade arrangements, then it may be left trailing in the wake of negotiations where its vital economic relationship with the UK slips down the negotiating agenda. Aside from fears for its own economic well-being Dublin knows that treaty arrangements for monitoring an external EU border falls to itself, the cost and organisation of which it would prefer to avoid.

The Dublin tactic to raise the stakes have been initiated with spark by Leo Varadkar, whose comments incensed, with probable intention, the pro-Brexit DUP and many in the UK’s Conservative Party who considered the intervention lacking in gratitude from a country that preferred the UK for a 10 billion sterling loan during its economic crisis rather than the EU. The Irish Government demand, pressed with the solidarity of the EU, for single regulatory arrangements across the Island of Ireland is tantamount to remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union. The Irish side has attempted to fold in the widest aspects of the Good Friday Agreement to justify this position, suggesting the economic pillar to this agreement can only be fulfilled with cross-border engagement that relies upon operation of the single market, or something akin to it.

Is this true? To a point. There is no doubt that some aspects of cross-border cooperation will have to be adjusted to reflect new circumstances.

But there is wide belief that the dangers are being exaggerated to brighten the Irish side of the argument. One of the areas where exaggeration is suspected rests with nature of border controls in a post-Brexit Irish future. Certainly no one wants to return to the security dominated structures and operations which characterised the border during the time of the troubles. From the army’s small forts dominating routes into County Londonderry, explosive cratering of the Fermanagh country lanes to the helicopter and watch tower suppression of the dangerous terrorist country of South Armagh, cross border access was dominated by a massive security effort. But while some will attempt to resurrect this spectre of militarisation, in truth there is no comparison. The problem is one of trade not security. The ability of dissident republicans to generate a terrorist campaign is feeble by the standards of the Troubles and the cores aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are not seriously threatened.

This worrying picture of a return to a hard border is a fallacious one designed to generate uncertainty and fear. But that aside it confuses the debate and misrepresents what constitutes a hard or soft border. Is a hard border one defined by the level of infrastructure, or the levels of tariffs that must be exchanged as a result of whatever trading framework emerges? This is where the recent statements by Dr Liam Fox bring an uncomfortable truth for the EU to contemplate and go a long way to undermining the Irish position. How can the nature and extent of border control be determined until the nature of the economic and trade situation to be controlled is agreed? It cannot. This fundamental weakness in the EU negotiating strategy seemingly overlooked by a media more interested in UK Government division goes for the most part unchallenged.

The British approach has been to propose governing principles which they set out in a Paper in September 2017. This was much criticised for an absence of detail. Yet without the regulatory understanding that can only be brought forward with a trade agreement how can such detail be defined? The UK Government pointed to the technology that would be available to monitor whatever level of trade arrangement was finally decided and offered to lean into the operational problem with technology investment. Some might judge this generous, given that the widespread economic view that the presence of a very large, low tax, global trading economy on the border of the EU presents the regulatory and monitoring problem to the EU and Ireland.

Moving cross-border trade including consignment data and payment into an online environment would allow the operational movement of trade across the border to remain unaffected. Pre-notification and payment in this day of computer and online service technology may not be welcome to some, but in the context of the national decision to leave the EU is certainly viable. The volume and nature of cross border trade between the ROI and the North is unlikely to cause undue stress to any systems of control and enforcement. Alongside such a system the current Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland known as the CTA is able to continue unaffected. The future political and economic circumstances do not deny access for people to the UK, but will control employment. This is a matter for immigration policy with limited impact upon border controls.

A 21st Century approach to a revised economic relationship.

Is such a system watertight? Probably not. But the level of abuse is likely to be relatively insignificant and probably focussed on the local north south economies. Anyone with any knowledge of the border history knows that cross-border smuggling was just the way of the world. In places like Dundalk, Carrickmacross and Crossmaglen the view on the single market is that of a local benefit denied. Distant politicians knew better than to interfere with imposing the details of treaties on these border communities.

Of course, cross border trade will need some regulation and enforcement – but physically on the border itself? Probably not.

Let’s return to the security problem posed to security officials attempting to prevent or interdict the transit of IRA terrorists from their safe havens in the ROI and into the North. Many years ago, I completed a road, terrain and waterways analysis of the border between the ROI and Northern Ireland. It was not the first such study but it set the way for a technology based denial of terrorist ingress to Northern Ireland. In the current debate people point to the porous border poorly defined with over three hundred recognised crossing places. In truth, very few of these are suitable for the sustained cross border transit of HGV transported goods. Cost, time and poor access alone will prevent the use of a web of country lanes in any case further into the North and South they serve only to join up with the main arterial routes that make up the major road network connecting centres of commerce. The confluence of roads, waterways, bridges and junctions mean that the monitoring of trade can be undertaken with remarkable accuracy based upon a relatively few number of locations – none of them near the border. This approach allowed the mostly effective combatting of cross-border terrorism. The principle would work just as effectively for understanding and monitoring trade ingress and egress. Throughout the duration of the Troubles major authorised road trade cross border routes operated without significant impediment.

And the technology to facilitate this exists.

Developments in ANPR, CCTV supplemented by mobile DVLA and customs enforcement allows road transport movement to be pretty much reconciled with authorised cross-border trade. ANPR technology was pioneered in the UK and was deployed first in Northern Ireland nearly two decades ago. If it could frustrate the intricately planned and meticulously conducted operations of determined terrorists, the improved systems of today can comfortably cope with the regulation of road trade flows.

And it is done elsewhere.

Norway and Sweden have a porous border with the lightest of touches on operational control of the frontier. But they are both in the single market I hear the detractors cry, it’s not the same.

But it is.

The technology has no interest in whether it is being asked to monitor trade relations between single market members or across the Latvian border with Belarus. It just provides the data to the questions it is asked. The use of technology to control and monitor trade between the ROI and Northern Ireland is a powerful and credible enabler which is poorly understood or misrepresented.

The arguments being deployed by the EU and the ROI are largely synthetic. They understand well that the operational problem of monitoring a border with a non-EU nation rests with themselves. The current judiciously timed Irish intervention appears to be one to gain political advantage and wider influence over all-Ireland policy. The DUP understand this, the UK Government quietly recognise it. Whether they will seriously challenge it is a probably a matter for wider Brexit negotiation.

Not for the first time the Irish are being asked to do their part in controlling a border they have been historically reluctant to do. This time they may not avoid the responsibility.

By James Maclaren, Aug 27 2016 08:21PM

The beauty of waiting to comment on a major political and social event like Brexit is that there is more to say once events have unfolded slightly. If the mist shrouding the unknown has not gone away, there are gaps emerging through which we can glimpse how events may unfold. Two months have passed from the vote, which surprised both the Conservative leadership who believed the modest and vaguely insulting ‘renegotiation of Britain’s membership’ would quell dissent with the federalist direction of Brussels and the EU itself, which thought that Britain would not dare. The debate has changed from ‘whether we would leave’ to how ‘we will leave’.

That’s not to say that the Remain camp has given up the charge. Far from it: the political and legal ripples will continue for some time to come. Theresa May’s preferred position is to trigger Article 50 as soon as her government is in a position to conduct negotiations and she intends to do so without the involvement of Parliament. A legal challenge to this based upon the sovereignty of Parliament is almost inevitable. So be it. Whether she has her way or not, it seems unlikely that MPs will ultimately defy a decisive vote organised with constitutional correctness – not if they want to be elected again and we can trust political self-interest on that point. British referendums are not Irish or Dutch events which are treated with respect only when they offer the correct decision and to attempt wriggle out of it would risk a political upheaval too grave to contemplate. Article 50 will be triggered and the 1972 European Union Act will be repealed.

To many the journey post-referendum has got off to a slow start. They will lament Cameron’s decision not to make good on his promise to trigger Article 50 immediately. That he did not reflects the failure of his Administration to conduct any contingency planning for a ‘leave’ vote. Separation from the EU would always be the subject of negotiation – and could not be pre-ordained in the way that many Brexit opponents suggest. If both the Government and the EU had taken the possibility of leave more seriously, perhaps an outline of the new environment might have been visualised – more fool them. The need now to take some time to organise affairs around a departure strategy is not the fault of the Leave campaign – policy and plans can only be undertaken by government. The referendum decision determined the new strategic relationship according to the will of the British people; it is for the Government of the day to organise the detail of affairs in accordance with.

This includes the negotiation any future commercial relationships with the EU and its member states. It is important to remember the member states. The focus has been on the EU as if this organisation is sovereign. It is not, although clearly a number of its bureaucrats believe it should be. Behind the bruised egos of an EU elite the member states realise that that their own economies continue to need a strong relationship with the UK. Slowly but surely their pragmatic self-interest will influence the EU Brexit direction. The UK understands that it requires a steady flow of migrant labour from both the skilled and unskilled EU labour pools. The negotiation that will take place will be about calibrating access to EU markets at the best conditions possible without having to accept freedom of movement, replacing it with a controlled system of immigration – probably and quite properly on favourable terms.

The UK remains an economic power capable of prosperous and independent global trade, it seems difficult to understand why anyone doubts that – after all the economy is bigger than those of Australia, Canada, South Africa, South Korea and is not so far behind Japan, None of these nations feel the need to belong to protectionist political unions to operate prosperous economies. Free of the collective negotiation quagmire that accompanies decision making in a 27 state union, bilateral trade deals with other countries will be relatively simple. These deals, over time, will more than compensate for the upheaval of negotiating an economic relationship with the EU.

But most importantly the political and legal relationship has changed. Whatever the terms of access to the single market is finally decided, it will be an economic arrangement and not part of a political federal union, which lurches from crisis to crisis and seems set for increasing division and continued decline. That separation of powers was at the heart of the decision to leave the EU.

By James Maclaren, Aug 27 2016 06:27AM

Finally after a period of time exceeding the Second World War and a media and public build-up of biblical proportions, that quintessential example of the senior British mandarin Sir John Chilcott puts everyone out of their misery and publishes the Iraq Inquiry Report. The twelve volumes which analyse at the atomic level Britain’s decision, participation and consequences of going to war have long been awaited, if only to bring closure to a political process and decision which has defined British Foreign Policy for this generation and the next. However, despite the scrutiny it is arguable whether after all this time, the reports, the investigations, the recriminations not to mention the memoirs, that the conclusions could include much not already uncovered.

To many, particularly the relatives of the British service personnel who lost their lives in the invasion and the aftermath, the report had a particular purpose. It would provide the damning verdict on Tony Blair’s decision to follow unreservedly (some would say slavishly) US foreign policy and force not just the apology they got, but the retribution they think should be forthcoming

Why was the war necessary?

Certainly Saddam was on a collision course with the West and without doubt reigned over one of the most odious regimes of modern times. Yet the direction of US foreign policy framed by the national shock of 9/11 and the determination to crush Al Qaida could be suspected of a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. The unfinished business from the previous expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait almost certainly coloured the US appetite for a kinetic solution. Containment could have continued indefinitely, but the hawks in the US administration would have none of it and the barely disguised contempt for a diplomatic solution through the UN meant that military action against Saddam would always conform to a US timetable. Blair’s strategic decision to align UK firmly alongside the US was based upon a presumption that such a relationship would provide a position of influence. It was too subtle a concept for the US who recognised the usefulness of their British ally but were not tempted to allow Blair to chart any alternative courses.

Opposition to a detestable regime was not a sufficient pretext to justify taking the UK to war, but the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction might be. Political necessity trumped the operational expediency of intelligence gathering, removing its objectivity and transforming it into political leverage. Inevitably under such circumstances the group think culture blurs what is truth and what is useful. The war was presented as necessary, but it was not

Where the military prepared?

When the Labour Government under Blair first came to power in 1997 one of their first acts was to commission a strategic defence review (SDR). At the core of the SDR was fulfilment of a government vision to retain global expeditionary capability. This level of ambition is retained by only a few nations and set the objective of being able to project power and conduct warfighting operations. Unfortunately with the Nation’s finances firmly under the control of Gordon Brown there was little sympathy for defence and the lofty plans went on progressively underfunded.

With the timetable to conflict dictated by the US enthusiasm to engage with Saddam, the UK was forced to mobilise capability rapidly and at large scale breaking most of its planning assumptions and stepping outside of the mandated decision making process to trigger critical procurement, mobilisation and organisational actions. This could only be achieved by the senior command structure of the Armed Forces accepting the risks and consequences of a short notice deployment with limited thought as to the longer term operational consequences. The UK doctrine saw highly capable UK forces deploying rapidly, successfully warfighting at large scales of effort through equipment and personnel dominance and then withdrawing allowing other nations to manage subsequent stabilisation. However, such a doctrine demanded that other nations were willing to assume responsibility for post-conflict operations and they were not.

It was clear to British military planners embedded with US forces in the US Central Command Headquarters (HQ CENTCOM) in McDill Air Force base Florida that the US had no plans for the aftermath and believed that the invasion would be seen as a liberation with any residual concern for nation building the responsibility of the US Department of State. There is no doubt that this concern was bought directly to the attention of the senior military leadership in the UK and the steady stream of political and diplomatic leaders who visited the CENTCOM HQ. That such concerns were ignored reflected the political decision that the strategic relationship with the US was more important and a misplaced belief that the US view of events post-Saddam was correct.

Although military operations went as predicted, the peace did not. The labour Government had committed to the Iraq war at the same time as undertaking a major downsizing of UK armed forces. In particular the decision had been taken to reduce the number of infantry battalions in the UK order of battle. These units were exactly the type of organisation required to conduct internal security operations as the security situation in Basra deteriorated. The resources part of Whitehall led by the Chancellor continued with its plans to cut, while the commitments and foreign policy part struggled to cope with a security crisis spiralling out of control. The aftermath of the conflict was completely unfunded with equipment and manpower deficiencies. At the height of militia insurrection there were just two infantry battalions deployed in Basra. By comparison the lowest number ever to manage a much lower level of violence in Belfast was five.

To add insult to injury already military planning was turning back towards Afghanistan, a theatre left to fester while attention was on Iraq. Al Qaida had reorganised removing all the gains achieved by the 2001 campaign. Iraq was becoming too difficult, too messy and the political call was for action in Afghanistan – a call many were ready despite the lack of resolution to Iraq. One bad situation involving a despotic dictator was replaced by a violent soup of chaos and mayhem which makes a mockery of saying Saddam’s removal was right and justified.

In the context of Chilcott’s report this narrative was already known and these words could have been written in 2006. It does beg the question did we need seven years to expose it.

And so?

Chilcott has already been criticised for being wise in hindsight. Many are rushing to defend political and military decision making which they say was made in good faith. But was it? In truth there was plenty of experienced and popular voice raised against the war at the time. Blair chose not to listen and for that he should bear the weight of responsibility. But he is not alone, the ambitious generals anxious to prove their worth and rebut expenditure cuts promised more than they could deliver and failed to organise their resources with the care and diligence they were charged with. Diplomats and intelligence chiefs also used the theatre of international crisis to advance their own goals tethering their analysis to the government’s political aims and allegiances, apparently abandoning the objectivity which they had a duty to produce. Their short termism in decision making and failure to predict and act upon the consequences of military action generates a level of culpability which must never be allowed to be repeated.