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.
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.