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Amateur Hour: Britain, Blair and Iraq

The British involvement in the Iraq War began as an ill-considered demonstration of strength in alliance with the US and ended up six years later as a demonstration of weakness.

Much of what is in the Chilcot inquiry was known or suspected before and little is entirely new, but it is important for what happened to be established beyond question and this the report has largely done. It is fascinating to see what started with Tony Blair promising to free the world of the evil dictator, Saddam Hussein, passed through a moment of illusory triumph when the invasion appeared to have succeeded in 2003, and ended in the failure by the British Army to control Basra and Iraq’s four southern provinces.

By 2007 there were no good choices left and Chilcot leaves no doubt about the extent of the defeat. The report says that “it was humiliating that the UK reached a position in which an agreement with a militia group [the Mahdi Army] which had been actively targeting UK forces was considered the best option available”.

The report is measured, intelligent and highly informed. It is interesting to see what Foreign Office mandarins and British Army generals were really saying at a time when they trying to make a public show of confidence.

For instance, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British envoy posted to Baghdad in March 2004, concluded that “the preparations for the post-conflict stage were abject; wrong analysis, wrong people”.

The inquiry is at its most interesting about the period after the invasion as resistance to the occupation mounted and was backed by foreign powers such as Syria and Iran. British decision-making in the run-up to the war has been well-covered and, while Chilcot provides much detail, it does not really change the picture of Tony Blair seeking to make sure that Britain was America’s best friend, but never to this day showing much understanding of the real political and military situation in Iraq and the region.

If there is one word which springs to mind in describing the approach of all arms of the British state towards the Iraq war it is “amateurism”, a persistent lack of rigour in knowing the terrain in which a British Army would be operating combined with a tendency towards wishful thinking.

The report notes acidly that “the UK spent time and energy on rewriting strategies, which tended to describe a desired end state without setting out how it would be achieved”.

Mr Blair and Britain were looking to take part in what they thought would be a victory on the cheap, but the same could be said of President George W Bush and the US. Given the high reputation of British intelligence because of its triumphs in the field of code breaking in both world wars, it is extraordinary how ill-informed it managed to be about Iraq, including the absence of WMD and the very real threats any British forces were going to face in and around Basra.

Chilcot says that “there was an ingrained belief in the UK policy and intelligence communities that Iraq had retained some chemical and biological capabilities”. It was, moreover, intending to expand them and acquire a nuclear capability while keeping all this a secret from UN inspectors. Given the repeated assurances by the Joint Intelligence Committee to Mr Blair that Saddam had WMD, it is not so surprising that he gave such a hostage to fortune by making a non-existent Iraqi WMD threat a prime justification for the war.

Of course, intelligence services the world over do not like to present findings that contradict the political intentions of their governments and the Blair administration was notoriously strict in compelling all parts of government to be “on message” and not contradict the official line. I remember one general early on in the conflict telling me that there was no point in senior military officers telling Downing Street about their misgivings, because this would have no effect on policy and would damage the careers of those who had shown unwelcome scepticism. A year or so later, a British military intelligence officer based in Basra told me how difficult it was to persuade his superiors that they had no allies or friends in the city.

Despite this official optimism, the British wanted out of Iraq from quite an early stage in the conflict. Chilcot states this baldly, saying that “between 2003 and 2009, the UK’s most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed forces”. It did not have enough troops to gain control of Basra and this probably would not have changed even if reinforcements had been sent. And by being in Basra and provinces that were overwhelmingly Shia, the UK may have calculated this was going to be safer than Baghdad and the Sunni provinces. The British Army did not have any significant military units in Baghdad which limited its influence. As early as 2004, senior members of the armed forces were convinced that not much more could be done in southern Iraq and “it would make more sense to concentrate military effort in Afghanistan where it might have greater effect”.

A striking feature of the report is the extent to which the British aim of seriously influencing US policy was frustrated from the beginning because the British Army was not in Baghdad and the American officials who were there were not in the mood to share power with anybody, British or Iraqi. They could see that the British wanted to reduce troop numbers in Iraq at the very moment the US wanted reinforcements. Whatever British enthusiasm there had ever been for the invasion had long dried up and a wider British role was never politically or militarily feasible. Disillusionment was slower in the US. When the British Army launched an offensive in Basra called Operation Sinbad in 2007, it deployed 360 extra troops, while when the US carried out their “surge” in Baghdad they had an extra 20,000 soldiers.

The Chilcot report is gives an insight into the political and institutional weaknesses of the UK state. It draws sensible conclusions, such as saying that “the UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ”.

Yet there is no sign since 2003 that the British establishment has really taken on board any of the lessons of Iraq: it pitched deeper into a war in Afghanistan in 2006 with insufficient resources or information, exactly as it had done in Iraq. In Libya and Syria, David Cameron justified regime change in the same terms as Mr Blair had done in Iraq. Nobody ever seems to have paid a price for failure and there is no reason an Iraq type war should not happen again.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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