Thursday, March 20, 2008

Five years on

The logical and predictable thing for this site to do is to follow the crowd and write an appreciation of the Iraqi War, "commemorating" – if that is the right word – the fifth anniversary of the start of what is often called the Second Gulf War.

We are, though, nothing if not unpredictable, and most often choose to plough our own solitary furrow. To an extent, that applies here. It is too early to pass an historical judgement on the war. It is still work in progress. The final analysis will depend much on whether the venture is considered a "success" (by whatever measure success is judged).

However, it is worth noting that the two complaints most volubly heard are capable of widely varying interpretation.

The first is that the war was launched on the basis of a "lie" – that the invasion was necessary to neutralise the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam was supposed to be accumulating. The second was that, having invaded, the coalition forces did not have a plan to deal with the aftermath, as a result of which the country plunged into anarchy and insurgency, the repercussions of which we are still dealing with today.

As to the first complaint, there is some evidence that President Bush always intended to invade Iraq – it was unfinished business after the first war, one after which it had been hoped that the Shiite Arabs would rise up against their bloody dictator and seize power. When they did not, it was always on the cards that the US would return. The events of 9/11 and the emergence of al Qa'eda were, to that extent, ex post facto justification for a decision that, in principle, had already been made.

Why this unravelled is simply explained. With the need to bring coalition allies on board – and particularly the British – Bush needed to frame the justification for the war in terms that would conform with the principles of the United Nations charter. To that extent, he had to "invent" an external threat, the apparent existence of weapons of mass destruction providing the veneer of "legality" to a venture which would otherwise be characterised as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

That the US failed to secure a UN resolution which "mandated" the invasion of Iraq now gives solace to those who claim the war was illegal but, as we have remarked before, to find that this number includes a goodly number of Eurosceptics is a worrying development.

For those, in their battle with the European Union, who argue that the sovereign state is the ultimate authority, the test of a legal action lies with the state.

As long as an action is taken in accordance with the constitutional arrangements of a state, then it is legal. To argue otherwise – and thus in this instance to accept the UN as the arbiter of what is and is not legal, is to slide down that slippery slope of accepting the authority of trans-national bodies as superior to that of the sovereign state.

In that the US and the UK went to war in accordance with their own constitutional principles, their actions in invading Iraq were entirely legal – period. To argue otherwise is to accept that there is a higher authority than the sovereign state. This we cannot and will not do.

Turning to the second of the issues – the failure to work up of post war plan - this in a sense actually reinforces the argument that the US (and the UK) went in with the best of intentions. Na├»ve though they might have been, there is evidence that both Bush and Blair genuinely thought they were liberating the country. They laboured under the impression that, once Saddam was deposed and the Ba'athist party dismantled, new leaders would emerge to take control, installing with the support of previously oppressed peoples, a liberal and progressive regime.

Put another way, had the coalition forces gone in with a pre-prepared, fully worked-up plan to take over the running of the country, that could have exposed them to the alternative charge that they were not at all engaged in liberation but a premeditated take-over.

That much though is history – and it is for the future historians to argue the issues. Better them than the promised inquiry which both the Conservatives and Lib-Dims so desire. The recent history of such inquiries – specifically the BSE and Bloody Sunday inquiries – suggest that they become machines for gobbling up public money and enriching lawyers, without really adding any light to events.

What is perhaps more important, and therefore largely ignored, is the conduct of the post-war military operation and, in particular, why the insurgency was allowed to get out of control. From a British perspective, we need to know how it is that one of the greatest Armed Forces in the world (by their own estimation) were gradually forced to retreat to their single outpost in Basra Air Station, defeated by a motley band of ill-equipped fighters with only a fraction of the weapons and resources available to the British.

In our view – as we have so often expressed – the rot started when we allowed ourselves to be driven out of al Amarah – which sent a message to the militias that, if British bases were attacked, they would not be met with an effective counter and the forces would eventually retreat. Cutting through the rhetoric and spin, that is precisely what happened – and no amount of re-writing history will make it different.

Why this matters – more so than a retrospective inquiry on the lead-up to the war – is that both Iraq and Afghanistan are ongoing operations. The lessons learned from military and political failures, although undoubtedly embarrassing, could inform on-going operations and perhaps help avoid making the same mistakes.

In this, the perceived wisdom is that the British Army went into southern Iraq and, when confronted with an emerging insurgency, believed – on the basis of its collective experience in Northern Ireland – that it had the experience and equipment to deal with it. The militias, it was felt, were merely the IRA with suntans.

As it turned out, the Army proved entirely ill-equipped to deal with the insurgency and, without that equipment – and the forces to match - were unable to adopt battle-winning tactics and were thus forced to retreat. While the American seemed to have learned some lessons – the same is not so apparent with the British.

The military in particular, seem to be in denial, convincing themselves that they have achieved a positive outcome when, in truth, if the are is stabilised, it will probably be in spite of rather than because of the post-war actions of the British.

Behind that, though, is a more profound failure. Although the war phase started these five years ago, the die was effectively cast in 1998 when Blair met Chirac at that fateful St. Malo summit. It was then – and in the following year – that Blair effectively pledged future defence spending to the building of the European Rapid Reaction Force, an expeditionary concept which had little relevance to the counter-insurgency operations that the British Armed Forces were to encounter in Iraq and then Afghanistan.

Thus it was that when the Army went to war in 2003, it was with "legacy" equipment developed and procured for the sole purpose of arresting a Soviet armoured thrust across the plains of northern Germany.

That equipment sufficed for the conventional war phase of the Iraq venture – with gaps filled by US forces – but proved entirely inadequate for the counter-insurgency phase. To deal with that, the Army in particular effectively needed completely re-equipping and restructuring.

To have done so would have required commensurate expenditure and structural changes to the Forces, which would have wrecked the plans for the ERRF, which was something defence secretary Hoon, with his service chiefs, Charles Guthrie and Mike Jackson were never going to allow. While the Army was thus palmed off with second-hand "Snatch" Land Rovers and the equipment it already had, the bulk of the money went into the new expeditionary force, as did the focus of attention and the intellectual resource of the MoD.

Thus, for a long time, Iraq became a backwater – and expensive and irritating diversion which slowed down the transformation of the Army into a full-equipped expeditionary force, set to support the military ambitions of the European Union.

It is the shadow of St. Malo which doomed the Iraqi operation and still casts its shadow over the operations in Afghanistan. Too much money is being spent on gleaming new "toys" which have little if any relevance to the current operations and, because the focus is still on the "future war", the equipment and restructuring needed successfully to fight counter insurgencies is not being developed.

That is, to a very great extent, the real story of the Iraqi adventure and one, you can be assured, which will not be told by the media over these coming days.

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