Do we still have the will to win in Afghanistan? If so, the question the Iraq inquiry should be asking is not “how did we get into this war” – we have had a number of separate inquiries into that already – but “why were the military defeated on the ground in Basra?”. If the Chilcot Inquiry were to focus on that, it might actually serve a purpose: not just in unearthing new information (which it has signally failed to do so far) but drawing lessons that just might help the troops in Afghanistan. I make this point in my News of the World column today.
I am in a tiny minority of people who a) supported the war in Iraq, and b) still admits it. People like me feel every bit as angry as the anti-war people about what happened next. I suspect the following happened in Iraq and I do hope the inquiry gets to the bottom of it.
1. Political prejudice contorted post-war planning. I went out there first in May 2003, just after the invasion. I spoke to civil servants who said Claire Short had sent them out with emergency food packs and tents, so convinced was she that the invasion would cause mass displacement. In the end, the price of chicken had risen a bit, but that was all. The main issue was civil service pay – or Britain’s inability to pay people who promptly signed up to the Shi’ite death squads. No one had thought through the occupation properly.
2. Troops drawn down with provocative haste. From the offset, Blair was keen to make the “transition” to Iraqi self governance. Understandably so. But having displaced Saddam’s authoritarian rule, he did not fill this with British military presence. In no time, the invasion force was whittled down to about 5,000 – who could not keep peace on the streets. It is not rocket science to imagine that security vacuums are quickly filled by thugs. Or, in Basra’s case, the Shi’ite militias who had menaced Saddam with Iran’s backing.
3. Soldiers then chasing politician’s targets. Blair wanted to present a narrative: handing over power. So he went on a metric binge: he wanted to show X many policemen were being trained and X many soldiers. This process happened so quickly that the Shi’ite death squad members were amazed to find that, if they stood in a queue, they’d be given a badge and guns. Soon they were running their own police stations, with pictures of al-Sadr up on the wall, openly declaring their allegiance (there were various rival gangs). The British military knew this was going on.
4. Britain left the people of Basra at the mercy of Taleban-style death squads. Forget WMD dossiers. The worst spinning was the claims that the south of Iraq was steadily being handed back to Iraqi control. Yes there were some problems but “this is not Surrey” (to quote a line used to defend the execution of barbers for ‘un-Islamic behaviour’). To hand power to these thugs was rank betrayal of the people of Basra, to whom Britain had a moral responsibility when our troops displaced their old government. We failed in that duty. But ministers did not ask too many questions. Question for the inquiry: who knew what the new “police” were up to in Basra? Was a troops surge considered? Did anyone, anywhere in government, raise concerns?
5. The British media failed to report what was happening in Basra, letting the government spin. Our reporters were based in Baghdad, and ensconced alongside the American media. Newspapers piggy-backed on the endeavours of American newswire journalists. The British people were broadly told an American story. No one had a correspondent in Basra – and little wonder, when people like Richard Butler (a Brit working for CBS) were kidnapped. Basra was too dangerous to report from. As British newspapers lose money, they can’t afford the foreign staff they once did. No one was telling the story, allowing the government to spin success. There were, of course, honourable exceptions to this: Channel Four did a superb documentary, and there was was writing of Stephen Farrell, a former colleague of mine whose appetite for risk recently saw him kidnapped in Kunduz in Afghanistan. When the NY Times sent him to Basra, he quickly painted the picture in acute brushstrokes.
But the day-to-day war narrative came from Baghdad. Question for the inquiry: has the surge in insurance premiums affected how British media report conflicts? Is it the case that UK-specific missions (like Basra) will not be reported as they once were because today’s newspapers can only afford to embed?
6. It took American arms and Iraqi endeavour to liberate Basra. We failed. The Charge of the Knights saw the Iraqi army with American embeds entering Basra and running the death squads out of town. That this needed to happen was a damning indictment of Britain’s failure to look after Basra. We broke it: we should fix it. But, by then, Gordon Brown was on his “timetable for withdrawal” which gave him political cover – i.e. a narrative of retrenchment and faked success. I actually went on a visit with Des Browne to Basra after the Charge of the Knights – the aim being to show how peaceful Basra was now, as if this were somehow related to what Britain had done. Question for the inquiry: If the job was done in Basra, why did we hand over to Americans rather than Iraqis? What role, if any, did Britain have in the Charge of the Knights? Did anyone in Britain believe that it was necessary to “re-take” Basra to ensure its security?
Those who don’t learn from history repeat its mistakes, and you can see that happening in Afghanistan now. The metric-hunt: we’re looking to recruit X many policemen by 2011. A timetable for withdrawal. Faked progress. This time, I do think the media are on to them – so the massive deception about the fate of Basra will not be repeated.
But instead of asking “why did we lose” the inquiry is asking “why did we bother?”. A country serious about winning the wars it fights should be obsessing about the former, not the latter.