Monday 23 November 2009


The one thing that worried me about the emergence of more detail on the British occupation of Iraq was that the great labour in writing Ministry of Defeat would somehow be invalidated.

But, with the release via The Daily Telegraph of the Army's review of operations, I need not have been concerned. So far, what I have written stands up well against the inside information now being revealed.

What we have so far is a review of the earlier part of the occupation, under the title: "Stability operations in Iraq (OP Telic 2-5) – An analysis from a land perspective", which effectively covers the first two years of operations, up to mid-2005.

However, while we have been treated to some tantalising glimpses of the conduct of operations, this is no comprehensive evaluation. There is no great heart-searching and no recognition of the broader failure, which even then was becoming apparent.

In fact, what comes over is precisely the proposition which we have been at pains to portray – that the Army was (and still is) dangerously complacent about its own role and its failings, admitting only minor and incidental problems. That much we are told in the opening passage of the document, which tells us:

Some of the analysis ... may look critical when set against the achievements. Professionally, however, the Army has a duty, enshrined in doctrine, to learn from experience so that it can maintain and build on its success.
That itself confirms the thesis but, with much material to trawl, in 105 closely printed pages, we are going to have to look at the offerings piece by piece, in order to demonstrate just how accurately I managed to identify some of the key failings.

In that context, leaping out of the pages is an observation covering the very start of the occupation, where it is noted that government departments and some officials in MoD:

... took some persuading that they would have obligations under the Geneva Conventions (1949) if or when the UK became an Occupying Power: the implied tasks or responsibilities were very significant in size, range and complexity.
We then read a dissertation about how planning was not in place, and then another observation, that "The lack of planning ran counter to Geneva Convention obligations and the principles of contingency planning."

Whatever else the Chilcot Inquiry does, it most home in on these observations, which are quite staggering in their implications. But what the Inquiry must also do is pick up on a statement made by General Sir Richard Dannatt in 2008 after the all-but final withdrawal of British Forces from Iraq had been announced. It was then that he sought to defend the performance of "his" Army and the military generally. Speaking specifically of Basra, he said:

It's a city of huge size, however many British troops or coalition troops have been there we would never have been able to impose a regime and we had no intention of doing that. It was always going to be an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem, and what we had to do was to enable that to happen …
Now, the point here – as I wrote in the book, is that the occupation brought obligations under international law, specifically the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. They set out the responsibilities of the occupying power, which Britain now was.

Amongst those was the requirement "to restore and ensure as far as possible public order and safety," and there can be no misunderstanding on this point. These are absolute obligations and, furthermore, they are ones to which the UN Security Council resolution of 21 May 2003 referred, when the Council – of which the UK is a member – called upon all concerned" to comply fully with their obligations under international law including in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907."

And therein was the genesis of the failure for, if Tony Blair took these obligations seriously, he made no mention of them and there was no attempt made to ensure that the resources were available to honour them.

That much was clearly a political failure, and it is one for which Blair must be held accountable. But, as Dannatt's statement indicates, the Army cannot be absolved from responsibility. In the world of May 2003, nothing said or written at that time suggested that the military was simply "holding the line" to buy time for an Iraqi solution.

Crucially, though, what Dannatt then had to say complete ignored the obligations under the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Convention. Thus, even to this day, there is quite evidently a mismatch between what was expected of the Army and what it could actually do. It may have seen its role as to "hold the line" but its legal duty was very much more.

Where the Army then needs to look at itself very closely comes with another passage in the analysis, which tells us:

In the event, the rapid fall of the Saddam regime led to an unexpected and precipitate breakdown in law and order. Lack of planning and resources resulted in delays before reconstruction of essential services could start, and before new government and security structures in Iraq could be established. 1st (UK) Armoured Division's declarations that essential services could be restored quickly proved hopelessly optimistic ...
One can argue as to whether the breakdown in law and order should have been "unexpected" but the crucial issue that that the Army Command in theatre was "hopelessly optimistic" about what was needed to remedy the situation.

That, in fact, is the defining characteristic of the first stage of the occupation where the Army, basking in the afterglow of an easy victory, completely missed the signs of an emerging insurgency, insisting on interpreting the increasing violence as a public order issue, and failing to take the steps needed to prevent an escalation.

Whether it had the resources to do so is moot. In all probability, it did not, but in the analysis, there is a further clue as to what was going on, with the bland admission that: "Planning was not done in sufficient depth and at the outset of Phase IV little finance was requested (and approved) for reconstruction purposes."

Here, one needs to home in on the key point, that little finance was requested. Whatever the culpability of the politicians, what was also evident at the time was a false optimism, where the Army was glossing over the problems and under-estimating their severity. In many cases, it did not get the resources it needed because it did not ask for them. To a very great extent, therefore, the politicians did not react to the deterioration in security because they were being given false signals.

That simple point, though, cannot be left without further exploration. We have seen this dynamic before, where the politicians are told what they want to hear, by people who knew different but lacked the moral courage to insist that they heard the truth. If we look to the service chiefs at that time, we see no warnings from them that the situation was so badly amiss.

With that, though, even this relatively anodyne analysis points to a problem which should, undoubtedly, have been flagged up urgently and remedied. During OP Telic 2-5, we are told,

... the Divisional Headquarters evolved onto a trickle posting basis. The evidence suggests that it was not always manned by the appropriate quality of British Officers (and one stage it contained very few Officers with formal staff training) and one GOC took remedial action through the Military Secretary. One Chief of Staff ... commented: "We had no British staff-trained SO2s in the headquarters when I arrived and it was more like a Volksturm headquarters, manned by people with the weakest penalty statements".
This is a crucial finding, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. Right at the heart of the Army's command structure, we see – for reasons not of their own making – substandard and thus inadequate staff. Far from furnishing the best and the brightest, to run a complex and demanding operation, the Army failed to supply the people it needed to make the system work.

Whatever thus emerges from the Chilcot Inquiry, therefore, what we must see is the conclusion that there were multiple failures in Iraq. The fault, of course, must lie with the politicians – and in particular Tony Blair. But the Army cannot and must not escape its share of the responsibility.