Iraq, 10 years on: Nation-building had been an act of folly before Iraq. So it proved again

It's hard to establish how much of this was down to complacency in the British defence establishment, the lack of funds, or sheer hubris. Most likely it was a mixture


To say that Britain is responsible for the state of Iraq is no less than the truth; and that is regardless of this nation’s participation in the invasion 10 years ago this month. The British Arabist and explorer Gertrude Bell in the early 20th century drew the map which created the state of Iraq. It was a delineation with almost geometrically straight lines that threw in Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and Christians under the governance of a single King; one who would, it was hoped, be loyal to the British Empire.It was, in fact, meant to be a model for the entire Middle East – just as President George W Bush had believed that US-imposed democracy in Iraq would act as a model for the region at the dawn of the 21st century.

The first experiment did not exactly turn out as hoped: while no one could have exactly anticipated Saddam Hussein, a man who studied Stalin’s methods as a means of exercising absolute power through the application of terror, such an inherently fissiparous and artificial state as was created by Bell and the British Foreign Office would almost demand a ruthlessly centralising dictator – or fall apart into rival tribal strongholds. That seems to have been the story of the past 10 years, too, though with a level of malign violence that might have shocked even the battle-hardened warriors of the British Empire.

The escapade of the 21st century, however, casts the modern British administrative class in a less favourable light than that of the earlier generation. Gertrude Bell really did understand the region, with which she could be said to have fallen in love. She crossed the land then known as Arabia several times on camel, without any other Westerner for companionship. She had become completely immersed in its culture and tribal rivalries. Her knowledge was unparalleled and first-hand. Compared with this, the awareness of the Blair administration of quite what they were getting into was superficial at best; and this extended to the military establishment.

Our forces had been given what seemed much the simplest task in the 2003 invasion, of liberating the south of the country, around Basra: this was an overwhelmingly Shia area, which Saddam’s thugs had repressed by the most savage means, including massacre. Meanwhile, the Americans, having swiftly despatched Saddam’s ill-equipped army, and purged every Baathist element from public life, were suddenly confronted by the full fury of the dispossessed Sunni in and around Baghdad.

It was at this juncture that I attended a dinner given by senior members of the British military. The talk was about how naive the Americans were, how little they understood – compared with us – about such operations, how our experiences in Northern Ireland, and earlier, in Malaya, had given us uniquely valuable insights; and it was even discussed, post-prandially, how the Americans might call on us to help sort out their mess in the Sunni Triangle.

It was even discussed, post-prandially, how the Americans might call on us to help sort out their mess in the Sunni Triangle.

Well, it was we who needed rescuing by the Americans – and, indeed, by the Iraqis themselves. Our mission in Basra ended in abject retreat. An inadequately manned and equipped force of troops was humiliatingly helpless to do anything about the Shiite militias which  took control: in three months of 2007, for example, 42 women were murdered for violating sharia law, and 18 barbers were summarily shot for the “crime” of shaving beards.

By then, the British patrolling force on the ground in Basra – a city of 1.3million – was no more than 200-strong. It was only by cutting a deal with the militias to safeguard our own force that we were able to leave – under cover of darkness. The chaos and terror was brought to an end by an invasion of the city by an Iraqi force armed and assisted by the Americans. When one of General Petraeus’s advisers, David Kilcullen, said that “the British Army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq”, he infuriated Whitehall – but he was not wrong.

It is not easy to establish how much of this was down to complacency in the British defence establishment, how much by the then Chancellor Brown not devoting the necessary funds, and how much to the sheer hubris and lack of post-war planning of the venture in the first place: it is obviously some mixture of the three.

The bulk of the inquests conducted into the Iraq venture are concerned only with the fact that the casus belli turned out not to be a casus at all. We were assured that Saddam was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, that he could mobilise such devices within three quarters of an hour, and that following 9/11, no government could ever again take the risk that anything of the sort could fall into the hands of terrorists, or those who might supply them.

It had definitely not been a good career move of Saddam to be the only national leader to acclaim the attack on the World Trade Center: “The American cowboys are reaping the fruits of their crimes against humanity.” Even Osama bin Laden’s then hosts, the Taliban, had condemned the deliberate incineration of over 3,000 office workers; and candlelit vigils in memory of the victims were held in Tehran

Moreover, even those who opposed the invasion tended to accept that Saddam was harbouring WMD. Thus, for example, Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrats, speaking against the invasion in the crucial House of Commons debate, declared that “We can agree that Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical weapons and is working towards a nuclear capability.”

It turned out that the intelligence was dud; and a classic case of agents in the field supplying information they think their handlers expect to hear. But it was sincerely believed – which is what made it so dangerous. I happened to be in 10 Downing Street a month after the invasion, on the day that the Americans claimed to have discovered “a mobile biological weapons laboratory”. What I then witnessed was not looks of relieved surprise, as if sheer happenstance had made an honest man of Tony Blair, but calm confidence that the intelligence would now be proved to have been accurate. As it was not: the so-called “bio-weapons trailer” turned out to be a device to fill artillery balloons with hydrogen. In the whole post-invasion WMD hunt, all that was found were some antiquated and unusable warheads containing trace amounts of the nerve gas cyclosarin.

Perhaps none of this would have counted so very much if Iraq, post-invasion and the removal of Saddam, had been speedily transformed into a land of milk and honey; or if usable WMD had been found, then post-invasion chaos might have been regarded as a price worth paying to save the wider world. In the event, the British role was hopelessly compromised on both levels, a shameful end to a century of misguided nation-building.

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