Menzies Campbell: Three years of war have been a disaster. Even the neo-cons know it. So what now?

Coalition forces are holding 14,000 prisoners without charge

Share

Three years ago this month, we went to war in Iraq. But four years ago this month, when Jack Straw advised the Prime Minister about an invasion of Iraq, he said: "We have also to answer the big question - what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole on this than on anything."

The Foreign Secretary's perceptive and prophetic words have a chilling resonance. He was echoing the concerns of many, but why did the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole Cabinet, go ahead regardless?

Recent weeks have seen a terrible intensification of sectarian violence. Extremists have deliberately sought to provoke internecine conflict, most spectacularly through the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine, which triggered scores of brutal reprisals as was intended.

Last week, Amnesty International described large-scale violations of human rights in Iraq, and the US State Department reported that "civic life and the social fabric remained under intense strain from the widespread violence, principally inflicted by insurgency and terrorist attacks". The US Ambassador to Baghdad was more candid: the invasion had "opened a Pandora's box" that could lead to a regional war and the ascendancy of religious extremists who "would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play". At the same time, a covey of senior neo-conservatives, arch-advocates of the war, now admit they got it wrong - seriously wrong.

With the transfer of the Iran dossier to the UN Security Council, and amid increasingly confrontational rhetoric from both Iranian and American politicians, we have to learn from the mistakes, misjudgements and mishandling of Iraq.

Coalition strategy on Iraq, both pre- and post-conflict, has followed a flawed pattern: a reliance on force; a belief that ends justify means; and a disregard for the lessons of history.

Recent disclosures show that President Bush and the Prime Minister had decided to go to war against Iraq months before the invasion, irrespective of the search for weapons, irrespective of diplomacy, irrespective of legality. As we now know, intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

Under neo-conservative ideology, means are subverted to ends and principles to power: the consequence for Iraq was a grotesquely ill-judged and illegal war.

There was a scandalous lack of planning. The occupation was conducted with wholesale disregard for accepted principles of post-conflict stabilisation and counter-insurgency. Security forces were disbanded, creating a vacuum that invited upheaval; the UN was marginalised, with the US dominating the drawn-out political transition; there were and remain inexcusable delays in the restoration of essential services and the reconstitution of Iraqi security forces; and excessive use of military force and cultural insensitivity generated hostility and mistrust.

In responding to the insurgency, there has been a catastrophic failure to win the support of the Iraqi people: a strategy that won battles, but lost hearts and minds. The American experience in Vietnam, and the French struggle in 1950s Algeria, have shown that a strategy which relies excessively on military force and neglects the "cognitive terrain" cannot succeed. As the military expert, retired Brigadier Gavin Bulloch put it: "The strategic centre of gravity will be the support of the mass of the people."

Today, 14,000 prisoners are subjected to indefinite detention by coalition forces, without charge or trial, some of whom have been subjected to torture or other abuse. More than 35,000 have been detained since the war, over two-thirds of whom have since been released. Nothing could be better calculated to spread resentment. The closure of Abu Ghraib is a first but insufficient step; this gross and persistent violation of international law must come to an end.

There are currently more than 150,000 foreign troops in Iraq. Despite their important role in stabilisation and reconstruction work, we need to acknowledge that the troops are perceived as occupiers.

The latest figures from the Pentagon show the number of attacks on coalition troops reached a high of more than 550 a week; in a recent UK MoD poll, close to half of Iraqis believed the attacks were justified, and eight in 10 strongly opposed the troops' presence. We must accept that a clear, explicit exit strategy is imperative.

But an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces could precipitate even greater violence. In recent weeks, the insurgency has fanned the flames of sectarian strife, though the warring parties appear for the moment to have pulled back from the abyss of civil war.

The priority now is the formation of an inclusive government, founded on compromise, with prominent roles for Sunni leaders. Further measures must be taken to deliver what Iraqis so desperately need: personal safety and access to essential services. A national strategy is urgently needed to disband sectarian militias and reintegrate them into national forces. More must be done to train professional Iraqi security forces, root out militia and death squads that have infiltrated the forces of the Ministries of Defence and the Interior, and ensure appropriate ethnic and religious balance.

Regional powers could be encouraged to do more to stabilise and support Iraq. It is in no one's interest, least of all the countries of the region, that Iraq should become a failed state. Iran must be prevailed upon to desist from dangerous meddling.

The British government justified war on the basis of the threat from Iraq and the promise of benefit to Iraqis. But where there was no threat, there is now powerful insecurity; and Iraqis now suffer from militant extremism and violent upheaval.

The war undermined the authority of the UN and the post-Second World War framework of international law, largely fashioned by Britain and the US, more than any other single event since 1945. It has strained relations between the Western and Islamic worlds, and, as the intelligence services warned, has increased the terrorist threat.

It is breathtaking that after the deaths of more than 30,000 civilians and soldiers, including 103 British personnel, and at a cost to Britain of over £4bn, there has never been an inquiry into political decision-making on the war or its aftermath.

Sir Menzies Campbell is leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea