Reflections Upon Defeat: The Disaster in Iraq


[My second political post.  Comments welcome.]


It is now more than a decade since American and British forces surged across the Iraq-Kuwait border and invaded Iraq.  American forces advanced on Baghdad, capturing the city within three weeks, while British forces concentrated on securing Southern Iraq and Basra.  It was a spectacularly successful military campaign that laid the groundwork for the disaster the occupation would become.  There was no plan, a colossal shortage of manpower and resources - and a general lack of awareness of Iraqi realities. 


The United States staggered under the early disasters – and adapted, reacted and overcame.  President Bush held his nerve, dispatched reinforcements (in what became known as the ‘Surge) and allowed the US to leave with honour.  It was a far from perfect victory, but it was a victory.  Iraq now has hope, which is more than could be said of the country while Saddam held power.


Unfortunately, the same could not be said of British forces.


As a British citizen, I shall be blunt.  We were lied to. 


I’m not talking about the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the other intelligence mistakes made prior to the invasion.  Given Saddam’s history, there was little ground for believing his assertions that he had disposed of all his WMD; Bush and Blair cannot be faulted for refusing to believe a man who had denied having weapons so many times before.  Those mistakes were understandable.


What was less understandable – or acceptable – was the spin used by the British Government and senior military officers to convince us that all was well in Basra, Iraq.


At the dawn of the century, there was good reason to be proud of our military accomplishments.  We had fought and won the only successful counter-insurgency campaign of the Cold War (France and America won on the battlefield, but lost at the negotiating table; the USSR couldn't even claim that much of a victory) and we had also fought and won the most successful small war (the Falklands).  We told ourselves that we had a mastery that more than made up for the sheer preponderance of firepower that the Americans or the Soviet Union brought to the battlefield. 


Iraq proved that belief to be nothing more than conceit.


Let me be clear on this.  Throughout the civilised world – and the Middle East – British military prestige has fallen to an all-time low.  And the reason for this is our outright failure in Iraq.  Right now, it would be difficult to uphold our military commitments, let alone take part in another coalition war.  This is a disaster of the first magnitude. 


Iraq was a British defeat on a scale unseen since Yorktown or Saratoga – or even Singapore.  Like those pivotal battles, Iraq was fought by officers more intent on politics than common sense, by politicians more concerned about their legacy than about the practicalities of the campaign.  Just because we no longer have an empire to defend is no reason not to worry about the consequences of such a disaster.  Instead, the British Government seems intent on sweeping it all under the rug.


No one is fooled – except, perhaps, the British population.


But why did this happen?


The principle answer, I fear, lies in the character of Tony Blair (and, to some extent, Gordon Brown.)  Blair liked to be liked; more than that, he wanted to strut his stuff on a worldwide scale.  He was possessed by a narcissistic belief that how you look is more important than what you actually do – and, to some extent, such a belief prepared him well for politics.  The real world, however, is much less easy to impress.  Merely decreeing that something must be done is not the same as actually doing it.


[Americans may wish to note – and worry – that Barrack Obama shares many of Blair’s personality traits.]


This leads to another problem shared by those with narcissistic tendencies; a lack of focus, concentration and long-term thinking.  The narcissists pick up something, play with it for a little while and then put it down again, forgetting why they were interested in the first place as soon as it is no longer useful to them.  This is a dangerous belief in any circumstances, but worst of all when fighting a war.  When the war made Blair look bad, he did his best to spin it in his favour or simply pretend that it was not happening.  In essence, Blair was perhaps the worst war leader Britain had had since Lord North, who lost the American colonies.  He certainly failed to live up to the standards of Churchill, Thatcher or even Chamberlain.


9/11 was a godsend to Blair (and to some of his administration) as it allowed him to push himself into the spotlight.  He was the first world leader to visit Washington and the first to pledge his support.  When Bush planned to invade Iraq, Blair effectively wrote him a black cheque, obtaining – in return – a pledge to go to the UN first.  This might have seemed good press, but it was lousy politics; anyone with a reasonable background in geopolitics should have known better than to expect the UN to provide any actual support for the invasion.  In short, Blair failed to get anything concrete in return for his support. 


The political storm this provoked led directly to the second major error of the campaign; the shortage of actual planning.  There was no clear plan (American or British) for the occupation of Iraq (matters were complicated by the fact that the original invasion plans called for the British to attack south from Turkey and occupy the Iraqi north) and no realisation that the plans would actually be necessary.  In effect, British troops jumped into terra incognita.  This was a preventable mistake which would cast baleful shadows over the entire campaign. 


Geography dictates the course of wars.  When considering an insurgency (or even a peaceful occupation) that geography includes the population of the combat zone.  Their attitudes are paramount, particularly when one isn’t hell-bent on exterminating the locals.  In this case, there were three major strikes against the occupation forces from day zero.  Basra had been abandoned by the allies in 1991 (they rose up against Saddam, believing the promises that they would receive support from the West, but no support materialised and they were crushed) and there was a long, difficult-to-patrol border between Iraq and Iran.  Oh, and perhaps most importantly of all, Iran’s population were Shia ... just like most of the population of Basra. 


What this meant, in practical terms, was simple.  Iran had considerable advantages when it came to manipulating the locals, who were disinclined to trust the West ... and wanted to claim their democratic right, the rule of Iraq.  Any occupation force should have taken this into account from the start.


We boasted endlessly about our successes in Ireland and Malaya.  What we ignored was the fundamental building blocks of our successes, building blocks that didn't exist in Iraq.  In both Ireland and Malaya, we had access to thousands of supporters, a working Civil Service and much else that gave us an advantage.  In Iraq, there were few supporters (a problem that became worse as it became clear that we couldn’t protect them) and no working bureaucracy we could use to our advantage.  The shortage of interpreters alone was disastrous.


You may note that one trait of the narcissistic personality is to endlessly boast about his past accomplishments.  We boasted about our successes without actually bothering to learn from them.  I suppose it was easier to do that than actually think.


The next major error came directly from the shortage of understanding of just what Iraq was actually like.  The troop levels in Basra were never enough to dominate the area and provide security for the population.  British troops were expected to patrol the cities, the nearby towns and the border, all the while helping the locals to reconstruct their country.  There were, quite simply, nowhere near enough troops on the ground to do all that, even in a relatively peaceful country.  And Iraq was nowhere near peaceful.  What peace there was in Basra came because British troops didn’t control it in reality.


Put bluntly, when inserting yourself into any problem, there is a process we may as well call the ‘buy-in.’  If you share a flat with someone, to use a simple example, you have no say in what goes on unless you pay the rent.  The British (and American, to some extent) buy-in to Iraq was nowhere near great enough to shape events on the ground to our satisfaction.  What actually happened was the creation of a shadow government that was opposed to us, backed by Iran and eventually bent on taking control of the entire country.  Our attempts to create civil government in Iraq merely added to this government’s power.


This problem was further complicated by the political dimension.  Iraq’s provisional government needed the support of the Shia in the south.  This meant that any British attempt to curb the growth of ‘rogue’ militia units would be curtailed by the provisional government or the US.  The British might prune back a militia that stuck its head out too far, but other than that they were allowed to grow almost unopposed.  In effect, the city was handed over to a gang of murderers who could give lessons to the Taliban in brutality. 


British Generals failed their troops.  Despite countless examples of stunning bravery from British forces, there was no concentrated attempt to demand additional troops and resources from Britain.  British equipment was not up to acceptable standards for large parts of the campaign, British manpower was nowhere near enough to handle the tasks it was expected to do and there was absolutely no trust (with good reason) between British troops and their Iraqi counterparts.


Why did this happen?  In short, the Generals had become uniformed politicians, telling political leaders what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear.  They were content to accept a series of increasingly disastrous politically-motivated decisions rather than stand up for the men and women under their command.  Maybe this isn't surprising – opposing one’s boss is never good for the career – but in warfare it costs lives.  I have no doubt that the Generals could have earned a living by writing books on the war.  And maybe then they could have held their heads high.


Churchill had Brooke, who had no hesitation in telling the PM when one of his ideas was dotty.  Who did Blair have?


A decisive politician would have accepted that there were two choices.  The British could ante up, send more troops to Basra, tell the provisional government to go to hell and do whatever was necessary to take control of the city.  Or the British could accept defeat and withdraw, cutting their losses.  Blair chose a third option; he temporised, allowing British policy to drift without any steering at all.  The net result was that Britain ended up with the worst of both worlds; a failure to solve any of the major problems which would, eventually, explode in the country’s face.  Blair’s refusal to admit defeat meant that British heroism was effectively wasted. 


The crowning moment in the ‘victorious’ war came when the Iraqi Government finally made the decision that they could no longer tolerate the situation in Basra.  It was the New Iraqi Army, aided by the Americans, that crushed the militias in Basra, not the British Army.  We knew little about it until the operation was underway, which left the spin-doctors struggling to work the event to our advantage.  By then, the pretence had worn thin.  No one outside the UK was inclined to believe that we hadn't been defeated.  It should not have surprised anyone that we were ordered out of the country in 2008.  Why should they have been grateful for our efforts?


President Bush, by ordering the Surge, showed that he was willing to pay a high price to shape Iraq’s future.  The American military engaged in brutal self-criticism and emerged capable of taking on the insurgents and besting them at their own game.  American industry produced new vehicles and weapons designed for urban combat. 


We did none of those things.


Indeed, having failed to learn and apply the lessons from our counter-insurgency past, we have failed to learn and apply the lessons from Iraq.  Most of the mistakes we made there have been repeated in Afghanistan.  They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing time and time again, expecting a different result each time.  What, then, is rotten in the state of Britain?


The failure in Iraq was a political and military failure, caused by the shortcomings of our political and military leaders.  If we are to avoid yet another military disaster, we must examine the underlying factors that caused our defeat and deal with them.  The blunt truth is simple – we defeated ourselves in Iraq.  Now, we have to pick up the pieces and learn.


I had hoped that the Coalition government would do better than Labour at managing our military.  Instead, we have a series of even higher cuts – and still more commitments to foreign wars.  We have cut troops, we have cut aircraft, we have cut ships ... this position is unsustainable.  Don’t they know there's a war on?


It is typical to blame Tony Blair for getting us involved with the war on terror.  That is absolute nonsense, even for those of us who detest the man.  The terrorists are motivated by hatred and fear of the West – hatred for the freedoms we consider our due, fear for the fact that their fellows will be attracted to the West.  We could have stayed out of the war entirely and refused to lift a finger to aid the US after 9/11 and we would still be targets.  There is no way we can appease such a foe.  We have to fight.


But we have worn down the forces we need to fight.


Something is going to break.  And it is going to cost lives.


Additional Reading

A War of Choice: Honour, Hubris and Sacrifice: The British in Iraq – Jack Fairweather

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan – Frank Ledwidge

Ministry of Defeat: The British War in Iraq 2003-2009 – Richard North