A War of Choice: The British War In Iraq

-Jack Fairweather


Let us admit it freely, as a civilised people should,

We have had no end of a lesson, which will do us no end of good.


So wrote a poet whose works are no longer studied in British schools, about a war that is now regarded as rather embarrassing.  History teaches many lessons, but the main lesson it teaches is that those who refuse to learn from the past have to pay a price for the lessons in the future.  Britain’s involvement in Iraq had a whole wealth of history to draw upon, with useful lessons that could have been used to ensure that the British covered themselves in glory during the occupation of Southern Iraq.  But those lessons went unheeded and Britain’s involvement in the occupation became a disaster.  Our American cousins learned from their screw-ups and managed to pull victory – of a sort – from the crushing jaws of a largely self-inflicted defeat.  It pains me to admit that the British Government, Civil Service and Military proved unwilling to adapt to the situation on the ground in 2003.  Our involvement in Iraq was a defeat fully comparable to the disaster at Singapore, in 1941.  The long term consequences of the defeat may be just as disastrous.


A War of Choice is not the only overall look at the campaign in Basra and the collapse of British power.  I have previously reviewed Ministry of Defeat, which presented a very bitter picture of the situation on the ground.  This new book, however, has the insight granted by new sources that came into existence since the previous book.  As such, it is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that must be read by all British citizens. 


Britain’s involvement in modern-day Iraq stemmed from somewhat murky origins, but was primarily due to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s discovery that humanitarian missions (such as the stunning success in Sierra Leone) could be carried out by the British military.  Blair, despite being a Labour PM, enjoys the record for committing modern British forces to war, with deployments to Bosnia, Afghanistan and even Iraq. His thinking tallied neatly with that of President Bush, who believed (correctly) that the sources of terrorism had to be dealt with overseas to prevent them coming home.  Bush and Blair were unlikely partners, but Blair – desperate for British involvement and influence – effectively wrote his American partner a blank check.  This had two major effects on the British war; the first was that concerns about the lack of post-war planning were ignored while the second – absurdly – was that the MOD was prohibited from buying supplies as it would cause political problems for Blair.  This screw-up cost lives through bad or insufficient equipment.


No one (British or Iraqi) appeared to have genuinely believed that the US had no post-war plan.  What little planning was done was utterly insufficient and largely based on wishful thinking.  (This led to a bitter moment when Iraqis came to believe that the US wanted the post-war chaos.)  While this was mainly an American fuck-up – and I use the term quite deliberately – Blair missed an opportunity to do the US a vast favour, or at least keep British forces out of the chaos.  But it was not to be.


The decision to put British forces in Basra came fairly late during the planning for the war (originally, the UK would have invaded through Turkey, but the Turks torpedoed that plan.)  While the capture of Basra was a well-executed campaign, the post-war occupation was poorly managed from the beginning.  The forces assigned to hold Basra were utterly insufficient for the task at hand (at least partly because no one seemed to take a serious look at the requirements before the invasion) and the task of reconstructing the city faltered as the Coalition authority ordered that all Bathists were to be removed from office.  As everyone who wanted to work in Iraq had to be a member of the party, this decision pushed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of work.  It is clear that both American and British officers on the ground opposed this decision, but it was handed down regardless.  This – again – was an American decision, yet Blair was in a position to countermand it in Basra.  The opportunity to prevent chaos in the South was lost almost before anyone realised that it existed.


There are only two ways to win an insurgency.  The first involves winning hearts and minds by providing security, opportunity and – eventually – a peaceful transfer of power.  Malaysia, where a communist insurgency threatened to overwhelm the British-backed government, was a victory for the British military, which was able to win the hearts and minds of the population.  The second way to win is effectively genocide.  Saddam had crushed opposition in Basra’s living memory, while the USSR and the Turks had committed genocide to prevent future challenges to their rule.  While the British military could look back on a long and generally successful series of counter-insurgency campaigns, the institutional memory of the army had lost the skills it required to conduct such a campaign and the political environment has changed beyond recognition.  Put bluntly, the occupation force in Basra was not strong enough to either provide security or crush all opposition.


Why did Basra seem peaceful for so long?  One response is obvious – it wasn’t.  A second response is that power slipped, largely unnoticed, into the Shia militias.  The UK simply couldn't provide anything like the resources required to protect the Iraqis who were willing to work with the Coalition, which meant that the Iraqi Police (for example) were either intimidated into submission or actually ‘semi-legal’ arms of the militias.  The British forces on the ground had little appreciation of the scale of this problem, often stamping on Iraqi toes in the process – and therefore making a difficult job almost impossible. 


To complicate matters still further, the Iraqi Government (backed by the Americans and heavily dominated by the Shia) had extensive ties with Shia militias in Basra.  Known insurgent leaders were off-limits to British forces and extensive pressure was applied to prevent the occupation force from pushing an offensive to a successful conclusion.  Promising operations against the Mahdi Army were called off, resulting in tactical successes, but strategic defeats.  A rather jaded American CO once remarked that the Iraqis lost all the battles and won all the negotiations.   He was talking about Fallujah, but he could just have easily been talking about Basra.


The curious factor about President Bush was that he had the vices of his virtues.  He was loyal to his subordinates, even when they should have been unceremoniously sacked.  Rumsfeld was able to remain in office despite bearing primary responsibility for extremely poor decisions that cost American lives.  Blair, on the other hand, had little loyalty to his followers, but chose to avoid confronting the Iraq question directly, with the result that British policy drifted rather than being refocused.  Bush learned from his mistakes; Blair chose to try to sweep them under the carpet.  Blair was luckier than he deserved; I have little doubt that if he had been in opposition at the time, he would have been the leading antiwar speaker.  Bush had principles; Blair showed none.


Blair was not the only British official who made serious errors of judgement.  The military leadership at the MOD comes in for much-deserved bashing; Britain’s military leadership accepted commitments that the UK couldn't handle.  In effect, the UK was fighting a war on two fronts – Iraq and Afghanistan – and was doing it with the results of years of poor procurement decisions, with the result that military kit was either unsuitable, or only available in insufficient numbers.  Sometimes the results were farce.  At other times, they were tragic. 


Listing all the mistakes made by British forces in Iraq would take an entire book.  I can only provide an overview.  First, as noted above, the forces and equipment were simply insufficient for the task at hand.  Second, clumsy decisions by people with little awareness of local realities were allowed to impede operations on the ground.  Third, there were insufficient aid funds available for development projects in Basra that might have provided a source of employment (some elements of the British international aid program refused to cooperate, a decision that should be considered treason).  Fourth, the command and control system in Iraq was hopelessly complicated.  Fifth, there were far too few interpreters and a lack of resources to protect the lives and families of Iraqis who were willing to aid the Coalition forces.  Sixth, British military units arrived without local knowledge and were rotated out by the time they had a grip on what was going on, a process that was endlessly repeated – forcing the same lessons to be learned and learned again.  Seventh, and most disastrously, there was zero political will to come to grips with the problems and actually fix them.  Domestic policy was driving military decisions.  (This was an American problem as well, but the Americans had far greater resources to deploy to Iraq.)  Pitt, Churchill and Thatcher would be turning in their graves.


The final years of the occupation starkly underlined the results of years of failure.  Basra was effectively abandoned to the militias, who imposed their own version of Islamic Law on the population – at the same time as the Americans were turning the remainder of Iraq around.  It was not a British operation, but an Iraqi-led offensive that broke (for a while, at least) the power of the militias.  Blair and Brown claimed that Iraq had been a success.  One wonders just what world they were living in.  Whoever actually won the war, it wasn't the UK.


But the core problem, I feel, is one that has taken root in the West since the end of the Cold War.  Military operations, we are told, are to be short, casualty-free (both friendly and enemy) and perfect.  This is, put bluntly, nonsense.  War is, by nature, a chancy process at the best of times, and deaths and defeats have to be expected.  No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.  There will be reverses, but a reverse does not mean that the war is lost.  I shudder to think how the modern media would have reported Pearl Harbour, or Dunkirk, or even D-Day.  The Japanese expansion into Asia would have been portrayed as an unstoppable juggernaut; no doubt the New York Times would have been insisting that the United States should surrender at once. 


We have grown used to instant gratification.  And yet we forget why we can enjoy a lifestyle that our ancestors would have regarded as heavenly.


The perception exists, rightly or wrongly, that a handful of casualties will make the West back off.  The ultimate legacy of Blair’s war in Iraq will be measured in more casualties among British servicemen, men and women who will die when attacked because the military reputation of Britain has been shattered.  I highly doubt that we could win a second Falklands War – an event that has been made more likely by recent remarks made by Hilary Clinton. 


This book really should have been called Blair’s Betrayal.  Blair betrayed the men he sent to war.  The gallantry and incredible bravery of British soldiers was squandered by a man who knew nothing of war, history or the limitations of power, a man who wasn’t even savvy enough to extract anything for Britain from the disaster.  He lives the high life, even now, while ex-soldiers have to eke out a life in a Britain that doesn't care.  That will be his legacy – that of a knave and a fool.


Read this book.  And don’t forget to ask Blair why he failed so badly if you ever meet him.