Friday, December 04, 2015

The price of the 2003 Iraq invasion

The decision to extend the bombing campaign against DA'ESH to territory they have taken in Syria as well as Iraq has dominated the headlines for the past few days and rightly so.

And yet there is a long shadow hanging over the decision. The shadow of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Just as the shadow of Vietnam hung over the USA for a generation, the shadow of the mistakes made around the 2003 invasion of Iraq  - and whether or not you think the invasion itself was a mistake, as I do, the implementation of that invasion was a disaster - is still hanging over any decision to use armed force.

Which is why a decision which my intellect insists should have been a no-brainer required weeks of national soul-searching to make, including the main opposition party practically tearing itself apart and a rebellion on the government benches which, although small in numbers contained people whose opinions I respect very much indeed.

You only need to look at the headlines in this morning's papers for a indication of how much this country has lost confidence in advice to use force. Someone in the MoD has let it be known that they raised concern at the use of the figure of 70,000 fighters in Iraq - which was admittedly the weakest part of the government's case - for fear that this might be the equivalent of the "dodgy dossier." And indeed that precise allegation was indeed made in parliament by the Conservative chairman of the defence committee, Dr Julian Lewis, who was concerned that

 "Instead of having dodgy dossiers, we now have bogus battalions."

And yet, although this was a legitimate debating point for those raising concerns about the strategy towards Syria to raise, there is not really much comparison between the behaviour of the governments concerned.

In the former case the February 2003 dossier purporting to be based on "a number of sources including intelligence" had been put together by civil servants working under the direction of the Prime Minister's head of communications and major parts of it were plagiarised from internet sources such as a graduate student paper. Tony Cragg, the retired deputy chief of defence intelligence, admitted to the Hutton Inquiry that there had been memos from two members of DIS objecting that parts of the September 2002 dossier (including the claim that WMD could be deployed in 45 minutes), were "far too strong" or "over-egged".

By comparison, the figure of 70,000 fighters in Syria who are neither aligned to Assad or DA'ESH, was initially given in intelligence briefings. The PM's response to the Foreign Affairs select committee included the words

"Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups."
The Times this morning had a large headline "Army Chiefs warned PM over 70,000 rebels claim" but when you look at the actual text of the article it appears that the people who had issued such warnings were not so much suggesting that the government was actually acting the way its' predecessor had in 2003 as afraid that it might be taken that way.

The MoD was concerned that giving such a precise figure might lead people to "wrongly assume that a ready-made army was available to retake the ISIS hub of Raqqa as soon as British warplanes started bombing" which was a totally valid concern to express in the sense that there is no such ready-made army, but I certainly did not get the impression that the PM or anyone else was trying to claim that there was. He admitted in his Commons speech that the 70,000 figure represented a range of disparate groups and that not all of them held views we would agree with or were ideal partners.

The same Times article also said that

"Unlike with the original 'dodgy dossier' in 2003 that haunted Tony Blair, senior military officials were not worried about the validity of the 70,000 figure, it is understood. However, they were reluctant to use a specific figure after being haunted by the scandal over Mr Blair's push for war in Iraq, the sources said."

In other words, we are so concerned not to repeat the mistakes of 2003 that we are getting ourselves tied completely in knots and afraid to publish figures which really are the best estimate for fear of getting accused of sexing them up if it turns out (as it may do) that they are wrong.

It is important that we learn the lessons of 2003. It is also important that we don't let the justified wish to avoid repeating those mistakes lead Britain into complete paralysis.

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