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The lessons from history that Blair failed to appreciate

Tony Blair's biggest mistake over Iraq wasn't misleading parliament about Saddam Hussein's WMDs (or lack of them)... it was not learning from the First World War

By Richard Doherty

Chilcot has reported. His findings have prompted a wave of anger and frustration to match the "shock and awe" unleashed on Iraq's armed forces as coalition divisions raced towards Baghdad in March 2003.

With some 20 nations - the "coalition of the willing" supporting the action - the invasion was launched on March 20. The objective of toppling Saddam was achieved rapidly: Baghdad fell on April 9.

Before long, George W Bush was proclaiming the end of combat operations. On May 1, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, he declared "Mission accomplished" - a pale and premature imitation of the Gettysburg Address.

But, as we know, there had been strong opposition in the UK to the invasion. Tony Blair (below) stood accused of misleading parliament and the nation about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the possibility of their being unleashed within 45 minutes.

He denies any such misleading of parliament and the public. Chilcot suggests that Blair was himself misled by the US.

In spite of Bush's "Mission accomplished" claim, the operation began unravelling.

Although achieved with minimal losses among coalition forces, the honeymoon period during which Coalition forces were welcomed warmly was short.

It was clear that there had been many errors in planning.

Apart from the flawed, or falsified, intelligence provided by US sources on WMD, no plans had been made for the governance of post-Saddam Iraq.

Iraqis expecting electricity stations, water supplies and petrol pumps to start working properly were disappointed.

Disappointment turned to frustration and anger at the coalition forces and civilian administration.

Before long, the liberators were seen as occupiers and British and US forces came under attack. Over the next six years, UK forces suffered 179 deaths, including 49 from roadside bombs (IEDs).

Many stories from Iraq were tragic and the government was accused of sending troops into action with inadequate equipment.

Chilcot supports the claim that troops were not equipped properly, stating that the three brigades deployed suffered "equipment shortfalls". Too little time was given to prepare for the deployment.

Much attention has been paid to the deaths from IEDs - especially in lightly protected "snatch" Land-Rovers, developed for use in Northern Ireland. While there is justification for the claim that these vehicles should have been withdrawn earlier, that ignores the changed situation in Iraq.

It also ignores the fact that heavy armoured vehicles - including US army Abrams tanks - fell victim to IEDs, with crew members killed.

However, the critical factor remains that service personnel deployed by their government on missions such as Operation Telic in Iraq and Operation Herrick in Afghanistan have a right to expect the best possible equipment and training for the task facing them.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and it's very easy to identify mistakes afterwards.

Aside from the morality of intervention in Iraq, there were many mistakes, the worst being the failure to make adequate plans for the country post-Saddam. Much blame for this lies with the US government, but the UK government cannot be considered blameless.

The complaint that there was failure to provide sufficient and adequate equipment for British personnel is valid. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) procurement system was unwieldy and slow to react in 2003. Although it had only a few months to react and prepare, more could have been done. As often before, British troops had to improvise, or borrow from their US counterparts.

However, lessons were learned. The MoD did better in providing for the forces deployed to Afghanistan in Operation Herrick. Even so, there were complaints of failures, of inadequate equipment and a shortage of helicopters, especially heavy-lift Chinooks.

Against this, much new, or modified, equipment was produced and delivered quickly.

As far back as 1982, and the Falklands conflict, the MoD had produced "quick fixes", such as modifications to the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft to give it an in-flight-refuelling capability and to the Sea King helicopter to produce an airborne early warning (AEW) version.

What could the UK government have done better in late-2002 and early-2003? It should have examined more rigorously the intelligence material on Iraqi WMD. The information from the US and from agents has been revealed as the work of the agents' imagination - not the first time in history this has happened and, hence, the reason why it should have been verified.

If preparations were to be made for war, they had to be adequate. Every unit deployed should have had the best equipment available in the time permitted and the opportunity to hone its training.

Although the planners didn't know the operation would descend into an internal security one so quickly, there ought to have been an appreciation that failure to provide for the Iraqi population in the aftermath of the deposing of Saddam would create a situation in which civil unrest could morph into armed opposition.

British planners had at least once before forced a change of mind on the Americans.

In 1943-44, the American Morgenthau Plan for a post-war Germany was to strip the country of its industry and reduce it to an agrarian state. British common-sense changed Roosevelt's mind.

However, Blair was not prepared to stand up to Bush. He was happy to be America's supporter, come what may - or so it seems. Chilcot found that he overestimated his ability to influence the Americans. His failure in this respect ensured that he also failed British service personnel deployed to Iraq.

Once the honeymoon had ended and the attacks on coalition forces began, Blair's government continued to let down its soldiers. Too few helicopters increased the risk to soldiers on the ground, especially from IEDs. Insufficient armoured vehicles did likewise. So, too, did inadequate intelligence and reconnaissance assets.

It's impossible to predict the course of any war and to prepare accordingly. The best-prepared British army ever to go to war was that deployed to France in August 1914. Well-trained and well-equipped, it was intended for a war of movement, but met stalemate in less than three months.

However, it grew, changed and became the army that won the First World War. It did so through intelligent development of tactics, weaponry, equipment and training.

Coupled with these it had good leadership - contrary to popular mythology - and a partnership with the politicians that, in spite of frictions between Haig and Lloyd George, worked to the benefit of those in the front line.

The basic lessons of 1914-1918 still apply. They need to be remembered by our political masters and the leaders of the armed forces.

Lives depend on them.

  • Richard Doherty is the author of Churchill's Greatest Fear: The Battle of the Atlantic - 3 September 1939 to 7 May 1945 (Pen & Sword Military)

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