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Amid the Chilcot Report, We Must Not Forget the Lessons of Britain's Occupation of Southern Iraq

06/07/2016 17:32 | Updated 06 July 2016
STEFAN ROUSSEAU via Getty Images

While much of the commentary on the Chilcot report is on the decision to go to war, it is important not to miss the lessons of Britain's occupation of Southern Iraq. How it went from a brilliantly successful initial invasion to a rapidly deteriorating security situation and finally what Chilcot described as the 'humiliating' spectacle of doing a deal with violent militia groups to stop attacks on British troops holed up in their bases is an important story.

During the Malaya emergency, in 1951, Field Marshall Montgomery famously sent the following telegram to the Colonial Secretary:

Dear Lyttelton, Malaya. We must have a plan. Secondly, we must have a man. When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed: not otherwise.

In Iraq, the British had neither a coherent plan, nor a man (or woman) to take ultimate responsibility.

Planning for the post-war period was ceded to the United States and based on the optimistic assumptions that the occupation would have the support of the UN Security Council, would be UN-led, and would be bolstered by international partners.

When it came to the UK's contribution, Blair failed to set up a clear chain of command and Ministerial oversight of the post conflict aspects of strategy, planning and preparation.
This lack of leadership was apparent in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, with an absence of guidance on how to deal with looting. Chilcot notes that the commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade which captured Basra city, Brigadier Graham Binns, concluded that without higher instructions 'the best way to stop looting was just to get to a point where there was nothing left to loot'.

The strategic vacuum that followed saw a number of other serious errors being made. The concentration of British troops was reduced rapidly in 2003/4, from 46,000 to around 9,000. This was despite warning signs that the security situation was worsening. As the insurgency grew, troop numbers continued to decrease. In shocking testimony to the inquiry, Lieutenant General Richard Shirreff noted that in Basra, the single battalion commander had less than 200 soldiers on the ground, in a city of 1.3million. Without concentration of forces, the British simply couldn't provide security and the city was left to the control of militias.

Underlying these choices was an implicit sense that senior figures in the armed forces were not committed to the Iraq operation. Privately, a number have indicated their view that once WMD were not found in Iraq, the national strategic interest in occupying Iraq had evaporated.

Drawing down troop numbers was designed to minimise the risk of casualties in preparation for a quick withdrawal and this became the main strategic objective. Attention was moved to Afghanistan and the decision was made to take on Helmand province, perceived to be more directly relevant to Britain's counter-terrorism priorities.

However, Britain still had a responsibility to discharge its duties to the people of Iraq. The decision to cut and run will be a black mark against Britain's reputation for years to come.

Overall, we can see a number of parties at fault in this saga. Blair failed to establish a clear line of accountability (although his civil servants should also have been calling for this), senior service personnel lacked the will to see the job through, the Ministry of Defence was poor at plugging equipment gaps and adapting to the situation on the ground, and the treasury was reluctant to provide the resources needed. If Britain ever decides to intervene on such a scale again, it needs a plan, and a person, who can deliver it. Otherwise, it will fail.

Jamie Gaskarth is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Birmingham, specialising in British foreign policy and Iraq

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