Iraq - Lessons From an Insider

In Iraq everyone privately knew the WMD thing was a pretext, and this assumption underpinned all our political work. No-one was 100% certain of the real aims. Still today. So we made it up.

It is 10 years since I was appointed as the lead independent political and governance adviser for the Coalition in Iraq, working under the Laws of Occupation. Prior to my appointment my views against the war were published. However, there had been at least three attempts in a short space of time to form the first post-war regional government. Many deaths resulted in the chaos. So I set to work with 7 Brig and the MoD to find a way to form the first administration, and then assist in rolling out lessons to other provinces. This was vital to achieve a modicum of civil peace, since in the early days in May and June 2003 all authority had collapsed, street-by-street vigilantes were springing up (understandably), and various armed political, religious and tribal groups were vying for power, with assassination as their main tool.

It was a dangerous time - there was gunfire everywhere and Saddams's secret police (Mukhabarat) were zooming around in fast cars, up to mayhem. Visiting mosques with special UK forces, and the notorious 'Shia Flats', and being shot at in my unescorted 4WD Galloper, was indeed a harrowing experience. As probably the only civilian off out on daily excursions to negotiate with various groups, I saw the post-war reality. To be blunt I was lucky to exit mostly unscathed, especially after being caught twice in the middle of an angry and armed crowd of more than a thousand in my car with only hand weapons. However, the process of appointing a provincial governorate, using the full range of 'tricks up my sleeve', was successful, and we went on at our first meeting to elect a governor - with the help of an old generator borrowed from a former ice cream parlour. Other provinces took lessons from the success. The organisation in Basra survived almost intact until the elections (one assassination).

I had other tasks in Iraq - helping to organise the physical infrastructure (mostly electricity and water), and developing the 'rule-of-law infrastructure' (We found some CDs listing hundreds of laws, in a bombed-out Saddam era TV studio). In addition I was a contributor to the constitutional development process. On each of these three sets of processes, I encountered much more than a lack of planning - it was more a case of astonishing wildly vaccilating policy on the big issues... when the local, regional and national elections should be, the role of occupier-decrees versus extant legislation (vital for the courts being opened), the extent of support for diaspora versus Saddam era anti-Ba'athist political groups, the extent to which secret negotiations with Ba'athists should play a role, the extent to which we should allow/resist exceptionalism in the Kurdish areas, what to do with oil and frozen-assets money, and indeed how far everyone should continue with the obviously specious WMD game and the al Qaeda game.

What's more, we had capacity problems because there was an informal process of veto-ing those of the wrong political persuasion (eg "lefty, tree-hugging US Democrats" as one colleague put it). By contrast we had too much money and we had to find ways to get it out into the population instead of the pockets of well-connected mega-contractors. I even created a special fund for ex-soldiers who had had one ear cut off for not fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. Near my desk there were pallets and pallets of US dollars, all nicely shrink-wrapped, in excess of $100million in cash at one point.

But I recall these events with a heavy heart - first the personal one, since many of my UK, US and Iraqi colleagues died, and I always tried to loook into the faces of corpses on the street and wonder about their lives. Then the political one, for all the fatalities... the narrow semi-official hospital figures (somewhat massaged), the Iraqi 'body count' numbers, the wider fatality estimates, and then the calculations as to how many people would be alive today if the war had not taken place, given the number the Ba'athists would have killed in the meantime (this is well over a million).

How do I feel about it now ?

I've worked in other conflict areas - Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda. In Iraq everyone privately knew the WMD thing was a pretext, and this assumption underpinned all our political work. No-one was 100% certain of the real aims. Still today. So we made it up. Now I understand the real aims perhaps too well, but my assumption then, not shared by some key diplomats, was that stability and a structural political-legal & social legacy that reduced the likelihood of descent into sectarianism and tribalism, was the key. It should be remembered that when I first brought together the members of the provincial government I had appointed in Basra, many appointees know each other well, but some did not know which tribe they belonged to and whether they were Shia or Sunni.

My overarching conclusions are three-fold. First, that colonially-created states held together by Western or Russian backed dictators are 'Humpty-Dumpty Nations' - they can be broken for sure if killing hundreds of thousands of folk is seen as OK, but cannot be put together again except by enormous effort, unity of purpose, and dep, deep local knowledge on the ground. [Please not regarding Syria]. Second, layers of hidden aims of the Western military powers, leading to wars which kill millions with hidden aims, will require increasing authoritarianism within the Western nations - destroying our main economic, political and ultimately our military strengths. Third, the slippery slope starts with allowing the military take over our Western foreign policy. It may be too late to reverse these factors.

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