Was Britain’s war effort hobbled by Self-Inflicted Wounds?
By military author and journalist Tim Ripley
Already Fleet Street newspapers are starting to fill up with articles about leaks from the long awaited Chilcot report into the 2003-2009 Iraq war. Sir John Chilcot is reported to have savaged the reputations of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw, along with a whole posse of military chiefs.
How exactly their reputations with be further traduced is not revealed in any detail. There is a definite feel of “perception management” going on here with “friends” of the accused getting their story out there to shape immediate reactions in the rolling news coverage on 6th July when the 2.6 million word report is finally published. Was not the Iraq war de-devilled by spin, so why should things change now?
I must admit some sympathy for Sir John and his inquiry team. Seven years seems a long time to write a report but after going on similar journey during the writing of my own history of Operation Telic, as the British military campaign was code-named, I quickly realised that the more you find out about the Iraq war the more you want to find out more. You see new connections between events and people and want to follow them up. It is like a TV detective show, in which the guilty men are not those who are arrested at the scene of the crime in the first five minutes of the programme.
After the leaking of several Cabinet documents and minutes, everybody thinks they know what happened in the nine months leading up to the war. Tony Blair made a secret deal with George Bush to join the war. Then ministers failed to give the troops what they needed to fight the war properly. That at least is the dominant narrative of Blair’s accusers.
The real story is rather different. Thanks to my friends in the British Army I have been able to view many of raw un-redacted documents that Sir John and his team have been ploughing through. I have also been able to draw upon the journals of every British Army regiment to serve in Iraq and then tapped into the huge WikiLeaks archive of US documents that cover the final years of the British presence in Iraq.
My research suggests that the commitment of British troops to the war was not some nice neatly packaged conspiracy but rather a messy stumble into war. The thing that stands out dramatically from all internal MOD and military documents is how chaos and confusion surrounded the whole enterprise.
Yes, much of this was down to Blair’s obsessive secrecy in his bid to stop leaks about war preparations fuelling anti-war protests but a reading back through newspapers from late 2002 and early 2003 shows that it was not a secret the British military was gearing up to join the American invasion of Iraq.
At the heart of this confusion – which led to not enough body armour and desert uniforms being bought for the troops and a lack of planning for the re-building of Basra – was an almost quixotic desire by the leadership of the British armed forces to deploy a large land force to northern Iraq to help the Kurds fight Saddam’s troops. For almost three months, Britain’s military chiefs were fixated with creating what became known as the “winning proposition”. This revolved around the idea that the British military had to make itself indispensable to the Americans by offering them capabilities or units that the Pentagon did not have. The Royal Air Force offered up its Storm Shadow cruise missiles to blast Saddam’s command bunkers, the navy pitched mine sweepers and marines to clear the channels around Iraq’s only sea port and the SAS promoted themselves as an indispensable part of any hunt for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The problem was how would the British Army make itself indispensable to the Americans? Just sending troops to the southern front would not do the trick, as the US Army and Marines already had several hundreds of tanks in Kuwait ready to drive on Baghdad.
The answer seemed to be the so-called “northern option”. The Americans had only earmarked one division of 20,000 troops for this, so a British force in Kurdistan could outnumber the US Army and open the way for a Brit general to run the show. This fitted the bill as a “winning proposition” but within weeks it being pitched in October 2012 it was clear this was a non-starter. The Turks who would have to provide the launch pad for the northern option were not playing ball and ultimately in January 2003 killed the whole idea. But in the Ministry of Defence Main Building the idea would not die. Even though northern option was becoming increasingly untenable, through December and into early January no one in the MOD would make the decision to send the British Army’s only armoured division to Kuwait.
Bizarrely, just as British military commanders in the Gulf with the Americans were saying Turkey was a no-go, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and MOD Permanent Secretary Kevin Tebbit decided to head to Ankara in mid-January 2003 to make a last ditch effort persuade the Turks to change their mind.
The result was never in doubt and Hoon and Tebbit came away with their tails between their legs. Within days the British Army was finally ordered to turn around and head to Kuwait. This threw all the war planning into turmoil. Suddenly desert kit needed to be ordered, the units earmarked to go to war were switched around, maps of Basra had to be ordered and plans prepared for occupying Iraq’s second city. No one knew anything about the “human geography” of Basra with disastrous results.
In this context, the confusion and chaos of trying to get 26,000 troops and all their equipment to a new theatre of operations in just a month, with limited planning and preparation was all too predictable. What is really surprising is that things did not turn out worse than they did.
Tim Ripley, is the author of Operation Telic: The British Campaign in Iraq 2003-2009. Published May 2016, available from www.amazon.com or www.amazon.co.uk (search Tim Ripley Operation Telic Paperback)