We failed to anticipate that in taking out Saddam, we would also remove government and order and authority from Iraq
We need to plan for withdrawal, and we need to understand why, why, why we were so mad as to attack Iraq without working out the consequences
I remember the quiet day we lost the war in Iraq
It was the moment I should have twigged. It was the moment I should have realised that I had voted for the biggest British military fiasco since the Second World War. I was wandering around Baghdad, about 10 days after Iraq had been “liberated”, and it seemed to me that the place was not entirely without hope.
OK, so the gunfire popped round every corner like popcorn on a stove, and civil society had broken down so badly that the looters were taking the very copper from the electricity cables in the streets. But I was able to stroll without a flak jacket and eat shoarma and chips in the restaurants.
With no protection except for Isaac, my interpreter, I went to the Iraqi foreign ministry, and found the place deserted. The windows were broken, and every piece of computer equipment had been looted. As I was staring at the fire-blackened walls a Humvee came through the gates. A pair of large GIs got out and asked me my business. I explained that I was representing the people of South Oxfordshire and Her Majesty’s Daily Telegraph.
That didn’t cut much ice. Then I noticed a figure begin to unpack his giraffe-like limbs from the shady interior of the Humvee. He was one of those quiet Americans that you sometimes meet in odd places.
He was grizzled and in his mid-50s and with a lantern jaw, and unlike every other US soldier I’d met he had neither his name nor his blood group stitched on his person. I grasped at once that this quiet American was no soldier. He had that Brahmin air, a bit Ivy League, a touch of JK Galbraith. Yes, folks, he was some kind of spook.
I remember how he walked slowly towards the shattered foreign ministry building, stroking his chin. Then he walked back towards us, and posed a remarkable question. “Have you, uh, seen anyone here?” he asked.
Nope, we said. All quiet here, we said. Quiet as the grave.
“Uhuh,” he said, and started to get back in the Humvee. And then I blurted my own question: “But who are you?” I asked. “Oh, let’s just say I work for the US government,” he sighed. “I was just wondering if anyone was going to show up for work,” he said. “That’s all.”
And that, of course, was the beginning of the disaster. Nobody came to work that day, or the next, or the one after that, because we failed to understand what our intervention would do to Iraqi society. We failed to anticipate that in taking out Saddam, we would also remove government and order and authority from Iraq.
We destroyed the Baathist state, without realising that nothing would supplant it. The result was that salaries went unpaid, electricity was not generated, sanitation was not provided, and all the disorder was gradually and expertly fomented until it was quite beyond our control.
And what we had failed to see in advance was that almost from the outset the Iraqis would blame us – and not just the insurgents – for every distress they experienced.
It is now commonplace for people like me, who supported the war, to say that we “did the right thing” but that it had mysteriously “turned out wrong”. This is intellectually vacuous. It is like saying British strategy for July 1, 1916 was perfect, but let down by faulty execution. The thing was a disaster from the moment we invaded, and it wasn’t poor old Rumsfeld’s fault for failing to send in enough troops, or failing to do more “planning” for the post-war. No quantity of troops could have prevented this catastrophe; and the dreadful thing is that I think Saddam knew it.
A couple of years ago I had a chilling conversation with a very senior British general who was then intimately involved in our efforts in Iraq.
The trouble was, he said, that Saddam had thought it all through. He knew he hadn’t a hope against the Pentagon, so he had a three-stage strategy. First he instructed his army not to put up much resistance to the Patton-like thrusts of the US army. Then, when Baghdad had fallen, he encouraged his soldiers to melt away to their homes and keep their weapons. The third stage, said this British general, was the one we had been embroiled in ever since: a guerrilla war, spiced with sectarian violence, to become gradually more intense until it became no longer possible for the allies to remain in Iraq.
And was he right in his analysis, this British general? Look at the place now. If Saddam had somehow managed to elude capture and stay in that hideyhole, people might now say he was on the verge of a sensational victory. Last time I was in Basra I was able to go for a run past the Shatt-al-Arab canal. You’d need a death-wish to do that today, and even in the massively fortified British compound the risk to life is so great that the Foreign Office has pulled most personnel back to the airport.
Of course we must resist the great national sport of wallowing in our own failures. Of course it is still true that some good will ultimately come, just as some good comes from all disasters. But we must be honest and accept that the price has been far too high, and that General Dannatt is right to say that our presence is making things worse.
As long as we are there, the terrorists know that they can maximise the damage to Bush and Blair by blowing up our troops, and so we incite the very violence we are trying to quell. We need to plan for withdrawal, and we need to understand why, why, why we were so mad as to attack Iraq without working out the consequences. That is why I want an inquiry. I want to interrogate our Government, and above all I want to hear from the Americans.
I want to find that tall, quiet American spook, and get him to explain to a parliamentary committee exactly why he thought there would be people in that Iraqi government building. And I bet most British soldiers would be interested to know the answer.