Iraq & Afghanistan: who was in charge, politicians or generals?

John Rentoul

US UK Sangin2007 300x198 Iraq & Afghanistan: who was in charge, politicians or generals?Everyone knows that crazed warmonger Tony Blair “took us to war” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that professional British soldiers did the best they could to carry out the foolish orders of political donkeys, do they not? One person who does not know this is James de Waal, a visiting fellow at Chatham House, who today publishes a study called Depending on the Right People: British Political-Military Relations, 2001–10.

The title is taken from Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, who said: “Decisions are well made if the right people are in the room.” It is a study of two decisions in particular. First, the decision taken in 2002-03 to go for “Package 3″ (ground troops) rather than “Package 2″ (naval, air and special forces support) in Iraq, if the US-led invasion went ahead and the UK joined it. Second, the decision to extend operations in Helmand, Afghanistan, to the north of the province in 2006.

De Waal’s conclusion is that in both cases there was pressure from the military to go for the more ambitious deployment, and that, in both cases, political control was weak and ambiguous.

On Iraq, de Waal asks:

Why was a decision with such far-reaching consequences taken? Witness and documentary evidence from the Iraq Inquiry, and other personal accounts by those involved, provide a conflicting picture. The Prime Minister’s Office, the centre of UK decision-making, seems to have been content that the country’s strategic aims – in helping deal with Saddam and in keeping close to the United States – would be satisfied by contributing only the forces in Package 2, i.e. intelligence, basing rights and naval, air and special forces. In contrast, there seems to have been considerable pressure from the Ministry of Defence for Package 3.

De Waal quotes Powell, in a document published by the Chilcot inquiry, telling Blair: “The military are making another effort to bounce you into a decision on option 3.” (Document MO 6/17/15C.) And he goes on to say:

The Iraq Inquiry spent considerable time delving into this, especially the question of whether lobbying by the British Army played a significant part, as this [Package 3] was the only military option that gave it a significant role. Indeed it considered – without finding clear evidence – whether parts of the British Army had colluded with US military planners in order to stimulate US requests for British military support.

De Waal tries and fails to find when the decision to opt for Package 3 was actually taken. There is a declassified note of a decision on 29 October 2002 to keep the option open of either Package 2 or Package 3, but no record of a decision in favour of the more ambitious option, which led to British troops occupying the south of Iraq.

De Waal finally quotes Blair’s memoir:

Mike Boyce [Chief of Defence Staff ...] was clear that the optimum from the British perspective was package three. He said he would have a real problem with the Army if they were not fully involved, and such involvement alone gave us far greater influence in shaping US thinking. This was also my own instinct.

This concedes that there was pressure from the Army. Of course, Blair claims that it happened to be pressure to which he was receptive, but he was hardly going to say, “they bounced me into it”.

The case of the Afghanistan decision is similarly uncertain. It has already been examined by the Defence Select Committee. There it seems possible that the Army took advantage of the reshuffle of May 2006, in which John Reid was replaced by Des Browne as Defence Secretary, to extend its operations in Helmand, although it may simply have been a mistake. It does not appear that Browne, let alone Blair, was aware of the implications of this supposedly “operational” decision – namely to require three times as many troops as were originally deployed.

De Waal concludes:

The main problem in trying to decide whether these are isolated or systemic failures is that, in addition to the confusion surrounding how the British political-military relationship has functioned in practice, there is also considerable confusion about how it ought to function in theory.

His proposals include learning from the American model, in which closer political control of the military top brass is exerted.

(The Independent’s report of the study is here.)

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  • Kippers

    When was the decision about Packet 2 v Packet 3 taken? Was that a firm decision or one that depended on the outcome of weapons’ inspections?

    Why do WMD not appear in the phrase ” … the country’s strategic aims – in helping deal with Saddam and in keeping close to the United States – ……”?

    Who took that decision? The Cabinet? Parliament? Were they informed of that choice? When? How?

  • Kippers

    Paragraph 2 of the body of the report: -

    “Some of this criticism of political leaders appears justified. For example it seems reasonable to accuse Blair of poor judgment – at the very least – in overestimating both the threat from Saddam Hussein’s regime and the prospects of installing a viable replacement in Iraq.”

  • Kippers

    “The Package 3 decision had several important consequences. ………. Importantly, by taking physical control of a significant proportion of southern Iraq, it gave the United Kingdom legal and moral responsibility for the welfare and security of its population.”
    Was the Cabinet and Parliament made aware of this?

  • Kippers

    Page 26
    “Moreover there seems to have been no attempt to design the various force options – with the FCO’s input – in a way that would support the government’s political strategy rather than the military’s requirements.”

  • chrishaines47

    1000 dead Africans = 100 dead Asians. 100 dead Asians = 10 dead Brits, 10 dead Brits = a slightly injured salesman from Nebraska.

  • porkfright

    Cuts to the chase. Any WMD found yet-anywhere at all?

  • Kippers

    Rentoul:- “The title is taken from Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, who said: “Decisions are well made if the right people are in the room.””

    The title is indeed taken from Powell’s response to Butler’s criticism of sofa government. The report, though, is an extended critique of Powell’s line of argument and an extension of Butler’s analysis about informal decision-making. The critique of Powell’s argument is not just because the armed forces managed to have undue influence, but because all of the decision-making was informal. If Blair was supposed to be in charge, why is it that no-one can quite put their finger on how and when Package 3 was chosen over Package 2 (even though this would lead to the UK becoming an occupying power and would make it much more difficult to “go down the UN route” and pull out when the USA decided to invade Iraq in the middle of weapons’ inspections)?

    It is true that De Waal’s “proposals include learning from the American model, in which closer political control of the military top brass is exerted.” This is not, however, the main conclusion, which is that all decision-making should be less informal and that there should be a code for decision-making in these circumstances. That code would presumably decide in advance who should be in the room to make which decisions, and not leave this to the whims of Jonathan Powell.

  • SuperCarper

    I don’t buy this trimming of Blair’s responsibility. A recent book by Andrew Blick and George Jones, At Power’s Elbow: Aides to the Prime Minister from Robert Walpole to David Cameron (London: Biteback Publishing, 2013), makes clear that although the PM may sometimes appear to be heavily under the influence of their advisors, the Prime Minister is always in control.

  • porkfright

    Well. There’s two of us, then.

  • Pacificweather

    Perhaps “Lions led by donkeys” should be added to the banned list. Maybe, it is also time to add monomania to the banned list.

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