By General Sir Mike Jackson
We should remember that this saga does not start in 2003, but rather in 1990 with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – an act of outright international aggression. After the forcible removal of his forces from Kuwait, there followed a decade and more of brutality towards his own people and defiance of at least 16 binding resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
My purpose in writing is not to conduct yet another post-mortem of the decision to intervene militarily by the United States, the UK and some 30 other countries, but to reflect on what British forces have achieved.
The purpose of intervention is not to indulge in some latter-day military adventurism, but to help a country move out of a dark past – out of tyranny, civil war, ethnic cleansing – to a better future, a future in which the country is stable, at peace with itself and its neighbours, with a representative government, institutions being built, the rule of law being established, the economy recovering.
This is a complex and difficult task; pace the neocons, it is indeed nation-building. And it is a task for military and non-military alike. It is also true that conflict between groups such as in Bosnia in the 1990s, and the Shia and Sunni in Iraq (and wider, for that matter ) is a political phenomenon which, in the end, can only be solved politically. This cannot per se be achieved by soldiers; their job is to create the conditions for such a political solution. And all of this takes time, a rather unappreciated commodity in today’s 24/7 world. This, then, is my benchmark for judging the effectiveness of our intervention in Iraq.
The initial conventional war-fighting campaign against Saddam Hussein’s forces in southern Iraq was a tremendous military success; in particular, the taking of Basra city by 7 Armoured Brigade was a brilliant operation conducted with great finesse and fine timing. Despite the gloomy predictions of some commentators, there was no re-run of Stalingrad in either Basra or Baghdad.
The initial euphoria which followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein was short-lived, as factions within Iraq began to use violence in pursuit of their political objectives. Iraqi expectations of immediate economic improvement were understandably but unrealistically high; their frustration at not seeing this realised quickly turned to anger with the Coalition forces. This volatile situation was much exacerbated by the security vacuum created by Washington’s appalling decisions to disband the Iraqi security forces and to de-Baathify the public administration to a very low level; the latter marginalised the very people who were best placed to help. These decisions may well have doubled the time it has taken to get to where we are now. Iranian backing for Shia militants was a further difficult complication, as was the lack of a coherent reconstruction plan and the failure in Coalition capitals to understand fully the complexity of the situation.
All of this presented an enormous challenge to the Coalition, not least the British Armed Forces in the south. The Army, in particular, was fighting the classic “3-block war”: a mixture of intense firefights, benign patrolling and reconstruction projects.
The campaign became a long haul – we had to have the strategic endurance to see it through. There were tremendous successes: the referendum on the new Iraqi constitution and the subsequent elections; the avoidance of outright civil war; the long and hard efforts to bring on the new Iraqi security forces; the handover of security responsibility for our four southern provinces to the Iraqi authorities. There were drawbacks: how we dealt with the Mahdi army in Basra; allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners; Whitehall’s organisational difficulties in bringing an integrated single national effort to bear; the political and military friction of working within a coalition.
And there has been the tragic costs in casualties, the agony of soldiering. The bereaved and the wounded have our greatest sympathy; those deaths, those wounds, were not in vain but rather suffered in the noble cause of a better future for Iraq and, indeed, the region as a whole.
The end of Coalition involvement in Iraq was always going to be that moment when the Iraqi government concluded that it had the political and security strength to deal with its own future, that Coalition forces had done all that they could. For Britain, for the four southern Iraqi provinces, that day will be May 31, 2009, at the latest – save the probability that we will maintain a military training team as we do in many other countries. For the US and the rest of Iraq, that day will be somewhat later.
It has been a long, hard and controversial campaign, but I believe it has largely succeeded. If none of this had taken place, if Saddam Hussein had remained in despotic power – no doubt to be followed by his despicable sons – where would Iraq be? We will never know, but I cannot think that Iraq would be a better place, nor that the Iraqi people would wish for such a fate.
The British Armed Forces, as ever, have played a courageous, enduring and committed part in all this. It has been difficult, messy and challenging, but I believe they rose to that challenge in their inimitably good-humoured and professional manner. The Iraqi prime minister has thanked them generously for their part in getting Iraq to where it now is; our Forces may justifiably be proud in playing that part. We, in turn, may be justifiably proud of them – our young men and women have been at once inspirational and humbling to watch.
The struggle against those who would destroy our own way of life is by no means over. Afghanistan will require even greater strategic endurance – but I know that the British Armed Forces, I trust properly supported in every way by government and nation alike, will continue to do their duty.
General Sir Mike Jackson is a former Chief of the General Staff
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