It’s nobody’s fault and nobody is sorry.

OK, a book. British Generals in Blair’s Wars (Military Strategy and Operational Art), available from the book company. Recommendation from Tom Ricks.

I’ve not finished the book yet, but the big stand-out issue here is: Why is nobody responsible? Hardly anyone sees Iraq as anything other than a disaster. Meanwhile, the British armed forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 12 years and are preparing to draw-down by 2015, and what has this achieved? Isn’t all this somebody’s responsibility?

We hear a lot of stuff about the importance of Phase IV and of the pre-conflict phase, about multinational coalitions, and that the complex crises that characterise the post-cold war world are both ones where politicians call on the military because they turn up, being able to deploy into odd places, support themselves there, and defend themselves, and also ones in which the utility of military force is not obvious.

Of course if you wanted to know that you could have read Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force in 2005, eight years ago. It was also fairly commonplace a year earlier when I was an IR student. Today, it is glib cliché.

We also hear that Tony Blair was a weird guy and that the Americans shagged the dog. Right.

However, a lot of the people most involved seem to also think everything was going great when they handed over and rotated back to the UK (like the MNDSE commander, Stewart) or that despite being involved in the disastrous Phase IV nonplan, it was none of their responsibility (ORHA deputy, Tim Cross).

Cross, for example, got the hospital-pass of being the British deputy to Jay Garner. This was as bad as it sounds, but the British side could take more criticism. We didn’t select Cross because he was the army’s authority on postconflict reconstruction, or peacekeeping, or counterinsurgency – he was picked because his original mission to set up a logistical line of communication from Turkish ports up to the border for the 1st Armoured Division and the US 4th Infantry Division fell through when the Turks so wisely backed out, leaving him hanging about as a spare part. His main directive from the prime minister was to make sure no specific British zone might be set up for reconstruction purposes, because that might lead to the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. He was grateful for the loan of a spin doctor from Alistair Campbell’s staff, though.

Of course, the CPA did indeed set up a regional structure aligned with the military command structure, and then there had to be a British zone. In that zone, we find Stewart, division commander, who is pleased with himself for acting as the “sheikh of sheikhs” and who seems to think everything was pretty much OK in mid-2004 when he handed over, and who spent much of his time crisis-managing reconstruction.

He also tells the story of the Italians in Nasiriyah at the beginning of the Shia rising – their commander was constantly summoned to the videoteleconference room to answer to Silvio Berlusconi in person, who usually wanted to check he wasn’t taking any risks. On the first night, the Sadrists occupied the crucial bridges and set up their roadblocks without interference. The Americans, without their convoys and on half rations, badgered Stewart to clear them. Stewart called the Italians. Berlusconi did so too. This went on for a week. Eventually Stewart began scraping together British troops and said he would retake the bridges himself. Berlusconi reversed course, and the Italians proceeded to win without more fuss.

Interesting, but it was still Iraq! in 2004!

The reputedly more cerebral commanders are the worst; they have more words to hide behind.

Kiszely deploys a reinforced division or so of them to discuss the history of Western interest in the operational level of warfare, going so far as to assign credit for the US Air-Land Battle doctrine to the British in the form of the 1970s Soviet Studies Research Centre. He keeps on about operational art, mission command, and the manoeuvrist approach, and discovers that his role as deputy to George Casey at MNF-I in 2004 was precisely at the operational level, oddly enough.

Unfortunately he can’t find any example of this affecting anything, and talks quite a bit about how much time he spent having meetings with other British, US, and allied officials. And…it was the second half of 2004 in Iraq! But is he sorry? Is he responsible? Not in the slightest.

He also says that in most British operations of the time, the crucial operational level was to be found at Permanent Joint HQ, except when he was in the field when it was him. He doesn’t ask if this was a bit distant from the fighting or a bit close to the politicians and MOD Main Building. PJHQ was originally meant to be deployable, but it has never done so, and as he claims to be its architect he surely ought to ask the question.

Richards recounts his triumph in Sierra Leone and explains how he’s going to win Afghanistan with the assistance of “Reid Groups” to co-ordinate civil and military action. That’s as in John Reid. It was 2006.

McColl badmouths the troops, saying that the Americans have more pride, and doesn’t really say anything else of any interest whatsoever.

Jackson gives us his detailed version of the Wesley Clark incident in Kosovo – it’s worse than we thought, with Clark accepting the original decision not to fly paratroops into Pristina, but then, after the Russians arrived, changing his mind and wanting it done, onto the runway with them in occupation – and trots out a lot of stuff about no postwar planning and coalitions. But why didn’t he insist on it? He was the chief of the general staff and he’d already told the Americans to bugger off twice!

In fact, he left the final bugger-off to Dannatt – when Clark came knocking the second time, Jackson suggested it would be even more impressive to put tanks on the runway, rather than helicopters, and referred the issue to Dannatt’s 4th Armoured Brigade knowing they would refer it back to London. The French were also asked, and also said no.

Irwin confines himself to talking about Northern Ireland, and specifically whether a campaign plan was something that could have existed in that context. He makes sense.

So far, the pick is Barney White-Spunner, who compares the now thoroughly forgotten mission to Macedonia in 2001, which he led, and the first ISAF deployment to Kabul in 2002, which he also led with the rest of a hard-worked 16 AAB headquarters.

He concludes that the biggest difference between the two missions was that “in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no European dream”, i.e. no political aspiration that the people most concerned shared and no credible path to economic development, and strongly implies that the big problem with Iraq was that it just wasn’t in the national interest to do it. He notes that at one point, he was asked to take 16 AAB HQ to Afghanistan without any troops of his own under command at all, a Reid-class idea he refused strongly. He also remarks on the excellent condition of Albanian rebels’ pack animals despite a shortage of forage.

8 Comments on "It’s nobody’s fault and nobody is sorry."

    1. He doesn’t name names, although he specifies that the two people involved were civil servants. It’s hard to say whether he means this in the strict sense – i.e. members of the established home civil service, excluding SPADs – or whether he just means they weren’t in uniform.


  1. I suspect that this might be referring to people who had been at the Coalition Information Centre in London. They did the first drafts of the September 2002 sexed-up dossier and were involved in the “dodgy dossier” of February 2003. It was based in the FCO but reported to Campbell.

    (NB the reference to the “dodgy dossier should be 2003 not 2002)

    None of the Inquiries into the invasion of Iraq has looked at the CIC, though there are many curious aspects of the set-up. Some of the people who worked there went to Iraq in 2003, possibly to reduce the chances that they got caught up in the dossier-sexing furore and the Hutton Inquiry. This is one of them.


    1. that’s what I thought, roughly. telling that deploying to Iraq was considered less disagree able than tangling with the press!


  2. Perhaps the reason why “a lot of the people most involved seem to also think everything was going great when they handed over and rotated back to the UK” was because these spin-doctors did a great job. Although you’re right that “hardly anyone sees Iraq as anything other than a disaster” the spin-doctors managed to throw up a smoke-screen and the basic problem (this was a regime-change exercise in which no-one knew anything about how to change a regime) has never been in focus.


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