by Mina Al-Oraibi
“Between 2003 and 2009, the UK’s most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed forces.”
This statement—one of the key findings in the long-anticipated Chilcot Report published in London last week—effectively reveals how strategically misguided the British involvement in the Iraq war was. The result of a seven-year inquiry into the UK government’s decision to go to war in 2003 and its policies in Iraq until 2009, the new report also concludes that Saddam Hussein posed no threat to the UK and the British government failed to achieve its strategic aims in the country. None of this is news. However, having an authoritative figure confirm these findings is vital to an internal process assessing British policies in Iraq. What counts now is to translate these lessons into practical policies.
The report of the Iraq Inquiry—headed by Sir John Chilcot, an advisor to the Queen as a member of the Privy Council—totals 2.6 million words. It is one of the longest pieces of literature in the English language. The Inquiry’s cut-off point is 2009, when the UK withdrew its troops from Iraq. But this cut-off point is somewhat arbitrary.
After all, in 2016, the levels of violence in Iraq continue to rise. Withdrawing troops, whether British or American, has not ended the war in Iraq, nor has it ended the responsibility of the previous occupying powers. Today, the UK is part of a U.S.-led coalition that has carried out over 8,000 strikes on Iraq without an end in sight. To minimize political blowback, the coalition doesn’t use the word “war” or “no boots on the ground.” Today, there are 550 British troops in Iraq, and there have been reported SAS missions in the country, which the government refuses to comment on. If no British soldiers are killed, then the government spends little political capital. The British public protests little when faceless and nameless Iraqis die in a war conducting from the skies for close to two years. According to the Chilcot Report, “the UK struggled from the start to have a decisive effect on the Coalition Provisional Authority’s policies, even though it was fully implicated in its decisions as joint Occupying Power.” Today, the same can be said of the UK’s continued role in Iraq where the British government still has no decisive effect on the conduct of the bombing campaigns or actors on the ground such as Iran.
Chilcot’s criticism of then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to join in the American war on Iraq is evident. However, he does not go as far as to consider the war illegal, even if it did undermine the authority of the United Nations Security Council and was not ‘option of the last result’. Holding officials accountable for their actions, even if after they have left office, and assessing the decision making process in government are hallmarks of a healthy democracy. As the British Parliament will go on to discuss the report over two days next week, it will be incumbent to discuss its repercussions of British actions on Iraq today. Questioning the decisions of government, especially when so many lives are at stake, must include questioning current policy.
The media has largely focused on whether Blair will apologize or stand trial as a war criminal. More attention, however, should be paid to what Blair has admitted. In his press conference responding to Chilcot, Blair said, “We did not foresee the scale of the sectarian violence.” And yet this violence was by no means inevitable. Sectarian violence did not escalate until 2005 and did so then as a result of policies after the invasion that heightened social divisions.
The report, which would take about nine days to read in full, contains a chapter that catalogues the failure of security sector reform. It states that “Between 2003 and 2009, there was no coherent US/UK strategy for Security Sector Reform (SSR). The UK began work on SSR in Iraq without a proper understanding of what it entailed and hugely underestimated the magnitude of the task.” These harsh but valid statements are of little consolation to the millions of Iraqis who mourn the loss of family members, friends, and loved ones.
The report emphasizes that,
there was no qualitative way for the UK to measure progress. The focus on the quantity of officers trained for the Iraqi Security Forces, rather than the quality of officers, was simplistic and gave a misleading sense of comfort. After 2006, the UK’s determination to withdraw from Iraq meant that aspirations for the Iraqi Security Forces were lowered to what would be “good enough” for Iraq. It was never clear what that meant in practice.
Iraqis themselves know full well what this meant in practice, especially the 300 killed in the bombings of Karrada last weekend.
In the U.K, Blair continues to be the focus of attention regarding Iraq policy, yet it is time to take stock of current policies and longer-term planning in Iraq. Next week, the British parliament will debate Chilcot’s report against a backdrop of political disarray, as the two main political parties face leadership challenges. Jeremy Corbyn, who has certainly benefitted domestically from being one of the MPs to have voted against the Iraq war in 2003, is using this position to fight off critics in his own party. Yet it would be a wasted opportunity to limit the discussion of the Chilcot report to looking at past decisions. From ensuring that intelligence is not politically manipulated to reassessing the impact of intervention, or lack thereof, on the region, the Iraq war continues to cast a shadow on British policy. But this discussion usually goes no further than a promise “not to repeat mistakes.” Instead, the conversation must address the current dynamics within Iraq, determining how best to help those who are suffering from the violence, support institution-building, and ensure the emergence of a stable Iraq. Limiting military involvement need not translate into limited political engagement.
Mina Al-Oraibi is an Iraqi-British journalist and a senior fellow at the Institute of State Effectiveness. She is a member of the board of trustees at the American University of Iraq–Sulaimani and can be reached @aloraibi.