The report by Sir John Chilcot with the results of the Iraq Inquiry, set up seven years ago, was worth the wait. It is exhaustive, detailed and represents a remarkable catalogue of events across a great span of time and space. Chilcot decided to record individuals’ recollections of events, rather than cross-examine witnesses about their actions, so he observes rather than accuses.
The result is a colossal chronology, with everybody’s contributions diced into paragraphs and then stitched back together again alongside the recollections of others, all in the order in which things happened. This has produced some very revealing results. For instance, it shows how the plan to do a deal with the Jesh al Mahdi in Basra was not the initiative of the local British general alone, but something that was discussed widely both in the theatre of war and in Whitehall. It also demonstrates the complexities of the issues. In attempting to understand how the MoD’s procurement system worked, Chilcot’s chapter on that subject runs to well over 200 pages. Even at that length, he is unable to come to any firm conclusion about who was responsible for making sure that right equipment was provided (beyond a comment that the Army Board had become distracted by longer term issues), ending with the baleful conclusion that ‘it was not clear which person or department….was responsible for identifying or articulating…capability gaps’.
Chilcot is specific, however, in his criticism of the higher management of the war. He concluded that the UK joined the invasion before peaceful options had been exhausted and that the British Prime Minister Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, whereas in practice no imminent threat existed. Blair had made an unconditional but unnecessary commitment to support the US ‘whatever’, without revealing that promise to either his Cabinet or the country. Chilcot also criticised the intelligence community for not testing their sources rigorously enough and the military for not preparing adequately for the aftermath of the combat operations.
The tone of the report is fair, measured and courteous — more in sorrow that an anger — and apart from repeatedly excoriating Tony Blair, Chilcot’s criticism of other individuals is muted. He does take the three Chiefs of Defence Staff to task on some issues: Admiral Boyce for failing to provide Rules of Engagement for the post combat phase; General Walker for not commissioning a force review when it was obvious one was necessary and many were calling for it; and Air Chief Marshal Stirrup for being over-optimistic about the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to substitute for British troops.
He also specifically criticises the MoD for failing to provide the right equipment, for reaching a ‘humiliating’ agreement with militias in Basra, for allowing a second front to be opened in Afghanistan before the situation in Iraq had been stabilised (thus breaching the MoD’s own planning assumptions) and for failing to prepare properly for the aftermath post-conflict.
This report is so detailed and revealing that it will be a gold mine for years to come to researchers and drive many a thesis, for it opens for inspection the inner workings of Whitehall and the military machine in a way seldom done before. Its lack of more specific criticism has surprised some; for instance, there is little mention of the MoD’s failure to provide adequate intelligence, cultural understanding, or language ability to the dispatched forces for over a decade. Or regarding the essential requirement to join up the political, military, and diplomatic in theatre, which is mentioned in too-muted terms. But, like the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, it seems to have been widely accepted as authoritative and puts a bookend on the most controversial event of recent British history. The full report can be downloaded at http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/the-report/
Last year Hurst published High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghan Wars by retired Major General Christopher Elliott, which has been acclaimed as an ‘excellent primer for the Chilcot Report’. The publication of the latter has now proved that to be true.