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Most shameful was the Government’s attitude towards our troops still serving in Basra. Lacking the courage to try to explain their mission to the British public, Ministers
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continued to send our troops to Iraq in the knowledge that their mission lacked the support of the British people. Nothing can be more dispiriting to a soldier than knowing that the sacrifices that he and his comrades are making are not appreciated by those in whose name they are being made.

The mood of those deployed in Basra in 2007 was summed up by one Army captain, who told The Times:

I am glad that the Government appear to have learned the lessons from Basra and have made considerable efforts since to demonstrate public support for the armed forces, but the words of that captain should make every Minister hang his or her head in shame. Indeed, that is a lesson that we should take on across the whole House.

The Government ran out of the political will and military capacity to do the job, which led to our tactical failure in southern Iraq. As the Americans surged into Iraq in the first half of 2007, the British Government were looking to get out. It is extraordinary to see the difference between what we were briefed in Basra and what we were briefed in Baghdad about the likely efficacy of the surge. Those events led to our strategic failure with both the Iraqi and American Governments. What General Petraeus’s chief counter-insurgency adviser described as the British

during 2006 led to our being sidelined by the Iraqi Government and the American military in Baghdad.

The British contribution to the Iraqi army’s Operation Charge of the Knights in March and April 2008, which succeeded in driving the Mahdi army out of Basra, was severely limited by what we had available and by the political timidity of our own Government. Prime Minister al-Maliki told The Times later that year that the “British military doctrine” may have been one of the reasons that prevented the spread of security. It is worth reflecting on the fact that had the British Army had the capacity and political backing to do the job that was necessary in Basra, Operation Charge of the Knights should never have been necessary. It was only necessary because we basically had to walk away and hand the city over to the Jaish al-Mahdi—JAM—militias.

Although we can recover from that tactical setback relatively quickly, worse by far has been the effect on our relations with the Americans. I was a little surprised to hear the Secretary of State tell the House on Monday that relationships and confidence between the British and American militaries were as good as he claimed. I choose to put a favourable face on that, which is that both sides are doing as much as they can to repair the damage and to restore confidence. I commend him for that. I am sure that he was not misleading the House, but our American partners would welcome some candid and open frankness about some of the shortcomings of our military effort and the political backing for that effort rather than a pretence that everything in the garden is lovely.

Although the Americans under General Petraeus have revolutionised their approach to counter-insurgency warfare, our armed forces were never given the capacity to undertake truly effective COIN operations, and we were
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therefore unable to defeat the Mahdi army. The view in Washington is that we failed in southern Iraq and that is having serious repercussions on how the Americans view our contribution in Afghanistan and on our future role as their primary ally of choice.

A report currently circulating in the Ministry of Defence reveals the serious doubts in Washington about the British performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to one British source, the report showed:

The painful lessons of Iraq for the British have yet to be applied fully in Afghanistan. We are more effective at counter-insurgency than we were, but we still suffer a command chain divided between the MOD and DFID—a divide that stretches right to the heart of Government, and the further up the command chain, the more serious it is. The result is a complete lack of strategic co-ordination between the civil and military efforts. If we ask the question, “Who is the Secretary of State for Afghanistan?”, the answer is that there is a Cabinet Committee that meets once a fortnight. We cannot conduct a war on the basis of a Cabinet Committee that meets once a fortnight.

One of the things we should have understood from the tragedy of our experience in Iraq is that although we have excellent tactical effectiveness on the ground in Helmand and a brilliant campaign plan, we do not have a plan to win the war at grand strategic level. Until the Government grasp that point, we will simply be passengers in whatever the Americans decide to do. Furthermore, there is a danger that if the British Government do not significantly increase their military and civilian reconstruction commitment in Helmand in a co-ordinated fashion in early 2009, the Americans will feel compelled to take over command of Regional Command (South) and will regard subsequent improvements in the security situation as attributable to their efforts, in contrast to the perceived British failures between 2006 and 2008. So stretched is the British Army at present that even with the draw-down from Iraq, it is likely that no significant increase of British forces in Helmand will be possible, so such a scenario may be one that we have to accept.

The erosion of American confidence in the British military is the greatest strategic failure of UK foreign and defence policy for decades. Enthusiasm for EU and UN initiatives is no substitute. Faith in international institutions is too often misplaced, as they all too often prove wholly ineffective. The Government continue to profess that the transatlantic alliance remains the cornerstone of British security policy, but with the election of possibly the least Atlanticist US presidency since before the second world war, and plenty of rivals for US attention elsewhere in the world, our relationship with the UK is now at its most vulnerable since the Vietnam war.

That is the legacy of the Government’s failure in post-invasion Iraq. We damaged our standing in the wider world by going in, even if it was the right thing to do, and damaged our relationship with the US by never having sufficient political will or military capacity to keep the promises we made to the Iraqi people and to our allies. The result is that we have taken much of the pain for none of the gain. Such is the opprobrium in which we are held by the Iraqi Government that French or German companies are winning far more contracts
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in Iraq than British companies. The Minister grimaces at that—I will give way to him if he would like to dispute it—but the fact is that French and German companies, alongside the Americans, are winning the lion’s share of the contracts.

The Government are holding this debate because they think they finally have some good news from Iraq and they want to crow about it. It is good news that Iraq is improving and that our troops will be able to come home. At least they can hold their heads up high for their achievements, but they come back knowing—as we all know—that they have been let down at almost every step of their journey to and from Iraq.

4.53 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): We are in danger of becoming dewy-eyed over the debacle in Iraq. In this century, we have never had a serious strategy for dealing with Iraq. That was the case as we went into the war and after the war, and I fear that it is also the case today.

The decision to offer UK support to the US invasion was made by the Prime Minister, pretty much alone, in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. The only thing that seemed to be on Tony Blair’s mind at the time was winning influence with the United States, a strategy whose success is now rather in doubt, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

There is no evidence that before the then Prime Minister went to Crawford, he sought or received any advice from the Ministry of Defence. He is reported to have gone to the chiefs on his return from the UK and said, “Let’s make a plan to support a US invasion.” On the day of the invasion, we still had no agreement with the US on the political end state. Indeed, for the UK, the end state, according to a note from Downing street of 22 October 2002, was for Iraq to become a

For the Americans, the end state seems to have been destroying Saddam’s leadership and his supporting power base. Those are two completely different things.

The fact is that we ended up in Basra only because of a decision made in the Turkish Parliament. Originally, we were to go in via Turkey, and our troops were to have been in Mosul and the Kurdish areas, which would have been a completely different proposition. We involved ourselves in an American-led invasion through a decision taken by our Prime Minister at a ranch in Texas, without reference to the people who would carry it out. We ended up taking responsibility for southern Iraq almost by accident.

Once we were in, we tried desperately to find the justification for being there—that is, weapons of mass destruction. We could not do so, and we have spent all our time since trying to get out of the country. We reduced our forces as soon as possible from 46,000-odd men and women to about 15,000. At the same time, we were telling anyone who wanted to hear how great we were at counter-insurgency. Our focus was not on development or the restoration of security for Basra—security which, by the way, we were obliged to restore under the Geneva convention—but on the reduction of forces.

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We were also pretty complacent. I remember a friend of mine returning from a trip to Basra. He said that he had wandered around among the civilian population and realised what a big problem unemployment and the lack of fast resumption of some services would be. He said that he was amazed at the complacency that he found within the Ministry of Defence on the issue.

After the start of the Shi’a insurgency and increasing militia control of Basra and Amarah, we built a new police force. I suppose that it could be argued that it made sense to go to the existing groups of armed men, but unfortunately they were the militias, so almost from the off, we took away the pre-existing structures and put in post people whose first loyalty was not to Iraq, but to their own factions. The police were really just militias in uniform. The best example of that was Basra’s so-called Serious Crimes Unit, which was packed with people from the Jaish al-Mahdi—the JAM militia—who conducted their terrorist operations in police uniforms with police vehicles and weapons. They kidnapped the British CBS journalist Richard Butler last year, and they took two of our special forces people, who had to be rescued from a police station in Christmas 2006. As a senior Iraqi general was later to say, the police were, at the time, the cause of our security problem.

At that point, the increasingly terrorised civilian population lost confidence in the British, but we were busy being complacent about Iran. We made no serious attempt to control the border, possibly because we did not have sufficient troops. There was easy movement of men and equipment across the border, which fed the Shi’a insurgency right across the country. Nearly all that stuff came through the UK area.

From the start, we spent a lot of money on development, but as in the case of Afghanistan, we decided that it was important that the Iraqis were seen to be delivering services to the people, so we pumped the money through the provincial council in Basra. Guess what? A lot of people got rich, but services did not improve dramatically. Even today, Basrawis ask, “What did the British do for us?” There is little recognition of the UK’s effort, although I am told that much of what we see in Basra has been done by the British. We have not got the credit for our effort.

Because we had no clear strategy at that period apart from the reduction of troop numbers, we lost out to JAM. By 2006 it was JAM’s laws that counted, not what the British or the Iraqi Government had to say. For example, a hospital director in Basra tells the story of a male and a female doctor who were chatting. They continued chatting as they went out into the street, just by the gate. Someone from JAM ran out and fined the man for talking to a woman to whom he was not married and who was not a relative. The following week the same thing happened, but the fine doubled. The hospital director still asks how we could have allowed JAM’s law to take over.

We were unable to keep control over Amarah. By August we had retreated, but that was okay because we were handing over to the Iraqi army. The base that we had left was looted by the militias. As one very senior British officer put it, there was only one serious attempt to produce a counter-insurgency plan. That was General Richard Sheriff’s Operation Sinbad in late 2006. Sinbad
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was a brave attempt to take control of the city, but when in December 2006 the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), returned to England after having been out there and being briefed on it, he is reported to have been extremely angry that the ground truth had not been getting through about the seriousness of the situation in southern Iraq and specifically in Basra.

The truth of Sinbad was that General Sheriff did not have the resources that he needed or Iraqi political top cover, and the Iraqi 10th Division stationed in Basra was not ready to do the job. Sinbad failed to deal with JAM, and from that point we started to spin the situation differently—it was no longer a question of insurgency. The Government made it clear that there would be no long-term resources of the kind needed for a proper counter-insurgency operation, so the line was that it was a matter of criminality, that the militias were just common criminals, that there was no political motivation to the militias’ actions and that we were dealing with Palermo, not Beirut. We said that it was a police problem, not an army problem, and certainly not a problem for a foreign Army like ours.

At about the same time, the US was putting lives and money on the line. After Sinbad, we made some serious attempts to capture and kill the JAM leadership in the first half of 2007. The problem, yet again, was that that was not part of a plan. We could take things, but we could not hold anything or build anything. By this point, 90 per cent. of the violence was directed at us. Why? Because we were the only people who were challenging the militia for control of the city. The casualty rate had reached such a level that when there was an opportunity to make an accommodation with JAM, we took it because we had to.

The deal was that JAM would stop killing British soldiers, if we released a load of prisoners and withdrew our forces into the airport. Suddenly, behold, peace reigned, but not for the people of Basra. JAM was in undisputed control, and its law was in force—extortion, smuggling, murder and rape. The funds from JAM’s control of Basra went to pay for the insurgency in Sadr City and elsewhere in the Shi’a uprising across Iraq.

In fairness, that was probably a sensible decision at the time, because we were losing a lot of troops and reconciliation seemed an obvious thing to do. But in retrospect, what have we done? Far from handing over Basra to the Iraqi authorities, as the Secretary of State said earlier, we handed it over to a murderous militia. There is a view, with which I have some sympathy, that if the people of Basra had not gone through that ghastly experience, they would not have welcomed the Iraqi Government as they did after Operation Charge of the Knights. That is a view.

Harry Cohen: I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will give my version of it if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to put something to the hon. Gentleman. “Newsnight” did a poll—at the end of 2007, I think—that showed that more than 80 per cent. of people in Basra did not want the British there. Does that not form part of the hon. Gentleman’s view?

Mr. Holloway: It is tragic. I was in Iraq in the first war as a soldier and in the second war as a television correspondent. I shall never forget being in Kirkuk as
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the Iraqi Government were falling. Very few European people were around, and I was literally mobbed. This guy who was in the process of looting two incubators from the hospital came up and hugged me because people were so happy and they wanted to thank anybody European. Later, however, there were the sorts of polls that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has mentioned; I thank him for his intervention.

Not only the Iraqi people were fed up with us by that point. By March-April 2008, the Iraqi Government in Baghdad were fed up with the situation in Basra and believed it to be the fault of the British. As they saw it, we were sitting down at Basra airport in testudo—a tortoise formation—as if we were Roman soldiers with our shields around us. In fairness, I should say that the provincial reconstruction team was still doing its job and that we were still training the Iraqi army. However, our accommodation with the militia and, again, our lack of any clear purpose, prevented us from operating in the city.

It was clear to the Iraqi Government and the insurgents that, at that point, the main British strategy was that there should be no further loss of British life. The Iraqi Government became so impatient with us that on Monday 24 March, Prime Minister al-Maliki personally came to Basra to sort out the problem. My understanding is that no reference was made to the British before he came, although I think that he mentioned it to the Americans—who were not keen, by the way, because at the time they were trying to sort out al-Qaeda in Mosul. Essentially, the initiative was an Iraqi one.

On Tuesday 25 March, Operation Charge of the Knights was launched. Contrary to what the Secretary of State said, UK troops remained at the airport. By Friday, the US deputy core commander had come down to Basra and essentially taken control from the British—speak to the guys who were there. He brought with him Predators, Apaches, more Iraqi troops and firepower. Belatedly, UK military transition teams did give support—it was the 10th Division, I think. I am told that it was marvellous to see how our troops really got their act together and supported when they were given a part. However, it is simply disingenuous to suggest that Operation Charge of the Knights was, after the initial hiccup that has been mentioned, a joint thing.

By June, Amarah had been won back, but not by us; Prime Minister al-Maliki saw us as pretty irrelevant. He blamed us for the accommodation with JAM—although he might have been being disingenuous, because another British general swears blind that al-Maliki’s office was consulted about the accommodation before it happened. However, the bottom line was that al-Maliki felt that he was there to clear up the British mess, and that has shaped the UK-Iraqi relationship ever since. Although in Basra there is great respect for British troops, in Baghdad things were not the same because of the lack of any policy or strategy from the top. All along, all the British Government wanted was to get our troops out of Iraq.

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