Tag Archives: Iraq

“Bloody Sunday”: The Lesson For Politicians

Back in the early 1990’s as part of my University Degree I briefly studied the Irish troubles.  I declare no deep expertise – but one thing I am sure of is that even as late as the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s there was nothing inevitable about the armed struggle that would blight us for the next couple of decades.  The lot of Catholics in Northern Ireland was a scandal but there was no reason why it could not have been righted through a peaceful civil rights movement like that led by Martin Luther King in the United States.  Whilst hotheads on the Nationalistic side were agitating for an escalation of the armed struggle the consensus amongst the whole Catholic population still wasn’t fully with them.  Then came “Bloody Sunday” and in one swoop the Provisional IRA won the popular consent of their constituents- from that day on the long armed struggle  was inevitable.

You can see how it came about:  A few hotheads bubbling up in Derry?  We’ll “send  in the Para’s”.  The Daily Mail readership would be thrilled.  It must have been such a feel-good decision for Ted Heath.  A chance to show himself as a strong, decisive leader and to give a nod of respect to the armed forces by trusting them to a difficult job.

The truth is that the Parachute Regiment in the 1970s was about as wrong a force for civil intervention as you could have found in the whole British Army.  At the height of the Cold War these were shock troops whose bread and butter was to ready themselves for an  extreme, brutal, unsophisticated all-out war with an unmerciful Soviet Union.  There would have been an extremely machismo culture in the Regiment and frankly to do the job they were trained for this was essential.  Come World-War-Three these guys were to be front line cannon-fodder and could only be successful and alive with a shoot-first worry-later attitude.  To willingly put yourself up for that kind of front- line role you need to be as hard-as-nails and a little bit of a nutter.  Their entire training would have been to reinforce both those traits.   We shouldn’t apologise for having a force such as this – there are circumstances that the nation genuinely does need this brutal capability – the Second World War had proven that.  The Para’s are an elite fighting force with a proud history and I for one am glad they are British. However, to suddenly expect these young men who have been drilled endlessly in this mindset to wheel-back on these instincts and shift into a more nuanced approach is naive.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe for one minute that the whole Regiment went out there spoiling to ‘waste some Paddys’ and I have no idea if they were shot at first or not.  What I do believe is that once the shooting had started, and word got round amongst them, whether true or not, that there were people in the crowd returning fire – then the adrenaline in these 20-something-year-old men, pumped faster by a genuine sense of mortal danger meant that the instincts honed in their training would take-over.  And they did so with disastrous effect.

Fast forward fortyish years and you can see the Israelis repeating the same mistake with the Gaza floatilla.  Rather than send in the Police or Navy they chose to send in their top Commando unit, the moment the operation looked like it may not go to plan and those involved perceived mortal danger then the instant shift to ‘Plan B’ would only ever involve a sudden massive and lethal use of violence.

Whatever the domestic merits to a Prime Minister of the headlines about sending in ‘The Elite’ the ‘hard-man’ dividend is temporary.  In this media age the free-world cannot abide the sight of the full might of a State being brought to bare on a civilian population.  If anything goes wrong, and it is more likely to than not, you will lose the public relations battle.  Terrorists/Freedom Fighters/Insurgents – call them whatever you will – know this and will go out of their way to manufacture these situations to further their wicked ends.  Policing and soldiering are different jobs.  In your own country when faced with these circumstances you must ‘tool-up’ the police and execute the mission with a police mindset – not ‘tool-down’ soldiers and yet still have them execute the mission with a soldiers mindset.

This is difficult stuff and I have no doubt that the Parachute Regiment and indeed the whole British Army has made massive strides training for civil insurgency which has since been tested for real in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  We should be proud of the progress we have made and the lessons that have been learned and implemented heroically.   But we still must not get away from the fact that policing and soldiering are different tasks. My sincere hope is that never again in my lifetime do we send out soldiers to do a policing job for our own citizens.

Tomorrow, I will read the Saville Report.  I have no idea what gems it will unearth or what value we the taxpayers may get from the millions that have been spent in the Inquiry.  Even if the report dams the Army there is no merit in sending any British Soldiers to Court now and I sincerely hope we don’t get forced down that path.  However, if even one small part of the output is to hammer home the conclusion I reached above and cause pause for thought in future – then it will have been worth it.


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Filed under Centre Right, Indulgent, Iraq, Politics, UK, UK Politics

Thoughts: The Blair Perfomance

I actually ‘won’ a ticket for the afternoon session.   I got excited when it arrived in the post only to find on closer inspection that it wasn’t for the main room, but a ticket for the viewing gallery. i.e. the chance to watch it next door on a big screen.  I decided to save the five hour return journey and put my feet up and watch it on Sky.

I’m prepared to accept his word on a couple of points (thousands aren’t!):

  • He genuinely believed that Saddam had WMD.
  • He genuinely believed he was acting in the best interests of the UK.

I also totally get his point that at the end of the day he had to make a judgement, and he did.

What bothers me though is the lack of recognition anywhere that those beliefs and that judgement, although sincere, look to have been wrong.  It mystifies me that he kept trying to get the panel to ‘ask the 2010 question, not the 2003 question’.  The 2010 question he wanted asking was about a ‘hypothetical world’ where Saddam had WMD.  The 2010 question we are all asking is the real world question where Saddam did not have WMD.

The thing that really, really bothers me though is this:  When you are a leader, yes, you have to make judgements.  You make judgements (hopefully) on data more than instinct.  In national security issues the data you rely on for the judgement calls is ‘intelligence’.  Let’s say that the Inquiry decides to cut Blair some slack and say that given the intelligence he was given at the time, the call was reasonable.  He had to trust the intelligence that proved wrong.  If I was Blair my fury with intelligence services would know no bounds.  For the hundreds of millions of pounds we spend on our intelligence they got something we had been on the case of for over a decade dreadfully wrong.  The consequences of their failure was:

  • Millions (billions?) spent on a war
  • Huge loss of life of Iraqi Civilians
  • Significant loss of life from our own armed forces
  • Distraction from the task at hand in Afghanistan
  • Removal of the one regional counter-weight to the ambitions of Iran
  • The entire quartermaster stores of the Iraqi army passing into hostile militias to be used god knows where
  • The radicalisation of certain British youth introducing a new domestic front for terror

But on the plus side we did get Saddam.  Not sure the debit and credits work in our favour though.

So given the consequences of this judgement, I am baffled that the chap who provided the data to the PM from which he made his judgement, John Scarlett – instead of getting hung out to dry – gets promoted.  As with Goldsmith the questioners gave Blair a chance to hang some of the blame on them and he loyally stuck up for them.  The mind boggles.

Anyway, I stand by my predications as to the Inquiry’s findings: HERE


Filed under Centre Right, Iraq, Politics, UK Politics

View on Legality of Iraq War: 2002

Sometimes you find something fascinating in your personal archives.  Given Tony Blair’s evidence today I searched my hard drive for anything I had written on Iraq and found this 2002 letter to my then MP:

16th August 2002,  To:  Colin Challen MP


Saddam Hussein is a butcher.  He is a madman.  He shows scant disregard for common humanity.  He has proved in attacking his own people in Halaja in 1988 that he is willing to use weapons of mass destruction.  He proved in his invasion of Kuwait he has no respect for the norms of international behaviour.  He has proved throughout his reign of internal repression he has no respect for international expectations on human rights.  On balance, Iraq and the world would far be better off without him.

I therefore have every sympathy with the Bush regime that the ‘ends’ of a regime change within Iraq is desirable.  My issue is with the ‘means’ of achieving that ‘ends’.

Since the end of the second world war international law has developed to allow the use of force in (broadly) only one of two circumstances: self-defence or with the support of the United Nations Security Council.  The world has been more secure for the development of these rules.  It was the international consensus on exactly these principles that originally gave such weight to the international effort to remove Saddam from Kuwait in 1991.

Before nations reached this understanding justification for resorting to state violence was broadly understood to lie with ‘Jus Bellum’ or ‘Just Cause’.  This dates pretty much to the Crusades.  The problem with this is that “Jus Bellum” has no arbitrator.  The victor will always declare a “Jus Bellum”.  Hitler certainly saw a “Jus Bellum” in taking on Poland for instance.   Yet it seems the US administration is hell bent on taking us backwards to this medieval concept.  They are convinced of the morality of their case and will push ahead regardless.

I reiterate that I agree that in isolation there is a strong moral case.  However, for the love of god, can they not think through the consequences of setting this precedent?  When the only remaining super-power abandons a ‘norm of international behaviour’ then that norm can no longer be considered to be part of the fabric of international law.

Once this genie is out the bottle, what if China sees a clear moral cause in stopping Taiwan?  What if India sees a just cause in taking out the Pakistan leadership?  Do we really have no joined-up thinking on this?

The Prime Minister has been a remarkable and brave ally to our American friends since that terrible day a year ago.  In observing his response throughout I was genuinely proud to be British.

Sometimes though, a friend needs guidance.  Sometimes, a friend needs restraint.  Sometimes speaking ones mind can be a greater show of true loyalty than blind obedience.  I pray all those who influence the Prime Minister will impress upon him the importance not to sleep walk into a war.  I pray that he will use the influence and trust he has with the US administration to put forward another way.  If the moral case for removing Saddam is so compelling then take it to the UN, get approval, and use all the might at our disposal to get the job done.  If the UN cannot be convinced then may I suggest that we take a step back.  The sum intelligence and consideration of all other nations is probably wiser than we give them credit in our western arrogance.  If there is not support for our ‘cast iron’ moral case then maybe the case isn’t as strong as it seems to us here and stateside still so angry about events last year to those who can remove emotion from their thinking.

The undoubted benefit and extra security brought by the US unilateral forced removal of Saddam to the globe, would in my opinion be dwarfed by the insecurity created by the abandonment of international law and a return to a ‘might is right’ nuclear era of international relations.”


On the one hand I am amused at myself for thinking that a letter to a backbench MP was a constructive use of my time.  On the other I find this pretty strong reading.  Between my writing this letter and the start of the actual War – Tony Blair somehow managed to convince me that we ‘had to do it’ – and somehow his ‘trust me Tony’ chutzpah had me as a supporter by the eve of the War.  I’ll watch proceedings today with great interest and try and figure out how he managed to do that.

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The Conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry Will Be….

So then, the Iraq Inquiry is finally on.  Just for sport let me predict what the Inquiry’s headline conclusions will be:

  • Those at the top genuinely did believe an active WMD program existed in Iraq
  • This false belief was hardened by political interference in intelligence analysis.  Anything that seemed to raise the possibility of an active WMD program was given more weight than anything that contradicted it. This cemented the ‘group-think’ faith in the WMD case.
  • We did not plan sufficiently for the post war ‘occupation’,  Or at least we didn’t protest enough to the Americans that they were not planning sufficiently.
  • We faced a greater threat from Afghanistan/Pakistan and our energies would have been more usefully spent there.

There you go, Inquiry done.  Millions of man hours and tax payer’s money
saved.  I’ll link back to this post when the Inquiry is done and we can see how close I got…

I’m always very sceptical of these quasi-judicial show pieces. Think Bloody Sunday, think Arms-for-Iraq, think Diana, think Butler.  Millions is spent, much is said, the documentary record is completed – but then what?  Don’t get me wrong – I will avidly follow the Inquiry for two reasons:  First, you hope that at least a small grain of genuinely new information comes into the public domain. Second there is a guilty schadenfreud.  Watching people being grilled by armchair generals who have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight is like picking a scab.  You know it is of little benefit but you can’t stop yourself doing it.

Sadly, the outcome of these things rarely has a material impact – those who had inklings before the Inquiry that align with the final judgement will jump up and down saying ‘I told you so’, those who leaned the other way will reject the outcome and use the words ‘government white-wash’.  The lessons learned that are produced will be filed, then ignored, then forgotten, then repeated.  It was ever thus.


Filed under Iraq, Politics