The long-await report of Sir John Chilcot’s commission on the Iraq War is feeding a dangerous illusion in the British Armed Forces: that the absence of an effective strategy was the key reason for the failure of the coalition in the War in Iraq.
The Chilcot report condemned the political decision making process which led to Britain embarking upon the war in 2003 in commendably robust terms. Its critique has been welcomed by many as a vindication of democratic government and of the efforts of the British soldiers, sailors, and airmen who laboured for ten years for seemingly little effect on the ground in Iraq. However, elements within the British Armed Forces have taken a series of incoherent and short-sighted ‘lessons’ from Chilcot’s findings.
The greatest amongst these is that a ‘lack of strategy’ – as one senior general involved in the campaign recently put it – was the key reason for failure of the coalition to establish its desired end-state of a democratically elected Iraqi government. If one takes an accurate view of what strategy is – a process encompassing resources, techniques, and objectives – then this viewpoint might hold some credibility: the objectives of the coalition were ill thought out and unrealistic, and therefore ‘strategy’ was compromised from the outset.
However, all-too-often this is not what is meant when military personnel discuss the War, or Chilcot’s report. Rather, they express the view that a ‘lack of strategy’ after the decision to intervene was the root cause of ultimate and inglorious withdrawal. To adopt this stance is fundamentally to misunderstand what strategy is, and to take a dangerously over-optimistic view of the capabilities of Western armed forces.
To achieve success, the process of strategy requires the constant balancing of (1) material, morale, and financial resources, (2) methods of their employment, and (3) the aims of a given endeavour. What one sets out to do, is thus integral to whether one can achieve such a balance. In the case of the War in Iraq, what the coalition set out to achieve was unclear, ill-conceived, and hugely over-optimistic to the point of arrogance. As a result, it was chronically under resourced and poorly supported from the off. No amount of ‘strategy’ or smart thinking after that point could therefore achieve the balance necessary to produce results, as the objectives and investment were fundamentally mis-matched.
The laudable military tendency towards a ‘can do’ attitude was a key part of this failing in 2003, as the Army in particularly campaigned in favour of intervention. This impulse has been widely criticised since, as has senior officers failure to stand up to the Blair government. However, in it’s attitude to the Iraq War, politicians, and to ‘strategy’ today, the Army seems to have learnt few ‘lessons’ from this experience. The illusion that better ‘strategy’ after intervention in 2003 could have produced ‘victory’ stems from the same unrealistic assessment of what military force can deliver which preceded the decision to embark upon the War in the first instance.
It may be ‘unhelpful’ to point out that circumstances exist in which the Army may have no option but to operate with no realistic chance of ‘victory’. In conditions of non-discretionary conflict, the Army must obviously be prepared for such an eventuality. However, it must also be prepared to make obvious to its masters that in wars of choice, discretion may often be the better part of valour. Coming to terms with the legacy of Iraq is an important step in this process, and this requires the Army to admit that the intervention was not a failure due to a lack of ‘strategy’ after the decision to join the invasion. The entire episode was fundamentally ill-conceived from the start – strategy failed before boots hit the ground – and no amount of Clausewitzian manoeuvring thereafter could change that fact.
Image: protestors at the publication of the Chilcot report, via flickr.