It is ten years this week since I agreed to act as lead independent political and governance adviser in Iraq, primarily in the British-controlled Southern Provinces – despite my known anti-war views. It was a harrowing experience, risking the ultimate on a daily basis, appointing directly the first regional government in Basra by way of negotiations with largely hostile tribal, political and religious groups, and then working on other problems.
There has been much reflection in the media in the last few days over the failures of the conflict, its illegality, and lessons for the future, notwithstanding the absence, as yet, of conclusions from formal independent enquiry into the lead up to, and conduct of, the war – and the UK’s role in an international context.
Looking back to those terrible early days and the course of the conflict since, plus UK involvement in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and now Syria, the key conclusions for the Liberal Democrats as a party-of-government concern the ‘fitness for purpose’ of the UK authorities as a whole, in pursuing coherent international policy with our Allies.
Some might blame our close military and security relationship with the US for the failures, and our consequent ‘willingness’ to address problems for ‘Western’ policy primarily by military means. However this relationship is not going to go away, and for us as a country it is more important to consider the strength of the UK in pursuing any independent foreign & security policy, and how for example, we can be better at ‘push back’. To be stronger we have to be more unified (behind closed doors the UK administration was hopelessly divided over Iraq and Afghanistan). To me more unified we have to have better political policy which is much less ‘generic’.
Foreign policy wonks like me know very well that invading or attacking countries only results in advantage for the UK in the longer run if we have very good reason to use force, and we have analysed very thoroughly indeed what we want to achieve and how we are going to achieve it. As I set out in my Huffington Post piece this week, colonially-cobbled-together states held together by Western or Russian backed dictators might be easy to break (especially if casualty figures are not so much of a concern), but as the Humpty-Dumpty states they are, they are so very difficult to put back together again.
In the short period when I working on Afghanistan there were at least four different sets of military and political aims, one after the other, being pursued by four different overlapping fiorces with different command structures. Moral – ‘don’t let the military control foreign policy’.
Now we have Syria and Iran before us as potential large scale wars with UK involvement. Our conclusions from Iraq and elsewhere are important now, therefore. What’s more, while ‘lessons’ remain unlearned we face these conflicts weakened. Just as seriously one key lesson – that hidden aims in a conflict like Iraq necessitate authoritarianism at home (eg Secret Courts) – needs to be learned for the purposes of domestic policy.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.