Any failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are due to political incompetence, not flawed strategy
By Con Coughlin World Last updated: May 28th, 2014
The conclusions reached in "Wars in Peace", a publication by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), which claims to offer an audit of Britain's military campaigns since the end of the Cold War, makes for depressing reading, particularly its damning conclusion that the estimated £29 billion spent on the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in "strategic failure" and have had the effect of increasing Islamist-inspired terrorism.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read the publication itself in full, but if the press reports of its contents are accurate then I profoundly disagree with the conclusions that Prof Michael Clarke and his team have reached.
For a start, I do not think you can judge yet whether either of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been strategic failures. Anyone with any knowledge of Iraq during the Saddam era, and that includes the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, understands that modern-day Iraq – which has once again conducted another successful democratic election – is a far better place today, with far better prospects, than it could have ever hoped to be under Saddam's tyrannical rule.
Iraq has its problems, it is true, which have been exacerbated to an extent by President Barack Obama's decision to abandon the country to its fate, rather than to ensure that all the sacrifices made during the post-Saddam era by the US-led coalition were not in vain. But having an Iraqi state that it not forever seeking to destabilise the region by invading its neighbours – as it was under Saddam re Iran, Kuwait etc – seems to me more like a strategic success than a failure.
I also take issue with RUSI's claim that our military intervention in Iraq has resulted in an increase in Islamist terrorism. RUSI says the Iraq invasion created al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), when in fact, if you look closely at the formation of the terror cell, it was created by Saudi dissidents – most of them former Guantanamo detainees – who, on their release, decided to pursue their campaign to overthrough the Saudi monarchy from neighbouring Yemen. What has that got to do with overthrowing Saddam Hussein (who, by the way, was also a bitter enemy of al-Qaeda)? If anything the Western campaign in Iraq did a great amount of damage to al-Qaeda, rather than strengthening it.
I would argue it was the ill-considered 2011 campaign in Libya, where the refusal to commit ground forces resulted in the takeover of the country by Islamist militias, that really helped to revive al-Qaeda's fortunes.
As for Britain's role in Iraq, a military campaign that was going reasonably well in the south was completely undermined the moment Gordon Brown came to power and unilaterally cut the British troop strength in Basra without taking into account any of the military considerations. As a result, the British were forced to abandon Basra, which, to my mind, was more an act of political cowardice than military incompetence.
Regarding Afghanistan, it is too early to say whether the Western intervention has been a success or a failure. As in Iraq, serious misjudgements have been made – lack of troops, over-ambitious political agendas etc – but these hardly amount to a strategic failure, especially when the current prospects for the country look encouraging after the recent success of the country's latest presidential poll.
If a president emerges in Kabul who works with the West rather than trying to undermine its assistance programme, as happened under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then there is hope that the country can continue to move in the right direction, even if Mr Obama now appears determined to abandon Afghanistan in the same way he abandoned Iraq. Certainly, the Taliban is nothing like the force it was before the West intervened, and I believe the majority of Afghans are mightily glad that the West helped to end its brutal repression of the Afghan people.
So here we have two new democratic states which, with a fair wind, have the prospect of a more stable future than theycould have ever have hoped for under their previous regimes – this does not look like strategic failure to me.
Where we do face the prospect of strategic failure, though, is through our politicians wilful scaling down of our military capabilities. I am rather tired of the Coalition's claim that it had to make severe cuts to the defence budget in this age of austerity, when it can still afford to waste billions of pounds on foreign aid.
To make a strategic impact on the world stage, you need a well-equipped military force with a full spectrum of military capabilities that can make a difference when it comes to taking on tyrannical despots, such as Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.
But reducing Britain's Armed Forces from being one of the world's leading military outfits to a home defence force – which is what is happening as a result of the Coalition's cuts – is where I would argue Britain's real strategic failure lies, and I fear we will be living with the consequences of this betrayal of a vital national asset for many years to come.