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Iraq inquiry - the lessons learned so far

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 09 March 2010

Sir John Chilcot's Iraq inquiry now moves into its next phase, having heard evidence from civil servants, military officials and leadin politicians. Channel 4 News Iraq blogger looks at what has been learned from the inquiry's hearings.

Protesters outside the Iraq Inquiry (Credit: Getty)

"There's a wonderful phrase: 'the Fog of War.' What the fog of war means is: war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily."

Strong words from any lips, stronger still when spoken by the US defence secretary who took the States through the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis, Robert McNamara.

The Iraq Inquiry reached a landmark stage yesterday in its attempt to "identify the lessons that should be learned from the UK's involvement in Iraq to help future governments who may face similar situations."

If McNamara - and indeed the Inquiry's critics - were right then Chilcot's is a Sisyphean task. Even so, as the panel concludes its main open evidence session a number of the key areas they are likely to concentrate on seem clear.

Depending where you stand in the Iraq Inquiry zoo the appalling damage wreaked by false intelligence is either the elephant in the room or something of a canard.

No witness was foolhardy enough to argue that Saddam did have WMD or direct links to al-Qaeda (although Tony Blair did see fit to mention that AQ butcher Abu Musab al-Zarqawi visited Iraq prior to the invasion.

Similarly everyone from Joint Intelligence chairman John Scarlett to the man who commissioned the February/'dodgy' dossier, Alastair Campbell, agreed before the Inquiry that it was a pretty sorry mess.

There was less agreement among witnesses on the September dossier, in particular the issue of Blair's foreword and his assertion that intelligence had established "beyond doubt" that Saddam had continued to produce WMD.

The problem for anyone hoping for damning indictments is that intelligence and the Iraq war got an entire inquiry of their own all of six years ago, and with the raft of other areas they have to consider it's not clear how much space Chilcot will devote to re-examining the issue.

Foreign office mandarin and JIC Chair Sir William Ehrman's revelation that government had intelligence just days prior to the war suggesting that Saddam might not be able to use his WMD was interesting; but Lord Butler had already identified back in 2004 that intelligence is often "sporadic and patchy, and even after analysis may still be at best inferential."

The failure both in London and Washington to plan better for post-conflict Iraq and its reconstruction will surely form a key element of the panel's findings. Former ambassador Christoper Meyer was the first witness to raise the image of a US administration "that was not particularly concerned about the aftermath because they thought it would come out all right on the night."

My guess is the inquiry will say that more should have been done on both sides of the Atlantic to prepare for 'Phase IV' operations in Iraq, and in particular that No 10 should have advised the Americans more strongly against shifting responsibility from the State Department to the Pentagon.

As for the conflict itself the majority of witnesses described the initial military campaign a largely successful venture (a perspective Iraq's civilian population may not of course have shared).

What hadn't been planned for as Jeremy Greenstock put it in his evidence was how - twinned with the removal of the Iraqi army and de-Ba'athification - this then evolved into a "catastrophic success". The subsequent and (in terms of scale) entirely unpredicted decline into "insurgency on steroids" forced the British army to stay on in the south for another six years.

Yesterday's MoD witness said that one of their 'lessons learned' was that any similar future interventions won't be "in and out operations" and other witnesses hoped new post-conflict stabilisation units would help. The inquiry will doubtless have more to say on this issue.

Whitehall structure
Another key staple of the first evidence sessions was the extreme ill-will that initially raged between the military and Clare Short's Department for International Development.

I'm still not clear myself to what extent that was due to issues of personality and how much with the structure of government, but in any case both sides argued that relations have since repaired.

The Treasury's run-in with the MoD and subsequent budget cuts were detailed - from very different perspectives - both by Geoff Hoon and by Gordon Brown. Unlike with the MoD and DfID neither side here was prepared to give ground, each insisting that they acted quite properly.

The Inquiry team will have to decide how it was that the UK could find itself fighting 'medium range' operations in two theatres when the civil servant charged with running the army said he was reduced to running "a crisis budget."

They will also need to decide how much time an Inquiry charged with investigating the Iraq war should devote to the impact that had on Afghan deployments - and vice versa.

Thought will also need to be given to the suggestion by a number of witnesses that there should have been one senior minister charged with coordinating all aspects of the operation, both military and civilian.

The army top brass wanted someone who could knock heads together when things were going wrong; the civil servants a unifying force to bring Whitehall's great departments together.

Even Tony Blair conceded that "all these things are worth looking at."

Prime Minister, Cabinet and Legal Advice
Much of the inquiry's deliberations will obviously focus on Tony Blair's beliefs, relationships and actions in the run up to the war.

Key questions they'll wish to focus on include the propriety of Blair's notes and commitments to Bush in his 2002 notes; the point at which Blair's focus switched from WMD disarmament to regime change; and (as mentioned above) the wisdom of his personal foreword to the September 2002 dossier.

They will also want to consider how cabinet and policy committees functioned during Blair's stay at No 10 and whether ministers had sufficient opportunity to debate Iraq policy.

Little surprise that serving cabinet members like Jack Straw differed significantly in their evidence from unhappy backbenchers like Clare Short; whose analysis will the inquiry conclude was closer to the truth?

Finally of course a major part of the Inquiry's report will centre around how FCO legal advice on the legality of the proposed war could be so roundly ignored; how the Attorney General's legal advice came to change so dramatically over the space of a few weeks; and whether the way that advice was presented to the cabinet was appropriate.

Given the vast range of witnesses we've already had and the extent of their evidence - not to mention the secret sessions and unpublished documents we'll never get to hear about - it would be folly to attempt to call the Chilcot team's conclusions a full nine months before they're likely to report.

When the inquiry began its work back in late November almost all the more 'colourful' columnists fair shot it to pieces. Their analysis: the panel were "establishment puddings," "Blair toadies"and "Blair will get away with it. Again."

Eleven weeks on and I'm not so sure. True, there has not been a single 'smoking gun' of WMD proportions exposing any one individual as being solely to blame.

But we have seen a string of revelations about bad intelligence, poor planning and questionable government that could produce a single narrative collating all the mistakes and missed opportunities that's every bit as damning.

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