Clueless in Iraq
Jul 14 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – For many Americans and Brits the 2003 Iraq war is seen as not only a disaster for Iraq and its neighbours but also as a defeat of the US and UK forces. The recently published Chilcot inquiry lends its considerable weight to this view. It went so far as to describe the circumstances in which the British pulled out of Basra, after negotiating a deal with a local militia there, as “humiliating”.
But there is another way of looking at what happened in Iraq. The war not only exposed Western weakness but also led to sectarian violence in the Middle East which, despite all the loss of Shia life, has empowered the Shias in the region. Iran is in a much stronger position in 2016 than it was at the start of 2003.
Top Secret Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) documents declassified by Chilcot show just how little idea the British had that this would be the outcome. As is now well established, the British intelligence community’s first and most important error was to state that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In September 2002, Britain’s intelligence agencies were telling Tony Blair: “Iraq has a chemical and biological capability”, before going on to predict: “Saddam would seek to use chemical and biological munitions against any internal uprising; intelligence indicates that he is prepared to deliberately target the Shia population.”
But that was just one mistake. There were others. In February 2003, just weeks before the invasion, the JIC stated that Iran was not likely to project its power into Iraq. “Iranian-inspired terrorist attacks on coalition forces are unlikely, unless the Iranians thought the US had decided to attack them after an Iraq campaign.” The JIC seemed so sure of Western military superiority that it believed Iran’s main concern would be to avoid anything that could be seen as provoking Washington.
Documents show how UK remained unprepared for Shia resistance.
A month after the invasion UK intelligence officers had had the chance to obtain better information from Iraqi Shias about Iran’s plans to protect itself by drawing the US into a prolonged conflict. “Of greatest concern are state-backed and terrorist groups. […] Iran […] would prefer that the coalition got bogged down inside Iraq….” Nevertheless, in the same document the JIC doggedly stuck by its pre-war view: “However, as we judged in [JIC assessment of Sept 17, 2002], Iran has limited leverage or influence in Iraq, even among the Shia.”
Six months later, the JIC was reporting that far from remaining quiescent “some elements” of the Iranian regime were supporting some Sunni groups including Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq as well as Shia militia. “Iran and Lebanese [Hezbollah] are probably inciting violent anti-coalition protests and other disruptive activity. Any coalition attempt to disarm Shia militia groups, such as the Badr Corps (SCIRI’s armed wing) and militant cleric Muqtadah al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, could be a significant additional cause of friction,” the JIC said.
By the end of the same month it acknowledged that: “Any coalition attempt to disarm the Shia militia groups could be a flashpoint for trouble.”
Given these sobering assessments it is somewhat baffling to find that when, in April 2004, concerted Shia resistance did eventually come, the British were not ready for it: “The scale and extent of attacks mounted by the Mahdi Army and associated Shia militants have come as a surprise,” the JIC said.
The JIC assessments over the following years recorded the UK intelligence community’s increasing realisation that Iran, having seen off the threat of a US attack by drawing them into prolonged conflict in Iraq, was now training and arming Shia militias to attack coalition forces with a view to forcing the foreign forces out.
In November 2006, the JIC said: “We judge that Iran wants to speed MNF [multinational forces] withdrawal from the South and to make life as difficult for Coalition forces as long as they remain.”
In one of the last JIC assessments published by Chilcot from October 2007 came the view: “We judge that the Iranians want an Iraq led by a Shia-dominated government, susceptible to their influence which will never again pose a threat to them.” In other words, having seen off the US threat, Iran has shifted focus to shoring up its regional position as well.
The declassified top secret intelligence assessments released by the Chilcot inquiry are a great illustration of the law of unintended consequences. And while hindsight gives today’s observers an unfair advantage — and even though Iranian intentions developed over the course of the war — Tehran’s behaviour was consistently rational and designed to further its national interest.
The assessments made by British intelligence before the war— and even after it started — failed to predict that Iranian conduct. Britain may once have had an extraordinary knowledge of how the world works. It seems to have lost the knack.
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.
Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2016
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan