Iraq report: Secret plans for war, no plans for peace
In the bitter aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Tony Blair was many times accused of sending British troops to war on a deceit.
Today’s leaked documents shed no new light on the most oft-rehearsed of those charges – that he lied about, or exaggerated, the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But they will make uncomfortable reading for the former prime minister in the light of some of his other claims.
In President George W Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address, fresh from what then looked like a victory in Afghanistan, he ratcheted up the rhetoric against Saddam Hussein. He named Iraq as one of three states in an “axis of evil”, promising: “I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer.”
It was seen, correctly, as a statement of intent. The American people backed a war on Iraq. But in sceptical Britain, the idea threatened to cause problems for President Bush’s closest foreign ally.
Throughout most of 2002, Mr Blair’s consistent line was that – though military action could not be ruled out – no decisions had been made, no British military preparations were in train, and any action had to be pursued through the UN. That, today’s documents make clear, was not correct.
On July 16, 2002, he was questioned by the chairmen of all the Commons select committees. Donald Anderson, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, asked him directly: “Are we then preparing for possible military action in Iraq?” “No,” said Mr Blair. “There are no decisions which have been taken about military action.”
As the prime minister must have known, this answer was, at best, misleading. The leaked documents say that “formation-level planning for a deployment took place from February 2002”. By the time Mr Blair gave that denial, Britain had, in fact, been preparing for possible military action for five months.
The documents say the planning was described internally as “generic”, but they add that it was not “truly generic” and was, in fact, “detailed advance planning” with frequent changes to a proposed “orbat” or order of battle. The documents add: “From March 2002, or May at the latest, there was a significant possibility of a large-scale British operation.”
On June 28, 2002, the documents say – still two weeks before Mr Blair’s denial to Parliament – US Central Command (Centcom), the people who would run the war, held a special Iraq planning conference for Britain and the other coalition ally, Australia. And on Aug 13, according to the documents, Centcom’s commander, Gen Tommy Franks, held a discussion on assembling a massive contingent of British troops as a northern invasion force through Turkey. That, in fact, was then adopted as the battle plan.
But by the early autumn of 2002, opposition to British involvement in a war was stronger than before. If the public and the Labour Party had known about any of this planning, there could have been an outcry. Mr Blair didn’t tell them.
On Sept 24, launching the weapons of mass destruction dossier, the prime minister said: “No one wants military conflict … In respect of any military options, we are not at the stage of deciding those options but, of course, it is important, should we get to that point, that we have the fullest possible discussion of those options.”
As late as November, he was still saying that Britain’s objective was “disarmament, not regime change”. Today’s leak about the military planning complements the disclosure in an earlier leaked document that, whatever he claimed to Parliament and the public, Mr Blair made the decision to support “regime change,” and President Bush, from the beginning.
According to the so-called Downing Street Memo, leaked in 2005, Mr Blair signed on for regime change at an April 2002 summit with President Bush in Crawford, Texas. By the time the British public was finally told there would be a significant troop deployment – on Dec 18, 2002 – there were only weeks left before the war and it had too much momentum to stop.
Our disclosures show the serious consequences this situation had on the operation, code-named Telic, when it began. The documents say that the need for absolute secrecy about Britain’s true likely intentions badly affected the quality of the planning.
An operation as big as an invasion of a country would normally require equipment to be ordered and experts in reconstruction to be consulted well in advance. But because the planners couldn’t tell anyone, they couldn’t do that. “In Whitehall, the internal operational security regime, in which only very small numbers of officers and officials were allowed to become involved in Telic business, constrained broader planning for combat operations and subsequent phases effectively until Dec 23, 2002,” the documents say.
Partly for this reason, “the planning and preparation for this operation was more rushed than should have been the case … The time available to plan Op Telic was not well spent at the strategic [government] and operational levels. This had many implications for the operational and tactical conduct of the operation, including Phase 4 ops [the stabilisation/occupation phase]”.
In the war phase, those shortcomings included the now notorious problems with equipment. There was “very little time for in-theatre training”. A further spanner was thrown into the works by Turkey’s refusal to allow use of its territory — meaning that the British had to hurriedly retool for an invasion from Kuwait.
Ministers’ reluctance to announce publicly any troop deployments until the last minute had even more serious consequences for the post-war Iraq. It “caused serious difficulties for UK planners in US headquarters”, say the documents. British officers at Centcom, including the senior British land adviser, Brig Jeremy Robbins, had spotted “structural shortcomings” with the Americans’ plan for post-war Iraq – principally, that there wasn’t one.
But Brig Robbins and the rest of the British “were unable to influence US decision-makers until the UK committed major combat units – by which time the campaign had essentially been planned”. The penalty for failing to correct those “structural shortcomings”, the documents dolefully admit, “has proven