A leading military historian has accused the Ministry of Defence of putting the lives of British soldiers at risk by stifling debate and preventing serving generals from publicly expressing their views on the conduct of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele professor of the history of war at Oxford University, blames the decision to suppress their views on “official paranoia”. His outspoken comments appear in a series of essays, British Generals in Blair’s Wars, which contains devastating criticism from senior officers who have recently retired, but none from those still serving.
Debate and potential reform are therefore stifled at source “for fear of reputational damage and political controversy”, writes Strachan.
The book has fallen victim to “official paranoia”, he says referring to six chapters written by serving officers that were withdrawn on the orders of the MoD.
Strachan, an adviser to the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Houghton, adds: “These fears put at risk lives in theatre. Like many armies in the past, the British army struggles to foster effective debate within a hierarchical command chain.”
The editors, including Strachan, make clear in their book – published by Ashgate more than a year late because of the need to find replacement authors – that the final decision to ban serving officers from contributing to it was taken by the defence secretary, Philip Hammond.
Generals prevented from publishing their views include Houghton, who took over as chief of the defence staff from Sir David Richards on Thursday, and Lt Gen Sir Richard Shirreff, Nato’s deputy supreme commander. Shirreff, a former commander of British troops in Basra, told the Chilcot inquiry that more than three years after the invasion of Iraq, the MoD was still incapable of delivering equipment badly needed by UK troops there.
The failure to provide troops with the resources they needed “beggars belief”, he said.
The opening salvo in British Generals in Blair’s Wars castigates the former Labour prime minister for not providing sufficient resources to those he sent to war. Jonathan Bailey, formerly responsible in the MoD for developing military doctrine, says Blair “does not appear to have thought through the consequences of his policies, committing the UK to prolonged conflicts intended to reorder other countries’ underlying cultures”.
The book exposes sharp disagreement between British commanders on the root causes of attacks on British troops in Basra. Jonathan Shaw, commander of British forces in south-east Iraq in 2007, came under fierce criticism for doing a deal with the Jaysh al-Mahdi, the militia led by the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and for taking the view that violence was more criminal than ideologically or politically inspired. “I judged Basra to be more like Palermo than Beirut,” he writes.
Richard Iron, an adviser to Iraqi army commanders in Basra, writes: “Nothing could be further from the truth: Jaysh al-Mahdi was an extremist movement that controlled Basra by force.” British intelligence analysts failed to appreciate the depths of “malign Iranian influence”, says Iron.
An underlying theme in the essays by former generals and senior British staff officers is the almost complete lack of preparedness and failure to provide enough resources, in terms of both money and men, in Iraq. The failures, the authors write, were not learned and were repeated in Afghanistan.
Iron says that five years after the invasion of Iraq, “there was still arrogance and hubris among the British. A sense of ‘we’re here to teach you so you’d better listen'”.
Britain’s failures led to bitter disputes behind the scene with US commanders, whose marines took over from the British in Basra, and, later, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Alexander Alderson, former special adviser to the head of the Afghan armed forces, says that in Iraq the different tactics and attitudes of the two countries came to the point “where the UK’s military credibility was in question”.
The book describes the growing frustration among military commanders about inter-departmental rows within Whitehall and inadequate co-operation with the Foreign Office and Department for International Development. The much-mooted “comprehensive” approach – co-operation on conflict prevention, peacemaking, and peacekeeping – has not materialised. Tim Cross, the senior British officer in the US-led post-invasion reconstruction office in Iraq, writes: “We do need to have a fairly radical shakeup, both in the [defence] ministry but also pan-government.”
Strachan told the Guardian: “The MoD has got to get real … Differences and debates need to be properly gone over. Otherwise we are none the wiser”.