Rory Stewart: Iraq was Britain’s biggest ever blunder; we must learn the lesson of our failure

I WAS not in the House of Commons for the 2003 vote on the invasion of Iraq. I am far from sure that I would have made the right decision.

American and British troops take shelter in 'scud trenches' during an unconfirmed Iraqi missile attack in the Kuwaiti desert in 2003

The starting point for any discussion of Iraq has to be an acknowledgment that it was a failure and a scandal.

However we look at the costs and benefits of what happened there, it was probably the worst British foreign policy decision since the Boer War or the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Never has the British government made a worse decision.

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I hope, however, that this is an opportunity to reflect on what Parliament is, what the Foreign Office is, what the military is 
and how Britain as a whole – or at least the British policy establishment – could get something so wrong.

This matters because there are many similarities between what we did in Iraq and what we are doing in Afghanistan, and many similarities between those things and what we occasionally think of doing in Mali or Syria.

At the base of the problem is 
our refusal to acknowledge 
failure, to acknowledge just 
what a catastrophe it was, Parliament’s refusal to acknowledge how bewildering 
it was, how little we know and how complicated countries such as Iraq are.

Sitting in Iraq for 18 months from the middle of 2003 to 2005, I found myself facing, in a small provincial town called al-Amara, 52 new political parties, many of them swarming across the border from Iran and many of them armed.

Nobody in the Foreign Office or the military, and certainly nobody in the House of Commons, would have been able to distinguish between Hizb-e-Dawa, Harakat-Dawa, Majlis Ahla, Hezbollah – which turned out in the Iraqi context to consist of two men with a briefcase – or any of the other Shi’a Islamist groups that emerged.

None of us in the British policy machine predicted in January 2005 that 90 per cent of the votes in the south of Iraq would go to only three Shi’a Islamist parties. Everybody in the foreign policy machine then predicted that it would be different at the end of 2005, and we were all wrong again.

Why were we wrong? We were wrong because we did not have the right relationship between politicians, diplomats, soldiers and the local reality of these countries. We have not got it 
right yet.

We have not got it right because it is not realistic today – as it was not realistic at the time of the Boer War or the first Anglo-Afghan war – to expect people in Parliament to be experts on the internal politics of Iraq.

Initial tours in Iraq were for six weeks, extended to three months, then to six months. The idea – that people living in heavily defended compounds, moving around in armoured vehicles, generally unable to speak a word of any local language, unable to interact with an Iraqi for more than half an hour or an hour at a time, except if surrounded by heavily armed men and operating through translators, could really get a sense of whether Iraq was stabilising – was misleading. The advice and challenge that they could provide to the Government, therefore, was not good enough.

It is not good enough that not a single senior British diplomat formally recorded on paper their opposition to what was happening in Iraq. Many of those who were inside the system now say that they made private comments, that they were worried, but nobody, from the political director downwards, formally objected on paper to the Prime Minister.

When I look back at the reports I wrote stuck in al-Amara and Nasiriyah, I find it extraordinary how every week, I claimed great success. Every week, I would write: “We’ve hired another 300 people into the police. We’ve held a new sub-district election. I’ve just created 3,000 jobs. We’ve just refurbished another set of clinics and schools.”

To read report after report, week after week, it looks as if the whole thing is getting better and better. In retrospect, I know differently, of course. When I began, I could go into the bazaar to get an ice cream, but by the end, I was stuck in my compound with 140 rocket and mortar-propelled grenades flying at the compound, and we had to abandon it and retreat back to a military base, essentially surrendering Nasiriyah, a city of 600,000 people, to the insurgents.

The situation is not helped by the way we talk about it in 
Britain today. We do not really think very much about Iraq. We do not think very much about what exactly Iraq is doing with Iran or Syria at the moment, why exactly Iraq got involved in dubious banking transactions to bust sanctions on behalf of the Iranian Government or why exactly our great ally, al-Maliki, appears to have been allowing trans-shipment of weapons from Iran into Syria.

Why do we not think about these things? It is because we are not very serious. At some level, this country is no longer being as serious as it should be about foreign policy.

Our newspapers are not writing enough about Iraq. The Foreign Office is not thinking enough about the failure. The military is not thinking enough about these things.

Unless we acknowledge that something went wrong in Iraq and that something went deeply wrong in Afghanistan, we will get ourselves stuck again.

What do we do about it? We need to reform. It cannot be business as usual. We cannot 
just go around pretending it 
was all fine. We cannot simply blame Tony Blair and George 
W Bush.

These people, Blair and 
Bush, do not operate in a vacuum; They operate in a culture that did not challenge and shape the debate sufficiently.

It is not realistic for MPs and peers to understand exactly what the difference is between Harakat-Dawa, Hizb-e-Dawa 
and Hizb-e-Dawa Islamiya. Everybody is learning desperately from briefs, trying to sound plausible, but there are 200 nations in the world.

Ministers are busy. Politicians are busy; they are worrying about their constituents. They are not deep experts on these issues. We therefore need to create a system that we can rely on in the Foreign Office, the military and the intelligence services.

We in Parliament need to know how to question those people, how to listen to them and how to promote people who disagree with us. We need in Parliament to learn how to look at which civil servants got it wrong and hold them accountable, rather than promoting, as we did, almost everybody who was implicated in the Iraq decisions.