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Christopher Salmon: The lessons from Basra are still not being learned

Picture 41 Christopher Salmon is Conservative candidate for Llanelli and served in Basra in 2006-07 with The Rifles.

Our repeated inquiries into the Iraq War are missing the point.  As Fraser Nelson wrote earlier in the year, the scandal of Iraq is less the legality of the invasion than the incompetence of the occupation.  He’s right.  We were given no end of a lesson in Basra - for those of us serving there it was inescapable - but even now we seem intent on ignoring it.

Our media remain fixated with dossiers and spooks.  We are attempting to place upon a single legal judgement a weight it cannot bear.  Legal judgements are finely balanced appeals to reason; wars are crude, brutal, rarely reasonable and fundamentally political: no more so than when you lose them.  And we lost in Basra.

This matters for more than Britain’s reputation.  Pinning the blame on Blair, or Campbell or declaring the whole escapade illegal will not clear our name.  It might be satisfying, if we could do it, but we’re six years on and we haven’t yet.  The stain of Basra’s bungled occupation cannot be washed away simply by wishing it never happened.  If concern for the Iraqis is not sufficient reason to learn from our performance, concern for our own troops should be.

Our forces need reform if they are to have any hope in future conflict.  Already they are floundering in Afghanistan, like the blinded cyclops, wounded and angry at their humiliation but unable to see their more nimble opponent.  This reform will require difficult political decisions, quite apart from the MOD’s collapsing budget.  Labour’s record on defence is one of almost criminal negligence.  But the Conservatives will also have to go deeper than vague talk of a ‘stabilisation force’.

Any reform programme worth its salt must have adaptability at heart and work throughout the Forces, not just in select corners of them.  It must encourage innovation and risk-taking and promote the unusual, the whacky and the individual.  Careers must be judged more widely - why, for instance, are Afghan army liaison jobs still considered career dustbins by young Captains? - and advanced on merit not time served.  It must draw on views from outside the Forces: from NGOs, journalists, opponents of the war, human rights advocates, Iraqis and Afghans.

I remember a conversation with an American journalist in Basra about how poorly we were adapting to the challenge from insurgents.  He had done more than any other to publicise the cause of US troops in Iraq, and more than any other to promote the men and ideas behind the surge.  During the invasion, he said, the media had been a political necessity and a military nuisance.  Ever since they had been a military necessity and political nuisance.

That remains the case today.  Until very recently political embarrassment that things may not be going as well as we would like suffocated debate.  Only when the reality became inescapable did serious assessments of our performance get into the public domain.  The Government’s duplicity and clumsy bureaucracy has left the Army hobbled and intellectually flabby.  Make no mistake about who pays for this delay: visit Selly Oak hospital, Wootton Bassett or read about Iraqis and Afghans struggling to survive.

We have plenty of bright young things with good ideas in our services, but they need political support if they are to make the unpleasant decisions required.  We will need to consider the possibility of fewer, longer tours for all troops; of reduced leave entitlements; redundancies; more responsive promotions.  We may need to take more risks in the short term if we are to reduce them in the long term.  Most of all reform will require the public investment of serious reputations, both political and military.  The merry-go-round of Defence Secretaries has been a disaster.

The Army now has the most tactically astute, combat experienced soldiers since WWII but its future effectiveness depends on change, and that change requires help from outside.  Some has come from unexpected quarters.  Alastair Campbell is not a name that comes easily to the lips of an Iraq veteran but this article of his in the FT hits on a critical truth: war is about influence and influence requires communication.  More significant than what he says is the fact that he is saying it.  Swallow hard, readers, but... let’s have more, please!

Just over one hundred years ago Britain found herself stunned at the humiliation of her army, fighting a few thousand miles away in a war that was much anticipated but hopelessly prepared for, at the hands of a few farmers on horseback.  The Boers did indeed teach us no end of a lesson.  The war there foreshadowed much that was to come - barbed wire, trenches, repeat fire rifles, the opposition of great swathes of Europe to the world’s dominant power.

We may feel we can ignore Iraq, but we’d be mistaken.  We would also do a great disservice to those who fought there.  Our position today may be a shadow of what it was in 1910 but our contribution to the world of alliances in 2010 is vital.  Let us hope that we are not sitting on the threshold of another major conflagration.  That is for the Strategic Defence Review.  In any case the next government will have to engage with the nuts and bolts of the Forces like no other in recent times. Perhaps the first lesson it should heed is that learning never stops.  We must take what we can from the experience we have.


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