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The Chilcot Report and the Problem of Strategy

July 6, 2016

I’ve got no intention of spending too much time on the Chilcot report but I was interested to see some of the comments about policy making after the initial invasion in light of the repeated concerns about the quality of UK foreign policy decision making.

From Section 9.8 Conclusions – The Post Conflict Period

175. Between May 2003 and May 2007, there were more than 20 instances in which UK strategy and objectives were reconsidered

177. Crucially, UK strategies tended to focus on describing the desired end state rather than how it would be reached. On none of the 20 occasions when UK strategy was reconsidered was a robust plan for implementation produced. Setting a clear direction of travel is a vital element of an effective strategy, but strategies also require a serious assessment of the material resources available and how they can best be deployed to achieve the desired end state. That is especially important when the strategy relates to an armed conflict in which it will be actively opposed by organised and capable groups. There is very little evidence of thorough analysis of the resources, expertise, conditions and support needed to make implementation of UK strategy achievable.

179. In the absence of a Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for Iraq, leadership on strategy rested with Mr Blair…

180.… Mr Blair’s ability to solve the strategic problems he identified therefore relied on his Cabinet colleagues, and the departments they led, working together.

181. A recurring issue between 2003 and 2007 was the difficulty of translating the Government’s strategy for Iraq into action by departments. The system that drove policyon the invasion of Iraq, which centered on No.10, could not be easily transformed into a system for the effective management of the aftermath, in which a coherent collective effort was needed to pull together the many interrelated strands of activity required. Although Iraq was designated the UK’s highest foreign policy priority, it was not the top priority within individual departments. As a consequence, Whitehall did not put significant collective weight behind the task

I’ve added the emphasis here.  This was the era of modernization in government, of the apogee of Gordon Brown’s influence.  From my work on the FCO its possible to see how in the first years of the Labour government departments got targets but by the middle of the noughties the expectation was that resource allocation should follow targets.

Another factor which comes out quite clearly is the impact of the decision made in June 2004 to deploy the HQ of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to Afghanistan in 2006.  Once this decision is made it placed a major constraint on what could be done in Iraq because of the need to resource the new deployment.  Given the way the bureaucracy seems to have operated this effectively removed the option of increasing the forces deployed in Iraq.  Indeed it appears, to me at least that there was reluctance to acknowledge the deteriorating situation in Iraq because of the disruption that might cause.

183. Throughout the UK’s engagement in Iraq there was a tendency to focus on the most positive interpretation of events.

184. One manifestation of that was failure to give weight to the candid analysis that was regularly supplied by the JIC, by some commanders in theatre, and by others that things were going wrong.

185. The default position was to judge that negative events were isolated incidents rather than potential evidence of a trend which should be monitored and which might require a policy response. This meant that underlying causes were not always investigated and brought to light.

 

Des Browne, the Minister of Defence from May 2006 to October 2008 gets a particular battering for this

The report notes

197…. On several occasions, decision-makers visiting Iraq (including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff) found the situation on the ground to be much worse than had been reported to them. Effective audit mechanisms need to be used to counter optimism bias, whether through changes in the culture of reporting, use of multiple channels of information – internal and external – or use of visits.

It seems to be me that the British government and armed forces managed to get into two wars without considering that it might be necessary to stop following its normal bureaucratic routines.

 

 

 

 

 

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