The Chilcot Inquiry is an inquiry into the UK's involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, to establish what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. As you may know, Adam spent time in Iraq as a soldier before the ground war in 1991, and again as a journalist in the course of the invasion in 2003.
On 29th January 2015, the Commons debated the Inquiry. In a speech (below), Adam blamed an inexperienced new class of political leaders and career self-serving civil servants, an overly “can-do” culture in the military – and the ignoring and marginalising of genuine experts.
"I have no idea of the reason for the report’s delay—I do not think anyone has—but it does matter. This should not be about a pre-election period, or about bashing Blair or anyone else. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has said, more than 150,000 civilians and 632 British troops died in two completely idiotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we need the Chilcot report in order to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again. The report will go some way towards helping us to work out why we made those mistakes. We need to learn.
It was Sir Basil Liddell-Hart who talked of the motivation to achieve the task in hand and of effective leadership from those placed in authority. Our failure in Iraq was caused, first and foremost, by a failure of effective political and military leadership. From what I have seen on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we seem to have a deeply dysfunctional situation right across what my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) referred to as the “full panoply of the government machine”. I shall divide this into four parts: an inexperienced class of political leaders; ambitious civil servants, most of whom have since been promoted; “can-do” military officers, most of whom have also since been promoted; and experts who were ignored or marginalised.
I shall start by talking about the inexperienced political leaders. Obviously, I am not including the right hon. and brave Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in that category. There were no experts at the Prairie Chapel ranch when Tony Blair and George Bush agreed to go to war—when Tony Blair basically allowed his mate to drive the car while drunk. You don’t do that. Then there was the dodgy dossier, written late at night like something produced during a politics, philosophy and economics essay crisis. The line that the analyst had written in the intelligence report to say that the missiles no longer existed was completely ignored. We somehow convinced ourselves and most people in the House that there were weapons of mass destruction, and I think most people voted in good faith.
We then went on to convince ourselves that the reason we were in Afghanistan was that we were fighting them over there so that we would not have to fight them over here. Only about two years ago, after I had given a presentation to the National Security Council, an immensely senior person in our Government took me aside and said, “Adam, are you really saying that the Taliban aren’t a threat to the UK?” That revealed the most fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It almost beggars belief. If I told you who had asked me that question, you would be appalled. [Hon. Members: “Go on! Name them!”] No. We cannot be too unfair on the politicians, because I think that they have been badly served by ambitious civil servants.
Some of those civil servants had a “good news only” culture. General Petraeus spoke in that context of putting lipstick on pigs. A Secretary of State for Defence was at a briefing at Basra air station attended by two of my friends. Apparently—he denies this—he banged the table and said, “Why have you not been telling me the truth? I had no idea that things were quite so bad.” There is a sense that civil servants play back what the politicians want to hear. I shall never forget the briefing in Helmand when we were told everything was going well. A few weeks later, when I was back in Kabul on a private visit, I was in a bar and the same official bounded up to me and said, “Adam, I’m really sorry about that briefing in Helmand. The thing is, we just don’t get promoted for telling the truth.”
The same is true of senior military officers. I do not think anyone thought about our responsibility to the people of Basra after the invasion. Indeed, one of my friends was on the recce in 2004 before we went into Helmand. When he got back to England, he went to see a very senior guy at Permanent Joint Headquarters. That very senior general asked him, “So, what’s the insurgency like in Helmand?” My friend replied, “Well, there isn’t one, but I can give you one if you want one.”
We have the same sort of thing with helicopters. Senior military people are constantly saying, “We’ve got enough helicopters to do the job”. We all remember the deaths of Rupert Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond. Before he died, Rupert wrote in a report of “unnecessary…road moves”. He stated: “This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.” And yet, as I have said, the top brass were saying that we had enough helicopters to do the job. A senior British general who had been in Kabul attended a Defence Committee meeting, at which he basically tore my head off for being a nay-sayer. When I went back to Kabul a few weeks later on a private trip, I went into his office and said, “General, are we still winning? Ha ha ha!” He said, “If we f***ing are, I’ll be dead by the time we do.” So there was a real mismatch.
We also ignore the experts. Of the people who knew anything about Iraq, who suggested it was a good idea to dismantle Ba’athists from the various structures of government? Nobody thought about that. As a soldier I was in Iraq before the war in 1991, and in 2003 I was back on the ground in Iraq, partly with Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria a couple of years ago. I will never forget driving into Mosul literally in the minutes the city was collapsing. It was the first occasion in my time in journalism that I was nursing a submachine gun under the chair of my four-wheel drive. There was the odd body on the streets, chaos and a threatening, nasty environment. American jets were coming down really low to intimidate. I went to the police station, where there were all these Saddam lookalikes. The chief one said to me, “You’re looking for the Americans, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “When you find the Americans, can you get them to send someone up here to tell us what we should do?” That was an amazing thing to hear from an Iraqi an hour after the city had, in effect, capitulated. So I found the American and did my business with the colonel and I said to him, “The Iraqi police brigadier wants you to go up there and tell him what his instructions are.” The American colonel said, “You can tell him to go f*** himself.”
In Afghanistan, we ignored the experts. I was there in 1984, the year before I went to university, and we had plenty of experts on Afghanistan then, but they were all ignored later. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), a former Foreign Office official, had been living in Kabul. He spoke a great deal of sense about it, but we ignored him. We ignored people such as Semple and Patterson, after their failed attempt to make a deal with the Taliban, until it was just too late. We ignored the Russians and their ambassador Kabulov, who had been there for a decade. I remember sitting, in his house in Kabul, with the Afghan general who held that city for two years after the Russians left. He had four mobile phones in front of him. I said, “So, presumably the British have been asking you how to run Helmand?” He looked down at his phones and said, “I am still waiting for them to ring.” We still have not rung him.
In Syria, we are now largely ignoring the Foreign Office officials who, over the past few years, have been deployed forward with the Syrian opposition. I am talking about those who argue that ISIL is fundamentally a political and counter-terrorist problem, not a military problem: ISIL is a function of broken politics of the middle east. Those people are ignored.
I have not got much time left, so let me return to the importance of Chilcot. Clearly, Iraq went very badly wrong, and, similarly, the NATO deployment to Afghanistan was a disaster. Our overall approach since 9/11 has given this country an enormous level of strategic risk. After the chemical outrages in Damascus we were asked to bomb the Assad regime, yet a year later we were asked to bomb his enemies. So it is little wonder that the public do not have much confidence when Ministers tell them that they deserve their backing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border says, we need to get serious and to learn. I hope that Chilcot goes some way to making the people of Gravesham safer.
Iraq: Coalition against ISIL
On 26th September 2014, Adam spoke passionately during the House of Commons debate 'Iraq: Coalition against ISIL'. One of the only six Conservative MP's to vote against the motion, Adam has consistently opposed military intervention in Syria and Iraq.
You can listen to the debate by playing the video on this page (Adam's contribution is between 02:38:25 and 02:44:41).
If you're interested in ISIL, you may like to read an article that was written by Adam and published in the Daily Telegraph on the day of the debate; you can find it here.
In Syria, Britain is making the same mistakes all over again.
Adam Holloway explains why he cannot back a plan to fight Islamic State which does nothing about the toxic politics which feed it.
View the article here.
Adam's Article in the Spectator: Why we can't base our response to the Migrant Crisis on just what makes us feel better.
View the article here.