30 July 2004
The low-key title of yesterday's Foreign Affairs Select Committee report - "Foreign policy aspects of the war on terror" - is the understatement of the season. A title that better reflected the devastating contents might be something like: "The mess we have got ourselves into with the war on terror and how, with much luck and better judgement, we might just stave off catastrophe". Such is the catalogue of mismanagement, misconceptions and misjudgements it sets out. And, it should be noted, this is a unanimous, cross-party report.
The findings depict almost unmitigated disaster in Iraq and an only slightly lesser débâcle in Afghanistan. The two countries that became the test-beds for US and British efforts to root out global terrorism are teetering on the brink of chaos. Iraq is now a "battleground for al-Qa'ida, with appalling consequences for the Iraqi people". The "alternative to a positive outcome", the report delicately says, "may be a failed state and regional instability". As for Afghanistan, there is a "real danger" that this "fragile state in one of the most sensitive and volatile regions of the world - could implode, with terrible consequences". There is "little, if any, sign of the war on drugs being won, and every indication that it will get worse".
The committee's assessment of both countries is every bit as bleak, sometimes bleaker, than the most negative accounts in the media. More than one year after the official end of hostilities in Iraq, the report says, the provision of basic services is still unsatisfactory, and failure to meet Iraqi expectations risks "damaging the credibility of the UK in Iraq and Iraqi goodwill towards it". None of the new Iraqi institutions, not the military, not the police and not the army, are anything like ready to assume their responsibilities.
Right on cue yesterday, the dire lack of progress in Iraq was confirmed when the national conference - the first stage in the electoral process - was postponed, officially in the hope of persuading boycotting groups to take part. As the select committee noted, again right on cue, "it is highly desirable" that elections proceed on schedule in order to foster Iraqi engagement and confidence in the political transition". It also expressed the fear that the "validity" of elections could be compromised by inadequate security.
The insufficient number of troops - in both countries - to ensure even a modicum of security is another complaint. President Karzai's appeals for more forces on the ground and more resources must be met "before it is too late": the credibility of the Nato alliance is at stake, as well as the fate of ordinary Afghans. The failure of countries other than the US and the UK to send significant numbers of troops to Iraq "has had serious and regrettable consequences, not only for Iraqis, but also in terms of the burden placed on UK resources and perceptions of the legitimacy of operations in Iraq".
The only surprise in all this is that the committee itself appears in the least surprised by what it has uncovered. Is not every element of its report, every syllable, dot and comma, precisely what critics of the Iraq adventure argued from the outset? Has it not been disgracefully clear for a year now that the failure to restore, let alone improve, supplies of water and electricity would discredit the US and British intervention? Was it not equally clear that the failure to enforce law and order in the earliest days of the occupation set a tone and created a vacuum in which lawlessness burgeoned? We reap as we have sown.
For all its comprehensive depiction of a "war on terror" in deep trouble, however, the report makes one glaring omission. There is not a flicker of recognition that at least some of the reasons for Britain's predicament are of the Government's own making and - in so far as a majority voted to back the war - of this Parliament's making as well. The perilous situation obtaining in Iraq and Afghanistan today did not just happen. It resulted from a misconceived war in one country that left resources and troops promised for the other chronically underfunded and overstretched.