Britain failed to commit properly to Iraqi campaign, says army chief

Britain failed to commit the troops and resources needed to secure southern Iraq, enabling Iranian-backed militias to grow as it switched its focus too quickly to Afghanistan, the head of the Army said yesterday.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said that mistakes were also made in establishing the Iraqi police and army in Basra, with commanders choosing quantity over quality, churning out thousands of recruits who were largely ineffective and had limited loyalty.

Lessons had been learnt from the six-year campaign, he said, and should be applied, where applicable, in Afghanistan, where British forces look set to remain “for the foreseeable future”.

In an address to the Royal United Services Institute in London, General Dannatt emphasised the need to achieve a decisive effect early on when using military intervention.

“In Iraq this meant acting while we had a window of consent to address the security and basic needs of the Iraq people — reconstruction, development and developing the capacity of the indigenous security forces.

“Our failure to deliver this . . . and our early switch to an economy of force operation, in favour of Afghanistan, sowed the seeds for the dissatisfaction that followed and the rise of the militias, supported so cynically by the Iranians in the south.”

He also highlighted the need for sufficient boots on the ground. Britain continued to withdraw its forces from southern Iraq in 2006 and 2007 when the militias were growing in strength and influence. In contrast, the United States chose to send an extra 30,000 troops into Baghdad and the surrounding areas to tackle a separate, Sunni insurgency.

“We must take a more flexible approach to force levels through the course of a campaign, being prepared to surge and ebb as the security situation dictates,” General Dannatt said. “In truth we failed to maintain the force levels required — either of coalition forces or Iraqi forces, and particularly towards the latter end of the campaign, by which time we were already committed to a new operation in southern Afghanistan.”

The General said that it was important only to take on challenges that Britain could manage with the resources it possessed.

“An economy of force operation is a false economy,” he said. “We must either tailor our ambitions to the force we can afford, or we must properly resource the undertaking we have committed to within the coalition — not to do so risks repeating the experience of Iraq.”