Blair was warned of looming disaster in Iraq

By John Ware

John Ware discloses how the former prime minister was told repeatedly about America’s lack of planning for peace — and did nothing

Five days after the fall of Saddam, Tony Blair declared: “Iraq will be better. Better for the region, better for the world, better, above all, for the Iraqi people.”

Yet, as we know, four and a half years later, Iraq is far from a better place. It is still in pieces and the reality is that by invading Iraq not only did Britain help to break the country but we are no longer seriously trying to fix it. As No Plan, No Peace on BBC1 tonight and tomorrow will show, despite his promises, Mr Blair was aware before the invasion that America’s planning for post-war recovery was woefully inadequate – and so was Britain’s.

 
Tony Blair and George Bush,  Blair was warned of looming disaster in Iraq
Tony Blair had severe doubts about US plans to stabilise Iraq after the invasion

It has become clear that Mr Blair had severe doubts about US plans to stabilise Iraq after the invasion. There was no properly worked out strategy for the key longer-term objective of transforming it into a stable, prosperous nation that the Blair-Bush vision held out.

We know Mr Blair was aware that post-war Iraq might be heading for trouble because Lady [Sally] Morgan, his former political secretary, says he was “tearing his hair out”; Sir David Manning, his foreign affairs adviser at the time of the invasion, has said he was “very exercised about it”; Peter Mandelson has also said he knew the preparations were inadequate.

The fact that Mr Blair knew all this is potentially far more damaging to his reputation than his decision to put the full weight of his office behind the flawed intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. For that, he had cover from the Secret Intelligence Service.

What, then, is his defence to the charge that he recklessly continued with the invasion, thereby sharing responsibility for the deaths of 100,000 civilians and 4,141 coalition soldiers – 171 of them British – the displacement of four million refugees inside and outside Iraq, and the cost of more than £5 billion

The defence that is emerging from Mr Blair’s friends and advisers is that No 10 was let down by the Bush administration.

All say his frustration stemmed from Britain’s inability to influence the Pentagon, under Donald Rumsfeld, on post-war planning. The hawkish Defence Secretary wanted a “lite” US footprint — a small invasion force that could be rapidly withdrawn afterwards.

This defence looks thin: it suggests that Mr Blair’s “hair-tearing” could not have begun until dangerously late in the day: not until January 20, 2003, in fact – eight weeks before the invasion. Only then was Rumsfeld put in charge of post-war planning,

by a Presidential directive establishing a reconstruction unit in the Department of Defence.

That is precious little time: the US General George C. Marshall was given three and a half years to plan the reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War. So why wasn’t Blair “tearing his hair out” long before January 20? Sir David Manning, his foreign policy adviser, who went to Washington as ambassador after the invasion, said when he retired recently that neither he nor Blair “had any sense that the Department of Defence was going to take over the running of the country”.

Until then, he says, Mr Bush had assured them that the State Department, under the moderate Colin Powell, would be in charge. There had been “plans made and deployed by the State Department… It’s hard to know what happened.”

Yet this runs counter to what the Washington embassy was telling London in the run-up to the invasion. First, it was well known that very little of the State Department’s work could be seen as a blueprint for stabilisation and reconstruction. Rather, a series of study groups had been set up to engage Iraqi Americans in thinking about their country’s future after Saddam.

“It was never intended as a post-war plan,” says Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq.

Secondly, it seems unlikely that Mr Powell ever wanted responsibility for post-war planning. He raised no protest when the President assigned the task to Rumsfeld.

“I think Colin Powell probably thought, and rightfully so, ‘Disaster Looming’,” his chief of staff, Colonel Larry Wilkerson, told me.

Far from being sure that State would run reconstruction, throughout 2002 the British struggled to find out who would get the job.

A series of telegrams from Sir Christopher Meyer, Manning’s predecessor as British ambassador, to No 10 vividly make the point.

A year before the invasion — on the eve of the first Blair-Bush Iraq summit in April 2002 — Sir Christopher says he urged Blair to “above all start getting them to focus on what next if and when we drive Saddam from office.”

If Mr Blair did raise this, it can’t have made much impact, because in July Mr Blair was warned by the Cabinet Office: “In particular, little thought has been given to… the aftermath and how to shape it.”

Again, in early September, Sir Christopher warned Mr Blair that “planning for the aftermath is a blind spot”. As Sir Christopher says: “I remember thinking to myself: ‘We’re nowhere on this.’?” A few weeks later he “upped the volume” to a warning that “there was a black hole in American planning for the aftermath”.

All this was because the embassy knew that Mr Rumsfeld was actively manoeuvring for control of post-war planning to ensure that the US did not get tied down in Iraq as it had in Bosnia.

No doubt Mr Blair did try to impress on the Americans how seriously they needed to take post-war planning.

But if he was tearing his hair out it doesn’t seem to have happened when it mattered — throughout 2002 — when there was still time to put together a practical plan.

Three months before the invasion, I’m told that the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, warned the Pentagon that they would be “lucky to get six hours’ worth of flowers and roses”, as liberation would soon turn to occupation.

There were no plans to fill the vacuum after regime change with a development programme delivering quick wins to show Iraqis that things would be better.

So criminals and insurgents poured into the vacuum and have been there ever since. The charge against Mr Blair at any future inquiry is that he never investigated the risks diligently.

It’s not even clear that Mr Blair’s hair-tearing began the moment No 10 heard that Mr Rumsfeld would be in charge.

His next summit with Mr Bush was 11 days later. A leaked memo records that Mr Blair was told “a great deal of work was now in hand”.

It does not, however, record the Prime Minister being surprised that Mr Rumsfeld had got the job and suggests the discussion was brief.

Nor is there evidence that Whitehall did any better than the US in planning reconstruction in its part of Iraq: the four southern provinces, including Basra. A planning unit was not set up in London until eight weeks before the invasion. Specialists — such as engineers to help with water, power and other basic services — were very late in being lined up.

Three weeks after the fall of Saddam, Whitehall had mustered exactly four civilians to staff what became the office of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Sir Hilary Synnott, who later took charge of the CPA office, says: “I simply wasn’t aware of any planning in relation to the civilian aspects of Basra… my first challenge was to find a computer.” And that was in July — three months after the invasion.

It may suit the Government, past and present, to blame the chaos in Iraq on US lack of foresight, but the evidence suggests that post-war planning was no more a priority in London than in Washington.

Indeed, I am told that it was not until war started that Mr Blair pushed hard on post-war reconstruction, and even then it was more about getting US support for a UN resolution to give legitimacy to the occupation rather than the practicalities of rebuilding a nation with no history of democracy.

In the rush to war, and in the blur of ideology, both capitals abandoned a principle that’s been an iron law of warfare since Napoleon: never take the first step without planning for what comes afterwards.

-John Ware presents Part One of No Plan, No Peace on BBC1 this Sunday at 10.15pm and Part Two tomorrow at 10.45pm