UK defence officials keep making the same mistakes, says Iraq inquiry historian

By on 22/03/2017
British troops in the Falklands '82 and Iraq '03

The British government and armed forces consistently failed to learn from the errors made in a series of military campaigns over 20 years, a former member of the Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War told an audience at the British Academy earlier this month.

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, who is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at Kings College London (KCL) and the Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign – in which the UK retook the islands following a 1982 Argentine occupation – also warned that the UK civil service’s promotion and development of ‘generalist’ civil servants has resulted in a loss of expertise, hampering the UK’s response to international threats.

Speaking at an event organised by the Strand Group, an arm of KCL’s Policy Institute, Freedman said that “the core story of the Falklands campaign was about the pressures created by the limited amount of kit with which the Task Force was supplied and the long chains to get it resupplied.”

These pressures re-emerged during the 1991 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait, he said, and again during the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “The fact that the problems of asset tracking, which had been highlighted in 1991 after Desert Storm, were still present in 2003 was important not only in explaining the problems faced then, but as an example of the failure to learn key lessons from the previous campaign.”

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman the official historian of the Falklands campaign

Asked by Global Government Forum whether he’d observed a change in the civil service’s operations or influence over the years, Freedman replied that previous generations of senior civil servants operating in defence and intelligence had had “an underlying specialism that they kept coming back to. I think that was an incredibly valuable resource, because they’d seen things and done things and knew people, and they had networks in the US. That allowed them to bring judgement.”

‘If you’re constantly transferring people and think it’s absolutely wonderful that everybody’s a generalist, then you lose that specialist expertise,” he continued. “That is a difference. There are people around who have great experience and they’re invaluable, but it would have been good to have had more of them around in 2001 [after the 9/11 attacks] and 2003 – and to have more of them around now.”

“I do think there is something to be said for a cadre of officials who’ve worked their lives in a particular area, who have got real expertise and know about stuff,” he added. “The generalists are good too, but you need that expertise.”

Freedman was appointed to the five-member Chilcot Inquiry panel in 2009; the Inquiry’s report was finally published last year. The “basic critique”, Freedman explained, was that the UK went to war without exhausting the diplomatic options or building international support. However, he argued that then-prime minister Tony Blair had not deliberately manipulated the evidence or intended to deceive in his use of the notoriously-weak evidence on Hussein’s WMD stocks; instead, Blair’s mistake had been to remain in “barrister-mode”, using the evidence to build a case rather than putting it under rigorous scrutiny.

Another key mistake, he said, was to fail to plan effectively for the occupation that would follow Iraq’s invasion. “What struck me personally was how little the problems with the aftermath had been addressed beforehand,” he said. “That remains with me as the biggest impression: how little effort had been made to prepare for it.”

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About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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