History is littered with the unintended consequences of war. Former Chief of General Staff, Lord David Richards, reminds us that the Second World War was the indirect result of reparations imposed on Germany at the end of the First World War. Virtually any military conflict, whether it be the Boer War, Vietnam, Korea or elsewhere scattered around the world, has had unexpected repercussions, mostly for the worst. Many still have to live with war far from being a precise science and often politically abused for other purposes.
As reported in our front page interview, Richards is particularly damning about the British Government’s policy in Iraq and Syria, saying that it helped to sustain civil wars by unleashing forces it did not understand nor are easy to control. He warns that there are similar risks in Afghanistan after Nato troops leave. Even the reluctance by Britain to put boots on the ground following a whole series of overseas military debacles will not last, he suggests.
No recent war has been criticised as much as the US-led invasion of Iraq. The very legitimacy has been questioned. The British report into the many lessons to be learnt has been continually delayed amid disputes over the publication of secret political documents. By implication, Richards almost goes as far as suggesting that it may have been better if the military campaign had never been waged. “Iraq was ruled by, yes, a brutal dictator, but he contained all these forces and he contained as a semi secular leader, Iranian ambitions in the region.”
His concern was that the Iraq war “liberated forces that we’re still seeing playing out today.” With the floodgates being opened for the rise of the ISIS to capture swathes of land in both Syria and Iraq, the former army chief does not directly specify that the US and Britain were responsible though he said that a lot of the forces unleashed included those “we don’t understand properly and certainly can’t control easily.” The problem now was that Britain did not have a clear strategy about what to do after creating such a weak Iraqi Government. Even allowing the country to be divided into three could be less chaotic even if it would still be very unstable, Richards argues.
As for Syria, it was more the opposite. Richards wished that Britain had been more involved, not in deploying troops but in accepting his plan to somehow train a 100,000-strong rebel army to overthrow the regime although there would still be “definite risks.” It did not go ahead seemingly because of the “huge bill” it would have cost. Instead, what was agreed by the west and some Arab countries was just to “keep the war alive but not enough to let the good guys win.” The consequence was that it was a much bigger challenge to squeeze ISIS back into irrelevance and one that Britain did not realise the scale.
Over in Afghanistan, there are still problems to overcome with the coming withdrawal of Nato troops. The former Chief of General Staff admitted that when he took command in 2006/7, “we didn’t have the money and logistics” to develop an Afghan army and this was delayed until 2009 under President Obama’s surge strategy. To prevent what was happening in Iraq and Syria from spilling over in Afghanistan lessons from Iraq have to be learnt if there is not to be a “big risk.” It has to be made “it quite clear now to the Afghans and others in the region that the West understands its responsibilities” to stay in support.
The military record of Britain’s involvement in Muslim countries is hardly a good one. The issue of Libya was not raised with Richards nor about any role that may have been played in overturning the revolution in Egypt. But he suggested that with what was happening with ISIS, “many of the Gulf nations are vulnerable if this goes on” and that it was a wake-up call for all, regardless of religion.