Chilcot Iraq report: Lack of clear Whitehall structures hurt post-invasion planning

Former civil servant's report into 2003 Iraq war finds that key departments involved in planning for the aftermath of the US-led invasion failed to share vital advice – with cabinet frequently sidelined

By Matt Foster

06 Jul 2016

A failure of key government departments to share information and work together seriously undermined Britain's planning for a post-invasion Iraq, according to the long-awaited Chilcot inquiry into the build-up, execution and aftermath of the controversial 2003 conflict.

The full, 2.6 million-word report by former Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary Sir John Chilcot was published on Wednesday.

Sir John's report, which comes seven years after his inquiry was launched, concludes that former prime minister Tony Blair made the decision to join United States-led military action to remove Saddam Hussein “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”.

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And it finds that the government made "wholly inadequate" plans for Iraq's future following the ouster of longstanding dictator Saddam Hussein. 

In the wake of the invasion, the inquiry says Iraq faced "serious disorder", made worse by "sectarian differences" in which the US and UK "struggled to contain the situation".

While the report finds that the Ministry of Defence had viewed planning for a post-Saddam future as "strategically decisive" in December 2002, it says the UK government was not, by the time of the invasion in early 2003, in possession of "satisfactory plans" that could have helped it to "meet known post‑conflict challenges and risks in Iraq and to mitigate the risk of strategic failure".

"Some risks were identified, but departmental ownership of those risks, and responsibility for analysis and mitigation, were not clearly established" – The Iraq Inquiry

It says the UK went into the conflict with only "limited influence over a [post-war planning] process dominated increasingly by the US military", and finds that two groups set up by the UK government to improve the co-ordination of civil servants across Whitehall – the Ad Hoc Group on Iraq and the Iraq Planning Unit – did not carry "sufficient authority to establish a unified planning process" across the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Treasury.

"Important material, including in the DFID reviews of northern and southern Iraq, and significant pieces of analysis, including the series of MoD Strategic Planning Group (SPG) papers on military strategic thinking, were either not shared outside the originating department, or, as appears to have been the case with the SPG papers, were not routinely available to all those with a direct interest in the contents," the report says.

It adds: "Some risks were identified, but departmental ownership of those risks, and responsibility for analysis and mitigation, were not clearly established."

While the report finds that officials advised then-defence secretary Geoff Hoon and then-chancellor Gordon Brown ahead of the invasion of "the need to plan and prepare for the worst case", it says it found no evidence that "any department or individual assumed ownership or was assigned responsibility for analysis or mitigation".

"No action ensued," the report adds.

Because no single person was designated as responsible for overseeing planning and preparation for the aftermath of the conflict, Sir John's report says that departments ended up pursuing "complementary, but separate, objectives", meaning gaps in the UK's capabilities "were overlooked".

No "systematic evaluation" of risk

The report is also critical of the fact that ministers and senior officials did not appear to commission a "systematic evaluation" of the risks of invasion or the UK's military and civilian capabilities, something it says "should have been required before the UK committed to any course of action in Iraq".

"Where policy recommendations were supported by untested assumptions, those assumptions were seldom challenged," the report adds. "When they were, the issue was not always followed through."

During the Inquiry, Blair said that it was "relatively easy" with hindsight to point to an apparent lack of focus on post-war planning. "At the time, of course, we could not know that and a prime focus throughout was the military campaign itself," the former prime minister said.

But that position is disputed by the inquiry, which says "conclusions reached by Mr Blair after the invasion did not require the benefit of hindsight", and says the former prime minister failed to establish "clear ministerial oversight of post‑conflict strategy, planning and preparation".

The inquiry says Blair also did not "seek adequate assurances that the UK was in a position to meet its likely obligations in Iraq", or insist that the UK's strategic objectives for the conflict "were tested against anything other than the best case" of a well-planned US-led and United Nations-backed post-conflict plan "in a relatively benign security environment".

It says: "In the short to medium term, his omissions increased the risk that the UK would be unable to respond to the unexpected in Iraq. In the longer term, they reduced the likelihood of achieving the UK’s strategic objectives in Iraq."


Questions are also raised in the report over the formal decision-making process at the top of government in the build-up to war, saying that while cabinet was "certainly given updates on diplomatic developments", there was only "very much more limited" discussion between key ministers when it came to substantive policy decisions – with Sir John arguing that greater consultation through the cabinet committee system may have "have offered the opportunity to remedy some of the deficiencies in planning" that later became apparent.

“At no time when I was serving in the Ministry of Defence were other cabinet ministers involved in discussions about the deployment of specific forces and the nature of their operations" – former defence secretary Geoff Hoon

Sir John's report says: "In addition to providing a mechanism to probe and challenge the implications of proposals before decisions were taken, a cabinet committee or a more structured process might have identified some of the wider implications and risks associated with the deployment of military forces to Iraq."

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon told the Inquiry: “At no time when I was serving in the Ministry of Defence were other cabinet ministers involved in discussions about the deployment of specific forces and the nature of their operations. 

"Relevant details would have been circulated to 10 Downing Street or other government departments as necessary ... I do not recall a single Cabinet-level discussion of specific troop deployments and the nature of their operations."

The report says that while the MoD made "very considerable" efforts to ready military resources during the "compressed" build-up to the war in 2003, there were "serious equipment shortfalls when conflict began".

"Those shortfalls were exacerbated by the lack of an effective asset tracking system, a lesson from previous operations and exercises that the MoD had identified but not adequately addressed," it adds.

"Over-optimistic" assessments

Sir John's inquiry team is also particularly critical of what it sees as good news culture among both ministers and officials in the run-up to the war, saying that "over-optimistic" assessments had been shown to lead to "bad decisions", and stressing the need for key players to "have a flow of accurate and frank reporting".

"A government must prepare for a range of scenarios, not just the best case, and should not assume that it will be able to improvise," the report says.

Sir John's inquiry also makes a series of recommendations for the government's current Stabilisation Unit, which now plays the role of cross-government coordinator on work to tackle instability in parts of the world where the UK is pursuing its foreign policy objectives.

"Departmental priorities and interests will inevitably continue to diverge even where an inter‑departmental body with a cross‑government role, currently the Stabilisation Unit (SU), is in place," the report says. 

"Therefore, co‑operation between departments needs continual reinforcement at official and ministerial levels. 

"The Head of the SU must be sufficiently senior and the SU enjoy recognition inside and outside government as a centre of excellence in its field if the unit is to have credibility and influence in No.10, the National Security Council, the Treasury, the FCO, DFID and the MOD, and with the military."

"Full responsibility"

Responding to the report at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Blair said he apologised for "mistakes on planning and process" – but stood by his decision to back US-led military action.

"I accept full responsibility for those mistakes," he told reporters. "But it’s not inconsistent with that to still say that I think we took the right decision. The difficulty with a report like this is that those two things get mixed up with each other...

“If I was back in the same place with the same information I would take the same decision... People want me to go one step further – and this is my problem, I know it causes a lot of difficulty – they say ‘no, we want you to apologise for the decision’ and I can’t do that."

At prime minister's questions on Wednesday, David Cameron said he the report's findings should not deter the UK from foreign interventions when necessary, but said MPs who voted for the war, including him, must take a "share of the responsibility".

Meanwhile Labour's current leader Jeremy Corbyn – a long-standing opponent of the war – called for those involved in planning the conflict to "face up to the consequences of their actions, whatever they may be".

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