Did the head of MI6 mislead the Iraq inquiry?

He is wrong to claim that no one anticipated the violence

The MI6 boss, Sir John Sawers -- he of Speedos fame -- gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry yesterday. But did Sir John, wittingly or unwittingly, mislead Chilcot and co?

Here's what he said (courtesy of the BBC website):

"Very few observers actually highlighted the scale of the violence that we could face. I think about the only person in my recollection who got it right was President Mubarak who warned of unleashing 100 Bin Ladens."

He said undefeated elements of the Ba'athist regime combined with international terrorists and Iran-backed "Shia extremists" had created an "onslaught of violence that was not thought through by any observer".

Sir John said: "I think frankly, had we known the scale of violence, it might well have led to second thoughts about the entire project and we could certainly have mitigated some aspects of it had we had a clearer appreciation of it in advance."

But he said it was not "reasonable" to assume the violence should have been predicted, as it was an "unprecedented scenario".

So, according to the head of MI6 -- who also happens to be a former foreign affairs adviser to Tony Blair -- it was not "reasonable" to assume that the violence should have been foreseen, and only President Mubarak of Egypt predicted the manner in which the invasion of Iraq would exacerbate the threat of al-Qaeda-related terrorism, inside and outside Iraq.

Is he lying, suffering from amnesia or just plain ignorant? It must be one of the three, because I can assure Sir John that countless intelligence reports, terrorism experts, diplomats, politicians and pundits, at home and abroad, warned that invading Iraq wouldn't be the "cakewalk" predicted by the neocons, and that it would only radicalise Muslims across the globe, destabilise the country and the region, and provide new opportunities for jihadists to attack western troops on a Muslim battlefield.

Do you want a few examples?

1) Here's the American Academy of Arts, in its report War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives, published in 2002:

Another concern is that American occupation forces in Iraq, perhaps for a protracted period of time, will be vulnerable to the violence and instability that could ensue once Saddam's regime has collapsed . . . Considerable recent experience, from US Marines bombed in Lebanon to US military personnel murdered in Kuwait, suggests that US forces in dangerous circumstances are prone to be victimised by terrorist attacks.

2) Here's Daniel Benjamin, who is currently Barack Obama's co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, writing in the Washington Post in October 2002:

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would find American forces in a post-Hussein Iraq to be an irresistible target . . . Those who today blow up French tankers off Yemen or bars in Bali will soon be picking off GIs in Basra.

3) Here's the former CIA official Paul Pillar's view, as reported in the Washington Post in 2006:

Pillar describes for the first time that the intelligence community did assessments before the invasion that, he wrote, indicated a postwar Iraq "would not provide fertile ground for democracy" and would need "a Marshall Plan-type effort" to restore its economy despite its oil revenue. It also foresaw Sunnis and Shiites fighting for power.

Pillar wrote that the intelligence community "anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks -- including guerrilla warfare -- unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam".

In an interview, Pillar said the pre-war assessments "were not crystal-balling, but in them we were laying out the challenges that would face us depending on decisions that were made".

4) Here's an account in the Independent of how six of Britain's leading experts on Iraq and the Middle East briefed Tony Blair on the potentially dangerous consequences of invading Iraq, back in 2002, in Downing Street:

Over the next hour and a half the experts sought to take Mr Blair and his senior colleagues through a number of possible post-invasion scenarios, ranging from simply replacing Saddam with another dictator, though one sympathetic to the west, to a messy slide into civil war and fragmentation of the country along ethnic, religious and tribal lines.

5) Here's a poster and a message devised by the anti-war lefties over at tompaine.com in late 2002.

7) Here's the US Army War College, the military's own think tank, reporting on "reconstructing Iraq" in February 2003. It reads, in the words of Jay Bookman, "like an after-the-fact autopsy":

* "Ethnic, tribal and religious schisms could produce civil war or fracture the state after Saddam is deposed."

* " . . . a small number of terrorists could reasonably choose to attack US forces in the hope that they can incite an action-reaction cycle that will enhance their cause and increase their numbers."

* "This ongoing media attention to suicide bombing suggests that any future Iraqi terrorist leaders could have this tactic at the forefront of their minds."

* "After the first year, the possibility of a serious uprising may increase, should severe disillusionment set in and Iraqis begin to draw parallels between US actions and historical examples of western imperialism."

* "Even the most scrupulous effort at fairness can alienate various tribes and ethnicities from the occupation forces and cause them to respond to occupation policies as a group. This discontent could fuel mass action or even an uprising."

So Sir John Sawers is wrong -- not that the establishment worthies on the Chilcot inquiry panel seem to have noticed. (By the way, isn't it time they hired a proper QC to help them out with their feeble questioning?)

It's difficult to disagree with the verdict of Professor George Joffe, one of the "experts" called in to see Blair in 2002: "What has happened in Iraq was predictable and was predicted . . ."

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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