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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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