From mid-2005 onwards, various senior individuals – officials, military officers and Ministers – began to consider whether the UK was heading towards "strategic failure" in Iraq.
The term "strategic failure" was variously used to mean:
the development of a widespread sectarian conflict or civil war in Iraq;
"victory" for terrorist groups;
collapse of the democratic process;
failure to achieve the UK's objectives;
failure to achieve a stable and secure environment in Basra;
the collapse of the UK/Iraq relationship;
the division of Iraq and the end of its existence as a nation state;
damage to the UK's military and political reputation; and
damage to the relationship between the US and UK.
None of the contemporary accounts that the Inquiry has considered reached the conclusion that strategic failure was inevitable, although most recognised that without some form of corrective action it was a serious risk.
Although the UK revisited its Iraq strategy with considerable frequency, no substantial change in approach was ever implemented: UK troop numbers continued to reduce; the size of the civilian deployment varied very little; the Iraqiisation of security and handover of responsibility to the Iraqi Government remained key objectives.
The Iraq of 2009 certainly did not meet the UK's objectives as described in January 2003: it fell far short of strategic success. Although the borders of Iraq were the same as they had been in 2003, deep sectarian divisions threatened both stability and unity. Those divisions were not created by the coalition, but they were exacerbated by its decisions on de-Ba'athification and on demobilisation of the Iraqi Army and were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation.
In January 2009, the JIC judged "internal political failures that could lead to renewed violence within and between Iraq's Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities"278 to be the greatest strategic threat to Iraq's stability.
The fragility of the situation in Basra, which had been the focus of UK effort in MND(SE), was clear. The JIC assessed that threats remained from Iranian-backed JAM Special Groups, and the Iraqi Security Forces remained reliant on support from Multi-National Forces to address weaknesses in leadership and tactical support. Even as UK troops withdrew from Basra, the US was sufficiently concerned to deploy its own forces there, to secure the border and protect supply lines.
In 2009, Iraq did have a democratically elected Parliament, in which many of Iraq's communities were represented. But, as demonstrated by the protracted process of negotiating agreements on the status of US and then UK forces in Iraq, and the continued absence of a much-needed Hydrocarbons Law, representation did not translate into effective government. In 2008, Transparency International judged Iraq to be the third most corrupt country in the world, and in mid-2009 the Assessments Staff judged that Government ministries were "riddled with" corruption.279
By 2009, it had been demonstrated that some elements of the UK's 2003 objectives for Iraq were misjudged. No evidence had been identified that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, with which it might threaten its neighbours and the international community more widely. But in the years between 2003 and 2009, events in Iraq had undermined regional stability, including by allowing Al Qaida space in which to operate and unsecured borders across which its members might move.
The gap between the ambitious objectives with which the UK entered Iraq and the resources that the Government was prepared to commit to the task was substantial from the start. Even with more resources it would have been difficult to achieve those objectives, as a result of the circumstances of the invasion, the lack of international support, the inadequacy of planning and preparation, and the inability to deliver law and order. The lack of security hampered progress at every turn. It is therefore not surprising that, despite the considerable efforts made by UK civilian and military personnel over this period, the results were meagre.
The Inquiry has not been able to identify alternative approaches that would have guaranteed greater success in the circumstances of March 2003. What can be said is that a number of opportunities for the sort of candid reappraisal of policies that would have better aligned objectives and resources did not take place. There was no serious consideration of more radical options, such as an early withdrawal or else a substantial increase in effort. The Inquiry has identified a number of moments, especially during the first year of the Occupation, when it would have been possible to conduct a substantial reappraisal. None took place.