It has become something of a maxim that the Chilcot Inquiry, set up in 2009 to consider the UK’s role in the Iraq war, has taken longer to conclude than the war itself. And at an anticipated 2.6 million words, the resulting report – to be published on Wednesday – is longer than War and Peace, the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible combined. The question on everybody’s lips is whether it will be worth the wait – and the weight.
When Gordon Brown announced the establishment of the inquiry, only six weeks had elapsed since the final patrol by British combat troops in Basra. By then, the UK’s involvement in a conflict that had begun six years earlier was the source of huge controversy. Many, including The Independent, were deeply opposed from the very beginning.
But while shock and awe tactics were enough to topple Saddam Hussein and crush the Iraqi military, it soon became clear there was no advanced plan for securing a lasting peace in the country. Moreover, the stated justification for the invasion of Iraq – the belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed a direct threat to the West – proved to be utterly unfounded.
In short, Britain had been taken into the war on a false pretext and had fought it without a properly thought out exit strategy, or indeed the right equipment for the conflict that developed. Such a catastrophic series of misjudgements required proper consideration. Seven years on, there will be some who question the relevance of any findings Chilcot and his committee produce.
Geopolitical events since the war’s notional conclusion have transformed both Iraq and the wider region to a further, remarkable degree. The Arab Spring came and went; Syria was plunged into a hideous civil war that rumbles on and which has had global ramifications; and large swathes of Iraq were overrun by Isis.
If Chilcot et al stick to the remit they were given, considering only the period ending July 2009, we may be left to draw our own conclusions as to the link between the war’s conduct and the grimness we have seen in its aftermath. Still, parameters have to be drawn somewhere and this inquiry has had a broader remit than many. And it will surely draw important lessons from its investigations.
At the very least, families of those who served in Britain’s armed forces have a right to know how it came to pass that UK personnel were improperly equipped in the face of improvised explosive devices and other guerrilla tactics. It is to be hoped too that the inquiry will deliver insights into the wider planning failures that led the conflict to be so drawn out.
If the UK is ever to face again the prospect of involvement in a ground offensive against a distant foe, we cannot repeat the mistakes of Iraq. Yet it is perhaps inevitable that few expect Wednesday’s report to be brimful of shock revelations or damning indictments. We have, in truth, been here before. Both the Hutton Inquiry in 2003 and the Butler review of 2004 were greeted with disappointment, even cries of “whitewash”.
Both those inquiries were focused – albeit in rather different ways – on the intelligence that led Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, to tell the House of Commons that Iraq’s WMD programme was a genuine and present threat to British security. The famous dossier of evidence he set out, including the claim that Iraq could use WMDs within 45 minutes, has been the subject of endless debate and considerable criticism.
A great many observers believe neither Hutton nor Butler got anywhere close to the bottom of how and why the case for war was presented in the manner it was. Chilcot’s inquiry may have had a wider brief and greater powers to scrutinise both witnesses and documentary evidence than those earlier reviews; but whether it will reach startlingly different conclusions about the war – and about those who led Britain into it – remains to be seen.
Then again, if ever there was a time for shocks in British politics, it is surely now.