Iraq: British troops were looking for an enemy that did not exist

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Some of the violence that erupted in Iraq could have been avoided if the British commanders had listened to what people were saying about the growing violence of militia groups in Basra.

Frank Ledwidge, author of Losing Small Wars, a book examining British failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, said during a discussion about counterinsurgency at the Frontline Club on Wednesday that he had not felt “particularly seriously threatened” during his first few months in Basra in 2003 .

But having been welcomed by people who threw roses at him and his colleagues, the former military officer who served in Bosnia, Kosovo as well as in Iraq, said the base was under attack "pretty much every night" by the time he left in 2004 : 

“Shootings were regular and IEDs were a real problem,” said Ledwidge, who went to Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction as part of the Iraq Survey Group.

At the heart of the failure of “counterinsurgency” strategies was the inability of British commanders to listen to what Basrawis or British soldiers on the ground were saying about the need to protect people from the violence of militia groups that were beginning to form.

“The trouble was that our commanders weren’t listening to what the people of Basra were saying, they were looking for an enemy that essentially didn’t exist, looking for foreign fighters when the only ones in Basra were us, we were looking for an al-Quaeda shiboleth that wasn’t there.

"But what was there was a growing serious threat of militia violence against the people of Basra and they were constantly asking British soldiers ‘please do something about this, protect us from them’ and we didn’t and we reaped the whirlwind of that harvest three years later,” said Ledwidge.

During the discussion that was chaired by the BBC’s international development correspondent, David Loyn, Ledwidge said part of the problem was the presumption by the British army that because of its experience in Northern Ireland it was equipped to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq:

"What we forget is, most soldiers who served in Helmand and Iraq, never served in Northern Ireland. You may get a Battallion commander who served as a junior commander in Northern Ireland right at the end of the campaign, but that experience is now a long way gone.

"There was a presumption in our military that these skills came with the clouds in the rain, that they were genetically endowed, which is complete rubbish and has been proven to be time and again."