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ArtsGeneral Sir Michael Rose - Lessons of War

General Sir Michael Rose – Lessons of War

In January 2006, General Sir Michael Rose, a retired British army General who led United Nations forces in Bosnia, called for the impeachment of the then Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, for taking the country to war in Iraq on false grounds. Today, General Rose feels just as strongly that Mr Blair should be brought to book for his actions. In the same way that an employee of any company, accused of misleading the public should be investigated, General Rose feels that Tony Blair should be held to account for his part in deceiving both his parliament and the British public and for leading the country into a disastrous war. Since March 23rd 2003, when two British soldiers from Poole in Dorset became Britain’s first casualties of the war, tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers and insurgents have died. Some estimates put the figure of civilians dead at over half a million. Parts of Baghdad and other major cities have been reduced to wasteland and millions of citizens have been displaced by the fighting.

General Rose has written a book entitled Washington’s War: from independence to Iraq, which compares the current war in Iraq with the American War for Independence. It highlights key strategic errors made by the coalition forces in Iraq and points to lessons that should have been learned from the late 18th century American battle for independence from Britain. The book was written after General Rose had been employed to play a mentor role for US administration officials in training. A striking figure with boyish good looks, General Rose is animated and enthusiastic as he explains how the book came about. “The Americans have a very far-sighted programme where they take some of the rising stars of the administration away for a six-week course, part of which is to role-play different situations. This is for people from all across the board, finance, foreign affairs, defence, intelligence, the whole spectrum. When I was there we would visit battlefields from the American War for Independence and role-play various situations. One day I was talking to another of the mentors, Eliot Cohen, who is a prominent scholar of military affairs at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and I said ‘I don’t think we’re talking about the American War for Independence here, I think we’re talking about the war in Iraq’ and he said ‘you know that is exactly what I was thinking’. So having thought about this for about three or four years I decided to write the book.”

In June 1775 George Washington commanded a band of rebels who were, in the eyes of the British, nothing more than a collection of ‘vagrants, deserters and thieves’. Yet he led them in a revolutionary war against the British which ended with American independence. General Rose maintains that both the strategy and the background to the creation of a rebel force in the American colonies, has remarkable similarities to the current war in Iraq, and although both British and American forces have successfully used counter-insurgency tactics throughout the world since, the lessons learned from that war were ignored when the coalition invaded Iraq. There may be many reasons why these lessons were not followed but General Rose feels that neither country is particularly proud of the outcome of that war. “The British are in denial about the American War for Independence” he says. “We don’t really teach it because we lost our great colony and made a complete mess of things. And the Americans are in a certain amount of denial also.” General Rose suggests that one set of land grabbers simply replaced another. “So in a way the Americans like to sort of air-brush that out. They love their founding fathers but they don’t actually go into it.”

In his book, General Rose makes telling observations on various aspects of the post Iraq invasion. He points out how American attempts to use conventional warfare, coupled with zero planning for the aftermath of the initial battle, quickly lost them the respect of the local population who had initially been so pleased to see Saddam Hussein overthrown. As the war had been started based on a need to find weapons of mass destruction, vital military units were immediately deployed to find these weapons, instead of working to secure the local population and protecting the country’s infrastructure.

However General Rose points out that, unlike Tony Blair, George Bush hadn’t quite put all his eggs in one basket. “George Bush was more subtle than Tony Blair” he says. “Blair pinned everything on weapons of mass destruction, where Bush had a whole string of reasons to go to war; extending democracy, creating a beacon of peace to shine throughout the Middle East, and also fighting terror long distance rather than on his home soil. He went for a much wider justification.”

But the immediate aftermath of invasion was messy. As General Rose points out in Washington’s War, General Jay Garner, the first chief administrator in Iraq, still had not received clear political instructions from Washington regarding the strategy that was to be followed by the occupying forces, even as the invasion had begun. As a result of this hesitation, distraction and general inaction by the coalition administration, there followed a complete breakdown of law and order in Iraq which led to the disintegration of civil authority. General Rose points to this lack of security as one of the reasons the local population sided with insurgency groups and turned against the occupying troops. The same happened during the American War for Independence when the British were unable to protect the settlers in their American colonies. And despite the diversity of the settler population at the time, they came together to fight an occupying army and won. The British army was left licking its wounds.

The question currently debated is whether the occupying force in Iraq will also lose. General Rose suggests that the recent change in tactic by the Americans, who he says have now spent over a trillion dollars on this war, is reducing the casualties and offering a way out. “The Americans are beginning to realise that their democratic dream is starting to visit upon them their worst nightmare” he says. “The majority Shia are ruling the country, but of course the Shia have the Iranians hand up their backs. Therefore they have actually spent a trillion dollars, had three thousand soldiers killed and trashed the country, bringing about their worst case scenario – the third biggest oil deposit in the world is now controlled by Iran. And what’s more the Iranians are spreading their tentacles. The Americans have finally realised this and have switched sides. They have now started supporting the Sunni. Since which time the graph of attacks and casualties has gone down.” General Rose thinks this new tactic may bring about a form of stability that could offer a way out to the Americans. “The current troop surge has had a marginal effect on this, and General Petraeus, who is heading up the surge, is an expert on this type of insurgency. He has realised you’ve got to change direction. The Sunni are neither anti-American nor are they anti-West. They never have been. They’ve always been allies. The reason they became anti-American is that they had been disempowered. Well the key is to re-empower them. And what Petraeus is doing is, by training the Sunni and arming them and putting the right people in the army, he is giving the Sunni some hope of regaining power.” General Rose also sees this as a possible road to victory for the Americans. He suggests the Americans will gradually decrease troop numbers and pull out, declaring victory. Then after a ‘decent interval’ there will be a military coup. “The Sunni will take over and run the country which they have always run.” he says. “Then the status quo will have returned and it will become stable again. The country will never break up, it will never disintegrate. But the Americans have now changed sides and are working with the Sunni.”

So after four years and countless thousands dead, the battle for Iraq will have left much of the country a wasteland, and in the end the ruling Sunni population will take over again.
In his recently published book Surrender Is Not an Option, American hawk John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, asks us to view regime change and the aftermath in Baghdad as two quite separate items. General Rose is not convinced. He says, “But you can’t have one without the other! Blair said it was a noble thing to have gone for and ‘we have left them democracy’. Had he got the whole package together he might have been able to claim that but they’ve trashed the country. It’s appalling what they’ve done to that country!” He recalls a time when he was in the Baghdad Green Zone with an Iraqi bodyguard, who described how he used to bring his children there to picnic in the beautiful lush parkland. “What a telling remark” says General Rose. “What kind of a liberation is that! Blair just walked away into the sunset and got away with it. Someone really ought to be in Belmarsh for it.”

Whatever one thinks about the need for regime change in Iraq, and the aftermath of the invasion, there is no doubt that major errors were made in the manner of the execution of both. In his book, General Sir Michael Rose gives a detailed account of the lessons that should have been learned by one war. One can only hope that the lessons learnt in the current war are clear for all to see.

Washington’s War: from independence to Iraq is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson ISBN 13 978 0 297 84698 7.

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