Charge of the heavy brigade

By Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian's security affairs editor (THE GUARDIAN, 12/09/06):

A refreshing characteristic of soldiers is that they do not generally spin. It is not part of their training. It is therefore all the more frustrating that those on the front line of Blair and Bush's "war on terror" - a dangerously misleading term - cannot say publicly what they really think.

That is left to ex-generals. Lord Guthrie, a former chief of the defence staff, has repeatedly warned ministers about the dangers of misleading the public and failing to plan properly for military operations. "We need to face facts that things are very serious," he told the Daily Telegraph last week in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. "It is reprehensible that our politicians are hiding behind the generals."

There are few more experienced former generals than Sir Rupert Smith, the commander of the UK's armoured division in the first Gulf war, and of UN forces in Bosnia and British forces in Northern Ireland. His book, The Utility of Force, which should be compulsory reading in 10 Downing Street as well as the Ministry of Defence, has just been published in paperback. Conflict and combat may exist all around the world, he writes, but "war no longer exists". War, that is, as commonly perceived - as a battle between men and machinery and a decisive event in solving international disputes.

Speaking to the Guardian last week, Smith delivered a devastating assessment of the Blair legacy. By following the US since 9/11, the government had actually helped to promote "the strategies of provocation and propaganda of the deed" - the strategies of al-Qaida. "We've helped by playing to the cards of the opponent," he said. Moreover, the US and Britain had attacked their own stated objectives by "trampling" on the rule of law and human rights, and weakening alliances.

Britain had contributed to "destabilising at the very least Iraq, and arguably the [whole] region of the Gulf," Smith added. In Afghanistan, the UK was "in grave danger of making an enemy where there was none before". Blair was jeopardising the nation's security by undermining its defences while provoking a new enemy, he argued.

Smith is not scoring partisan points. Former, even current, generals do not see the world through such political spectacles, any more than members of the security and intelligence agencies who warned Blair before the invasion of Iraq that such a move would increase the threat to Britain of terrorist attacks. Such damning criticism of Blair's rhetoric and policies is the result of objective analysis by supreme pragmatists.

They say that, constitutionally, it is not their role to confront the elected prime minister over policy, even when it is manifestly a dangerous failure. His courtiers stay silent. Perversely, most MPs are reluctant to challenge ministers on their "war on terror". So Blair carries on, blinded by an absolute belief in the righteousness of his cause, playing party politics with national security, notably over his claims that the police and intelligence agencies were supporting his case for increasingly draconian anti-terror laws.

Blair got no comfort from a source whose support he may have expected he could rely on. "The most salient impact of the Iraq intervention," the rarely controversial London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies notes in its latest annual survey, is that, as perceived by European governments, "it has reinforced Bin Laden's narrative depicting the United States and its allies as seeking to establish western hegemony in the Arab and wider Muslim world, to loot Islam's oil, and to support Israel against its largely Muslim neighbours".

Moreover, western intelligence agencies agree that Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a training ground for jihadist terrorists. The IISS adds: "Iraq confirmed and intensified the jihadist narrative of Muslim humiliation and subjugation by presenting the acute antagonism of Americans killing Arabs, and offering the possibility of a triumphant moment when a Muslim can kill an American in battle".

The extent to which the prime minister's successor will have to strike a new partnership with Bush, the IISS points out, will depend on the timing of Blair's handover. "The Iraq war is identified in Britain so personally with Blair that the next leader, even if a member of the same party, will be able to leave an enormous amount of domestic political baggage behind," it says. What is surprising, it adds, about both the British electorate and Britain's international partners, is "how little they know about Gordon Brown".