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Matthew Glanville is a former special advisor to the Governor of Anbar province (in what is now the “Islamic State” in Iraq). Previously, he fought in Iraq in 2006 with the British Army before returning in 2008 as an advisor to the American military.

It is time to discover what has gone wrong in Iraq – not merely why, post-withdrawal, we are witnessing genocide, but how Western nations’ policies went so awry that we didn’t even know it was likely to happen.

In the Middle East there is a saying that if something goes wrong “the British did it”. I have heard it used in relation to rain on people’s wedding day or cars breaking down at vital moments. It refers back to when British intelligence and influence was seen as being behind every twist of Middle Eastern politics. Now, in stark contrast, we are surprised when something as predictable as the Sunni/Islamic State (IS) uprising in Iraq comes to dominate our television screens.

The surprise this situation has caused raises questions: where is our intelligence? Why was a fairly predictable mass Sunni uprising not prepared for by either the US or UK governments? Why were we not warned? Why were we not ready? British activity in the Middle East used to be based on a deep understanding of the area and the peoples. Now we are dropping aid to Yazedis and other groups on Mount Sinjar in a knee-jerk reaction to a humanitarian crisis. The crime is that it was not foreseen.

Understanding history is important, if unfashionable. Glib descriptions of the differences between the Shia and the Sunni have become staple journalistic fare since 2003. However, one doesn’t have to go back a thousand years to understand the current crisis. It has its roots in the disputed Iraqi election result of 2010 and a total failure of Western governments to engage as Maliki ran an increasingly sectarian government.

Since 2010, there has been a deterioration of relations between the Sunni areas broadly to the west and north of Baghdad and Maliki’s Government. The problems have been exacerbated by the situation in Syria.  IS has fed on Sunni resentment in Iraq and the chaos in Syria. The fall of Mosul was dramatic but it was part of a developing pattern: not the bolt out of the blue that western governments and media portrayed it as.

The idea that we have no intelligence networks able to operate in the Sunni areas is very worrying. Failing to engage properly in these areas is terrible policy for us and the long-suffering Iraqi people. Alongside humanitarian aid, we are now having to focus our security efforts on jihadis returning to the UK from an area that we spent billions of pounds and lost hundreds of lives in order to control.

I can understand the focus on domestic terrorism, but without any significant understanding of the religious/tribal/political background we will never be able to control terrorism at its sources. Journalistic reporting from the Sunni areas to the west of Baghdad is non-existent. Large areas of Anbar have been held by jihadi and militant Sunni types since the spring of last year; a fact seemingly ignored by our media and governments. Iraqi Government offensives petered out in the face of local support for the jihadis. This support was passive rather than active, but it was a clear harbinger of what was to come in Mosul.

None of this would have been a surprise if we had anybody from the Foreign Office or the intelligence services there on the ground, or even who just read the local newspapers. I speak as someone who lived in Iraq for four years and used to act as an adviser to the Governor of Anbar province, which is one of the heartlands of the IS/Sunni insurgency. We used to be good at this, what happened?

The strictly domestic focus on the UK’s security betrays our short-term thinking. Agents are put into jihadi organisations to provide information on UK plots, but where are our Anglo-Arab sources of information actually on the Middle East? America has a large Iraqi diaspora, for example in Dearborn, Michigan, and we have Iraqis all over the UK. How is it that our governments seemed surprised by the IS phenomenon?  The exclusive focus on returning jihadis is understandable, but if a similar effort was put into intelligence in Iraq or Syria we might well not be in this position. Similarly, 9/11 might have been avoided if we had agents in Taliban Afghanistan; it is not as if the Northern Alliance and the other non-Pashtu peoples weren’t crying out for meaningful contact with Western governments.

This is not an argument about money. Indeed, last month the military was given £1.1 billion for increased surveillance, signals intelligence and related Special Forces capacity. It is rather an argument about risk and our Government’s desire for simple solutions. It is much neater (and safer) to fly drones or rely on signals intelligence, but what is needed is people willing to risk themselves to get decent human intelligence and, crucially, a governmental class that will listen to those people. Having said that this is not about money, it is worth pondering why the Department for International Development (DFID) is spending £300,000 a year in Iraq versus £160 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area of no strategic or historical relevance to the UK. Of course the current aid flights will increase this sum but, even so, the amount spent on prevention is pitiful when set against the expense of an aerial deployment – let alone boots on the ground.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it is said that the US and Britain did not have one reliable agent in Iraq. During the Cold War we had large networks in places behind the Iron Curtain; countries that were just as difficult to operate in as Saddam’s Iraq. Many of the people involved were motivated largely by a genuine respect for Western democratic values. We seem to have lost the ability to inspire such figures in the Middle East through a confident articulation of our values. It is unforgivable given the lives and money that the UK and the America expended in Iraq that we do not have the networks in place to monitor the development of IS.

What is equally unforgivable is that we then cannot come up with any considered long-term policy response. The US started to ship hellfire missiles last month, and air strikes are now taking place, but with basic intelligence about what was going on outside of Baghdad neither would have been needed. The British Embassy staff in Iraq is not badly informed on the intricacies of Green Zone Baghdad politics, but has very little knowledge of life outside the capital or even beyond its own small, protected enclave. They used to ask me what was going on in town.

The lessons learnt by generations of political officers, travellers, merchants and spies are more important now than they ever were. In the era of the Great Game or Lawrence of Arabia our enemies were unlikely to send disillusioned youths to blow themselves up in London, but the lessons are the same. Policy must be informed by coherent and long-term efforts to understand the situation on the ground.  We spend billions through DFID and the FCO in a variety of countries, but seem to develop neither political influence nor political understanding. We may even recently no have longer have global power, but at least we continued to have global intelligence: today, we don’t seem to have either.

51 comments for: Matthew Glanville: Iraq, IS – and a failure of British intelligence

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