Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Iraq Inquiry - what lessons?

Today’s publication of ‘The Chilcot Report’ will provide stacks of material for those of us interested in learning from the past in order to improve future performance.  A few points:

·        Firstly, I declare an interest, having deployed on Operation TELIC in February 2003 on what proved to be one of the most fascinating (if challenging) deployments of my military career. I was a Captain in an Army liaison team, embedded within the Coalition Air HQ in Saudi Arabia.  This morning I dug out the notebook I used to scribble ‘nuggets’ that I then intended to use in a novel (written, yet to be published!). Some that stand out for me below (some of which show the paucity of planning and equipment, as well as some context):

o   Sunday 16 February – Arrival in Saudi Arabia on a reinforcement C-17 aircraft that had been refused entry 4 times by the Saudi authorities, reluctant to be seen to be supporting the imminent war effort; so the RAF changed the call-sign of the aircraft to one of a routine roulement flight and got us in ‘under the wire’;

o   Monday 17 February – Work begins; all UK personnel reminded to get their respirators tested to ensure they are serviceable;

o   Thursday 20 February – Respirator testing is stopped due to the high failure rate; decision apparently made that it would be better to claim ignorance of the state of the respirator filters than have evidence that they were failing and be unable to replace them (not enough spares, apparently);

o   Thursday 6 March – 2 kinds of difficult people out here: those that simply do not understand that war entails discomfort, disturbance and friction and those that use such friction as an excuse to cover up their own failings;

o   Friday 14 March – Reports of 75 Iraqis crossing into Kuwait and trying to surrender to 1 PARA soldiers conducting training; Paras tell them to go back to Iraq;

o   Wednesday 26 March – Reports France has given Iraqi Intelligence Service access to satellite, allowing them to eavesdrop on mobile phone communications;

o   Saturday 30 March – US Army Families Network adverts gut-wrenchingly corny: “helping to spread freedom and democracy around the world”;

o   Sunday 31 March - 1 x Apache downed and every other aircraft in regiment hit by small arms fire during air assault on Medina Division south of Baghdad; reports regiment will not fly again;

o   Friday 4 April – 1 (UK) Div area, soft hats being worn; hearts and minds etc – example of how it’s done? Or is Northern Ireland experience irrelevant here?

o   Sunday 6 April – Difference of opinion between US and UK targeteers re infrastructure and/or Iraqi airforce; US wishes to destroy all aircraft, bunkers etc. UK ask why bother? Not used yet; use now even less likely; faint suspicion around that US motivation might be a wish to sell Iraq new aircraft possibly?

o   Thursday 10 April – UK forces find Iraqi forces arms cache, including 19 French MILAN anti-tank missiles with production date of 1999 (i.e. after the UN weapons inspectors were booted out by Iraq in 1998).  Puts the French opposition to the war into some sort of context, I suggest.

o   Friday 11 April – Time-sensitive targeting of ‘Chemical Ali’ attempt; bombs hit late and miss and a dud; National Component Command furious; SFHQ livid; systemic problem – 12 windows have to go green before bombs drop;

o   Monday 14 April – We have been asked for our lessons; some criticism of lessons process; too quick; not leading to anything.

·        Most of the lessons in the report have been ‘identified’ NOT ‘learned’ – as most people with a passing interest in knowledge management (KM) will know, a lesson is not learned until you have changed something (or made a deliberate, auditable decision not to do so).  Many of Chilcot’s ‘lessons’ are more properly described as ‘observations’ or ‘insights’ and, if they are to become lessons, need to be re-crafted with explicit recommendations added; hopefully this necessary work will now take place;

·        Many of the criticisms of the British Army planning and conduct of operations in Iraq can be found to have their origins in its culture, that of the ‘can-do attitude’ – which leads to senior commanders taking on more work than can be realistically done with the resources offered.  Indeed, Chilcot says:

“Ground truth is vital. Over-optimistic assessments lead to bad decisions. Senior decision-makers – Ministers, Chiefs of Staff, senior officials – must have a flow of accurate and frank reporting. A “can do” attitude is laudably ingrained in the UK Armed Forces – a determination to get on with the job, however difficult the circumstances – but this can prevent ground truth from reaching senior ears. At times, in Iraq, the bearers of bad tidings were not heard. On several occasions, decision-makers visiting Iraq (including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff) found the situation on the ground to be much worse than had been reported to them. Effective audit mechanisms need to be used to counter optimism bias, whether through changes in the culture of reporting, use of multiple channels of information – internal and external – or use of visits.”[1]
This issue is discussed at some length in the article linked from this blog post here, which looks at how the British Army tries to learn lessons from operations and training and how its efforts are hampered by its culture.  It should be obvious that it is not only the military where these problems are found and that many other organisations also have issues with discussing accidents, mistakes and errors openly.
Having read more of the report, I shall write again on this in due course.
For a conversation about knowledge management and learning cultures in general, or identifying and learning lessons in particular, please contact me direct or via the Knoco website.

[1]  Volume 8, Section 9.8 ‘Conclusions: The Post-Conflict Period’, Paragraph 197, Page 504.

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