'What we did was right': Ex-head of UK armed forces Lord Dannatt on legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
PUBLISHED: 07:05 06 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:01 07 May 2019
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The Afghanistan and Iraq wars impacted thousands of people in our region. In the first in our week-long series looking at their legacy, reporter Stuart Anderson talks to Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army.
Sending troops to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq remains the right decision, according to the former head of the British Army.
Lord Richard Dannatt said the UK had “no option” but to get involved in the 2001-2014 war in Afghanistan, and although joining the US-led coalition in the 2003-2011 Iraq War was more questionable, “on balance” it was the right thing to do.
But Lord Dannatt, 68, who lives in Keswick, just south of Norwich, said building a stable and democratic Middle East would remain a difficult, if not impossible, goal.
He said: “Given that the Taliban were controlling the country, providing a safe haven and enabling training camps for Al-Qaeda, I don't think we had any option but to get involved.
“Afghanistan today is still a very troubled place, but now girls can go to school, women can move around, and that's really important for the development of any country.
“The economy is slowly strengthening. It's their country and it's up to them, but we've given them the chance to lead a better life.
“The problem is that once we put our Judeo-Christian boots on their Islamic soil, that can very quickly, through propaganda, turn us from being a part of the solution to part of the problem.”
Lord Dannatt said joining the war in Iraq, however, was not properly justified.
He once described it as “a strategic error of biblical proportions” that drew attention away from the shaky peace in Afghanistan, leading to another major British Army deployment to Afghanistan's Helmand province.
He said: “In Easter 2002, George W Bush said 'we're now going to deal with Saddam Hussein, and Tony Blair said, 'we're with you'.
“The problem was he had no authority to say that, struggled to get the British people and parliament behind him and ended up justifying the operation on intelligence of weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist.
“What would have been better, with hindsight, is if the Americans and British had continued to invest in the future of Afghanistan, helping to stabilise and strengthen its economy.”
But Lord Dannatt said some regions of Iraq, including Basra, were better places today thanks to the British soldiers who served there.
He said: “That has certainly given them better opportunities for the future. On balance, I would say that what we did was right.”
Lord Dannatt was chief of the general staff - head of the army - from 2006 to 2009. In 2006 he argued a drawdown of British troops from Iraq was necessary for the army to focus on Afghanistan, and lobbied for better pay and equipment for soldiers.
He has also played a crucial role in building up the resources of armed forces charities SSAFA and Help for Heroes, and brokered a deal with the press to allow Prince Harry to serve in Afghanistan for three months.
Lord Dannatt said multi-ethnic countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which were “artificially created” by European powers in the 20th Century, would never have the same kind of “mature democracy” that exists in the West.
He said: “They're very family-based, tribal-based and clan-based, so you're always going to have quite a rudimentary democracy in those countries.
“They perhaps do work best when there is a strong regime at the centre, but that regime does not have the right to persecute its own people.”
Lord Dannatt said the conflicts had a profound legacy on East Anglia, which saw involvement from the Royal Anglian Regiment, the Light Dragoons, who were based at Swanton Morley, and from RAF Marham.
He said the support the region had shown for those who had served - which included a parade for the Light Dragoons in Dereham and a parade for the Royal Anglians in Norwich - was always much appreciated.
He said: “It's something that happens over there but actually it also does affect us over here.
“Those servicemen may well have lost some of their colleagues over a six-month tour. But when you've got hundreds of people in the street clapping and cheering and waving flags, they think 'we were doing this in the name of the people and the people do appreciate it'. And then they march through the city 10 feet tall and think it was worth it.
“So whether it's EDP readers who have put their hand in their pocket for Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion or have turned up on the street to show their appreciation for soldiers in a homecoming parade, thank you and keep it up.”