Implementing the Iraq Commission: What next?
Baroness Margaret Jay of Paddington, co-Chair, Iraq Commission
Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI
1. Simon Maxwell, in the chair, opened the meeting by stating that Baroness Jay had announced her intention to stand down as chair of the ODI Board and Council, but would be remain a Council member. He took the opportunity to thank her for the contribution she had made to ODI.
2. He also described this event as a very useful opportunity to discuss both the process of information-gathering employed by the Iraq Commission, and the substance of the Commission's final report, published and delivered to the Prime Minister in July 2007. Maxwell stated that the problems which the report addresses haven't gone away and in fact, it would be useful to have an update of what has happened in the 3 months since it publication.
Baroness Margaret Jay
3. At the start of her speech, Baroness Jay emphasised that the aim of the Commission, and of the report, was not to re-visit arguments about the war. Also that although three months or more have passed since the publication of the report, and events in Iraq have also moved on, she wouldn't change her original position with regard to any of the recommendations made by the Commission.
4. Furthermore, she was interested to investigate whether any of the recent changes in Iraq were permanent, or just flickers in the bigger picture. She emphasised that the opening remarks of the report still hold true - there are no easy options with regard to Iraq, only painful ones, but an interesting question to ask would be, have any of these painful options become less painful since the report's publication?
5. On the process employed by the Commission, Baroness Jay stated that she found this a very interesting exercise, and a useful collaboration between a think tank (the Foreign Policy Centre) and a media organisation (Channel 4), with the aim of highlighting an issue to a wider audience. The Commission held hearings which were broadcast during the night, and which attracted a surprisingly large number of viewers. Baroness Jay stated that she felt this was a good model which could be transferred to investigations of other issues.
6. The Commission was made up of three Co-chairs, Lord Ashdown, Lord King and Baroness Jay, together with nine Commissioners who represented all revelant sectors - the voluntary sector, academia, the military, etc. A criticism could have been that the Commission was lacking a representative from the Iraqi/Muslim community. Also, that the Commission didn't examine the impact of the war on British domestic politics or community relations, simply due to lack of time.
7. Baroness Jay stated that there was general and firm agreement amongst the panellists with the basic principles of the British operation in Iraq. She described the process of evidence-gathering via hearings, during which oral evidence from over 60 witnesses was gathered. She stated that the Commission obviously had a very broad agenda, which did pose a problem and they were forced to adopt a fairly 'scattergun' approach to the collection of evidence on various topics, which varied from gender politics to the operation of private security firms. Sometimes this resulted in an inadequately focused discussion.
8. Baroness Jay described the panel's constant attempt to focus on the UK's perspective on the situation in Iraq. A purely military focus was clearly the priority for the UK government, but this didn't always bleed across into other concerns. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair had said that the UK should look at Iraq in terms of the regional security situation, and the UK's role in it, but the Commission was more focused on the specific role of UK forces in Iraq itself, and the goal of handing over the responsibility for the security of the country to the Iraqi forces as and when they were ready. She observed that the withdrawal of UK forces from Basra since the publication of the report is consistent with the Commission's position, and could be seen as a step forward, but some issues still remain.
9. Baroness Jay observed that a recent article in the FT, based on US military statistics stated that the number of civilian deaths had declined since the surge, and since the start of the year, over recent months. This seems to be consistent with the slightly more optimistic picture that appears to be emerging. There is a question however, of whether a decline in the number of US forces will create an upsurge in violence.
10. Baroness Jay suggested that the UK government could take advantage of this extra bit of 'headroom' on the security front, to be more vocal with initiatives on the political front. Indeed, the Commission recommended a 'Diplomatic Initiative' to take advantage of the UK's unique position as the second largest contributor to the coalition; its role as an EU member; as a UN Security Council member; and its diplomatic relations with Iraq's neighbours. The UK could thus facilitate a forum for discussion.
11. In terms of economic reconstruction and capacity building, Baroness Jay referenced Simon Maxwell's evidence to the Commission in which he described Iraq as having changed from a middle income country into a failed state in a very short space of time. The Commission had recommended the liberalisation of the economy in this domain. Baroness Jay observed how economic prosperity and a peace settlement had coincided in Northern Ireland, and that Iraq too, has the potential to return to middle income country status unlike many other fragile states.
12. The Commission also looked for benchmarks on good governance. It observed that the role of NGOs would be important, especially when security had improved. Humanitarian aid is also important, especially given the huge refugee problem. Two million Iraqis have been displaced outside Iraq (including since 1948) and two million displaced inside Iraq. Small numbers of refugees returning from Syria recently were probably among the poorest and it is unlikely that 'middle class' Iraqis will immediately go back. The Commission recommended that the UK should assist the UNHCR, and should use its expertise in the field of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The refugee situation has been exaccerbated by the tribal disparities prevalent in Iraq and its long-standing conflict with Iran. There would be an important role for NGOs in addressing this issue too.
13. In conclusion, Baroness Jay observed that there are multiple problems affecting Iraq, some specific and some broader or of regional significance. She observed that the UK response, as well as that of the US, will also be affected by domestic political changes, such as the recent change to the British Government and the upcoming US Presidential elections.
Simon Maxwell divided the discussion into three questions:
1. How do we understand the situation in Iraq today? The answer to this includes issues such as the newly created 'diplomatic space' and the impact of the price of oil at $100 a barrel, etc.
2. Which way forward for Iraq now? The answer to this involves military, economic, political and social actors, as well as Iraq's own neighbours and the UN.
3. What should UK do on Mon morning? The answer to this involves the UK's own humanitarian, military and political actors.
Questions and comments raised in response to these included:
- Has the Comission had enough impact and how can we judge that impact? It is extremely urgent to be active now in relation to Iran, in case of a drift towards military action across the Iraq-Iran border. Iran is a failed state in the making - there is an increasingly hollow economic situation there, and potential chaos.
- The US surge and other recent operations by the Americans have had a significant effect but as Gen Jackson said at Chatham House last week, the military cannot achieve everything that needs to be achieved by itself. The situation is similar to a multi-stranded rope - the military is just one strand of many and all strands must operate simultaneously, not one at a time.
- On the returning refugees, it seems to be that people don't want to go back, but are running out of money, unable to work, and living in fear of arbitrary arrest, etc. The humanitarian response is hampered by huge insecurity and funding issues - millions of dollars are tied up in reconstruction budgets, whereas there is relatively little available for the humanitarian response.
- Security conditions for humanitarian workers very risky. The absence of the UN constitutes a big question - what role can there be for the UN from here on in? Lord Malloch Brown is pushing strongly for a bigger role. Iran is also a huge factor - solving Iraq looks problematic while Iran also remains so. The movement of people is also a huge problem - both political and humanitarian. It has changed thepolitical make-up of Iraq and precipitated a disaggregation of the political groups. Can Iraw even still work as a political entity?
- The security situation has improved substantially in certain areas, but not throughout the country. People are venturing out and staying out late, and people are returning, for many reasons. Not many of these reasons relate to security but security has played a part. The situation is still very fragile - Basra is almost in a state of civil war. The UN is not helping by not intervening and women in particular are finding it difficult in Basra. Internally displaced people are not returning to their homes and this is dangerous because it means that the country could descend into sectarian states.
- There is a higher percentage of women-headed households and women inside Iraq. If initiatives targeted women, real progress could be made.
- Negotiations need to include all parties not just some. Huge tracts of Iraq are militia-run at the moment - if they aren't engaged, peace won't ensue. Negotiations also need to start at the local, decentralised level.
- Is enough being done by the FCO, by the security services, and by those in the development arena, to get inside information about how the different political forces are lining up against each other? Do any of us have the right quality of information to answer the question of whether the surge has worked or not?
- Evidence from women to the Commission suggested a different definition of security/insecurity. The women were in favour of the withdrawal of military forces, which they said cause more insecurity. On the economy, they wanted economic activity, but how might it be possible to pump money into grass roots economies under insecure circumstances? Perhaps the two most lingering problems will not be amenable to international action anyway: the revival of patriarchal, tribal systems, and organised crime.
- The changes that have happened on the ground in the four months since the report was published are positive. There have also been changes in the position of the UK government. However the international community and UK government haven't changed their positions on bringing the UN into Iraq in a more definite way. How should we lobby the British government on this issue and change the attitude of theUK and US governments towards the UN? Political change in the US in 2009 may help to change that attitude.
- The issue of Turkey and the PKK - in Northern Iraq, women enjoyed very good rights, but this region is now unstable. It is very important to try to redefine security. DFID recognise that there are different problems for womens in terms if insecurity - it is impossible for them to even meet up outside the Green Zone and it would endanger womens' lives if womens' organisations were seen to be being supported by donors like DFID.
- The UK government has not historically been very good at joined-up policy thinking. Can the UK play a leadership role? Can we expect to be able to deliver broader goals given our history and involvement with the military coalition? The Iraqi British can be active and get the UN to move in to end the occupation. Britain also has a lot of influence itself, which could be used to water down the link between the Iraqi state and religion. More aid is also needed - humanitarian aid for IDPs and returning refugees, as well as economic aid.
- Some easier wins for Britain are from the outside - e.g. stop returning Iraqi asylum seekers; acknowledge that there is a refugee burden which should be shared; and engageme with Syria on the refugee issue (both aid and political engagement). The government of Iraq is very wealthy but riddled with factions - it needs to be engaged in order to acknowledge and meet its responsibilities.
- There is a contradiction - we can't get its neighbours engaged to sort Iraq. At same time, the UN set on path that excludes Iran. The UN can't do everything unless it is given overall control, but it is unlikely that the US will concede that. Britain should ensure that it has done everything it can to avoid further deterioration in the political and security situation and should exploit the existence of a large number of neightbours and factions inside Iraq - bring them all to the table and let them do the trading.
Baroness Jay commented that she agreed that encouraging economic green shots at the local level will be fundamental and that it is possible to do that without imposing security. She also agreed with bringing all parties (neighbours and internal groups) to the table. She believed that the UK should also be more modest - game aboe our moral and political rate, coalition has produced disastrous political and military results. Long historical links tiwth Iraq and local things - helping women, civil society, local economic change, reconstruction at local level, help civil society orgs to go in to do this work. Large number of such orgs properly supported, better than UN dev agencies trying in a complex way to take on same agenda. British society has better track record in some of these things than in other 'higher' political adventures it has become involved with.
The Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), in partnership with Channel 4, facilitated a UK Iraq Commission - the British equivalent of the U.S. Iraq Study Group. The Commission was independent, cross-party and produced a final report containing recommendations for the future of Britain's role in Iraq. It was jointly chaired by Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, Baroness Jay of Paddington and Lord King of Bridgwater.
The Commission examined all possible options for Britain's future role in Iraq and considered evidence from a wide range of viewpoints. The final report was published and delivered to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the main political parties in July 2007.
Baroness Jay said at the start of the process, "The Iraq Commission aims to produce a long term strategy for Britain's role in Iraq - this will incorporate the challenges of reconstruction, rebuilding and humanitarian relief efforts, as well as security for the Iraqi people and British troops."
At this ODI and Foreign Policy Centre event, Baroness Jay outlined the process of evidence-gathering employed by the Commission and the major findings of the report.