The invasion of Iraq by British and American forces was a “strategic error” which resulted in the crisis now threatening to tear the country apart, says the former head of the armed forces.
General Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, who was chief of the defence staff until last year, also criticised Western efforts to intervene in Syria, saying they had kept the civil war alive, allowing it to spread into Iraq.
In an interview, Lord Richards said the rise of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) was a direct consequence of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
“My personal view is that the invasion in 2003 was a strategic error. That is said with the benefit of hindsight. There’s no doubt Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator but what it did was liberate a whole load of other forces and we’re seeing that play through today,” he said.
He said the crisis in Iraq had been exacerbated by Western attempts to back moderate opposition forces in Syria. “If you’re going to act to help a cause in another country, my strong view is you have to do it properly. What we did in Syria collectively was enough to keep the war alive but not enough to solve it so it’s now spread into Iraq.”
While Lord Richards said he did not believe Isis was strong enough to take Baghdad, he admitted that the Iraqi army – trained by the British and Americans – had performed badly and needed more assistance.
“The Iraqi army is in a state of shock and needs a lot of help at the top level – what we would call command and control.”
He also warned that current events in Iraq could be repeated in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of international forces later this year.
“It’s a wake-up call that if we don’t just honour our commitments to the people of Afghanistan made in very good faith . . . I fear what we are seeing in Syria and Iraq could happen in Afghanistan next year,” he said.
Lord Richards also called for “positive action” to ensure that more young Muslims in the UK did not become radicalised by events in Iraq and Syria.
“The real key in many ways to prevent firing up our own domestic population is to make sure things going on in other parts of the world don’t become flag bearers for just a few people to start causing trouble here,” he said.
“If we don’t deal with it there is a threat which could grow. So you need to snuff out a problem like this at the source.”