Page last updated at 14:52 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Vietnam war affected US planning for Iraq - John Reid

John Reid said it was ''a terrible mistake'' to let the Vietnam war impact on planning

The "failures of Vietnam" hampered the US in planning for the post-conflict reconstruction of Iraq, the UK inquiry to the war has heard.

Former Defence Secretary John Reid said this "terrible mistake" meant that military chiefs "weren't thinking of detailed nation-building".

But, he added, the US forces quickly learned their lesson and were now "ahead of" the UK in this respect.

Mr Reid became defence secretary in May 2005, two years after the invasion.

The insurgency was growing at the time, although Mr Reid said the danger of "civil war" had been exaggerated, and the British press had been "salivating at the prospect".

'Pulled down pillars'

But the US-instigated disbandment of Saddam Hussein's civil service had caused problems, as had the disintegration of the Iraqi army.

Mr Reid said: "There was a recognition that, having pulled down the pillars, that this was not going to rise again - this state - like a phoenix from the flames."

There has been strong criticism of the US for focusing on the war itself and not dealing in sufficient detail with the post-conflict reconstruction of Iraq.

Peter Biles
Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs correspondent:
John Reid, once a parliamentary enforcer for Tony Blair, has come to the former prime minister's defence.

He gave a contrasting view of the Blair government to the one portrayed by Clare Short on Tuesday.

Mr Reid said he had had every opportunity to ask questions in cabinet, and had never felt any inhibition in telling Mr Blair he was wrong.

"Some cabinet ministers were constantly telling him he was wrong," Mr Reid added.

Ms Short, however, had claimed that her views were stifled at the crucial moment in March 2003 when the cabinet received the attorney general's advice on the legality of the Iraq war.

Mr Reid closed his evidence by recording his "deep sadness at the loss of life" in Iraq. "There are families who hurt grievously… and that's perfectly understandable," he said.

It is a shame the bereaved families who came to see Mr Blair give evidence last Friday did not get a similar message of regret.

Mr Reid told the inquiry: "We cannot truly appreciate the US approach to this without also recognising the legacy and the inherited culture of American military doctrine from Vietnam onwards...

He added that "the US took a view that, as a result of Vietnam, it was not going to be dragged into reconstruction again.

"Because of the failures of Iraq, the terrible mistake was not to recognise that Iraq was not Vietnam, that Afghanistan was not Vietnam.

"The inheritance of that was that American soldiers fought on the battlefield and away from nation-building."

Former head of US Central Command, general Tommy Franks, was among those whose view had been moulded by the Vietnam experience, Mr Reid said.

However, he added: "I think they did learn it [the importance of reconstruction]. I think they are better at learning than we are. They are better at critical self-assessment than we are. In this country we want a stick to beat people with...

"I think they came from behind us and they are now ahead of us."

A declassified document released on Tuesday shows defence chiefs warned that sending extra troops to Afghanistan while the UK was still committed in Iraq would lead to "some pain and grief".

'No overstretched'

In particular, "pinch points" including helicopter support, specialist intelligence and medical provision would remain for longer than had been hoped, a letter sent to Mr Reid says.

Asked at the inquiry whether the decision to move UK troops into Afghanistan's violent Helmand province in spring 2006 had led to military sources being overstretched, Mr Reid said: "I think we were stretched. I think we were taut, but my military advice was, 'We are not overstretched. We can do this'."

Sir Kevin Tebbit: ''The Treasury felt we were using far too much cash''

Mr Reid added: "There is only one perfect science and that is hindsight."

Earlier, the inquiry heard that Gordon Brown, when chancellor, had insisted on a "complete guillotine" of defence spending in December 2003 - just nine months after the invasion of Iraq was launched.

Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit called the £1bn cut "arbitrary".

He said: "In the December of 2003, the chancellor of the day instituted a complete guillotine on our settlement, and we were, from then on, controlled by cash rather than resources...

"It meant that we had to go in for a very major savings exercise."

But the settlement of 2004 resulted in "almost £4bn of extra cash"

This agreement had been reached "at about 10 at night by the chancellor, the defence secretary and myself - about six hours before the whole public spending settlement was published", Sir Kevin said.

He added: "I think it's fair to say that the Treasury as a whole didn't want us to get as much as we got."

"The final settlement in 2004 was a normal, hard negotiation... The guillotine that came in 2003 was an arbitrary issue."

Sir Kevin said: "That would not have made an effect on Iraq or Afghanistan... but [would have involved] a longer-term restructuring of the defence programme."

Several witnesses have told the inquiry that preparations for what became a long campaign, including equipment provision, were inadequate.

Last week, former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the inquiry that planning for the immediate aftermath of the initial military campaign had not been "cavalier".

The Iraq inquiry is looking at the UK's role in the build-up, conduct and aftermath of the Iraq war, in which 179 service personnel died. It is expected to report next year.

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