MEETING SADDAM’S MEN
Looking for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction
By Ashton Robinson
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $34.99 in paperback | 288pp | ISBN 9781922265524
This book is Ashton Robinson’s unique eye-witness account of the Iraq Survey Group’s (ISG) operations in Iraq, based at Camp Slayer, in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. The group’s task was to search for weapons of mass destruction or to account for them if they did not exist.
Robinson was part of the 3rd Australian Contingent, comprising a team of 10 (8 ADF and 2 civilian members) to ISG. Two previous detachments had each served sequential six-month deployments since April 2003.
He states for the record that he did not support the war in Iraq, even attending an anti-war rally in Canberra in early 2003, and that he did not believe professionally that Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) existed to any significant degree in Iraq, a view he says was widely shared among Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) personnel. His willingness to protest publicly is, in my opinion, quite revealing. In past years, such actions might have led to adverse reports on personnel files.
Robinson did not believe professionally that Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) existed to any significant degree in Iraq
He makes an interesting point on casualty avoidance, a message rammed home repeatedly in the pre-departure briefings. He was told US forces in Iraq were experiencing the highest rate of amputations among casualties since the Civil War. Body armour and rapid casualty evacuation were combining to save wounded personnel who, in previous conflicts, would have almost certainly died. The message here is that, in Australia, there is the potential for huge political grief for the elected government of the day that presides over casualties from an unpopular and unnecessary war.
He offers up a criticism of the Australian Department of Defence in not resolving the issue of who commanded the contingent. He technically outranked the ADF lieutenant-colonel because his civilian equivalent rank was that of a colonel but he describes Canberra’s ‘customary indifference to deployed Defence civilians’ for the issue not being resolved prior to deployment.
And as to why Australia was involved in the war in the first place, he offers the generally accepted view, regardless of whether the government believed in the WMD theory or not: ‘Canberra placed a priority on staying close and maintaining access to Washington for wider purposes’ while taking care not to suffer combat casualties in either Kuwait or Iraq, unlike those suffered in the Afghanistan conflict. Australia’s ability to influence decision-making in Washington was ‘very limited’, he writes, especially given the personal priorities of Vice President Cheney.
I checked out the book ‘Angler: The Shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney’ by Barton Gellman (who, incidentally, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for National Reporting with Jo Becker for their lucid exploration of Vice President Dick Cheney and his powerful yet sometimes disguised influence on national policy – published in The Washington Post).
Gellman exposes Cheney’s unsubstantiated and alarmist arguments in favour of the war in Iraq as he seeks to influence votes in Congress. None of the US intelligence services supported the belief that WMDs existed in Iraq.
Cheney even expounded on the notion that Iraq was working on miniaturisation of an atomic bomb as a terrifying prospect for the world.
Robinson writes that the ISG unintentionally gained some fascinating insights into Saddam’s dictatorship through interviews with most of ‘the Quartet’, Saddam’s senior committee of trusted lieutenants. Despite not meeting Saddam, Robinson writes that Saddam was far from the broken man of popular media depiction and he was most concerned with his historical legacy.
He was described by his interrogators as charismatic, fluent, intelligent and charming. He did not denounce his colleagues but had a low opinion of other Arab leaders. He saw no benefit, in strategic terms, from the other Arab states but above all, he feared Iran.
Robinson also reveals the ‘chain of bogus intelligence’ fed to Washington from expatriate Iraqis such as the London-based Iraqi National Congress. It seems many ‘pre-war informants on WMD’ recanted their previous alarming evidence.
He acknowledges what became obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the war in Iraq: that the Bush Administration were clueless in relation to post-war reconstruction.
Their idea of a country able to hold free elections, of a population willing to set aside loyalties of centuries and vote in a rational way to establish a modern capitalist nation was unrealistic not to mention simplistic in the extreme. What was left after the highly organised and effective military campaign was a country in turmoil and in total social collapse.
Of additional interest in this book is Robinson’s exploration of Australia’s intelligence relationships with allies as well as the development of the insurgency in Iraq and the rise of Islamic State.
But this story is not just about the Iraq War; it’s a rare look into Australia’s allied intelligence relations, and the international politics, intrigue and corruption surrounding the war.
There are a number of appendices to this book, most notably Appendix 2: Further Reading in which Robinson writes about the lack of ‘an academic account of the political and strategic reasoning behind why Australia went to war in Iraq in 2003’ which he says may be addressed by the forthcoming Official History to be published by the Australian War Memorial.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
So, who is Ashton Robinson? He began his career in the then Department of Foreign Affairs. Most of his experience in government was with the Australian Department of Defence, the Iraq Survey Group in Baghdad and the Office of National Assessments (ONA) – part of the Australian Prime Minister’s portfolio – where he dealt with long-term strategic matters, including terrorism, transnational crime and irregular migration. In other words, a man uniquely qualified to produce such a book.
There are many readers who will find this book a compelling read. It illuminates so many of the issues of which we previously have only had the merest glimpse via mainstream media.
Along with other reviewers, I believe this is an important work of history, analysis and reflection so take your time with this book and absorb it. It’s worth the effort to understand this whole sorry saga.
And don’t be put off by the less-than-appealing cover. Not the publisher’s best effort, if I may say so, after seeing so many of their books over the years. I’m a big fan of this small Australian publishing house and maybe it’s just that red and black covers don’t appeal to me.