Sunday, December 21, 2008

A sorry tale

Britain has lost the stomach for a fight
Michael Portillo

Last week Gordon Brown announced a date for Britain’s withdrawal from Iraq. Most troops will be back in time for a spring general election. The prime minister posed with soldiers and expressed his sorrow over yet more fatal casualties in Afghanistan. He did not dwell on Britain’s humiliation in Basra, nor mention that this is the most inglorious withdrawal since Sir Anthony Eden ordered the boys back from Suez.

The fundamental cause of the British failure was political. Tony Blair wanted to join the United States in its toppling of Saddam Hussein because if Britain does not back America it is hard to know what our role in the world is: certainly not a seat at the top table. But, for all his persuasiveness, Blair could not hold public opinion over the medium term and so he cut troop numbers fast and sought to avoid casualties. As a result, British forces lost control of Basra and left the population at the mercy of fundamentalist thugs and warring militias, in particular Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

The secondary cause of failure was a misplaced British disdain for America, shared by our politicians and senior military. In the early days in Iraq we bragged that our forces could deploy in berets and soft-sided vehicles while US forces roared through Baghdad in heavily armoured convoys. British leaders sneered at the Americans’ failure to win hearts and minds because of their lack of experience in counterinsurgency.

Pride has certainly come before a fall. British commanders underestimated both the enemy’s effectiveness and the Americans’ ability to adapt. Some apparently failed even to observe how much had changed. At a meeting in August 2007 an American described Major-General Jonathan Shaw, then British commander, as “insufferable”, lecturing everyone in the room about lessons learnt in Northern Ireland, which apparently set eyeballs rolling: “It would be okay if he was best in class, but now he’s worst in class.”

Around the same time Jack Keane, an American general, moaned that it was frustrating to see the “situation in Basra that was once working pretty well, now coming apart”. By then General David Petraeus had been appointed US commander, introducing intelligence and determination in equal measure.

If a fair-minded account of the Iraq war is written, credit should go to President Bush for rejecting two years ago the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that called for force reductions. He defied conventional wisdom and ordered a troop surge instead. It has been an extraordinary success and, unlike Britain, the Americans will not withdraw in defeat. During debates in Washington, British forces’ ignominious withdrawal to barracks was cited to argue that the United States could not contemplate being humbled in a similar way. In the end Bush was not a quitter. Blair “cut and ran”.

Britain’s shaming was completed in March 2008 when Iraqi forces, backed by the US, moved decisively against the Mahdi Army, inflicting huge casualties and removing them from Basra. Operation Charge of the Knights was supervised by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, exasperated that Iraq’s second city was controlled not by Britain but by an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia.

Trust in the British had fallen so low that neither the Iraqi nor the US government was willing to give us much notice of the operation. General Mohammed Jawad Humeidi remarked that his forces battled for a week before receiving British support. He rubbed salt in the wound by noting that for five years the Mahdi Army had “ruled Basra without being punished or held to account”, and had during that time controlled ports, oil, electricity and government agencies, whose funds bought them weapons.

It cannot be a defence of British policy that the war was unpopular at home. Our mission was to provide security for the Iraqi people, and in that the US and Maliki’s government have recently had marked success and we have failed. The fault does not lie with our fighters. They have been extremely brave and as effective as their orders and their equipment would allow.

It raises questions about the stamina of our nation and the resolve of our political class. It is an uncomfortable conclusion that Britain, with nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and the latest generation of fighter-bombers, is incapable of securing a medium-size conurbation. Making Basra safe was an essential part of the overall strategy; having committed ourselves to our allies we let them down.

The extent of Britain’s fiasco has been masked by the media’s relief that we are at last leaving Iraq. Those who have been urging Britain to quit are not in a strong position to criticise the government’s lack of staying power. Reporting of Basra has mainly focused on British casualties and the prospect for withdrawal. The British media and public have shown scant regard for our failure to protect Iraqis, so the British nation, not just its government, has attracted distrust. We should reflect on what sort of country we have become. We may enjoy patronising Americans but they demonstrate a fibre that we now lack.

The United States will have drawn its conclusions about our reliability in future and British policy-makers, too, will need to recognise that we lack the troops, wealth and stomach for anything more than the briefest conflict. How long will we remain in Afghanistan? There, in contrast to our past two years in Basra, our forces engage the enemy robustly. But as a result the attrition rate is high. We look, rightly, for more help from Nato allies such as Germany, although humility should temper that criticism, given our own performance in Iraq.
The mood in the Ministry of Defence is said to be despondent. The government, having used our forces in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, has been unwilling to increase the budget. Having announced that he would fight the recession by bringing forward public spending, Brown has pushed back the date of two new aircraft carriers. The Conservatives are too cautious about public spending to make promises. The recession is likely to bring further cuts because neither party sees votes in defence. Nor is either willing to talk of reducing commitments or of specialising in particular defence roles.

Prestige apart, it is hard to explain why we have nuclear weapons, and what price prestige, if it is clear to the world that we could not protect the civilians of a single city in Iraq?
Blair’s military adventures exposed the gap between Britain’s pretensions and capabilities and perhaps between our aspirations and national character. Leaving Basra closes a chapter and Britain now pursues a new delusion. Whereas Blair posed as a global leader by jetting from capital to capital to build military coalitions, Brown circumnavigates the planet to save the world from bankruptcy (albeit by increasing borrowing).

Perhaps we will not be alone in having to downsize our ambitions after the chastening experience of Iraq. The rhetoric about Afghanistan is changing. All-out victory is rarely mentioned. There is talk of securing Kabul and doing deals with the Taliban. It is tough luck if you are a woman in the Afghan countryside, but international attention is turning to Pakistan and Somalia. The allies cannot hope to control the vast terrain within failed states where Al-Qaeda may set up its camps, and the attempt to do so may help the terrorist cause more than incapacitate it.

The election of Barack Obama opens new policy options for America. His administration will use his charisma and other elements of “soft power” to forge alliances and reduce tensions. He may still look to Britain for a larger contribution to forces in Afghanistan. If Albion proves unreliable he may not be surprised. It seems that British forces tortured his Kenyan grandfather.

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