Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Britain and Iraq: fortunes of war

The Guardian, Tuesday 14 April 2009

They swept in from the Fao peninsula on 20 March 2003 with their commanders proudly explaining how their troops could fight, feed and emote with their foes all at the same time. This was the army that had been through Malaysia and Northern Ireland. It could do counter-insurgency. It knew about hearts and minds. It will finally leave Basra this month a humbler force. What happened in the intervening six years was traumatic. Historians will be harsh in their judgment.

The most ignominious moment of Britain’s Iraq war - the subject of a Guardian series this week - came in September 2007, when commanders struck a deal with the Mahdi militia leaders. Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was furious. US commanders accused Britain of cutting and running. Neither told their British counterparts about the Charge of the Knights offensive against the Shia militias, which followed the next spring, until the last moment. The analysis may differ; the crucial flaw may vary from one account to another; but almost all of the players - generals, soldiers and analysts interviewed by the Guardian this week - concur on one point: the Iraq operation, including Britain’s part in it, was an avoidable disaster.

Pre-war planning was negligent. This led to a situation in which 100,000 or more Iraqis may have died. Both Britain and the US were unprepared for the consequences of deposing Saddam and for t he implosion of Iraq’s system of governance. The build-up to the invasion lasted months, yet body armour and plates to protect tanks in the desert were not ordered for fear they would be taken as signs that diplomacy would not be allowed to take its course. There was a serious mismatch between military and civilian resources on the ground. The civilian effort was ad-hoc, hand-to-mouth and left the military too much to do in areas where it had limited experience. Security in Basra, which initially provided troops with a benign environment, might not have degenerated if aid had got in quicker.

Public support corroded and, with it, army morale. There were incidents at welcome home parades. The unspoken bond between a nation and its professional soldiers became strained over the army’s unavoidable guilt by association with Tony Blair’s decision to take part in the invasion. The strategy in the south was less reformist and ambitious than the US operation in Baghdad, which dreamed of bequeathing Iraq with democracy. Britain’s political objective was simply to hold the ring in the south. Even if troops fulfilled their tactical objectives, such as handing over control to the Iraqi army, there was no agreement on the political outcomes.

And bit by bit, US forces, about which British commanders had initially been so dismissive, got better at counter-insurgency. Iraq turned the British argument on its head. US soldiers are now better resourced and trained in counter-insurgency than British ones.

Over-stretched and badly equipped - it all sounds reminiscent of another war the army is waging. And the real question posed by the Guardian series this week is whether anything has been learned. Are miscalculations made in Basra not being reproduced in Helmand? If anything, the task in Afghanistan is harder. The deal which allowed US troops to disengage, and which could still crumble, was between two fairly homogenous groups - the Shia government of al-Maliki and the Sunni tribal chiefs. In Afghanistan, there is neither a central government worth the name, nor a clear enemy. Are the Taliban jihadi foreigners, Pashtu nationalists, farmers by day, fighters by night, or some or all of the above? And are the two allies any more prepared than they were in Iraq to deploy a civilian expeditionary force to assist a military operation in states they judge to be failing? Iraq may already be fading from the headlines, but it casts a long shadow.

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