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British pulling out of Basra, US not happy

By Paul Wallis     Sep 3, 2007 in World
Things have got a bit bitchy in the US/UK alliance over Iraq. The British are currently beginning withdrawal of their 550 man force from Basra Palace. The final withdrawal from the Basra area and handover to Iraqi security is expected soon.
The BBC hasn’t had much trouble finding background for this article. The US has been openly critical of the British move, and has said it will send its own troops to Basra if necessary. The number of recent disputes on military issues between the US and UK has been quite noticeable. In both Iraq and Afghanistan there’s sharp delineation between British operational methods and American.
The Americans prefer a combat oriented approach, the British a more conciliatory approach to local occupations. The original British force, in all services, was at its peak a bit less than 50,000. It was wound back severely, to its current 5500, and its capacity to operate has therefore been curtailed equally severely. British forces have suffered 168 deaths since the 2003 invasion.
The US and Britain may speak the same language, but militarily they’re rarely reading the same book, let alone the same page. In the case of Basra, the ability of the Iraqi forces to take over the region is debatable. Southern Iraq/Basra is called the quieter sector in Basra. Yet in a newscast I was watching today, Basra airport is described as “under constant fire”, which doesn’t say a lot for the local security situation.
A further problem in the Basra region is the presence of opposing Shi’a factions, all armed. There are also armed gangs. Again there’s a strong tactical dichotomy. The US has been operating an offensive strategy in the rest of the country, where the British, although they have clashed regularly with the local militias, have been essentially working in a security “overwatch” role.
Actually, British military forces are trained in the classic NATO-style role, and if well equipped, and competent in that context, have been placed in a quite different situation in Iraq. Like the Americans, they’ve had to adapt to Iraq, but on a much smaller operational scale.
Elsewhere in the pleasant chat between the two nations has been American frustration and British spleen. This New York Times article concerning the high level of bitter hindsight now being displayed in some military circles is self explanatory. (NYT articles sometimes default to login screens. Registration is free.)
There’s some justification, however, in the military feeling that it just didn’t have an input into the Iraq occupation, even in 2003. In practice, a lot of the criticism now being made was made at the time, and largely ignored by the political gumdrop factory. It’s clear that a lot of policy was made more by rhetoric than judgment, and implemented without due regard to the military realities. British Major General (ret) Cross is quite correct in his comments in that regard.
The British position is realistic in the current sense, but historically Basra wasn’t the main game, so it didn’t get the attention. Odds are that the Iraqis won’t be able to handle Basra, and it will become the de facto Shi’a capital in the Shi’a-dominated south.
Others have been less enthusiastic about the British role in the south, which is now being labeled a “defeat” in some quarters. The British Independent News has an article which refers to an article by analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (Washington) which details how the British forces effectively lost the plot in 2005, despite military successes against the Shi’a “Medhi Army".
The Cordesman article refers to the well known problems of the highly variable allegiances of Iraqi forces trained by the Coalition, and says that "The Iraqi forces that Britain helped create in the area were little more than an extension of Shi’a Islamist control by other means."
Australian forces which have been training Iraqis have had similar encounters with the weird mix of politics, religion and other associations which make up Iraq’s security forces. To some extent the Shi’a-aligned forces come under the heading of unfinished business. That was a fight the British were never going to win.
The comments may be correct, but the ghost in the argument is the expectations of 2003, which now look grotesque. If nothing else is learned from Iraq, the lesson should be to understand the problem before trying to solve it.
More about Britain, Iraq, Troop withdrawal