On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere made his midnight ride between Boston and Lexington to warn colonialists that the British were coming. Once again, Americans are sounding alarms about British forces but this time because they may leave Iraq.
The London Telegraph reports that at their recent Camp David meeting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told President Bush that British troops hoped to hand over responsibility for Basra in the next few months. A British troop hand over would likely lead to a withdrawal of Royal forces from Iraq which would have significant military and political implications.
Any British announcement about withdrawal isn’t expected until after General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, reports to Congress on September 15th. Petraeus is expected to provide a mixed picture of Iraq but there will be enough good news to provide the Bush administration justification to begin scaling back the controversial surge. That decision will give Brown cover to begin downsizing his forces without embarrassing the Americans.
British troop levels have dropped precipitously through Operation Iraqi Freedom, from around 45,000 in March 2003 to 5,500 now. Bob Ainsworth, Britain’s armed forces minister, said, "We are not planning to stay in the numbers we are in south-east Iraq over the long-term." He refused to say when Britain might pull out of Iraq.
Until this winter, Basra, the focal point for British operations, was one of the true good news stories. Violence was relatively low and the economy was humming. Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, chief of the British Defense Staff, boasted that Basra had been a success. Then he added, however, “I’m afraid people had, in many instances, unrealistic aspirations.”
Violence in Basra has rebounded and the British forces have retreated to an airport outside the city where 600 mortar and rocket attacks have been recorded in recent months.
Fierce intra-Shiite fighting has taken over Basra and the Fadhila political party has called for regional autonomy. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki promises to crack down with “an iron fist” to quell violence in Basra and to reassert Baghdad’s authority. That effort, however, is many months away.
The Brits could have done more to prevent the current situation had they kept more troops in Iraq. They know what it takes to fight a counterinsurgency based on 37 years in Northern Ireland. In the 1970s, the Brits failed to control a much smaller and less well-armed Belfast with 27,000 troops. It should have been obvious that keeping a lid on an increasingly volatile Basra with a few thousand troops was naively optimistic.
General Sir Redmond Watt, British commander at Headquarters Land Command, told a Pentagon audience in 2006 that his nation’s Northern Ireland counterinsurgency taught them hard lessons which “should be applied to Iraq.”
It took seven years for the Brits to understand the problem in Northern Ireland and then to embrace an effective strategy, Redmond explained. It takes even more time to build an effective security structure. He emphasized that the Brits and the US “must do this shoulder in shoulder.”
Those views have been ignored by British politicians. After only four years, the counterinsurgency has exhausted British patience. Even British military voices provide fodder for the get out of Iraq crowd. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the British army chief, said Iraq was “exacerbating” security problems and could “break” the British force. Besides, on July 24, Brigadier Chris Hughes, the ministry of defense director of joint military commitments, told Parliament,” I think it’s been quite a long time since anyone has talked about victory in Iraq.”
The British public wants out of Iraq. A March 2007 British Broadcasting Corporation survey found that six in 10 Brits believe going to war in Iraq was a mistake and 55 percent feel less safe because of the war.
The US command in Baghdad anticipates the British departure and has taken steps. On August 9, Lieutenant General James Dubik, commanding general for the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, told this writer that the Iraqi government recently dispatched Major General Abdul Mohan, chief of Iraqi military operations, to assess future security requirements in Basra. The command plans to immediately dispatch a Special Forces battalion and is preparing to deploy more troops subject to Mohan’s report. Dubik was not aware of the proposed British hand-over of Basra to the Iraqis, however.
Baghdad can ill afford to allow the south to disintegrate. The coalition depends on resupply routes running from Kuwait through the southern provinces. The absence of security in Basra would invite militias and Iran to fill the vacuum making future security efforts more costly. Besides, most of the country’s oil is produced near Basra and then exported via the Shatt al-Arab waterway which empties into the Persian Gulf.
For the US, the loss of British forces is about numbers and geopolitics. There are 19 non-US military forces contributing to the coalition in Iraq. The British are second only to the US in number of troops in Iraq and are responsible for Multi-National Division-Southeast. They also watch and support two provinces that have migrated to provincial Iraqi control, al Muthanna and Dhi Qar.
Should the Brits leave, they must be replaced either by diverting American forces from other missions or backfilled with less ready Iraqi forces. Either alternative means that operations elsewhere will suffer.
The Bush administration remains resolute about the geopolitical consequences of early withdrawal. “No one could plead ignorance of the potential consequences of walking away from Iraq now, withdrawing coalition forces before Iraqis can defend themselves,” Vice President Dick Cheney warned.
Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, a strong supporter of the effort in Iraq, agrees and stated in the Washington Post on April 26: “The challenge before us, then, is whether we respond to al-Qaeda’s barbarism by running away, as it hopes we do — abandoning the future of Iraq, the Middle East and ultimately our own security to the very people responsible for last week’s atrocities — or whether we stand and fight.” The week prior suicide bombers killed 170 Iraqis.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill provides sage counsel for his countrymen considering their future in Iraq: “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
The British joined the US “shoulder in shoulder” as General Watt said. Just because, as Churchill said, there have been “unforeseeable and uncontrollable events” should not be cause for going weak in the knees. Our nations must reject calls to abandon the battlefield realizing that leaving now will make our inevitable return far more painful.