The Price of Division
General Ray Odierno, the American Commander of Multi-National Forces here, says his UK allies were "brilliant". But twice during a recent trip to Washington I heard seasoned players of the power game there use the word "defeat", to describe the experience of the troops sent to southern Iraq by Tony Blair in 2003. I have heard one or two British senior officers use the same word.
So how to sum up an experience in which 179 British servicemen and women lost their lives, hundreds were maimed and billions spent? In the first place I will not use the word "defeat".
During an interview in Baghdad last September with Gen Odierno's predecessor, General David Petraeus, he pointedly refused to characterise his achievements in transforming the overall security picture in Iraq as "victory".In fact, when I pushed him to say whether he would ever use that word, he answered that he didn't think he would. His argument, essentially, was that Iraq was too complex a conflict to be characterised in that way. So if General Petraeus declines to use the "V word", I cannot use the "D word" to describe what has happened in the four provinces of southern Iraq that initially composed the British area of operations.
As we visit, during these final days of the British presence here (some naval training teams will remain and perhaps special forces will make the odd visit, but essentially it is over), we hear much about the recent transformation of Basra. Since the launch of a major Iraqi security operation in March 2008 (Operation Charge of the Knights) the power of the Shia militias has been smashed. The people of this ancient city have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The cannier type among the British forces still here point out their share in this success; many of the Iraq troops that took part in that operation were British trained; that training those forces was a big part of the UK mission; and that when push game to shove with the militias, the Iraqi army received British air and artillery support. All of this is true.
It is also true though that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unleashed the Charge of the Knights at his own initiative; the vast majority of troops involved were Iraqi; that the key 'enablers' during the difficult early days of the Iraqi army's fight were American not British; and that many ordinary people in Basra had lost all faith in the British army because it had left them to the mercy of the militias.
How did this happen? One senior British officer I spoke to before leaving London, put it very succinctly: "In Basra we did not go there to win. We went to create the best conditions we could for withdrawal and that is not winning". The key document used to build support in Washington DC for America's surge strategy was entitled, "Choosing Victory". For several reasons Britain's leaders (political and military) were incapable of choosing a positive strategy, whether we call it "success", or "security" let alone "victory".
In the first place and most obviously, lay the circumstances under which Tony Blair took Britain to war. It was deeply divisive and, as casualties mounted, very unpopular. It meant that when matters became critical with the Shia militias (and this happened in 2004, then later, in both 2006 and 2007) Mr Blair's government lacked the confidence to send substantially more troops to Iraq. Downing Street could not allow the long, slow, withdrawal to be reversed if a sense of 'progress' was to be maintained. With just a few thousand combat troops among a few million local inhabitants, military commanders could not cope.
As for those senior officers, they too share responsibility for what happened. In the first place they allowed personal opinions to govern their conduct of operations, and the generals were as divided as the wider British nation. This meant, as one commanding general followed another each six months that the troops went from leaders who simply wanted to get British troops out of harm's way, (and no matter what the Basrawis thought of them for giving the streets to the militias) to those who did actually want to win.
Major General Richard Shirreff who launched an operation to try and break the power of the militias late in 2006 was arguably the last of the latter kind to serve in this part of Iraq. He understood that the successful exit London craved for required the Mehdi Army and other paramilitary gangs to be broken but London would not give him the extra troops for a "British surge". It must be noted too that Mr Maliki, the prime minister, was very nervous about the general's plans and gave only lukewarm support.
Maj Gen Shirreff attempted his clearing operation with the limited forces allowed, and blew up the city's Jamiat police station for good measure. The Jamiat symbolised the nexus between militias, mafias and the city's bent police, but some other British commanders had pussy-footed around the issue of what to do about it. Whatever the willpower or bravado symbolised by these steps, they could not turn the situation around.
For long before this last fling, the British leadership (political and military) had determined upon a major deployment in Afghanistan. In doing so they violated basic strategic theory for as one British battalion commander in Iraq told me at the time: "We cannot have two 'Main Efforts'". The need to divert scarce resources to Afghanistan put paid to the possibilities of success in Iraq, compounding the under-confidence that had been there from the start.
Britain lacked the infantry and equipment to match the American troop surge in Iraq while ramping up UK operations in Afghanistan. The noble exception in this case of drawing down just when the Iraq conflict was coming to its decisive moment lay in the area of special operations - in which Britain, with a tiny number of troops played a key role, of which I will write here at some future point.
As for Basra and the south of Iraq, when I interviewed Maj Gen Shirreff at the time of his 2006 operations in the city, he said: "We are here until the Americans call 'game over'." But this has not proven to be the case. British troops are leaving well before their US allies, indeed those soldiers are now taking over the facilities at Basra air base. The strategic linkage between America and Britain may therefore have been undermined by the experience of Iraq rather than boosted by it, as Mr Blair so earnestly hoped when he committed the country to war.
For all of the under-confidence with which Britain approached Iraq, it cannot be said that it ending its operations at the time of its own choosing. That is happening because the Iraqi government wants it to.
Many among those who believed Britain still had a responsibility to the people of southern Iraq argued, to quote one of them who spoke to me last year, "that there is still much to do". And indeed there is - from training the police to stabilising elections. It's just that now the Americans are going to be doing it.
When the time came (last summer) to negotiate a new basis for Coalition forces to stay once their United Nations mandate ran out things became clear. The Iraqis wanted the Americans to stay and drew up a treaty accordingly. They were not much interested in prolonging Britain's awkwardness.
The lessons to British prime ministers about the terms upon which they commit forces to future wars are clear enough. But there are plenty of pointers too for the military leadership. As for the Iraqi government, they appeared to allow national pride and historical grievances to govern their attitude to the British.
In this Mesopotamian prescription of a plague on all their houses we must not forget though the opponents of the war back home as well. For while many may feel vindicated by what subsequently happened, it was their hand wringing and magnification of every set back or mis-step that played a key role in undermining the political will to achieve more in southern Iraq.
The lesson there is salient too - protest had a righteous place in trying to prevent what many considered an unjust and illegal war. But once British troops were engaged, the success of their mission should have become an issue of broad national consensus. For if the confidence of Britain's armed forces is damaged by this experience, then that will have its own consequences if troops ever have to perform the kind of missions that do command the support of those who marched against the war.
Anti-war Brits, or the reasonable ones at least, should have rallied around the so-called 'pottery shop' argument - we owned Iraq because we (helped) break it. I heard American soldiers use this justification for the surge as they were risking their lives during the peak of the violence, and to me it has undeniable force. It is precisely because Britain let the Iraqis lead the Basra security drive and is suspending combat operations before its American ally that it has lost some of its prestige in southern Iraq.
I do not believe that Britain was defeated here. I do believe though that the nation faltered, that it lacked he necessary determination to bring about a successful conclusion to its six year fight in southern Iraq. That meant the hard toil and blood sacrifice of British forces in Iraq could never reap their full dividends.