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The Price of Division

Mark Urban | 16:29 UK time, Tuesday, 14 April 2009

BASRA - Britain's military campaign in southern Iraq is almost over.

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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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    WHY WE MUST NOT ELEVATE 'NUTTERS' LIKE BLAIR TO RUN OUR COUNTRY AND LIVES.

    "we owned Iraq because we (helped) break it." NOT IN MY NAME.

    Blair is now a high-profile, world nutter. Those who could not 'read' him from the start, now have him 're-issued' in large print format.
    Brown arose by the same process and is proving to be just as deluded and self-serving (even in having a 'Campbell' at his side.)
    IDS and his whipped-boys granted Blair his war, so Tories are no judge of character either!
    OUR GOVERNANCE helped Bush in the Iraq (constructive?) folly; it is our governance, root, branch and twig that we must dismantle, and bury in a lime pit. Then Westminster must be fumigated - better still dynamited - and a whole new approach to governance devised.

  • Comment number 2.

    ...the British army because it had left them to the mercy of the militias. ..

    they made it in the uk image? towns left to the mercy of organised crime gangs that have doubled under nulabour.

    the lies for the war that should never have been is at the root of the failure. it is as if the gods themselves threw sand in the british engines whie iraq became a land of three rivers [euphrates, tigris and blood] and cursed their every move?

    even the media participated in the evil eye with that iranian seizing of the RN sailors when the helicopter giving cover was sent back because the film team on it had to do an interview elsewhere? [which tv team was kept quiet for some reason?]


    blair must be the worst PM the uk has ever had. left it with un winnable neocon wars and a so weakened financial regulation that we had bank runs and are effectively bankrupt for a generation.

    anti war brits is neoconspeak that a Straussian 'golden soul' might be proud of? the usual with us or against us shtick?

    pro truth and human rights for all and law and order is where the honour was and is. Dr Kelly, Robin Cook and others who resigned are names that should be on a stone to remind people that honour does live in the uk and that some did chose a path that was noble for which they paid a price?

    the nation did falter but only because they trusted the guardian class and believed the guardians words were for the uk's interest and so did their citizen duty and went along with what everyone sees now as debased folly.

  • Comment number 3.

  • Comment number 4.

    "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."

    Or, as it might have read in a parallel 1990.

    "Anti-war Iraqis, or the reasonable ones at least, should have rallied around the so-called 'pottery shop' argument - we owned Kuwait because we (helped) break it."

    To argue that, once our army had attacked "the success of their mission should have become an issue of broad national consensus" is utterly silly. It makes as much sense as telling onlookers to cheer on a bank robbery once it has begun.

    There was no success, there could not be. An invasion launched on lies is a defeat the moment it begins.

    The BBC -and journalists such as Mark Urban- aided and abetted the most monsterous of crimes. To blame Iraqi resistence and the humiliation of our armed forces on those of us who stood up for legality and morality is feeble.

    Face up to the facts, grow up and accept the blame that is rightfully yours. At least your still alive -more than can be said for hundreds of thousands of your victims.

  • Comment number 5.

    I HAVE A NIGHTMARE TODAY (#4)

    Thanks for that DTraynier - I had the same view of Mark's stance but the right mode of expression did not come to mind. He seems such a cogent bloke; is it a cop out or an aberration?

    Not enough that we are dupes led by monsters; they wheeled out Limited Ed to defend the indefensible J Gordon Brown aka Mr Hyde. I have posted here before of Jekyl and Hyde Brown; chilling to see Frank Field endorse the view. Far worse than chilling - sort of soul-numbing - is my assertion at #1 above: our SYSTEM of governance is dug in behind the Westminster ethos, and is as well defended as a Sadam or Mugabe regime, in its unassailable iniquity. Truly we live within an abysmal lie, and J Gordon is a fitting denizen of that abyss. But while he savours his sulphurous machinations (and those of his lesser devils) it is our stupid, indolent, effete acceptance - even connivance - that permits this unending imposture to persist.

    Small wonder Britain's (rank) rankings, in everything from arms sales to national misery, are so impressive.

    Never in the field of human injustice did so few cock up the lives of so many.

  • Comment number 6.

    FOR THE AVOIDANCE OF DOUBT (additional #1)

    I repeatedly assert that I correctly assessed Blair at the start of his reign. That might seem a bit 'wise after the event'. However: I was first alerted to his extreme level of omnipotence when, in full public view, Cherie hung round his trunk like a groupie with a pop-star. At any moment, I thought, he would squirm with embarrassment and 'peel her off', but Tony behaved as if he was unaware; or, like a shallow pop-star, receiving nothing less than his due.

    I judged him correctly - only the SCALE of his aberration did I, perhaps, misjudge. But then, Tony is a phenomenon! What I had noted was only a small sample of the full Blair repertoire. We know he is going to have a bit of trouble with the 'Needle's Eye' but I would love to be their when Fixer Tony tries to 'justify the works of God, to Lucifer', in the afterlife!

  • Comment number 7.

    'The government wants to draw a line...'

    Would this be a thick, felt-tip line?

    Support for our knows-nothing PM is quaintly loyal to the 'Gordon they know' (um, 'very well'... so that's OK then) and they love, but one wonders who superglued these GOAT's tails to the coat-tails of Dear Leader as he looks for another iceberg to ram with, sadly, the ship in a state that the British electorate are currently reluctant passengers upon.

    Love the VO following Frank Field's thoughts. 'Gordon Brown's critics, however...'

    However? If what he said was supportive, I'd hate to hear anything not helpful.

    Mind you, the notion that all this will be resolved by Gordon Brown 'bringing in' team B, with him still at the head of it, is risible. This moral compass he has seems to only point at the next iceberg! Are we doomed to follow him to oblivion? Is our system of governance so rigid that nothing can be done to spare us from the paranoid Madness of PM G?

    And any notion that the spinning genies released from these various odious bottles can be corked, much less unhired, is as daft as pretending nukes can be un-invented.

    And will political leaders stop telling me what I think or want. They have no blooming clue what... no... let's just leave it at 'they have no blooming clue'.

  • Comment number 8.

    The failure was one primarily of political leadership and resourcing. It's easy for politicians to despatch troops into battle, however much they feign agonising over the decision. Blair was a past master at laying on the faux emotion.

    The British armed forces have been run down and under-resourced for many, many years. Brown has always despised them.

    I suspect that, given the mother-of-all economic disasters that now defines a decade of Labour Government, things will get worse before they get better in terms of armed forces' resourcing in future.

    I hope we have some gutsy generals and senior civil servants in the MoD prepared to stand their ground in the coming years, otherwise we can kiss goodbye to any pretensions of having one of the most effective fighting forces in the world. Our armed services are already being viewed with increasing disdain by the Yanks.

    This Labour Government will go down in history as presiding over a precipitous step-change downwards in the standing of the UK in the world: economically, socially, politically and in our capability to deal with conflict effectively and efficiently.

    That's what we get when we vote into power little more than a bunch of political gangsters. At least they're being found out now, and not before time. Whether an alternative political party in power can reverse our armed forces' decline remains to be seen. If not, we'll regret it one day.

  • Comment number 9.

    ICE AND 'FIRE!' (#7 and 8)

    The 'ice-seeking' compass of Captain Brown has a poignancy all its own. And little does he know that Gollum Blair crossed the steering controls before he left!

    We are often told that 'democracies do not go to war with each other'. However, since the New Pearl Harbour, there are a couple who reckon they have carte blanche to duff anyone - democracy or no - on a whim. Should not such wild men be disarmed? Indeed, while Britain keeps sending oddball wannabes to Parliament, where the most peculiar rise to be PM, perhaps we should disarm OURSELVES in the name of humanity?

    Or is 'civilisation' defined by the excellence of its killing and destruction arm?

  • Comment number 10.

    Excellent piece Mark. Hopefully following the final pull out the UK military will have time to assess its mistakes in Southern Iraq and take on board the lessons learned regarding the importance of maintaining a 'will to win' in senior command.

    Ive oftern wondered why people 'back home' still seem still to focus with the decisions made about going to war in the first place, which could not now be altered, at the expense of trying to positive influence the future of Southern Iraq. I suspect some of this feeling rubbed off on the generals.

  • Comment number 11.

    I was opposed to the intervention in Iraq from the start not because I am anti war but because it was not feasible ever to reconstruct any broken pots. Iraq is divided into three part. Each of these parts is divided by armed tribes (kinship groups) and imposed upon all this are gangs of various sorts. All this was known before the intervention was planned in early 2002. Even if the existing administration had been kept in being, it would be doubtful if the situation would be any better.

    But there was no WAR after the initial occupation phase. USA/UK were there is an occupying power.

    The notion that we should all shut up and wave Union Flags at this second stage is absurd. After all the object was to turn Iraq into a democratic state... yet Mark Urban wanted us to shout the old slogan 'my country right or wrong'

    Britain was not being threatened by Iraq and is still not being threatened by anybody of significance.

    This was a colonial action like Aden, Cyprus, Kenya etc. and Mike Urban's description of the military commanders' attitudes and policies are very reminiscent of those previous failures.

    History was repeating itself as a tragic farce.

  • Comment number 12.

    Mark, you're absolutely right not to use the word 'defeat'. I believe the correct terminology for what happened was 'a right royal ass-whooping'.

    And deservedly so given that our poor drone military folk were sent there to aid and abet a grand crime against humanity.

    Perhaps we should cheer any despot's imperial crimes once they have begun no matter how vehemently we oppose the crime before the fact? That seems to be what you propose.

    Remind me again, don't we pay your wages? So why are you working so staunchly for the unelected government?

  • Comment number 13.

    The whole point of going into Iraq was to oust Saddam, so that the Iraqis could enjoy a new form of government, preferably democratic.

    That part of the mission was successful.

    There then followed a difficult time of adjustment for the Iraqi people, when occupying forces tried to stop the more forceful internal elements in Iraq taking power.

    Our continued military presence enabled the Iraqis to take over government, and set up new systems and cultural outlooks for their people.

    It will take many more years for the habits of years under Saddam to be left behind, and rifts and divisions healed.

    Without our continued military presence, Iraq would have not come to the semi-stable state that it now enjoys.

    So our continued armed presence may not have been a military success, but overall the outcome for Iraq is a success.

    Whether the Iraqis appreciate our help through these difficult times in another matter.

  • Comment number 14.

    newsjock,

    I'm afraid your comment illustrates the power of our propaganda system. Invading Iraq was explicitly not about ousting Saddam nor improving life for Iraqis;

    George Bush, speaking in October 2002, said that ‘The stated policy of the United States is regime change… However, if [Hussein] were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations, the conditions that I have described very clearly in terms that everybody can understand, that in itself will signal the regime has changed’ (Bob Kemper, ‘Saddam can keep rule if he complies: Bush ‘ Daily Times October 23 2002)

    ‘Regime change in Iraq would be a wonderful thing. That is not the purpose of our action; our purpose is to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction…’ (Tony Blair, answer to Parliamentary question, September 24, 2002)

    ‘So far as our objective, it is disarmament, not régime change - that is our objective. Now I happen to believe the regime of Saddam is a very brutal and repressive regime, I think it does enormous damage to the Iraqi people... so I have got no doubt Saddam is very bad for Iraq, but on the other hand I have got no doubt either that the purpose of our challenge from the United Nations is disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, it is not regime change.’ (Tony Blair, interview November 14 2002)

    As for your remarks about Iraq now enjoying being a 'semi-stable state' -well it was before we invaded. Yes, it was a dictatorship but that hardly makes it different from saudi Arabia or Kuwait -two of our key allies.

  • Comment number 15.

    THE (AF-PAK) GLUE

    PASHTUNWALI

    The centuries-old tradition called (pashtunwali) is the Pashtun code of conduct that makes tribesmen resent any uninvited intruders, while protecting those seeking shelter. As a matter of honor, kicking the door itself is the biggest insult, no one can dare kick my door, its not allowed, because you are then declaring war against the Pashtun household within, inviting revenge. The Russian version is if you come to Russia with the closed fist of war, you will not place one foot upon Mother Russian soil. Anyone caught betraying a fellow Muslim risks finding their family dishonored for generations. On a side note what did the French do to collaborators? Britain need to understand not, everything pivots on money, and in the Islamic world, at least when it comes to Osama Bin Laden, it pivots off of religion.

    The Central Asian Pipeline:

    The Central Asian Pipeline is scheduled to run from Turkmenistan which is rich in hydrocarbons and the building of the Central Asian Pipeline system transporting (NG) across Afghanistan to the ports of Pakistan, Karachi, and round the globe in (LG) Liquid Gas from, to waiting markets, with a branch line to supply the needs of India.

    (Af-Pak)
    The Afghanistan-Pakistan campaigne serves (3) three goals, the removal of Nuclear Weapon from the hands of an Islamic State Pakistan, ending its threat to India, The Central Asian Pipeline, and last but not least, providing a third entry point of attack into Shi-ite Persian Iran, from the west thru Iraq, from south, the sea the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and the east Pakistan thru Afghanistan into Iran. The only problem is (AIE) American Israeli Empire troops after (7+) seven plus years of combat are broken, suffering from (PTSD) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, coupled with the highest suicide rate in its military history, and a (DRAFT) of fresh American Troops is out of the question having sold the concept of a highly paid professional military. This is were the (UK) United Kingdom the Commonwealth comes into play, fresh (COMBAT) front line troops, which goes to the August (20th) elections in the Commonwealth that is crucial, allowing the (UK) troops from Iraq to be repositioned into the (Af-Pak) theater of operations, along with increasing numbers of commonwealth troops as the situation deteriorates, which is will as this is a (TRAP), and King David H. Betray US, The Butcher of Islam is going to stick Commonwealth troops heads into it. Iran may agree to help the (AIE) but once the (TRAP) has been sprung will turn its interests toward Iraq, and The Russian Federation, well pay backs for the Soviet Afghanistan War is a (Bee-Itch).

    THE GLUE

    The British are the glue holding Europe in the Islamic Crescent War on Islam, the war on Islam, the idea will come to the Islamic Freedom Fighters that you break the bonding glue the coalition will fall apart, first to go after the Brits inflict as heavy causalities as are possible, then hit the French, with large Pakistani and Arabic pollutions in both Britain and France the pressure will build to pull out, Britain did not break it, France did not break it, they do not own it, and they do not need to repair it, and no one in these areas are asking them to. Is Britain the (52nd) State of the (AIE), if not then what is the (Special Relationship) clause, mean, a Trillion Pound Military Budget, and call up, for a decade or more unnecessary war?

  • Comment number 16.

    bookhim, Dtraynier and cping500,

    none of you like the pottery shop argument - but its quite an important one in a democracy. A significant part of the anti-war movement - exemplified by the Liberal Democrats - got it. Having fought tooth and nail to prevent the war, they accepted the UK's moral responsibility to try and put things right after it. I recall the German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, having tried to halt the path to war and empower the UN said words along the lines of 'I didn't want this but now its happening its in our interests for it to be as quick and successful as possible'.
    I'm not sure that you would use your line of argument in any other area of government policy. Would a failure of a campaign to close private schools mean you would boycott the entire education system ? Or at an even more basic level, would the failure of your party of choice mean you would boycott all future elections ?
    Rallying around a joint policy that you may actually have vehemently opposed is an accepted part of any government system from the UK (where you get it in the rules of Cabinet government) to the old Soviet bloc, where the Marxist Leninists called it democratic centralism.
    Naturally you would hope that government learns its lessons of a decision like invading Iraq and that's why I referred to the lesson 'first and foremost' being one about not taking a divided nation to war.


    Gavburt and moraymint
    thanks for your contributions too. keep writing :-)

  • Comment number 17.

    Mr. Urban has shown some initiative is establishing that the West has decidely not won in its efforts and may have been defeated. How many recall the saga of the Anglo involvement in View Nam?

    Is there any strategy that would produce a victory and, if so, would it be worth it?

    If not, what is the best approach to the situation?

    A variety of interviews might be helpful in this exploration.

  • Comment number 18.

    # 14 emphasises some critical points, but does not explicitly mention oil, Israel and advanced bases. Have we forgotten that almost 100 years ago, Britain engaged in the same adventure with similarly unsuccessful results?

    Suppose that the Taleban in Pakistan take over all the rural areas. This will enlarge their area in Pakistan/Afghanistan. Will this pose a threat to the West? Bin Laden operated from Afghanistan and had training bases there. Could he not have done this from many other countries? Does having a base consist of a serious military threat?

    Suppose that the Taleban take over the whole of Pakistan and that they thereby gain control of what nuclear weapons that Pakistan has. What, if anything should the West do about it?

    Is nuclear proliferation not inevitable?

    Are wars of imperial domination the best solution?

    Are we intelligent enough to devise a better World system? If so, what would be the characteristics of such a system and how should we move toward it?

    Certainly the BBC can ask the questions that might get people thinking.

  • Comment number 19.

    Mark

    Your "pottery shop" argument makes no sense - as this correspondent pointed out on MediaLens:

    "Dear Mark

    You write in your blog:

    "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."

    That can't possibly be the whole argument because, as it is, it would entitle every invading Army to endlessly potter around a country claiming to be fixing it. The pottery shop argument, in fact, can be used, in this sense: if you break it, you pay the owner, in other words, you stop breaking things and pay for all the damage. The owner is still entitled to take you to court. You are not allowed, under any stretch of the imagination, to use lethal force to stay in the shop and break other things while you tell yourself you are fixing things. When the owner and his friends try to evict you, they are not "insurgents" and "militia" and "anti-American", they are merely doing what you would do in their shoes if a Chinese Army came to Britain to "fix it" and a collaborationist government emerged (they always do).

    In the end, a foreign army cannot do anything good unless it's under the political control of the people it occupies. If you deny this, you are simply not a democrat and you should start your commentary always by saying "These people, the Iraqis, are not fit for democracy and they can't know what's right for them, so the British Army needs to tell them what's good for them" It is, after all, the unstated premise of your main themes so you might as well articulate it.

    You have helped formulate a myth in Britain about how Iraq is to be remembered. It will be remembered very differently by the Iraqis who, still, overwhelmingly distrust foreign armies and blame foreign meddling for their recent catastrophe. I would have thought that the duty of an honourable person would be to bring Iraqi views of the occupation to the attention of the British people. This, you have sadly failed to do as most British journalists have. If you were an agent of the intelligence services, your behavior would need no further explanation. I have no idea if you are or not and I don't particularly care. There is a system in place that promotes your kind of journalism over compassionate, democratic alternatives and that is what matters, not your personal circumstances. I would ask you to resign and not contribute your services promoting another war in which we could mourn another million lives. Enough.

    Best Regards
    Themos Tsikas

    PS: feel free not to reply but I am happy to engage in exchanges if you deemed it fruitful. I am copying this to the Medialens editors."

  • Comment number 20.

    On April 15, we wrote to Mark Urban, the Diplomatic Editor of the BBC‘s Newsnight programme. Urban was formerly defence correspondent at the Independent. He served in the British Army, for nine months as a regular officer and four years in the Territorials. He has hosted a series of virtual reality war games on the BBC, Time Commanders, re-enacting key battles. He is also the author of several books:

    Soviet Land Power (1985)
    War in Afghanistan (1987)
    Big Boys' Rules: The SAS and the secret struggle against the IRA (1992)
    UK Eyes Alpha: Inside British Intelligence (1996)
    The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell (2001)
    Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters (2003)
    Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World (2005)
    Fusiliers: Eight Years with the Redcoats in America (2007)


    Dear Mark Urban

    Hope you're well. In your latest War And Peace blog, you write:

    "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."

    You have misunderstood the whole basis of the anti-war protest. The argument is that the invasion was illegal, in fact a classic example of the supreme war crime - the waging of a war of aggression. The Nuremberg trials were clear that it makes not a jot of difference whether such criminality has positive outcomes - the waging of aggressive war is illegal.

    You write further:

    "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."

    Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, did not agree. He said:

    "The very essence of the Nuremberg charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience imposed by the state."
    (http://www.counterpunch.org/mosqueda02272003.html)

    The "international duties" of British citizens after the 2003 invasion included working to terminate the criminality as soon as possible. What would you have made of Hitler or Saddam calling for the same "national consensus" once their troops "were engaged"? The difference is that we're a democracy? Says who? Not US presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who declares of the US political system:

    "We have a two-party dictatorship in this country. Let's face it. And it is a dictatorship in thraldom to these giant corporations who control every department agency in the federal government."
    (http://therealnews.com/t/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&I
    temid=74&jumival=2718)

    Obviously the case for resisting criminality is far more urgent once it is underway. American soldier Camilo Mejia, who spent eight months fighting in Iraq, made the point:

    "I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true... I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq."
    (http://www.truthout.org/article/camilo-mejia-regaining-my-humanity)

    You write:

    "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."

    You seem obsessed with the issue of victory and defeat. Do you think the Iraqi people care about the "prestige" of the British army in southern Iraq? Last month, John Tirman, Executive Director of MIT's Center for International Studies, estimated "between 800,000 and 1.3 million [Iraqi] dead as of January" (http://www.medialens.org/alerts/09/090330_children_of_darkness.php)

    Around 4 million Iraqis remain refugees. The disaster for them has been simply cataclysmic. The independent journalist Nir Rosen commented recently:

    "I visited numerous neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere, in Fallujah, Karbala, Hillah. And you have these vast wastelands, basically huge piles of sewage and garbage, where tens of thousands of Iraqis live in shacks and hovels, squatting in bomb shelters. They receive no help from the government, from the UN, from the US. They're unknown. They worry that if they call attention to themselves, that they'll be forced to leave. The government, of course, doesn't want to help them, in a way, because they feel if they provide them assistance, they might get comfortable where they are, and the Iraqi government is trying to encourage, if not force, the displaced Iraqis to go back to their homes, so they can say the refugee file is closed, life in Baghdad is OK.

    "I saw in southern Baghdad, on basically a vast pile of mud and sewage, a man had built a home entirely out of air conditioners. He piled air conditioners three high and built walls and threw on a tarp over it, and that was his home. It's almost impossible to breathe when you visit many of these people, because the stench of the sewage and garbage is so strong. They have little access to healthcare, to schools. Their life is really miserable and desperate."
    (http://www.democracynow.org/2009/4/9/nir_rosen)

    Your blog makes no mention of these victims of the war. We notice that one of several books by you on the military is titled "Big Boys' Rules: SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA." It seems to us that you are excessively focused on the "Big Boys" and their games, and far less interested in the civilian victims of war.

    In calling for a "national consensus" in support of our troops once the fighting began, you make a mockery of the BBC's famed commitment to impartiality. Richard Sambrook, the former BBC director of news, told one newspaper:

    "People sometimes ask me what I'm going to do after the BBC. And the answer is that I'm going to have opinions again. They've been repressed for so long. In dinner party conversations, I find it quite hard to have an opinion, because I'm so used to the 'on-the-one-hand, on-the-other' outlook." (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/richard-sambrook-war-coverage-has-changed-for-ever-we-might-end-up-with-a-death-live-on-tv-59
    2906.html)

    Andrew Marr commented in similar vein:

    "When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed." (Marr, The Independent, 13 January, 2001)

    Clearly your organs of opinion remain very much in place.

    Best wishes

    David Edwards and David Cromwell


    Urban replied on April 21:

    David and David,
    Replying to your points in no particular order:

    - the BBC's commitment to impartialiality is not a ban on opinion. I don't really see the blog in question in terms of opinion anyway. I would prefer to see it as an analysis of Britain's six years campaigning in southern Iraq, based upon widespread discussions with people involved and visits to the places in question. Obviously it quotes quite a few opinions, but that is part of the essence of reporting.
    - I don't understand whether you want BBC journalists to be shorn of opinions ? Is that desirable in your view or is opinion allowable among BBC journalists for as long as it happens to coincide with yours ?
    - Have you read "Big Boys' Rules" ? Would you like to read some reviews of it ? Certainly I don't think most readers took it to be an uncritical acount of British operations in Ireland.
    - I've been to most of those places mentioned by Nir Rosen and I don't share his views. I admire him for going there though. Perhaps you should do likewise. I understand some tourist travel to Iraq is now taking place.
    - The issue of 'victory or defeat' is one of the themes of a blog attempting to analyse six years of British military operations. It hasn't been the subject of most of my reports from Iraq so I'm not sure why you say I'm obsessed with it.
    - You say the Iraq war was a "supreme war crime" and draw on the Nuremburg [sic] experience to illustrate your argument. Are you comparing British soldiers to Nazis ? I cannot see the comparison; either in legal or moral terms.
    - My last point is a general one. The Liberal Democrats and many other people who opposed the war grasped the argument that Britain had a moral responsibility to bring about a successful outcome in southern Iraq.
    Many people who opposed the war also understand the principle that as citizens of this country, it is in their interest that we have effective, confident, armed forces just as it is that we have good schools or police who are able to prosecute criminals successfully. None of that precludes a vigorous argument about decisions like the one to invade Iraq, neither does it preclude active campaigning to prevent this painful experience from being repeated.
    All the best
    Mark

    We responded to Urban on April 24:

    Thanks Mark. You write:

    “- the BBC's commitment to impartialiality is not a ban on opinion.”

    One would think not, but the BBC’s position is deeply confused. Senior managers, editors and journalists +do+ argue that it is wrong for BBC journalists to declare their own opinions. In December 2003, the Guardian reported that BBC journalists and presenters had been banned from commenting on "current affairs and contentious issues" in newspaper and magazine columns. They would only be allowed to write "non-contentious articles and food, film and music reviews”. (Jason Deans, 'BBC confirms ban on columnists', The Guardian, December 16, 2003)

    Many reporters were said to be angry, and felt they were victims of the BBC over-reacting to an article published in the Mail on Sunday in which the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan named Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications at Downing Street, as the person responsible for "sexing up" the dossier which made the case for war in Iraq. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2003/dec/18/broadcasting.arts)

    It seems farcical that the BBC would ban journalists from commenting on "current affairs and contentious issues" outside the BBC, while you are free to write on a BBC blog: “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.”

    You side-stepped the issue when we asked you before, so we will ask again: Are you proposing this as a general principle? If so, you are advocating that "once [Russian] troops were engaged [in Afghanistan], the success of their mission should have become an issue of broad national consensus." Or are you proposing a principle for your own government and its allies? If so, this is standard jingoism.

    You write:

    “I don't really see the blog in question in terms of opinion anyway. I would prefer to see it as an analysis of Britain's six years campaigning in southern Iraq, based upon widespread discussions with people involved and visits to the places in question. Obviously it quotes quite a few opinions, but that is part of the essence of reporting.”

    But how can analysis fail to offer opinions? One might compare, for example, your use of the rather dismissive, diminutive “anti-war Brits" with your use of the patriotic, full title of "British troops". Similarly, to describe the focus of your analysis as “Britain’s six years campaigning” is itself to reflect a personal - in your case, militaristic - bent. Your blog of course did far more than merely quote opinions. You wrote:

    “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."

    You were clearly expressing your own personal, deeply controversial views.

    You continue:

    “- I don't understand whether you want BBC journalists to be shorn of opinions ? Is that desirable in your view or is opinion allowable among BBC journalists for as long as it happens to coincide with yours ?”

    We think it is absurd to suggest that journalists can ever be “shorn of opinions”. The facts we choose and highlight already reflect our personal opinion - there is no way around this. The focus on journalistic ‘balance’, ironically, reflects and promotes the imbalance of power in society. The Australian media analyst Sharon Beder put it well:

    “Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round." (http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/sbeder/mediachap.html)

    Why does it turn out this way? Because reporting that subjects powerful interests to criticism is attacked with full force by those interests who denounce it as ‘unbalanced’. The problem being that there is no comparable flak to respond when a journalist says something like:

    "It is indeed the first real evidence that President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work." (Mark Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)

    Your own words discussing the significance of a lessening of Iraqi attacks on US forces. If you had described the invasion of Iraq as a war crime, powerful interests would have lambasted your reporting as ’crusading’, ‘biased’, and incompatible with your role at the BBC. Nobody blinked an eye when you made the outrageous claim that Bush‘s “grand design” centred around the creation of a democracy in Iraq.

    This is why the focus on ‘balance’ is so insidious - it guarantees that powerful political groups, which have an effective monopoly on flak, are able to apply pressure to ensure that ‘balanced’ reporting is biased in their interests. It is of no great import if people like us challenge your reporting - you can wave us away as moaning minnies. But when the government or other powerful interests take you and your editors to task, you know you’ve got a serious problem. As your colleague Jeremy Bowen found out last week, the accusation of bias can become national news - a very real threat to the credibility and career of even the most established reporter.

    The endless, corrosive influence of flak helps explain why you can so casually declare that, in time of war, it is the responsibility of citizens, including journalists, to support their troops. Powerful interests are very happy with this kind of argument - it‘s their idea of balanced journalism. If you argued the other way - that it is the duty of every citizen to +resist+ state criminality, particularly in time of war - you would be out on your ear.

    “- Have you read "Big Boys' Rules" ? Would you like to read some reviews of it ? Certainly I don't think most readers took it to be an uncritical acount of British operations in Ireland.”

    No, we have only read extracts and reviews (fascinating stuff, we have to say). But that’s not really the issue. Our point is that you, author of the BBC’s War and Peace blog, seem to have a particular interest in the military aspects of conflict. Our point is that the civilian victims of war are under-represented in your work.

    “- I've been to most of those places mentioned by Nir Rosen and I don't share his views. I admire him for going there though. Perhaps you should do likewise. I understand some tourist travel to Iraq is now taking place.”

    Curious that you do not share Rosen’s views on the situation in Iraq. He cited the work of Refugees International (RI). Last week, RI commented on a report they published earlier this month, 'Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return':

    "We visited with groups of displaced Iraqis who lived in deplorable conditions and were not yet registered with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. They had yet to receive any assistance from U.N. agencies or aid organisations. These people simply cannot continue to slip through the cracks." (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46527)

    The report found that many internally displaced Iraqis are unemployed, unable to access food rations, live in squalid conditions, have run out of resources, and find it extremely difficult to access essential services. This strongly supports Rosen's account.

    It is a red herring to criticise media analysts for not also being foreign correspondents. Mainstream journalists also dismiss our work on the grounds that we have not spent time in corporate newsrooms.

    The real issue is the rationality of our arguments and the credibility of the sources we use in support of them. Our analysis should be accepted or rejected on the basis of rational thought, not on the basis of our credentials as corporate journalists. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky are also not professional reporters, but their book, Manufacturing Consent, is considered by many journalists and media specialists to be the most important book of media analysis ever written. John Pilger, for example named it as his Channel 4 “Book of the Twentieth Century.” Pilger is no “tourist”, nor even an embedded reporter.

    You write:

    “- The issue of 'victory or defeat' is one of the themes of a blog attempting to analyse six years of British military operations. It hasn't been the subject of most of my reports from Iraq so I'm not sure why you say I'm obsessed with it.”

    But it was the primary focus of your blog examining the British exit from Iraq. We agree, it should of course form part of the analysis. But to simply ignore the catastrophic impact of these “military operations” as you did - they should properly be described as +illegal+ military operations - is wrong. Like so many reporters, you seem deeply sensitive to the difficulties facing Britain in Iraq, but unmoved by the spectacular disaster imposed by our nation on Iraq through its support and arming of Saddam Hussein, its destruction of the country through 12 years of genocidal sanctions, endless bombing, wars and invasion.

    Many of your blog and Newsnight reports +are+ heavily focused on military concerns. Again, that’s not in itself unreasonable. But you could +also+ be providing regular analysis of conditions facing Iraqi refugees inside Iraq, in Jordan and so on. We understand some tourist travel to Jordan is now taking place! Shouldn’t this be part of the remit for a blog on War and Peace?

    “- You say the Iraq war was a "supreme war crime" and draw on the Nuremburg [sic] experience to illustrate your argument. Are you comparing British soldiers to Nazis ? I cannot see the comparison; either in legal or moral terms.”

    We are familiar with the resort to the rejection of ’moral equivalence’. When former assistant UN secretary-general Denis Halliday described the “genocidal” impact of American crimes in Iraq, the BBC’s Michael Buerk responded:

    "You can't... you can't +possibly+ draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?"

    In a May 21, 2004 Newsnight interview with Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Paxman said:

    "You seem to be suggesting, or implying, perhaps I'm being unfair to you, but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq."

    Chomsky responded:

    "The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever."

    The point is that a war crime is a war crime is a war crime. If we adopted the standards of the Nuremberg trials, Bush, Blair and their generals would be found guilty of the suprememe international crime.

    “- My last point is a general one. The Liberal Democrats and many other people who opposed the war grasped the argument that Britain had a moral responsibility to bring about a successful outcome in southern Iraq.”

    It is true that the Liberal Democrats opposed the war before the fighting began and then, in line with your own thinking, abandoned their protest when the shooting started in earnest. This is like opposing armed robbery in general and then supporting a particular robbery because it is underway and the criminals are at risk. The only moral and legal responsibility of an illegal invading army is to quit the invaded country, immediately. We sent your comments to human rights lawyer Douwe Korff, professor of international law at London Metropolitan University. He responded:

    “There is also the tricky issue of what is ‘successful’. I could go along with an argument that said they'd have to make sure they didn’t leave a complete mess (read: civil war) and pay war reparations. But I suspect the government's idea of ‘success’ is to have a compliant, western-oriented (and preferably not too pro-Iranian) lot in charge, without too many thoughts for how good the lot is for the Iraqis...” (Email to Media Lens, April 22, 2009)

    You write:

    “Many people who opposed the war also understand the principle that as citizens of this country, it is in their interest that we have effective, confident, armed forces just as it is that we have good schools or police who are able to prosecute criminals successfully.”

    Many of us also understand that it is in our interests to ensure that our armed forces do not engage in criminal actions. After all, what can be more damaging to the effectiveness and confidence of the military than the awareness that they are being sent to kill and die by cynical elites motivated by arrogance, power and profit? As economist Alan Greenspan - former Chairman of the US Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve - commented in his memoir:

    "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." (Leader, ‘Power, not oil, Mr Greenspan,’ Sunday Times, September 16, 2007)

    No one should be asked to kill and die for such a cause. You would have us believe that this original, grubby motivation can be separated from the effort “to bring about a successful outcome in southern Iraq”. It cannot. ‘Success’ in Iraq has always meant securing control of the country and its oil resources - the welfare of the Iraqi people was, of necessity, always subordinated to these goals.

    Finally, you write:

    “None of that precludes a vigorous argument about decisions like the one to invade Iraq, neither does it preclude active campaigning to prevent this painful experience from being repeated.”

    Well, according to you that “vigorous argument” is valid only +before+ the killing starts. That is a very subjective and very dangerous view.

    Best wishes

    David Edwards and David Cromwell
    www.medialens.org

  • Comment number 21.

    Mark

    Have come to this a little late but it was well worth the read. I don't remember this being presented on air, but perhaps I missed it. The bald facts are disquieting to say the least. A timid and hesitant political leadership kept in place a military force heavily constrained, inadequately sized and ill equipped to do the job . Failure all but guaranteed then ! I don't share your hesitancy in calling it a defeat. I don't know what else it can reasonably be called. The fact that the American's and Iraqis felt obliged to come in and rescue the people of Basra is testimony to the mess we had made of it. Whilst the actions of our politicians, both with regard to the initial decision to go to war and the subsequent conduct of that war deserve close scrutiny, I believe that the part played by the FO in this debacle should also come under the spotlight. I seem to recall that the FO were very much against this military intervention from the outset and one wonders what influence they subsequently brought to bare on the decisions of our political and military leadership. Did they actively encourage political timidity and constrain the freedom of the military to pursue their objectives. Was the difference in approach between respective Commanders a function of their susceptibility to 'advice' rather than simply personal predeliction.
    It seems reasonable to me that a full enquiry addresses not just the politicians and the generals but also the advice they were receiving from those who are paid by the public purse.

 

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