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Iraq, Afghanistan and the re-deployment problem

Mark Urban | 20:51 UK time, Thursday, 13 November 2008

The idea of switching troops from Iraq to Afghanistan seems deceptively simple. In fact the problems of re-deploying Britain's over-stretched army will pose the main constraint on how many more soldiers can be sent if, as expected, President elect Barack Obama mobilises Nato countries to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.

British, American and Iraqi troopsAlthough ministers are still vague about the timetable of Britain's exit from Iraq, I have been told that it is intended that it will be complete by July 2009. The main period of withdrawal will be during May-June.

By the end of May, headquarters and support elements will have been run down and British combat troops will, for a few weeks, come under the command of an American general. During June the last of the UK battle groups should leave, and under current planning, all of them will be gone by July.

Currently there are around 4,000 servicemen and women in Iraq and 8,000 in Afghanistan. Current planning assumes no combat units would be left in Iraq after July, and even training teams limited to two small units - one working with the Iraqi navy and the other at their officer training school.

The timing of this drawdown is important because military chiefs feel that any reinforcement in Afghanistan needs to be in place in time for that country's elections in September. The MoD does not plan to send the same soldiers (except perhaps the odd truly unfortunate one...) from one theatre to the other, but it cannot mount a significant increase of the garrison in southern Afghanistan unless it can move key items of equipment from one place to the other.

Things are so overstretched in the Army, for example, that there are insufficient sets of up to date body armour to send even one more company (around 120 troops) to Afghanistan, without taking the gear from troops in Iraq. In addition to personal equipment, heavily armoured vehicles will need to be shipped from Iraq in time to be available for the reinforcements in Afghanistan.

These logistic considerations militate in favour of any decision to commit the reinforcement to be made early next year. That decision may follow a major review of the Afghan operation being conducted by US General David Petraeus, which is expected to report in February.

British soldiers on patrol in IraqThere is though still an argument to be had within the British government about whether switching troops in this way is desirable. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of Defence Staff, recently warned against any idea that troops taken from Iraq could easily be sent on other operations. Some senior army officers believe that the Army has been so stressed by 'running hot' on simultaneous operations there and in Afghanistan that it must bank the reductions in Iraq rather than sending more men and women to Afghanistan.

All of this makes it quite unlikely that the forces will simply shift 4,000 posts from operations in one country to the other. Instead, some of those involved in the process think that the Afghanistan commitment would be allowed to grow from its current 8,000 to a symbolically important 10,000. What kind of improvement the net reduction of 2,000 troops on operations would make, in terms of reducing the stress on the forces, is open to question.


  • Comment number 1.

    The issue of the Afghan deployment needs to take into account the state of public opinion. Your own figures suggest 68% of the public believe UK troops should not be there at all. This is partially a problem of perceptions. The British people may well be tempted to believe that Iraq and Afghanistan are one and the same project. In one way they are. Both were triggered by the belief that the key centre for the campaign of terror characterised by the 9/11 attacks was centered in the region. In the minds of many, this makes both engagements part of the 'war on terror'. When the justification for Iraq on the grounds of neutralising Sadam's WMDs fell away, the fallback position was ridding that country of an evil dictator and acting as midwife to a new born democracy. Much the same case has been made for Afghanistan.

    This leads to confusion in the minds of those who do not accept the government position that getting out of Iraq with as much dignity as we can muster is OK but that Afghanistan is a war which 'we cannot afford to lose'. While there is clearly some justice in the complaint from the Americans that NATO in Europe is not pulling its weight, that is not an accusation that holds water when considering the British contribution. However, the British people are, I believe, right to ask why an already overstretched military is being called upon to provide a further 2000 personnel at a time when other contributors are blocking their people from more dangerous deployments such as Helmand. It is quite tempting to see this as having more to do with sweetening up Mr. Obama than it does with the reality on the ground.

    History suggests that wars in Afghanistan tend not to be winable and the least the government has to do is offer some prospect of an endgame if they are not to lose public support completely.

  • Comment number 2.

    I just don't understand why the army and it's resources have not grown to meet these new challenges.
    I think I am right in saying the government has promised 2.7% increase in funding this year.
    Is this 2.7% increase on top of the current UK inflation of 5% ?
    If it is not, then isn't that a cut in the defence budget by 2.3% for this year ?

    If we don't sort out Afghanistan it will become a safe base for terrorists and it will export its terror again at the west.

  • Comment number 3.

    if it takes say 6 months to train a soldier then every 6 months there should be say another 1000 afghan trained troops? Where are they?

    given this war is now longer than world war two it means the strategy for success is wrong. apparently everyone can see what is wrong but continues with the current failure. why is that? What facts are being ignored?

    In the markets which is very much like war if the strategy is wrong either you change it or you'll run out of money. You can normally quickly tell if a strategy works .

    every day of dither benefits the other side who grow emboldened by cheap victories and gives them belief the allies are just like all the other armies they have defeated through long attrition? That their strategy is correct?

    the current situation is the definition of futility?

  • Comment number 4.

    Eating halal is becoming easier


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