Britain bruised by its Basra adventure
LONDON - The British have a long history of military intervention in Iraq. And departures with heads held high too. During World War I (1914-18) in Mesopotamia; in 1941 during World War II; and after the Gulf War of 1991.
History has just repeated itself. On April 30, in sweltering heat, the latest instalment was completed in a somber military ceremony in Basra, southern Iraq. After six years - one month earlier than previously announced - Britain honored its fallen soldiers and formally handed over control of the Iraqi port city to US Army command. Britain's combat operations in Iraq are now over. Britain and Iraq's relationship will now continue as a "partnership of equals", cemented by commercial deals, according to statements by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Some 4,100 British troops from 20 armored brigades will leave by the end of the month. Forward operating bases are now being dismantled wholesale in the British area of operations in southern Iraq. A 400-strong British training team will remain to mentor and instruct the Iraqi army in Basra; the US will now take the lead in local security. That is until American forces themselves finally withdraw - as announced by US President Barrack Obama - by the end of 2011. What happens after that is a worrying question asked repeatedly by Basra locals.
Britain's intervention in Iraq during 2003-2009 - a period longer than either of the 20th-century world wars - is by far and away its most problematic foreign policy decision since the Suez crisis of 1956 and the post-imperial shambles that followed. With the British departure many questions have risen. What has six years of British involvement in Basra achieved? Was it all worth it? Were British forces sufficiently resourced for their mission? Why is the pace of Basra's reconstruction so glacial? What happens next?
As British troops redeploy in coming weeks - many to operations in Afghanistan - an initial balance sheet of the UK's southern Iraq involvement can be drawn up, with positives and negatives. Because, even if the heroism and professionalism of British soldiers themselves in managing a difficult remit is undoubted, Britain's occupation during 2003-2009 remains highly controversial at home and abroad. Its legacy is still unfolding.
The process of final British withdrawal from Iraq has been gathering momentum steadily since September 2007, when the British army relinquished control of its base at Basra Palace and withdrew its remaining force of some 4,500 men to Basra airport. It was a decision - set against a strategy of phased egress from Iraq and ongoing Shi'ite insurgent violence on the streets of Basra - which nevertheless came under harsh scrutiny in the media.
Critics charged that British troops had lost the ability to provide security and reconstruction - their original stated remit for Basra and its people - and could only provide security for themselves. In fact, in 2007 the British had engineered an agreement with local Shi'ite militias - led by Muqtada al-Sadr - to permit their forces to withdraw to the airport unmolested. It was a 19th-century imperial realpolitik tactic employed by a 21st-century army which had learned its limits the hard way.
The background is instructive. By December 2007, after the British handed Basra province back to Iraqi control, Basra rapidly became a lawless city, with armed Shi'ite and criminal gangs walking the streets and terrorizing the city's inhabitants. Dozens of women were arbitrarily murdered in the city for "un-Islamic" behavior and dress. With only a small force based at the airport the British alone could not respond to this threat decisively.
Not unnaturally, the baton was passed to American forces and the (British-trained) Iraqi army. In March 2008, the US-led coalition finally got a grip. In the so-called "Operation Charge of the Knights", 27,000 men from the Iraqi army, strongly backed by US forces - and some British airpower - were sent from Baghdad to quell the troublesome Shi'ite militias in Basra City. This combined force vindicated the use of so-called surge tactics and was a vital US/Iraqi advance welcomed by many Basra residents.
The Iraqi army trumpeted its success loudly. But it also shone a harsh light on residual British capabilities. Fairly or unfairly, local perceptions were that the US and Iraqi forces had simply bailed the denuded British forces out, irrespective of the British having trained the Iraq army in the first place. Either way, it had the effect of somewhat tarnishing Britain's military reputation. It also confirmed that the short-term future for Basra would be American, not British-led.
The balance sheet
Last week, the British army's Basra commander, Brigadier Tom Beckett, declared during the handover ceremony, "We leave knowing that Basra is a better place than it was in 2003." The official line taken by senior British commanders is that their Iraq mission from 2003-2009, whilst hugely difficult, has been a clear success. Respected retired British General Mike Jackson recently said, "The British army gave it its absolute best shot." This is undoubtedly true - up to a point.
On the positive side, Basra is no longer at the mercies of former president Saddam Hussein. Its people are liberated and have voted in free elections, while security in 2009 has improved massively as compared to, say 2004, at the height of the Shi'ite-led popular insurgency. Shi'ite militants armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers no longer stalk Basra's streets with impunity. British-financed reconstruction of schools and irrigation has commenced and facilities at Basra's crucial Um Qasr port are being revamped.
Yet there are also negatives aplenty to consider. First of all, the price to remove Saddam has been high. Since 2003, 179 British soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq, in addition to thousands of Basra Iraqis (conservative estimates start at around 3,200, but the exact total is unknown).
Britain's Iraq operations have cost the United Kingdom around 7 billion pounds (US$10.4 billion) over the past six years. This is surely small beer when compared to the 50 billion pounds that the British government will have to tap to bail out its profligate banking system in London after 2008's subprime crisis or the estimated 700 billion pounds the government now says it will have to borrow over the next five years to rescue the British economy. But it's still a high cost by any standards for a nation still attempting to punch above its weight in international affairs.
Informed British military opinion has repeatedly castigated the British government's failure - ever since the war's outbreak - to adequately resource its own soldiers. For the 2003 invasion of southern Iraq - Operation Telic - the British deployed some 46,000 troops, but rapidly reduced this number to around 9,000. This was in hindsight a highly overconfident decision. Furthermore, the initial British post-invasion strategy focused on the use of counter-insurgency techniques learned in Malaysia and Northern Ireland rather than a surge in numbers as effectively piloted further north in Baghdad in 2006 by US General David Petraeus.
But Basra proved not to be like Belfast at all during the British occupation. In the teeth of a fanatical Shi'ite insurgency from 2004 - led by the Shi'ite Mahdi Army and Iran-linked Badr Brigades - mortar, rocket and roadside bomb attacks plagued the overstretched British contingent badly.
Surge tactics were not used while the British lacked sufficient numbers of helicopters and the types of armored vehicles needed to protect against roadside improvised bombs effectively. Relations between the Basra city police - obviously infiltrated by Shi'ite militants - and the British army during 2005-2006 were uncomfortable to put it mildly.
Equally, the British military's decision in August 2006 to hand over a forward base at Abu Naji, al-Amarah, to Iraqi security forces - many of whom were likewise linked to Shi'ite insurgent groups - has been criticized consistently. This permitted insurgents a safe haven in which to manufacture roadside devices for use against the British with relative impunity.
The balance sheet of negatives is mounting. Next is the much-heralded reconstruction of Basra. Journalists, aid groups and Basra residents alike do not detect much return on investment here. Where exactly is it, they ask? During 2003-2009, the British poured millions of pounds into rebuilding Basra's infrastructure, but it continues to suffer from frequent power cuts, a woeful provision of electricity and clean water supplies.
No major new power or sewage plants or hospitals have been constructed due to the adverse security situation. Millions of pounds were clearly not enough to prevent reeking sewage from spilling onto Basra streets, canals choked with rubbish and intermittent power supplies for adequate air-conditioning in Basra's simmering summer heat.
General Colin Powell's famous nostrum, "If you break it, you own it," does not yet appear to have been fulfilled by the British in Basra. Unemployment ranges from 30-60% across the city. At the crucial deep water port of Um Qasr, Basra's gateway to the outside world - important when one considers that Basra province hosts 70% of Iraq's oil reserves - infrastructure is now developing rapidly. But it will be years before the port will be described as anything approaching efficient.
In Britain itself the negatives from Basra's balance sheet continue to poison domestic political discourse. The decision by Britain's New Labour government - led by former prime minister Tony Blair and happily financed by current Prime Minister Gordon Brown as chancellor - to go to war in Iraq in 2003 remains hugely controversial six years on.
As British troops leave, opposition political leaders such as Conservative David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats are calling repeatedly for a full public inquiry to determine the true circumstances of why the war was fought in the first place.
In 2003, Blair told the British people that Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction" could reach British targets in as little as 45 minutes. With no such weapons ever found, the entire prospectus for the war appears flawed, the basis of faulty, perhaps massaged, intelligence. This has given rise to the understandable suspicion - by many in Westminster and across Britain as a whole - that an illegitimate war was launched by Blair in 2003 largely to support president George W Bush and his neo-conservative circle who had already decided on regime change in Iraq and wanted facts to fit the decision, come what may.
The smell remains bad for Blair. His grandiose rhetoric in 2003 now appears like the ultimate in political narcissism. Fallout from Blair's decision to intervene in Iraq was also manifested in the British capital itself. Several of the British Islamist suicide bombers - who killed 52 people in London on July 7, 2005 - cited the invasion of Iraq as one of their motivating factors. All in all it's not a pretty picture six years on.
What is coming next for Basra? Three years of a US/Maliki-led administration with American forces seeking a tidy exit. The likelihood of an explosion of sectarian strife in Basra after the Americans leave in 2011 and the intentions of Iran, watching from across the border, are as yet unclear.
For Britain, the balance sheet of its intervention in Iraq during 2003-2009 looks profoundly mixed; the courage of its troops on the ground aside, most of the negatives appear to outweigh the positives.
Meanwhile, Britain is bracing for other bruising battles. British political and military attention is now shifting to operations in Afghanistan/Pakistan and defense funding priorities for the future.
The UK is also set for a period of prolonged domestic economic austerity due to the recklessness of its own bankers in 2008. In consequence, future British military action overseas may be looked at more dispassionately and cautiously. As Britain hands Basra over, the era of Blair-style British liberal interventionism is over.
Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent.