Monday, December 22, 2008

A Brit's take on his country, Iraq and Afghanistan

Michael Portillo, Britain’s former Secretary of State for Defence (the Brit spelling), in the Times of London with my comments below the star line

Last week Gordon Brown announced a date for Britain’s withdrawal from Iraq. Most troops will be back in time for a spring general election. The prime minister posed with soldiers and expressed his sorrow over yet more fatal casualties in Afghanistan.

He did not dwell on Britain’s humiliation in Basra, nor mention that this is the most inglorious withdrawal since Sir Anthony Eden ordered the boys back from Suez.

The fundamental cause of the British failure was political. Tony Blair wanted to join the United States in its toppling of Saddam Hussein because if Britain does not back America it is hard to know what our role in the world is: certainly not a seat at the top table.

But, for all his persuasiveness, Blair could not hold public opinion over the medium term and so he cut troop numbers fast and sought to avoid casualties.

As a result, British forces lost control of Basra and left the population at the mercy of fundamentalist thugs and warring militias, in particular Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

The secondary cause of failure was a misplaced British disdain for America, shared by our politicians and senior military.

In the early days in Iraq we bragged that our forces could deploy in berets and soft-sided vehicles while US forces roared through Baghdad in heavily armoured convoys. British leaders sneered at the Americans’ failure to win hearts and minds because of their lack of experience in counterinsurgency.

Pride has certainly come before a fall. British commanders underestimated both the enemy’s effectiveness and the Americans’ ability to adapt. Some apparently failed even to observe how much had changed.

At a meeting in August 2007 an American described Major-General Jonathan Shaw, then British commander, as “insufferable”, lecturing everyone in the room about lessons learnt in Northern Ireland, which apparently set eyeballs rolling: “It would be okay if he was best in class, but now he’s worst in class.”

Around the same time Jack Keane, an American general, moaned that it was frustrating to see the “situation in Basra that was once working pretty well, now coming apart”.

By then General David Petraeus had been appointed US commander, introducing intelligence and determination in equal measure.

If a fair-minded account of the Iraq war is written, credit should go to President Bush for rejecting two years ago the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that called for force reductions.

He defied conventional wisdom and ordered a troop surge instead. It has been an extraordinary success and, unlike Britain, the Americans will not withdraw in defeat.

During debates in Washington, British forces’ ignominious withdrawal to barracks was cited to argue that the United States could not contemplate being humbled in a similar way. In the end Bush was not a quitter. Blair “cut and ran”.

Britain’s shaming was completed in March 2008 when Iraqi forces, backed by the US, moved decisively against the Mahdi Army, inflicting huge casualties and removing them from Basra.

Operation Charge of the Knights was supervised by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, exasperated that Iraq’s second city was controlled not by Britain but by an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia. . . .

It cannot be a defence of British policy that the war was unpopular at home. Our mission was to provide security for the Iraqi people, and in that the US and Maliki’s government have recently had marked success and we have failed.

The fault does not lie with our fighters. They have been extremely brave and as effective as their orders and their equipment would allow.

It raises questions about the stamina of our nation and the resolve of our political class. It is an uncomfortable conclusion that Britain, with nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and the latest generation of fighter-bombers, is incapable of securing a medium-size conurbation.

Making Basra safe was an essential part of the overall strategy; having committed ourselves to our allies we let them down.

The extent of Britain’s fiasco has been masked by the media’s relief that we are at last leaving Iraq. …

The British media and public have shown scant regard for our failure to protect Iraqis, so the British nation, not just its government, has attracted distrust. We should reflect on what sort of country we have become. We may enjoy patronising Americans but they demonstrate a fibre that we now lack.

The United States will have drawn its conclusions about our reliability in future and British policy-makers, too, will need to recognise that we lack the troops, wealth and stomach for anything more than the briefest conflict. How long will we remain in Afghanistan?

There, in contrast to our past two years in Basra, our forces engage the enemy robustly. But as a result the attrition rate is high. We look, rightly, for more help from Nato allies such as Germany, although humility should temper that criticism, given our own performance in Iraq.

The mood in the Ministry of Defence is said to be despondent. The government, having used our forces in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, has been unwilling to increase the budget.

Having announced that he would fight the recession by bringing forward public spending, Brown has pushed back the date of two new aircraft carriers. The Conservatives are too cautious about public spending to make promises.

The recession is likely to bring further cuts because neither party sees votes in defence. Nor is either willing to talk of reducing commitments or of specialising in particular defence roles.

Prestige apart, it is hard to explain why we have nuclear weapons, and what price prestige, if it is clear to the world that we could not protect the civilians of a single city in Iraq?

Portillo’s entire column’s here.



Portillo’s informed, well-reasoned and literate essay is quite a contrast to the Bush-bashing, blame America drivel we read and hear so often on both sides of the pond.

Regulars here who read the posts on the American-Iraqi combined effort to retake Basra from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (most of those posts written by Mike Williams) will not be surprised by what Portillo says about how the Brits functioned there.

But most Americans would be: First, because we were fed all those gloating MSM stories about how “much smarter and more effective the British approach in Basra is to what the Americans are doing.”

Then there was the underreporting or outright ignoring of the Brits' loss of control there.

Finally, when American and Iraqi troops moved in to retake the city and initially encountered more resistance than expected, the call for reinforcements was presented by MSM as a sign of impending defeat rather then a sign of determination to prevail, which ultimately happened.

President Bush is getting a shellacking from the overwhelmingly Democratic press which a few years ago hailed Sen. Harry (“The war in Iraq is lost.”) Reid and the rest of the “cut and run” crowd as "wise."

That’s the same press that kept predicting civil war in Iraq.

Now informed, reasonable people recognize the truth of what Portillo said:

If a fair-minded account of the Iraq war is written, credit should go to President Bush for rejecting two years ago the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that called for force reductions.

He defied conventional wisdom and ordered a troop surge instead. It has been an extraordinary success and, unlike Britain, the Americans will not withdraw in defeat.

The Bush-bashing MSM and the crowd that took out the General Betray Us smear ad in the NY Times must choke when they read what Portillo says. Most of them know Portillo's right, President Bush was right, and they were wrong. But rather than admit that, they turn up the Bush-bashing volume in the hope people won't notice what's really happened..

Iraq is a long way from being a secure, stable democracy, but it now has a chance to become one.

For that great credit is due our military forces, their commanders, especially Gen. Petraeus, and President Bush.