Britain’s retreat from Iraq


LONDON — “The British have given up and they know they will be leaving Iraq soon,” said Muqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi army, the country’s most powerful militia group, in an interview with the Independent. “They have realized this is not a war they should be fighting or one they can win.”

Every word he said is true, and most senior officers in the British Army know it. As Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army, said last year, Britain “should get out (of Iraq) sometime soon.”

Being prime minister is hard. Gordon Brown waited 10 years for Tony Blair to pass on the prime ministership, and no sooner does he finally inherit the job than he has to figure out a way to pull the British troops out of Iraq in the middle of the American “surge.” That will not be seen as a friendly gesture by the beleaguered Bush administration.

There are 5,500 British troops in Iraq, by far the largest foreign army after the Americans, but they control almost nothing except the ground they are standing on. Five hundred of them are under permanent siege in Basra Palace, in the middle of Iraq’s second-biggest city, and the rest are at the airport outside of town, under constant attack by rocket and mortar fire. They have almost no influence over the three rival Shiite militias and the associated criminals who actually run the city and fight over the large sums of money to be made from stolen oil.

Forty-one British soldiers have died in Iraq already this year, compared to 29 in the whole of last year. The deaths are wasted and it’s high time to go home, but Brown is reluctant to anger the White House by pulling all the British troops out before the Americans are ready to leave. That, however, is unlikely to happen before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009, as British generals are well aware.

The Democrats in Congress have clearly decided that they prefer to see the Republicans go into the election late next year with the albatross of Iraq still tied around their necks, rather than mount a congressional revolt, cut off funds for the war, and take the blame for the defeat.

Bush says his policy is to “wait to see what David (Petraeus) has to say” when the commanding general in Iraq reports on what progress the “surge” is making in mid-September. But Bush didn’t fire the previous U.S. commanders in Iraq and give Petraeus the job without knowing in advance what he would say.

Petraeus will see light at the end of the tunnel, as he always does. The Democratic majorities in Congress will criticize his report but not rebel against it, and U.S. troops will probably stay in Iraq at roughly the present numbers until Bush leaves office 17 months from now. Several thousand American soldiers will likely have to die to serve these agendas, but so will around 100 British troops.

British generals are deeply unhappy at this prospect, but as students of the indirect approach in strategy they have chosen to argue not so much that the war in Iraq is lost (though it is), but that the war in Afghanistan is still winnable. So the reason we must get British troops out of Iraq now is not just to avoid more useless deaths, but to win by reinforcing our commitment in Afghanistan, which is the truly vital theater in the “war on terror.”

Gen. Dannatt was at it again last week, telling the BBC during a visit to Afghanistan that “the army is certainly stretched. And when I say that we can’t deploy any more battle groups (in Afghanistan) at the present moment, that’s because we’re trying to get a reasonable balance of life for our people.” The frequent cycle of combat deployments is certainly harming Britain’s forces, with divorces and suicides soaring and retention rates plummeting, but Dannatt’s unspoken subtext was: You can fix this by pulling us out of Iraq.

There are already more British troops in Afghanistan (7,000) than in Iraq, so the argument makes a kind of sense: Concentrate your resources where they will make a difference. Except that Afghanistan is also an unwinnable war, at least in the ambitious terms still used in the West.

Almost 30 years ago the Soviet Union, backing another modernizing regime in Kabul against the deeply conservative prejudices of the countryside, committed an average of 200,000 troops into Afghanistan and kept them there for 10 years, and it still lost. There have never been more than 50,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, and there is zero probability that the number might ever even double. Let alone that they might stay there for 10 years.

The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, too, in the long run, and President Hamid Karzai’s best chance of survival is for the Western troops to leave soon. Then he would at least be free to make the deals with warlords, drug-dealers and renegade Taliban, in the traditional Afghan style, that would secure his authority and prolong his life. But if false hope about Afghanistan provides the pretext for pulling British troops out of Iraq, why not?

When Brown faces Parliament again in October, his biggest Iraq problem will not be pressure from the public; it will be pressure from the army.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.