Thursday, February 22, 2007

Neither one thing nor another

Loathsome though the newspaper is, it is very hard to disagree with the general thrust of the front-page headline in the Independent today, or the tenor of their story, which begins:

It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world's bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because the apparatus of the Iraqi government is growing stronger. In fact the civil war is getting worse by the day…
And, while withdrawing troops seems to be in accord with the majority sentiment, according to a BBC online poll, which records 72 percent in favour – there is still a sizeable minority which agues that we should stay until the job is done, if necessary, increasing the number of troops deployed.

On reflection, though, what is actually happening is neither one thing nor the other. We are not retreating entirely. In fact, what is emerging is that the troop cuts were not as large as were expected – or the Army had planned-for – and the rate at which the garrison will be cut, over term, is not as fast as predicted. Some sources are suggesting that at least 4,000 troops will be kept in Iraq until at least 2012.

Furthermore, since the Shaiba logistics base is being shut down and operations from the other three bases in central Basra are being transferred to Basra Air Station (pictured), five miles to the west, a goodly proportion of the 1,600 cut-back will comprise the logistic and administrative "tail". The effective combat force need not be proportionately reduced.

Nevertheless, the force is not to be increased and, while Blair confidently asserts that it will be available to support the Iraqi security services "in an emergency", this might not be as easy as he appears to make out. Stuck out of town in a single location, with a very limited road network, British forces intent on intervention will be prey to ambushes and, given their distance from any action, their ability to react swiftly to events will be severely circumscribed.

We are thus in exactly that situation which we highlighted in May last year, when we published a piece entitled "Shape up or get out". I wrote, of the situation in Iraq:

As it stands, with too few troops on the ground to make a difference, in a hostile environment with no clear mandate, and with inadequate equipment that makes them extremely vulnerable targets, we cannot see what Mr Blair thinks he is achieving by having them there.

If this is just gesture politics, and there is no intention to send reinforcements and new equipment – and it is hard to see how this could be done - then our soldiers' lives are worth more than that. They should be withdrawn. In other words, Mr Blair, shape up or get out.
What is particularly troubling though is that, while Blair presents a glowing account of the success of British operations in southern Iraq, claiming also that Iraq has made "remarkable" progress, an article in The Times confirms that which our own observations already tell us, that security in Basra is worse now than it was three years ago. The report states:

On military charts, significant swaths of the southern city are security coded scarlet, for unsatisfactory. Other zones are marked green, satisfactory, or amber, between the two. Levels of violence and anti-coalition attacks are far lower in the Shia-dominated south than the Sunni triangle around Baghdad. But British casualties have been increasing over the last year, with more than ten soldiers killed and 60 injured since November.
It then falls to The Daily Telegraph to tell us that "violence will intensify" in the battle for Basra as Shia insurgent groups try to kill more soldiers than their rivals to show who is strongest. For the coming months, the soldiers in the three barracks in Basra will continue to present rogue militias with one potential target after another.

This is by Thomas Harding who has at least the value of faithfully echoing the Army establishment view.

Thus it is he who conveys the particularly noxious view that the Army's continued presence has now become part of the problem, inviting the obvious and intended conclusion that, if only all the troops ran away, the "nasties" would stop doing nasty things like shooting at them, mortaring them and blowing them up with concealed roadside bombs.

Thus does Harding quote, with not a hint of disapproval, how, under the recent leadership of Major Gen Richard Shirreff, some bold moves have been made that allowed the Prime Minister to announce yesterday's withdrawals. And one of those "bold moves" has been to desert the town of al Amarah, a stunning success that – as Harding acknowledges – has almost certainly left the town under the sway of the militia loyal to Moqtada al Sadr, with the Americans fearing it is harbouring insurgents.

Nevertheless, Harding faithfully repeats the establishment line, declaring, "…without thousands of extra troops there is little else the British could have done."

Therein lies a very part of the problem for, from being a "can do" organisation which had no problem bullying worried farmers at the height of the 2001 Foot & Mouth epidemic, the Army - in the face of an enemy that can shoot back - seems to have acquired the aura of a defeated force, exuding negativity. Thus, despite the technology and the tactics being well established (and successful), the Army is acting as if it has lost the will to win and is simply serving out its time, waiting to go home, where it can play with its new toys in peace and safety.

And bless us, it was Shirreff who briefed Cameron on his one and only visit to the theatre, which enables the Boy – with not enough experience of knowledge to know any better - to trot out the preferred party line, that the Army has done all it can usefully do. Such is the current definition of failure.

Thus it is that The Telegraph leader churns out its usual, Anglo-centric drivel, this time calling in aid Richard Dannatt who, we are reminded, has called for an early withdrawal "on the grounds that our military presence is exacerbating the security situation".

One wonders how Monty would have dealt with this fine piece of military logic on the eve of the final battle of el Alamein… "Withdraw your troops and those nasty Germans and Italians will stop shooting at you," the siren voices would have said. It is as well then that our forebears were made of sterner stuff. And, once upon a time, so was the Telegraph.


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