Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Alright – I did tell you so!

Moqtada al-Sadr is claiming credit for the imminent British pullout from Basra Palace, declaring it a victory for his militia "resistance".

That is the story from AFP and no one who has been attempting to follow the progress of the British occupation of southern Iraq is in the least surprised. That much was predictable and, indeed, predicted.

Nor is there any surprise that British commanders are insisting they are not being forced out, claiming that this is all part of the orderly transition of power to the Iraqi government, with the hand over of the base to the Iraqi security forces.

Therefore, that our military is claiming that the radical Shia cleric and his followers are trying to "create the false impression that they were driving us out" is only to be expected.

For a detached observer to try and make sense of these competing claims requires further information and it is here that the emergence of US views – the latest of which were retailed in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph - are of some significance. These add to the growing view that the British have lost control of Basra and that Moqtada al-Sadr is right.

That impression is further reinforced by the news yesterday that our soon-to-be last remaining redoubt, Basra Air Station, is coming under sustained attack from militia forces. According to the Telegraph's defence correspondent, rocket attacks on the base have "ramped up considerably" with more than 450 raining down in the last three months.

We are also told that the 4,000 service personnel and thousands of civilian employees are becoming increasingly anxious at the upsurge in attacks, with one officer cited as saying that, "in tented accommodation all people can do is put on their body armour and helmets and pray they are not hit."

It is these two issues, the US criticism and the barrage of attacks on Basra Air Station, that Con Coughlin addresses in the op-ed in today's Telegraph and, of the two, Coughlin sees the criticism as more damaging.

"It's not the constant barrage of rockets raining down on their heavily fortified compound in Basra that is sapping the morale of British troops," he writes. "It is the seemingly endless salvos of invective that are being directed at them on an almost daily basis from across the Atlantic by America's top brass."

Immediately, however – without going any further - from the contrast with Harding's piece, one gets the certain view that Coughlin is living in a fantasy world of his own making. As Harding points out, most of the 4,000 personnel at the base are living in tented accommodation. Far from being a "heavily fortified compound", Basra Air Base is horribly vulnerable to indirect fire and the people there are sitting ducks.

And it is that, as much as anything, which has provoked the US criticism. From the very first riots in November 2003, instead of dealing aggressively with militia attacks, the British policy has been one of "softly-softly" in the misguided belief that the tactics developed and honed in Northern Ireland could be transposed to Southern Iraq.

Linked with the failure to provide suitable equipment, the result has been that the British had steadily conceded ground to the militias, starting with Camp Naji in al Amarah, last August, culminating in the evacuation of the Old State Building, the Shatt al Arab base and Shaiba logistics base. And, as each base has been evacuated, Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers have claimed a victory, and intensified attacks on the remaining bases, with Basra Palace (pictured) currently being compared with an old-style US fort surrounded by Indians.

Thus, while Coughlin maintains that "the ugly spat" between the British and US forces "does not bode well for the wider campaign against Islamic terrorism," his response is to call for unity, asserting that:

If the two most important allies in the war on terror cannot agree among themselves over tactics, the long-term chances of the military campaign achieving its ultimate objectives get slimmer by the day.
Yet, even in this assertion lies the heart of the problem – the tactics adopted by the different forces. And, while it is undoubtedly possible to criticise the US tactics, when all said and done, the British tactics have been lamentable.

In our asserting this, we ourselves can hardly be criticised for rushing to a quick judgement. When the Telegraph published its piece on the rocket attacks on Basra yesterday, 20 August, that marked the anniversary of our first substantive piece on the indirect fire threat to British bases.

Since that piece, we have written innumerable others, each in their own way either highlighting the threat, pointing out the strategic importance of the threat or, crucially, drawing attention to the fact that the technology and equipment was available to defeat it, yet was not being used. Not least, we drew attention to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, so graphically described by Michael Yon as an example of what could be done - which the MoD was wasting hundreds of millions on its own programmes, getting nowhere.

From the time when the British departed from al Amarah, to the indirect fire attack on the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel base, killing a solider from the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the humiliating partial evacuation of Basra Palace in late October, in addition to the wider issues of UAVs, we have argued for the use of tactical assault helicopters and other equipment - such as counter-battery radar (pictured), and railed against the media for failing to take this problem seriously. It was then, back in November after an account by Harding of the attacks on Basra Palace, that I was writing:

The puzzle is: where is the clamour? Where is the media – the likes of Thomas Harding? Where are the Parliamentarians – the likes of Boris Johnson? And where, for that matter, is the blogosphere? On this substantive issue, all we hear is silence.
Shortly afterwards, on 19 November, I wrote a piece, expanding on the technology available to meet the threat which, with this piece identified the full range of equipment and tactics which could be deployed.

It was in that November piece, however, that I wrote:

Nothing less than our prestige as a nation rests on the willingness of our government to provide the tools needed to do the job. Can it rise to the challenge? And have we got to the point where we have ceased even to care whether it does, and are content to see our troops run away?

On the current evidence, it looks like our troops are going to be running.
I wrote many, many more pieces on the subject, such as here, here, here, here and here, as well as an angry piece in January, demanding, "now will they do something?", after six British soldiers had been wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp.

Unlike the "Snatch" Land Rover campaign, however, this failed to capture the imagination of the media. Despite the intervention by MP Ann Winterton in an attempt to raise the profile of the issue in Parliament and other MPs taking a hand, the problem continued unabated. Thus, in February, I was writing:

Virtually every day, British bases come under attack and, once our troops retreat to the one base at Basra Air Station, no one is under any illusions about what that will do to the intensity of attacks – they will increase. Of the current situation, one soldier said, "Going to bed was a lottery – you never knew if you would wake up". This is a lottery you do not want to win, but the odds are "improving" all the time.
In near despair, I added a comment about the MPs and their staffs:

…who ritually applaud the bravery of our troops, skulk behind their barriers and armed guards while – with a few honourable exceptions – they permit without comment our soldiers to be exposed to quite unnecessary risks. And the secretary of state hides behind honeyed generalities and vague assurances, while the media sleeps.

This is moral cowardice. It simply is not good enough.
In the end, we did see some action from the MoD, including the installation of C-RAM but, in the light of events, this has proved too little, too late. Even in July, we lost three RAF Regiment soldiers, while resting between patrols at Basra Air Station and a REME technician at Basra Palace, the former to a missile and the latter to a mortar bomb.

Thus, I cannot improve on my comment written last November, that, "Nothing less than our prestige as a nation rests on the willingness of our government to provide the tools needed to do the job." Our government failed to provide those tools and, through the mouths of Moqtada al-Sadr and "America's top brass" do we see our national prestige crumbling, and with it the reputation of our Armed Forces.

Possibly because the media has remained aloof from the detail, it does not begin to understand what has gone on, which culminates that that ill-informed piece from Coughlin today that completely misses the point. We have lost Basra. The Americans are right to criticise our tactics, born of totally inadequate support from our own government, our media and, indeed, the population at large. Having sown the wind, we are reaping the whirlwind.

And all I can say now is, with as much savagery as I can muster: I told you so!


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