'MISSION ACCOMPLISHED' OR SCUTTLE?
"Why are these reactionary elements [in Iraq] fighting so hard? Because they know the importance of victory or defeat.Right from the beginning it was obvious to them. Of course, there have been mistakes and unacceptable abuses of human rights on our side. But here in its most pure form is a struggle between democracy and violence....But the basic problem, from the murder of UN Staff in August 2003 onward, has been simple: security. The reactionary elements have tried to derail both reconstruction and democracy by violence. Power and electricity became problems not through indolence on the part of either Iraqis or the coalition forces but through sabotage. People became frightened because of terrorism and criminal gangs, some of which had been deliberately released from prison by Saddam just before his fall....The extremists know that if they can succeed--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or any other nation desiring to go the democratic route--then the prospect of a democratic future for the Arab and Muslim world will be dealt a potentially mortal blow. Likewise, if these countries become democracies and make progress, that will be a powerful blow against both the extremists' propaganda about the West and their whole system of values. In each case, the forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other nations are there to help indigenous security forces grow,support the democratic process, and provide a bulwark against the terrorism that threatens that process. In each case, full UN authority is in place."
Tony Blair, "A Battle for Global Values", in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007.
On Wednesday in London, British Prime Minister Blair announced that Great Britain will withdraw approximately 1600, about one quarter of its force of 7100 troops, almost all of which are based in the southern four provinces of Iraq, around the southern port city of Basra. In addition the remaining 5500 troops, will almost entirely be re-deployed to Basra airport on the outskirts of the city. With further withdrawals anticipated, so that almost the entire British contingent will be out of Iraq by late 2008 (see: www.ft.com). According to Blair, in making his announcement in the House of Commons,
"The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no Al Qaida base. There is little Shia on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the MNF. It has never presented anything like the challenge of Baghdad....As a result of this operation, which is now complete the Iraqi Forces now have the primary role for security in most parts of the city. It is still a difficult and sometimes dangerous place. But, many extremists have been arrested or left the city. The reported levels of murder and kidnapping are significantly down. Surveys of Basrawis, after the Operations had been conducted, show a much greater sense of security. There is reconstruction now happening in schools and health centres, around 300 projects altogether. What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis....Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra, over the coming months, we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis. None of this will mean a diminution in our combat capability. Over time and depending naturally on progress and the capability of the ISF, we will be able to draw down further, possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra Palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer. We hope that Maysan Province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months and Basra in the second half of the year. The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do. Increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly" (see:www.number10.gov.uk).
In a number of ways, the announcement by Blair marks the beginning of his swan song in office. Widely believed to be on the way out of power, with May-June of this year as the most likely time when he will resign office, the Iraq announcement represents Blair's attempt to convince the British public that the Iraq adventure was a worthwhile one. A task given the general unpopularity of the war in the United Kingdom from the very beginning, has proven to be a hard sell. However, aside from the internal British political dynamics, which under the likely new Prime Minister, current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, will no doubt cause further and faster British troop withdrawals from Iraq, are Blair's claims for the relative success of operations in the south valid? According to most of the British press, Blair's statement in the Commons, had little or no validity in fact. In an editorial in today's Financial Times, Blair's statment was on the face of it: "misleading". According to the newspaper the Independent, Blair's announcement, was the equivalent of:
"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." (see: www.independent.co.uk).
Aside however from the venom of the British pays legal, which like the general public, has never been overtly fond of the entire Iraq embroglio, does Blair's statement about Basra being both safer than Baghdad, and, stable enough for British forces to safely handover security to Iraqi forces stand by its own merits? According to most reports, it would appear that this is very much not the case. While, per se, the level of violence in the south of the country has never been as great as in the western provinces near Syria, or in Baghdad proper, it would be a negation of the truth to argue that Basra and the provinces surrounding it, are by any means 'safe and secure'. It is true of course that with a overwhelmingly Shiite majority population, the four southern provinces were British troops have been concentrated since 2003: Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar and Muthanna, are relatively stable as compared to such Sunni insurgent strongholds as Anbar, Karbala and Najaf. What however the southern provinces has seen instead has been a progressive infiltration of any and all Iraq security forces by the various Shiite militias, especially those adhering to either the SCIRI or its powerful rival, the Mahdi Army. The police most especially in Basra itself, has been rendered either toothless or worse by the presence of Shiite militia elements, who are a law onto themselves. coupled with the fact, that many of the self-same militias either share allegiance to Persia and or are being supplied with arms by or from Persia, than any British claim that Basra is a rock of stability is non-sensical on its face (see "Stability and rule of law remain a distant vision" in www.ft.com).
It was precisely for this reason, that retiring American Ambassador Khalilzad, stated his preference for London's retaining as many troops in the South as possible (see: www.dailystar.com.lb). According to a recent study by the American strategic analyst, Anthony Cordesman, the game was effectively lost or at the very least chances of preserving or shoring up stability in the south were thrown away by the UK as long time ago, perhaps as two years:
"The British announcement of force cuts in Southern Iraq reflects a set of realities on the ground that has dominated southeastern Iraq for more than two years. Southeastern Iraq has long been under the de facto control of SCIRI and Sadr factions. The British effectively lost any opportunity to shape a secular and nationalist Basra in the summer of 2003, and the US defeat of the Sadr militia in March and April 2004 never extended to the southeast and Basra area.The British won some tactical clashes in Maysan and Basra in May-November 2004, but Operation Telic’s tactical victories over the Sadrists did not stop Islamists from taking steadily more local political power and controlling security at the neighborhood level when British troops were not present....The British decisively lost the south – which produces over 90% of government revenues and has over 70% of Iraq’s proven oil reserves -- more than two years ago....
British claims to have transferred responsibility to the ISF in the rest of 2006 were little more than a recognition of “defeat with honor “ or at least crude political cover. The end result is that British security efforts have devolved to little more than an attempt to reform the police in Basra and bring some order to the city. Both Operation Corrode in May 2006 and Operation Sinbad in October 2006 have made joint British and Iraqi police efforts to bring some kind of order to Basra in ways that bear a similarity to the new Bush effort to bring district-by-district security to Baghdad. The most such British efforts have, or can, accomplish, however, is to restore a higher degree of control over the Basra police by the Shi’ite parties in the Shi’ite dominated central government. They have done nothing to either quell attacks on British forces or bring security to areas outside Basra. They are virtually certain to have steadily less effect as British forces withdraw, and trigger a new round of sectarian and ethnic violence and intra-Shi’ite factional fighting. The British may not have been defeated in a purely military sense, but lost long ago in the political sense if "victory" means securing the southeast for some form of national unity....As a result, the coming British cuts in many ways reflect the political reality that the British "lost" the south more than a year ago" (see: "The British Defeat in the South and the uncertain Bush 'strategy' in Iraq", in www.csis.org).
The reality is that caught between an overstreached British military machine with too many commitments, and, too few soldiers and equipment to carry them out, and retirement fast coming up, and, an unpopular and an seemingly unwinnable war, scuttle no doubt seemed the easiest and best option for Blair to follow while he still remains in office. As the British commentator Michael Glackin has noted: "the sheer hypocrisy of Blair and his government in claiming their Iraq mission has now been successfully accomplished beggars belief" (see: "Britain tiptoes away in the Darkness," in www.dailystar.com.lb). Yes, but perhaps we should not be too surprised, afterall as George Orwell argued long ago, "hypocrisy is the English vice".