Useless in Basra


Britain's Sunday Telegraph has published a scathing indictment of how British forces have handled the situation in Basra, effectively "losing" the city. Whereas a few years ago U.S. officers would have listened respectfully to their British counterparts describing how their experiences in Northern Ireland made them experts in counter-insurgency, today the Americans are not taking any of it:

"It's insufferable for Christ's sake," said one senior figure closely involved in US military planning. "He [Major General Jonathan Shaw, Britain's senior officer in Basra] comes on and he lectures everybody in the room about how to do a counter-insurgency. The guys were just rolling their eyeballs. The notorious Northern Ireland came up again. It's pretty frustrating. It would be okay if he was best in class, but now he's worst in class. Everybody else's area is getting better and his is getting worse."

With British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sticking to a timetable to completely withdraw his forces from Iraq next year, the Bush administration will be trying to do two things: fill the vacuum, but also, if there is carnage in the wake of the British departure, use that as leverage to show why American forces must remain in Iraq longer. That will probably not float with Congress, but the military is still assuming the war is not lost. As one officer remarked about the British:

"Quite frankly what they're doing right now is not any value-added. They're just sitting there. They're not involved. The situation there gets worse by the day. Americans are disappointed because, in their minds, this thing is still winnable. They don't intend to cut and run."

An officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq recently told me that, while the situation in Iraq could probably not be reversed "because the war will be lost in Washington", U.S. forces were on a very sharp learning curve in understanding better how to fight the insurgency. So much so that British soldiers were openly expressing their admiration. That's why it must hurt when Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says "Basra has gone far towards revising the common American image of British soldiers as perhaps the world's best at counter-insurgency."