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."

NEXT: Quotes

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. it seems that the British are just as clueless as the Americans. It is foolish to think just because they have experience in Northern Ireland that this equals a higher chance of success in Iraq. I wont bother to run down the long list of differences between the two conflicts, though in all fairness to the Brits, this is was a war that seemed doomed to failure in the very beginning (disbanding the police being one of the many mistakes we made).

  2. Why don’t the Americans put their newly-won counterinsurgency genius into practice then and see if they can do a better job pacifying Basra than the British.

  3. Only a few percent of Western troops in Iraq are Brits. Common sense suggests they will have a proportionatly small influence on the course of the war.

    So why fight?

    They are there because the current goverment does not want to be seen to abandon Basra. Not because it wants to control Basra.

  4. What a wonderful reason to die for one’s country. ‘I lost my son so that Presient Blahblah or Prime Minister Whoever wouldn’t be seen as being weak on foreign policy.’ [Sniffs back a tear of national pride.]

    Either they’re there to win, or they’r suckers. Having troops on the ground in a certain place for too long a time means FAILURE, nothing else.

  5. “Only a few percent of Western troops in Iraq are Brits. Common sense suggests they will have a proportionatly small influence on the course of the war.”

    This article is about Basra, in southern Iraq, not about iraq in general. The Brits are in Basra, although there might be a handful of Liaison Americans, so the British influence is about 100% in this case.

  6. I think the Basra situation is really just a prelude to what will most likely happen in Iraq overall.

  7. In a “simulation” sense, it will be very enlightening to see what happens in Basra when the Brits do leave. Multiply the Basra experience by between 10 and 100 and you will have a good idea of what Baghdad will be like.

  8. As long as we’re bringing up Northern Ireland; is it appropriate for me to point out that the situation there was ultimately resolved largely through political negotiations?

  9. the situation there was ultimately resolved largely through political negotiations?

    …and a few decades of bombings, shootings, lynchings, and burnings.

  10. enda : “…and a few decades of bombings, shootings, lynchings, and burnings.”

    So true. I wonder if in 40 years from now, should the dust have settled by then of course, will people be scratching their heads and wondering why Iraq decided to go down that same path when the structures were in place, or almost in place, back in 2007 to build some sort of country.

  11. The British achieved an end to the insurgency in Northern Ireland by announcing that they were going to end their military involvement there, engaging in an ambitious diplomatic/political/peace process with the Republicans, and allowing the withdrawal of their military to change the political situation on the ground back towards normal, civil political competition.

  12. edna,

    The 40 years of bombings and lynchings took place while the British were actively engaged in a counter-insurgency effort.

    The resolution of that situation – the end of the bombings and lynchings – took place when they traded their hopeless military strategy for a political process, and used the end of their military presence as a tool to push that process forward.

  13. I swear the next person who says ‘cut in run’ needs to be pushed out of a helicopter. Whats your plan? Bury head in sand, throw money into the ocean? The british did a good job when they got there, but theirs is a different problem to solve. Its rivalry between thuggish tribal shiia power groups. Not tit for tac sectarian stuff. They held the fort for a few years, and now they’re leaving. Who’s to blame them? To pick on them or their tactics as being somehow less effective is silly and besides the point. The US authorities made this fucking bed. The brits dont have to sleep in it.

  14. To compare Northern Ireland and Iraq is rather silly. Ireland was the victim of occupation and in some cases extermination over the course of several hundred years. Unless we start a program to export American farmers over to Iraq, kicking the Iraqis off their land, and taxing them into starvation, I don’t think there’s much of a parallel.

  15. The resolution of that situation – the end of the bombings and lynchings – took place when they traded their hopeless military strategy for a political process, and used the end of their military presence as a tool to push that process forward.

    those silly micks. they could have had peace the entire time just by clicking the heels of their emerald slippers and saying, “there’s no place like home.”

  16. joe,

    Counter-insurgency efforts by the British government and the activities of the UVF and loyalist paramilitaries put a lot of pressure on the IRA, etc. to see follow the ballot box exclusively.

  17. The bombings may have stopped but the IRA has not gone away. They have their place in Storemont and they get to carry on as the criminal gang they have always been. They can kill and intimidate their own communities at will and concentrate their energies where their true interests have always been: namely, extortion, robbery, and cross border smuggling. What a great bunch of guys those “freedom fighters” are.

  18. Northern Ireland shaped up because the economic situation was improving rapidly in both the UK and then Ireland.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any thing like that in the cards for Iraq.

    Until all the Iraqi cultures understand that peace with your neighbor is better for your pocketbook than war, there will be no peace in Iraq.

  19. Why don’t you antiwar peaceniks report on the good news from Baghdad, like the neighborhoods that are peaceful because they’ve been pacified by teh Surge (TM)?

    Shiite militia expands grip in Baghdad

    Well, pacified by the Surge, ethnically cleansed by the Mahdi army, whatever! The point is, there’s a lot of painted schools out there we’re not hearing about.

  20. Yes, let’s pretend there were only two relevant parties in Northern Ireland, the IRA and the British government. Without a stable, prosperous and fully-engaged Irish Republic, there would have been no peace in the North. Compare that to Iraq’s neighbours and you’ll see why the Brits’ claims of counterinsurgency success were always hubristic.

  21. the situation there [N. Ireland] was ultimately resolved largely through political negotiations?

    …and a few decades of bombings, shootings, lynchings, and burnings.

    The same could happen in Iraq. After a few decades of terrorism, when everybody gets tired, a political solution might emerge.

  22. So the “Northern Ireland Model” didn’t work in Basra. However the “Anbar Model” probably won’t work either.

    Having just negotiated an unexpected and very fortunate truce with Sunni insurgents across much of central Iraq, the American military should be counting their blessings and planning to withdraw. Instead it seems they want to go and pick a fight with the Shiites. This should be interesting.

  23. There was no “magic bullet” in Northern Ireland. Suffice it to say that part of the attraction of dialogue and the ballot box for both the IRA, etc. and the loyalist paramilitaries* was war weariness and concern over how the next generation will turn out. Then again, from at least time of Bobby Sands election to the Parliament the ballot box was part of the strategy of the IRA, etc.

    *One must remember that the loyalist paramilitaries killed over a thousand people during the “troubles,” the majority of which were not connected with the IRA, etc.

  24. I remember reading something a long time ago about how the US Generals didn’t think much of Montgomery and basically considered the British a stone the politicians made them carry the rest of the war.

  25. Warren,

    In 1942 there was a lot of resistance by the American military to the invasion of North Africa and later even more resistance to taking on Italy. Given how the war went in Italy went – the grinding viciousness of it, etc. – they seem have been vindicated.

    Anyway, it was felt by many American generals that an early invasion of France was perferable to these other theatres. Could the U.S. have ramped and have been ready to invade France in the summer of 1942 or 1943? Perhaps. Assuming that it succeeded it certainly would have made the European post-war environment quite different. Imagine American and Soviet forces joining hands somewhere in Poland instead of in the middle of Germany.

  26. “an alternate soldiers view”

    Bill, that was a very interesting read. Thanks.

  27. the situation there [N. Ireland] was ultimately resolved largely through political negotiations?

    …and a few decades of bombings, shootings, lynchings, and burnings.

    The same could happen in Iraq. After a few decades of terrorism, when everybody gets tired, a political solution might emerge.

    Iraq and Ireland are utterly different. Iraq, and the rest of the middle east, has not been peaceful for hundreds of years. I don’t expect Iraq or any other middle eastern country to be peaceful in this century.

  28. wayne,

    Though this is a bit oversimplistic to write, but it is the waves caused by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that we are still experiencing. The middle east had been a relatively calm backwater* up to that point. Which is partly why it only attracted the European powers as a buffer zone during the “Great Game” up to WWI. The region’s role was fundamentally changed by the German’s successful efforts to woo the Empire into the war in 1915.

    *That’s not a defense of the often oppressive Ottoman regime.

  29. Sean Healy is absolutely right–it was the huge economic upsurge that made peace possible in Ireland. Not just wealth, but (relative) wealth for many.

    Maybe we’d do better taking $300 billion and cutting checks to all of the Iraqis.

  30. …and a few decades of bombings, shootings, lynchings, and burnings.

    Well, that stuff preceeded the concerted efforts at political solution which culminated in the Belfast accords. But, to what extent did those things contribute to the end of “The Troubles”; and to what extent is it the case that those things were “The Troubles”.

    I suppose you could argue, as some commenters have, that people were not amenable to a political resolution until they had seen enough violence for a sense of war-weariness to set in. Thats possible, though it seems that Iraq has seen several decades worth of sectarian violence and terrorism condensed into a few years. (And in the 25 years before the invasion, it had 2 major wars and several government-orchestrated domestic massacres.)

  31. Pro Libertate,

    The problem is that they don’t appear to coincide. Peace was coming prior to Ireland becoming the Celtic Tiger.

    BG,

    Given all the pent up nationalisms, etc. from so many years of dictatorial rule in Iraq it isn’t surprising that many groups have a lot of energy.

  32. Pro Libertate,

    BTW, in the 1960s N.I. had the lowest crime rate and least murders per capita in the whole of the U.K. It was also as prosperous as the rest of the country. If the changing economic situation of the late 1990s created the peace one wonders why the peace was ever disturbed in the first place. No, economics probably had little influence on the situation in comparison to other issues, particularly because the fighting was done by small cadres of people.

  33. “Maybe we’d do better taking $300 billion and cutting checks to all of the Iraqis.”

    That would be welfare and not “wealth” so it would do no good. I do understand your point though. The US is, right now, engaged in an effort to build and repair the infrastructure of Iraq. If that is successful, then that could lead to real wealth for Iraq.

    I do not think that it can be successful though because the various factions simply will not allow it. The insurgents, and AQ, and Sunni/Shia murderers destroy the new infrastructure as fast as it is built because a prosperous Iraq is antithetical to their goal.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.