British forces: a token army of occupation

The Iraqi PM’s attack on Britain’s lack of commitment in Basra has shot a hole in the government’s ‘Iraq Story’.

David Chandler

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The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, interviewed by The Times (London) this week, achieved a minor propaganda coup: he bolstered his legitimacy by exposing the failures of British policy in Iraq (1). According to al-Maliki, the breakdown of law and order in Basra – and the Iraqi government’s offensive to regain control in the spring of this year – was caused by British forces’ inability to secure the town and their premature retreat to Basra airbase last September.

Al-Maliki says Iraq no longer needs the military security provided by the British forces: ‘The presence of this number of British soldiers is no longer necessary. We thank them for the role they have played, but I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control.’ It is common knowledge that Britain’s 4,100 troop commitment to Iraq is due to be scaled back to providing training and technical assistance; but what made al-Maliki’s point newsworthy was his presentation of the reasons why this assistance is no longer wanted.

Al-Maliki puts diplomatic niceties aside to argue that the British were to blame for the difficulties of restoring governing authority in Basra. He says the key reason for this was the lack of commitment: ‘The British military doctrine may have been one of the reasons that prevented the spread of security.’ According to al-Maliki, the British reluctance to commit resources on the ground resulted in the Iraqi government losing control over Basra:

‘At the time Basra was not under control of the local government, but in the hands of the gangs and militias. The local government was just a screen, and didn’t have the ability to move or solve any security issue. The British forces withdrew from the confrontation from inside the city to the area of the airport. They stayed away from the confrontation, which gave the gangs and the militias the chance to control the city.’ (2)

Al-Maliki argues that when the British forces withdrew, ‘the situation deteriorated so badly that corrupted youths were carrying swords and cutting the throats of women and children’. Furthermore, the British withdrawal from Basra Palace to the airbase last September was premature, and al-Maliki suggests that this retreat was based on a deal cut with the militias rather than done through Iraqi government authorisation.

For the British military, which traditionally has taken pride in its ability to manage counter-insurgency situations and deal with military policing, al-Maliki’s comments will be particularly galling. However, the most surprising aspect of the ongoing Basra debacle has been the British political establishment’s inability to prevent al-Maliki from grandstanding over Basra at their expense.

The problems for British forces had little to do with those usually associated with instability in Iraq: the influence of al-Qaeda, Iran, former Baathists, or sectarian violence. The violence that flared up in the last couple of years was between Shiite factions, including radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the Fadhila, or Islamic Virtue Party, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the country’s largest Shiite party. This factional struggle was located as much in Baghdad as in Basra.

The strongest faction in the city was Fadhila, which controlled the Basra government, with Fadhila leader Mohammed al-Waili holding the governorship. In March 2007, Fadhila pulled out of al-Maliki’s ruling alliance of Shiite parties in Baghdad after it lost control of the petroleum ministry to the SIIC. The following August, under pressure from the SIIC, al-Maliki fired the Fadhila governor al-Waili. Fadhila refused to relinquish power over the governate or over Basra’s lucrative oil refineries (3). Well before the British pulled out of Basra, the US and the Iraqi government were threatening coercive action against al-Waili and Fadhila, and the British handover to Iraqi control was coordinated with this in mind (4).

When al-Maliki eventually took decisive military action with the support of US firepower, he legitimised it on the basis of criticism of British failure to control ‘gangs and militias’ and to restore law and order. However, the Iraqi government was fully involved in discussions of British withdrawal from downtown Basra to the airbase in September 2007 (5), and in April 2008, when the government went on the offensive, British forces, holed-up in Basra airbase, were intentionally excluded from any meaningful role in the conflict (6).

However, it is difficult for the British government to counter the claims made by al-Maliki, no matter how much he massages the facts about the problems of security in Basra or in the process embarrasses the British military. The British military were ill-equipped to deal with the political problems of Shiite divisions and in effect had little meaningful role to play on the ground. As Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Sanders, commander of the forces that left Basra Palace, told the Independent: ‘I could have stayed on there for another six months, we would have been able to defend ourselves, and killed a lot of people in the process, but what would that have achieved?’ (7) The British could not effectively maintain order in Basra because they had neither the political nor the military commitment to dictate a settlement.

The cause of British humiliation in Basra, caught between the rival Shiite factions in the city and the Iraqi government and its US supporters outside of it, was that the untenable position of British troops was never publicly accepted. As argued on spiked, their lack of political and military purpose meant that British troops were playing an increasingly token role in Iraq (see Basra withdrawal: a media stunt to end a PR war, by Brendan O’Neill). It was this lack of clear strategic interest in Iraq, rather than military doctrine on the ground, which made the British presence vulnerable to manipulation by Iraqi factions on the ground and to their humbling by the al-Maliki government in Monday’s Times.

This tokenism has now been fully exposed by al-Maliki, in his extravagant claims for the success of Iraqi forces in resolving insecurity in Basra and in his accusation that British troops lacked Iraqi martial qualities and values.

It is important to recognise that the one motivation to be in Iraq, to which the British government cannot admit, is tokenism. Admitting that British troops were there for no clear purpose other than to express Britain’s status, as US ally and a key partner in the war on terror, would indicate the self-serving and elitist disdain with which the lives of Iraqi civilians and British troops have been treated.

The accusation of tokenism puts the British government squarely on the defensive. The response of Christopher Prentice, the British ambassador, to al-Maliki’s comments was typical in its desire to evade the subject: ‘It will be good to move out of the artificial relationship in which military aspects had prominence and into a more natural partnership. We fully intend to develop a broad-based relationship with the whole of Iraq. I hope that we will see that happen in the course of next year.’ (9)

Prentice’s desire to shift the focus away from Britain’s military role echoed that of UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s fatuous comments in response to criticisms following last year’s withdrawal from Basra Palace. Brown chose to evade discussion of the role of the military or political goals, instead emphasising ‘the work that we have done in improving the infrastructure around the area. Thousands of people have got jobs as a result of it. The date harvest is moving ahead. We have… plans to renovate the port, [and] we are trying with the Iraqi authorities to set up a development agency.’ (10)

Military intervention sharply poses the political question of taking sides in a conflict and entails a strategic clarity of purpose, whereas issues of economic and social reconstruction defer these questions. This is why the British government finds it hard to defend the role of British forces in concrete terms, while it is more than happy to talk about British assistance to poverty reduction or in building more schools.

The role of the British military is indefensible in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, not because of their narrow military doctrine, not even because of the dubious legality of their presence, or the inevitable abuses which come with war and alien occupation. If the British military presence lacks a strategic political goal its presence is literally purposeless, inevitably falling prey to local agendas and driven by arbitrary and short-term policy concerns.

David Chandler will be speaking on ‘National security, proscription and foreign policy: war on terror, new world order?’ on Tuesday 21 October as part of a seminar series at the College of Law in Store Street, London, organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Statewatch and the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities. Other speakers will be Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies, Bradford University, and OpenDemocracy’s international security editor. The seminar is free and runs from 6.30-8.30pm. For more details, click here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called the British withdrawal from Basra a media stunt to end a PR war and said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq had turned into a ‘gesture invasion’. Tara McCormack discussed a British merchant banker who was charged with reconstructing Basra. James Heartfield said that the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

(1) Transcript: interview between Nouri al-Maliki and The Times, The Times, 13 October 2008. See also Al-Maliki: UK Troops Not Needed in Iraq, Time, 13 October 2008

(2) Transcript: interview between Nouri al-Maliki and The Times, The Times, 13 October 2008

(3) As British Leave, Basra Deteriorates, Washington Post, 7 August 2007

(4) US Prepares Basra Operation Following UK’s Withdrawal, UKWatch, 2 January 2008

(5) Basra celebrates British withdrawal, The Times, 3 September 2007 ; British forces complete withdrawal from Basra, Guardian, 3 September 2007

(6) Iraq snubbed Britain and calls US into Basra battle, The Times, 10 April 2008

(7) Basra: The soldiers’ tales, Independent, 5 September 2007

(8) Transcript: interview between Nouri al-Maliki and The Times, The Times, 13 October 2008.

(9) Time to go home, Nouri al-Maliki tells Britain, The Times, 13 October 2008

(10) Leaving Basra City: Britain’s Withdrawal from Iraq, PolicyWatch, No.1283, Washington Institute, 7 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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