While U.S. forces in Iraq have “surged” and dispersed into urban outposts, British forces in the southern part of the country have steadily cut their numbers and retreated from outlying bases: “Removing the irritant,” is how one officer explained it to me last year. Now there’s just one major British base, at the former international airport outside Basra. From here, just over 5,000 British and coalition troops conduct security patrols and co-ordinate economic assistance and training of Iraqi forces.
Is this a model for what the U.S should do after the surge? One retired Marine officer, writing in the Naval Institute‘s Proceedings, thinks so. Lieutenant Colonel Ray Madonna advocates “a termination strategy” that consolidates U.S. ground and air forces at three permanent bases: the Marines’ Al Asad in the west plus two others, possibly the logistics hub near Balad in north-central Iraq plus the air facility outside Mosul further north.
“We could turn the war over to the government of Iraq,” Madonna writes, ”retaining sufficient combat power as a support force if the enemy massed for battle.” That support, the author says, would entail air patrols, heliborne raids and rapid armored incursions.
But some observers say that there is no one enemy, and that they would never mass. The threat to Iraq from here on out is mostly instability resulting from the failure to form a unity government, according to AlterNet: ”This instability reveals that the violence in Iraq is not only sectarian or the result of insurgent activity, but is also caused by deep-seated political and tribal rivalries and an intense scramble for power.”
“To be sure, the direct, practical effect of the few thousand British troops remaining at the Basra airfield will be small,” Timothy Garton Ash writes in The Guardian:
So far as I can gather, what the Americans would ideally like the British to do is to help secure their vital supply lines from the south of the country, maintain some capacity to intervene when internecine clashes get completely wild, continue to train the Iraqi military and police, and sustain some little-publicised intelligence-gathering and special forces operations.
But Garton Ash believes that “capacity to intervene” will diminish as Basra increasingly comes under the sway of extremist elements. AlterNet concurs: “Should British forces decide to venture back, they will inevitably face a den of Mahdi Army fighters,” according to their analysis:
The militia is said to number 17,000 in Basra alone and is divided into 40 company-size military units, according to a senior Iraqi security official. … They control multiple units in the 14,500-strong police force, and hold sway in hospitals, the education board, the university, ports and oil terminals, and the oil products and electricity distribution companies.
What can a consolidated, high-tech quick reaction force do against such a diffuse and numerous “enemy” that is truly home-grown and enjoys popular support?
Beats me. But I’m headed to Basra in a month to try and find out.