It was just a five-minute flight by Merlin chopper from Basra air station to the training base at Shaiba. Waiting for us at the landing zone were three of the biggest, baddest trucks I’ve ever seen. These “Mastiffs” – derivates of the U.S. Cougar Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protect armored truck – featured foot-thick bolt-on side armor plus rocket-cages that made the 30-ton vehicles look like traps for mutated, man-eating super-gerbils.
What were they there for? To drive us less than a mile into the sprawling, former 1930s Royal Air Force base to a drill ground where 600 soldiers from the 1 Scots Battlegroup is helping train Basra’s 30,000 soldiers and police.
Last year I zipped up and down the Iranian border with Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere’s lightly equipped troops, hiding in plain sight in the middle of the desert, chatting up local sheiks to enlist their aid fighting infiltrators. Two years ago I tooled around downtown Basra in open-topped Land Rovers with Lieutenant Sqot Wiseman on a mission to press the flesh with local shoppers. This year I can’t move a mile without 90 tons of armored truck, and the only Iraqis in sight are in uniform. Wiseman told me that light, unarmored vehicles were better than up-armored Humvees because they allowed the troops to get into crowded urban areas, up close and personal with Basrawis: that personal touch was the only way to root out extremists, Wiseman said.
But after losing 175 people killed in five years, the Brits don’t go into Iraqi cities any more. They don’t patrol with Iraqi forces. They stay at the air station and at Shaiba, piling on the armor and building up their defenses, defying the soft-touch principles that officers hailed just two years back. This appears to be an army on the defensive, too heavy to patrol effectively even if there were a mandate to do so.
In 2005 the Americans were the heavy ones with the castle-like bases. Now the roles are reversed. The Americans have surged into small urban outposts and even conduct foot patrols again, while the Brits stage their withdrawal behind mountains of armor. Yes, the Americans are buying thousands of Mastiff-style vehicles, but so far there hasn’t been a concurrent rejection of “soft” counter-insurgency tactics.
Is the Brits’ new way the right way? If you believe British officials when they say that Iraqi forces are ready to take over security in the south, then yes: all this armor just means safety for forces that have no need to patrol southern cities. But if Basra remains as vulnerable to the influence of Shi’ite militias as some say it is, then the British withdrawal is premature, and all the heavy equipment represents thinking that mistakes “force protection” for effectiveness.