With new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promising a 30-percent cut to the 5,000-strong British force in southern Iraq by spring 2008, a lot of units currently based at Basra Air Station are eyeing an early departure. But not the Joint Helicopter Force.
“We’ve drawn down as far as we’re going to,” Wing Commander Ian Marston says of his 200 troops and roughly dozen Lynx and Merlin helicopters. Since abandoning downtown Basra positions this year (“removing the irritant”), the mostly British coalition army in southern Iraq has assumed an “overwatch” role, providing some select training to Basra’s 30,000 Iraqi cops and soldiers then sending them out the gate to patrol the oil-rich region. If they get into a bind, they can call on the Brits for help. That help might mean flying overhead spotting militiamen with the Lynx’s side-mounted cameras. It might mean deploying a small fighting force aboard the speedy Merlins to rescue pinned-down Iraqi troops. Either way, it’s probably going to require helicopters, so the Joint Helicopter Force is here to stay, perhaps for years. Recognizing this, the British Ministry of Defense just bought six slightly used Merlins off the Danes in order to boost their hard-worked fleet.
This is the way the foreign troop presence in Iraq is going to evolve. As Iraqi forces all over the country improve – and they are, albeit slowly – and as occupying forces acknowledge that, often, they cause as much violence as they prevent … and as the foreigners realize that re-making Iraq in their own image is not worth the cost in blood and treasure, the foreigners will begin to depart, leaving behind only the bare minimum force required to guarantee Iraq doesn’t collapse overnight. Baghdad will offer up the large numbers of infantry needed to patrol city streets and protect key infrastructure. The U.S. and Britain will provide the high-tech supporting capabilities that Iraq can’t quite master or afford – and that might mean the difference between victory and defeat for Iraqi forces when they square off against terrorist and militia groups that themselves are stacked with clever, battle-hardened street fighters.
U.S. General David Petraeus’ “surge” campaign dispersed U.S. soldiers into small urban outposts where they lived and worked alongside Iraqis and showed them how to police their own neighborhoods. This, more so than any illusory and fleeting increase in troop numbers, is the real heart of the surge and the reason it succeeded to any degree. But now with Iraq increasingly religiously segregated and the militias seemingly exhausted, a détente has emerged that will allow the U.S. to jump-start a process that it prematurely began back in 2005: consolidating at major bases, shedding infantry in favor of high-tech supporting forces, and truly letting the Iraqis bear the burden of providing their own security.
But it’s not as though coalition officers expect that security to be anywhere near perfect. They’ve told me as much on multiple occasions during my stay in Basra: “It’s not going to be like London.” There’s still a significant chance that the current lull in violence represents the calm before a full-scale Iraqi civil war pitting Sunnis against Shias. But if that’s the case – if the Iraqi military splits down the middle along religious lines amid renewed fighting – then the U.S. and Great Britain shouldn’t be involved anyways, and barricaded inside Basra Air Station and other remote bases is the right place to be.