From my archive of killed and unsold articles, here’s a piece I wrote in Iraq in December 2007.
by DAVID AXE
This is not a litmus test for the Americans,” British Army Major Mike Shearer, a military spokesman, said to the assembled members of the press.
It was Saturday, December 15, in a sandbagged, air-conditioned tent at the sprawling British military base adjacent to the Basra international airport. Around 20 TV, print and radio journalists –- Brits, mostly -– had flown in the day before on a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules airlifter in order to cover the official handover of the oil-rich southern province of Basra to Iraqi authorities after four years of British occupation.
A British withdrawal was possible because the 30,000-strong local Iraqi security forces were finally trained and equipped to handle day-to-day security, according to British Major General Graham Binns, senior U.K. commander in Basra.
The handover ceremony was scheduled for Sunday, and the British press was in frenzy. The transition to Iraqi control formally would signal the beginning of the end of the U.K.’s involvement in an unpopular conflict, one which played a role in toppling Prime Minister Tony Blair, who stepped down in June. His successor Gordon Brown in October promised to bring home “by spring” half of the roughly 5,000 British troops still in Iraq, with further cuts to follow. It was good news to the average Briton. Now the media at Basra air station was asking when the U.S. might begin its own withdrawal, hopefully closing the book on the entire conflict.
Not so fast, Shearer said. “The problems the U.S. faces [in Iraq] are totally different. As I’ve said before, here in the south we don’t have a Sunni-Al Qaeda insurgency.”
But they have a Shi’ite insurgency. And in many ways, the British experience in southern Iraq is a litmus test. For the British military’s strategy for dealing with southern Iraq’s restive Shi’ite militias, renegade cops and criminal gangs in 2006 in many ways presaged the ongoing U.S. “surge” campaign that has succeeded in restoring a measure of security to mostly-Sunni north-central Iraq. If Great Britain’s strategy in Basra was indeed a prototype for the surge, then the country’s withdrawal from Basra might offer a preview of what’s next for U.S. forces.
If that indeed is the case, we should expect U.S. forces to declare some sort of victory at the first opportune moment, then begin staged withdrawals to large fortified bases, shuttering the urban outposts that are a key aspect of the surge and entrusting routine security operations entirely to Iraqi forces. The withdrawal won’t be painless: mortar and bomb attacks will bleed U.S. troops at every step as they assume positions that are passive, defensive and mostly blind, swapping the exposed foot patrols that were once their primary method of intelligence-gathering for a “quick-reaction” mode where they sit in their central bases, waiting to help out the Iraqi Army if it ever finds itself overwhelmed. Over time, the combat units will go home, leaving behind logistics, aviation and intelligence troops that will continue to support the infantry-heavy Iraqi Army for years to come.
That, in short, is how the British retreat from Basra has played out over the past six months. It’s been messy. It’s been risky. But it has represented, in Shearer’s words, a “calculated risk.”
Perhaps most importantly, the British withdrawal has come at the cost of much of the progress the military made in restoring law and order to Basra last year. In that sense, the British “surge” -– an operation codenamed “Sinbad” that kicked off in the fall of 2006 –- served mostly to buy time for a politically palatable withdrawal, without necessarily addressing the fundamental causes of conflict in southern Iraq. At the December handover event, Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwafaq Al Rubaie said that militias and bad cops were still problems that would take years to resolve.
But addressing those problems was never really part of the military plan. “Look,” Major Jackie Fletcher, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Defense in London, said in December. “There’s a limit to what armies can achieve. At some point the politicians have to take over.” For the British military in Iraq, that point came this fall. And if their experience is any guide, for American forces the time is coming soon. For it was Op Sinbad, more than the official handover ceremony a year later, that was the first paragraph of the final chapter of Great Britain’s Iraq adventure.
Sinbad, like the U.S. surge, essentially was a corrective action after years of bad counter-insurgency strategy. Seeking protection from intensifying mortar attacks and roadside bombings, British and Iraqi forces over time had bunkered in their bases, neglecting the dangerous street-level patrolling that is the linchpin of any successful counter-insurgency campaign. In their absence, the militias, gangs and corrupt cops had come to rule Basra. Sinbad aimed to remedy that, with force –- and to buy some time for political reconciliation that might begin restoring the fabric of Basrawi society.
The operation was a qualified success. By early 2007 Iraqi troops again walked Basra’s teeming city streets, albeit only in brief spurts. Several militia leaders were killed in raids that summer. Moqtada Al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is the biggest and most powerful of Basra’s militias, in August called a six-month ceasefire. For the first time, Governor Mohammad Al Waili and local police and army chiefs -– and at times even Mahdi Army representatives –- sat down to talk.
Finally with sufficient justification for declaring victory, in September British forces abandoned their downtown Basra bases and retreated 10 miles outside of town to the airport, seemingly out of range of militia mortar and rocket teams. The Brown government immediately sliced several thousand troops from the Iraq contingent, bringing home infantry and tanks but leaving in place the specialized support forces – including 600 logisticians, 200 aviation personnel and a dozen helicopters – that the Iraqi military lacks. “We are moving over time to being in an over-watch role,” Brown said. The aviators in particular actually anticipated an increase in demand for their services as Iraqi forces assumed control of Basra, according to helicopter pilot Lieutenant Adam Zipfell.
A few hundred support troops will remain indefinitely, but the British counter-insurgency operation is over, at the cost of 174 British lives and more than $10 billion. There are no more urban patrols, no more major reconstruction projects and there is very little daily contact between British troops and Iraqis. On one hand, that passive disposition “removes the irritant” of an obvious occupying army, in the words of British Army Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere. But it also makes static British forces an easy target for the militia mortar and rocket teams that have not obeyed Al Sadr’s order to stand down – and who have proved surprisingly tenacious in the aftermath of Op Sinbad.
Attacks continued right through the December handover, including what Shearer described as an “unprecedented” coordinated barrage on the eve of the ceremony. Warplanes and artillery fired back, with unverified effect. With no outposts and with Iraqi officials formally assuming control of the province within hours, the Brits were unable to send ground forces to kill or capture the attackers.
To counter the relentless attacks, British forces have adopted ever heavier equipment and tactics, donning body armor at all times and cruising around the air station in new 30-ton armored trucks called “Mastiffs.” All that gear is unsuitable to counter-insurgency operations. Labouchere, who in 2006 commanded a mobile battlegroup in Maysan province north of Basra, had equipped his troops with just machines guns and 8-ton reconnaissance vehicles, labeling anything heavier “a self-licking lollipop” that mired soldiers in endless cycles of maintenance and support.
But most of the British troops still in Basra have little else to do but survive surprise mortar attacks while waiting the order to go home. Such is life at the twilight of British military operations in Iraq -– and perhaps a preview of U.S. troops’ future after the surge.
Among Basrawis, reaction to the British departure is mixed. Some lament that militias and rogue police still exert great influence in their city, now without a well-armed, well-led force to oppose them. Others seem glad that the foreigners are leaving, so that Iraqis can deal with their own problems as Iraqis see fit. But no one pretends that Basra fundamentally has been changed by the British presence, or by the British retreat.
And from the British perspective, Basra improved only enough –- and only long enough –- to give them a chance to leave.
(Photo: David Axe)