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A draw in Iraq, no victory near in Helmand

Commentary, 3 May 2009
Land Forces, Europe, Central and South Asia, Middle East and North Africa
Troops need to believe that they risk their lives for things that are genuinely important.

Troops need to believe that they risk their lives for things that are genuinely important.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times, 3 May 2009

The lowering of the flags in Basra and the intonation of the names of the 179 British military dead murmur the big question in a more dignified way than the rest of us will. Was the operation a success? The troops themselves have their own hard-edged answer – it was a score draw away from home. No, it was not a victory. The soldiers don’t come home from these operations in troopships like the heroes of the Falklands, to be greeted by a grateful nation. They come back in battalion units, marching to their home bases knowing that they have done the job in their gritty, professional way.

But they also know that “doing the job”, with what they are given, isn’t quite the answer the nation has come to expect. The subtle soldiering we take pride in – the velvet glove that conceals the iron fist – did not produce a smooth transition from war to peace. The 9,500 British troops in the south nearly lost control of Basra in the autumn of 2003 and were certainly losing the psychological battle on the streets by September 2005 when pictures of the blazing Warrior flashed around the world. So they reassessed their objectives, put more effort into protecting themselves and into training Iraqi forces that could take over.

They had never seriously intervened with the warlords or in the feuding that characterised Iraqi society and were unable to limit Iranian involvement across their area. They could influence the situation with the numbers they had but never control it. The Americans dominated the strategic picture from Baghdad, leaving the British to do the best they could at a tactical level in the south. Their objectives narrowed. A score draw would do, and we would look for the best opportunity to declare victory and leave. But British military chiefs repeatedly counselled political leaders against a precipitate reduction in troop numbers. Much as they, too, wanted to get out – to escape from what one former army chief described as the “corrosive effects” on the forces of the whole operation – an irresponsible withdrawal would create the worst of all worlds.

It was the success of the US troop surge, the new political strategy in Baghdad and the determination of the Obama administration to quit the country by the end of 2011 which last year provided the first feasible opportunity. The Iraqi 14th Division was then trained well enough to cope with local security; the port of Umm Qasr and the airport were working again. The £5.1 billion in military costs and the £750m in aid spent by the British since the war ended had helped make Basra a quieter province, if not a more liberal one, and in January this year provincial elections took place following the successful national elections of December 2005. From now on, whatever happens in Basra can fairly be said to be the responsibility of the Iraqis. History will judge, but for now, that’s good enough.

Still, there are other accounts to settle. The US has taken over military command in the nine Shi’ite provinces in the south. To some, it looks as if the Americans are having to fill a vacuum that the British are leaving; but in truth US forces are looking after their back door out of the country next year.

“Job done” in a politically controversial operation such as Iraq doesn’t provide the uplift the forces need from either the public or the Americans – not to mention in their own minds – as they grind it out again in more strategically important operations in Afghanistan. The 8,000 British troops in Helmand have taken the brunt of the Taliban’s growing offensives across the south of the country. American commanders in Kabul readily acknowledge how well British forces have done. No one is foolish enough to talk about body counts but the reality is that when British patrols come “into contact” with Taliban forces they regularly kill dozens of enemy fighters without suffering losses themselves. But while they are fighting like this they are not getting out and about among the Afghans to make the most of their subtle soldiering talents. They are doing well in combat but are pinned down and unable to move meaningfully beyond the combat phase.

That is why many more boots on the ground are urgently needed. But they will be American boots. British military chiefs had plans to boost their troop numbers in Afghanistan by 2,000 or more as a contribution to Obama’s new “surge” in Afghanistan and to keep more political influence as reinforcements flow in to relieve the pressure. Downing Street appears to have vetoed this package in favour of a temporary, 700-troop increase merely to help cover the Afghan elections.

For the armed forces it raises the prospect that the government will leave them with another long slog in a difficult country without the numbers or the political influence to pursue decisive objectives. By the time British flags are lowered in Lashkar Gah or Musa Qala, the sombre satisfaction of a good job done may not assuage the growing suspicion that we have somehow lost our strategic compass in military matters. The military need to believe that they risk their lives for things that are genuinely important to our society and that their sacrifices are in pursuit of a result that cannot be achieved in any other way. It is far from clear that Afghanistan will meet those tests.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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