Fresh from the, at times, antagonistic interrogation of Congressional inquisitors, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus’s return to the war in Iraq has been delayed by a stop-over in London. Given the range of modern aircraft it is unlikely their visit was necessary for logistic reasons so its purpose has more significance than a mere comfort call. Sandwiched between meetings at the Ministry of Defence and 10 Downing Street the visitors gave a Press conference at the Royal United Services Institute. After their Hearings on Capitol Hill, the reception and probing from gathered journalists must have felt welcomingly placid. The Ambassador and General gave a frank but guarded summary of the situation in Iraq and then fielded questions.
From their opening statements and subsequent answers to questions some themes are of note:
It is important that the coalition does not rush into failure
Understandably, any improvement in security will be seized upon as an opportunity to demonstrate success by reducing the force levels in Iraq, but the very real brake that must be applied to this movement is that a precipitous withdrawal or premature disengagement in Iraq would cause devastating consequences that would dwarf current difficulties. This danger applies to both the US and UK areas of responsibility and is perhaps acute for the British who are patently closer to being able to execute a substantial reduction in forces than the US. General Petraeus was keen to point out that the British move out of Basra city did not happen in a vacuum but was conducted in consultation with the Iraqi authorities and the coalition chain of command, but he also hinted at the need to watch and wait for pending enhancements to the Iraqi Security Forces, so it is too soon to draw a line under Basra.
Progress in Iraq will require pragmatism
t was clear that both the Ambassador and General were willing to accept a large degree of flexibility in order to make headway in Iraq. Naturally, for those on the front-line necessity is often the Mother of invention but the willingness to accept Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems (which by inference may not match Western ideals or initial intent) is patently core to the Ambassador and General’s message, which through them should gain traction in capitals. The recruitment of Sunni insurgents into the coalition security framework, the political accommodation of developments on the ground (e.g., the expansion of a Provincial Council to include unelected tribal chiefs) and even an openness over what form the Iraqi nation should take are examples of a pragmatism that defines the current approach to addressing the crisis in Iraq. It remains to be seen how such flexibility will be viewed in the Western media but doubtless many commentators will equate such elasticity with failure. The General and Ambassador might justifiably reply that real failure is to set and cling to unrealistic expectations.
There are significant changes in Iraq that must be exploited
There are indications that for some Iraqis the undeniable unpopularity of the international presence in Iraq is not necessarily their primary grievance. Such indications include the rejection of Al-Qai’da’s fundamentalist extremism by groups which had hitherto attacked US forces and the increasing dissatisfaction among Iraqis with the inability of government ministries to function adequately because they are operated along sectarian lines. These issues provide opportunities for the coalition and the central Iraqi government to make alliances and tap into concerns that outweigh the antipathy from outside Iraq that appears to be the only source of malcontent in the country. In the competition for allegiance that forms a core of a counter-insurgency campaign such opportunities are extremely important and must be effectively exploited.
Clearly, the General and Ambassador did not need a trip to the UK to make any statements which they had or could have made in Washington. So why the visit to Whitehall? It did provide an opportunity for the top US agents in Iraq to reassure the British public that earlier comments from other Americans that the UK contribution in Iraq had failed or was ineffective do not represent official views, and the General in particular stressed the very high regard in which the British contribution was held. Beyond this, media speculation on the purpose of the visit might include the need to shore up the transatlantic alliance, however, it is an unlikely explanation as this topic appears to have substance only in the press or the chattering classes. It is certainly not manifest in the conduct of the operation in Iraq where the UK has exceptional links to the US command chain for the campaign, with senior military liaison officers engaged at all key headquarters – in Baghdad (Multi-National Force – Iraq), Florida (US Central Command) and Washington (the Pentagon). Together, these officers enjoy unparalleled access to the US decision-making process and are extremely well placed to both inform Whitehall of US thinking and to articulate the UK’s plans etc to the Americans. General Petraeus was also explicit in heaping praise on the senior British generals on his staff who have been crucial in facilitating Sunni reconciliation.
Against a backdrop of this level of shared understanding a visit to the Ministry of Defence and Downing Street suggests an agenda that requires the highest levels of personal engagement. The General hinted that his visit allowed for an exchange of notes and a discussion on the ‘way forward’ in Iraq, and perhaps his presence in London was to make a personal intervention for a new idea or a specific rate of implementation of an existing course of action. Would that include a ‘plea‘ for continued UK military engagement? Undeniably, the US would prefer to have British troops remain in Iraq for as long as possible, not only to avert premature disengagement but also for the operational capabilities this would retain, and to ensure the international coalition is not damaged or weakened by the apparent exit of one of its key members. Certainly, given the Prime Minister’s public statements on the willingness of the UK to meet its obligations and responsibilities in Iraq the Ambassador and General would be pushing against an open door, but in the face of widespread unease over Britain’s enduring involvement in Iraq and the aspiration to succeed in Afghanistan, that door may only open ajar.