The announcement by the Prime Minister on his visit to Basra on 2 October of further troop cuts from UK forces in Iraq raises some interesting military – and political - issues.
His announcement that around 1,000 troops will be ‘home by Christmas’ was doubtless welcome news to many service families. A withdrawal of 500 following the next troop rotation in November had previously been announced last July, so this round number of 1,000 represents another 500 to be pulled out. That will bring the force down from 5,500 now concentrated at Basra air station to 4,500 by the end of the year.
The previously announced cuts were part of a package that will reduce British forces from five battlegroups down to four. Of these four battlegroups, one will be devoted to force protection, one to guarding supply routes and the rear area, a third intended to be kept ready to support the Iraqi forces who have taken control of Basra city – a rapid intervention force should it be required – and one battlegroup will help to train the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement in Maysan on the Iranian border. If another 500 troops are to be withdrawn from this package, it is not immediately clear how the force will be reorganized. It is possible that the four battlegroups could be reduced to three. Force protection and rear area supply routes are probably irreducible, so any further cuts in functions (or thinner coverage) would more likely have to be made in providing the reserve for Iraqi forces in Basra or in training the DBE in Maysan. But if a full battlegroup in toto were withdrawn after November, more than 500 extra troops would certainly be coming out at some point later. And this may happen in further announcements yet to be made. But the immediately announced 500 troop reduction might come from dissolving parts of one battlegroup, sending 500 home and redistributing some surplus companies around the remaining three battlegroups, at least for the time being. More likely, there will be a thinning out of the existing four units with no immediate diminution of the tasks they perform. This may not be as welcome to commanders on the ground as to the families of the returning personnel, but it would not make too much difference to the job in hand.
The far bigger strategic decision will come in the May 2008 troop rotation. This is where the real effects of any strategic re-orientation will be implemented. Any big announcements around the end of the year, any re-emphasis on the Afghanistan mission, any decision to cut back operational deployments as a result of the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review; all that could affect Iraq will end up being implemented in the May 2008 rotation.
If the present announcement has as much to do with domestic pre-election manoeuvring as with strategic re-orientation, by May next year, the choices will nevertheless be thoroughly strategic. And that may take place on the basis of a post (snap) election new administration in Britain, or else on the run-in during a much longer election battle. The deployments in Iraq feature prominently, either way.
Professor Michael Clarke
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.