UK Troop Withdrawals


Gordon Brown with troops (REUTERS)The Prime Minister’s announcement to Parliament that the UK presence in Iraq could reduce to 2500 personnel by May 2008 is in keeping with Coalition strategy and an indicator that this plan is progressing.

It is perhaps a peculiarly British trait to downplay achievement, criticize success and turn a positive news story into a negative report. For several years now it has been stated Coalition policy in Iraq to follow a path where the multi-national forces stood in the breach pending the arrival of Iraqi ‘cavalry’ – not to provide rescue but to shoulder the responsibility for Iraq’s internal security. This burden has been too great for the post-Saddam Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to carry alone and it has always been understood that a considerable investment in time and resources would be necessary to bring the embryonic ISF to the required size and level of capability needed to substitute for the multi-national military presence. While foreign troops have borne the brunt of combat operations a parallel effort of equal importance has been underway to train Iraqi soldiers, sailors, airmen and policemen. As this training produced increasing numbers of ISF units the UN mandated international Coalition in Iraq could ease slowly toward sharing the internal security mission to a point where indigenous forces could take provincial, then national, responsibility for that task. This transition would see Coalition troops adopt an over-watch posture from which they could, when requested, provide the ISF with emergency support. This process would culminate when ISF capabilities and/or a benign security situation would allow the withdrawal of Coalition forces from Iraq.

Consequently, the Prime Minister’s announcement to Parliament that the UK presence in Iraq could reduce to 2500 personnel by May 2008 is in keeping with Coalition strategy and an indicator that this plan is progressing. It is therefore strange that political and media commentary on the PM’s statement is more critical than laudatory in character and the achievement it signals has effectively been neglected. It may well be that the British have a tendency to conduct life in an understated fashion but the reporting of Gordon Brown’s statement on Iraq has failed to capture the nature of the military campaign and the steady (albeit slow) progress which deserves to be publicly acknowledged.

One reason for the nature of the commentary surrounding the Prime Minister’s statement is that the debate over the timing of his recent visit to Iraq and the veracity of his in-theatre announcement to withdraw ‘1000’ troops by Christmas have been a distraction fuelled by the party conference season and an embittered press corps which felt deceived over the prospect of a general election. Unfortunately, these domestic concerns have overshadowed the primary issue which is that advances are being made in Iraq, a point which regrettably has not attracted more copy or air time.

Two further points from Mr Brown’s speech are of interest here: its recourse to strategic language and its very welcome emphasis on non-military aspects of the task in Iraq. Beyond the legacy of unease surrounding the decision to invade Iraq one reason for the seeming domestic unpopularity of the present British military engagement in Iraq is that the government has failed to articulate the importance of the intervention with respect to national interests. Consequently, it is not generally viewed as a necessary strategic endeavour but a pointless venture with a consequence that tactical events in-theatre exert undue influence on public opinion. However, there are diplomatic, economic and security grounds for the Iraq intervention and in his statement to Parliament Mr Brown stressed the diplomatic dimension. Although his determination to fulfil Britain’s international obligations may not find much traction beyond Whitehall, it is right to stress the need to underpin the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolutions and the credibility of the International Community. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a leading international actor it is clearly in the UK’s interests to take action to ensure the UN mandated military mission in Iraq does not fail. The Multi-national Force in Iraq (MNF-I) is due its fourth annual UN mandate at the end of 2007 and its passage through the UN would not be facilitated by the UK’s withdrawal from the MNF-I coalition. Not to remain engaged in MNF-I would also dismiss the multilateral and bilateral requests for assistance made by the elected government of Iraq and renege on earlier British commitments to the Iraqi people and coalition partners. To withdraw UK forces from Iraq would also inevitably cast doubt over the UK’s resilience and dependability in the face of adversity, which some potential opponents across the globe might perceive as a weakness they could exploit. As a hitherto key member of many military alliances it would also undermine the UK’s moral authority to expect allies to meet their own obligations. Intangible as it may seem to the man on the street, it is in Britain’s national interest to fulfil its diplomatic and international obligations and this means its servicemen and women may be sent to distant lands and placed in harms way for considerable periods. The Prime Minister was therefore correct to emphasize this dimension of the Iraq endeavour but the government has much to do if this message is to be meaningfully assimilated by the British public.

A second point worth highlighting in Gordon Brown’s statement was the importance he placed on political and economic efforts in Iraq. Military personnel are at the vanguard in stressing that a counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign cannot be won through military activity alone. Reviews of military COIN doctrine in the US and UK stress the primacy of politics and the imperative for a political aim, while the value of jobs, a stable economy, social prosperity and a functioning infrastructure – in short a better life under the favoured government – are fundamental to defeating the insurgent’s promotion of an alternative order. So it was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister emphasizing the need for political reconciliation and economic aid/redevelopment for without a concerted and effective effort in these areas gains made by the military in the security arena may be rather fragile or short-lived. Without a commensurate investment in the political and economic dimensions of the COIN campaign in Iraq, MNF-I’s military successes will sit within a context of failure, it will be unable to properly achieve its mission and the ‘blood and treasure’ already expended in Iraq will have been wasted, and that is something there would be no shortage of commentary on. The British inclination to understatement does not extend to a good defeat, where a proclivity for criticism and censure can be fully sated.

Paul Smyth
Head, Operational Studies Programme, RUSI

The views expressed here do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI

See also: Iraq troop cuts by Professor Michael Clarke




Explore our related content