Richard Fernandez at PJM, on the stunning "reversal of fortune" among U.S. and British forces in Iraq. Not long ago, the British occupation of Basra (and southern Iraq), with its emphasis on "treading softly," was once hailed as a model for the rest of the country. By comparison, the American approach in the north was almost universally condemned as too confrontational and too bloody, in light of escalating violence and mounting casualties among U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.
Now, perhaps a reassessment is in order. Mr. Fernandez found a recent article in the U.K. Telegraph which suggests that the British Army's position in Basra has declined to the point where it is pinned down in its bases and can no longer persuade interpreters to accompany troops on patrol. He also found this quote from a Washington Post article that offered a bleak assessment of the British position in southern Iraq:
"The British have basically been defeated in the south," a senior U.S. intelligence official said recently in Baghdad. They are abandoning their former headquarters at Basra Palace, where a recent official visitor from London described them as "surrounded like cowboys and Indians" by militia fighters. An airport base outside the city, where a regional U.S. Embassy office and Britain’s remaining 5,500 troops are barricaded behind building-high sandbags, has been attacked with mortars or rockets nearly 600 times over the past four months.
By comparison, violence in sectors controlled by the U.S. military dropped sharply after implementation of the troop surge, and (as Mr. Fernandez points out) its various political and economic components. He notes that American-led civilian reconstruction teams are expanding their presence in the countryside, in contrast to the shrinking British presence in the Basra region. And, as more Iraqis align themselves with their government and U.S. forces, we receive better information on insurgent locations and activities, allowing us to target them more effectively.
So, what happened? Why did the British approach in the south go sour while ours appears to be working, after so many fits and starts? Fernandez cuts the heart of the issue in a couple of insightful paragraphs:
Since the final chapter in the Iraqi story has not been written it is premature to conclude which strategic approach — the British or the American — will ultimately prove the more successful. But the outcomes of military campaigns are often less dependent on initial strategies than the ability to adapt. Both the British and American forces came "with the Army they had". The British Army, perhaps molded by its experience in Northern Ireland, came prepared to emphasize the political over the kinetic, while the Americans may have come to Iraq geared for the kinetic fight without giving much thought to politics. As a result both the British and the American forces came with deficiencies which the ensuing campaign eventually revealed. The question became to what extent the respective armed forces could fix their weaknesses.
But crucially, many of the American shortcomings were "software defects" — deficiencies in doctrine, lack of relevant experience, a lack of institutional memory in "colonial police" type operations — which the hard experience of several combat tours eventually fixed. Once the "software" had been fixed, the expensive kinetic warfare systems were already there to back it up. The old Americans strengths of firepower, logistics, technology and money — once allied to an effective political campaign — suddenly became astonishingly effective. On the other hand the British weaknesses where much harder and more expensive to remedy. When the JAM and other Shi’ite militias responded to British political initiatives with sheer violence and mayhem, the British, lacking the means to protect their Iraqi partners, found their strategy collapsing about their ears. Their interpreters were driven into hiding; the inadequately protected pro-British leaders were liquidated or tortured and British operation was too small to recruit forces from outside the power of militia intimidation. Finally the British troops themselves were confined to an ever-shrinking perimeter, reduced to relying on desperate measures to eke out a last-minute victory.
To that analysis, I can only add a couple of points. First, while Mr. Fernandez focuses (largely) on the operational and tactical aspects of British and American operations, it is also important to remember the political context, and its impact on each country's respective strategy. While former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was a stalwart ally in Iraq and the larger War on Terror, it is clear that his support came at a political price, both for him and his Labour Party.
Mr. Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, appears, in a word, war-weary; anxious to get out of Iraq for good, while trying to avoid the appearance of a British defeat. Mr. Brown's tepid support for the Iraq mission is now reflected in the comments of his beleaguered soldiers at the Basra Airport, ready to call it a day and complete their withdrawal, with little regard for what will happen once they leave.
On the American side, President Bush is probably war-weary as well, but he had the good sense--not to mention the personal resolve--to go against prevailing wisdom on Iraq. Barely one year ago, the so-called "wise men" in Washington were pushing for some sort of political solution, accompanied by the quick departure of U.S. military forces. The idea of a surge was scoffed at; "doomed to fail," in the words of Beltway experts and Democratic politicians.
To his credit, Mr. Bush held his ground and went ahead with the surge. The results--hard-won by American troops on the ground--speak for themselves. Today, with the security situation steadily improving, there's no serious talk about a quick exit from Iraq, and the war has all-but-disappeared as a campaign issue. President Bush rolled the dice on a long-shot and won; British leaders took the "safe" approach and came up short.
Secondly, we should point out that the declining situation in Basra is in no way a reflection on the skill or determination of British troops. Michael Yon spent several weeks with U.K. forces in southern Iraq earlier this year, and found plenty of fight in them. And, contrary to press accounts at the time, they weren't hunkered down inside a perimeter, they were on patrol and taking the fight to the enemy. Yon's descriptions of combat are (typically) riveting, but if you read closer, you'll discover that the Brits were conducting textbook small unit ops.
It's a shame that British political resolve can match the determination of their troopers in the field. If the U.K. mission in Basra (ultimately) fails, it will be a failure of political will and strategic choices, and not a failure of the units assigned to carry out the mission.