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Our departure from Iraq ends a dismal period in our military history

Michael Portillo, in Basra, says that Britain has been humiliated: by committing too few troops, by failing to support the US surge, by showing more interest in spin than reality. If Basra is relatively calm, that has little do with us

25 March 2009

12:00 AM

25 March 2009

12:00 AM

‘The past is the past. It is no longer important,’ says Brigadier Billal Saleh Shukur, commander of Iraq’s 21st army brigade now occupying a part of Basra. We have met on a warm March day at the airbase outside the city, at the start of a five-a-side football tournament between teams drawn from the Iraqi and British forces. I had expressed my profound regret that the American-British Coalition, which rightly reveres every one of its own casualties, has always refused to count how many Iraqi citizens have been killed in six years of violence; and indeed has invested considerable effort in discrediting any human rights organisation that estimated the death toll. Somehow the Coalition came to treat Iraqis, the people we claimed to be liberating, as the enemy, or a group deserving no respect, whose deaths were not worth noting.

All things considered, the Brigadier’s attitude is extraordinarily magnanimous. It is explained, perhaps, by the surge in confidence throughout the Iraqi forces since Operation Charge of the Knights, launched just one year ago. Led, literally, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the army swept south towards Basra, driving out Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi army, a Shia militia. It had controlled Basra. Its death squads had thoroughly penetrated the police, and unleashed murder and terror on a population for which Britain had responsibility as the invader and occupier.

In the wake of the Iraqi army’s freeing of Basra, today the markets and cafés are crowded. At the funfair families enjoy the spring evening under the garish lights of a new Ferris wheel. Two British colonels and I head for the bumper cars. A couple of children cadge a ride with the officers, each kid incongruously sharing the cramped space with a man in uniform and his SA-80 rifle. As we move about the amusement park, Baswaris greet us with smiles and ‘salaam’, their right hand flattened across their chest in a sign of respect. The women wear the hijab, but the young ones sport tight jeans too. They are all friendly and unabashed and their eyes meet ours steadily.

Even by night, the market stalls bustle. The meat looks tasty (though its display would not satisfy EU health and safety laws). The perfect oranges are from Pakistan, but most of the vegetables are local and presentable. The stallholders beam. Basra feels safe. People can move around with little anxiety.

The provincial elections have gone well. It is not just that they have passed off with less violence than anyone dared to hope. The candidates and the public threw themselves into the contest with real enthusiasm. The streets became gaudy with election posters. Manifestos poured off the presses, though in reality they all pledged the same: security, jobs and better services.

Now that people feel safe, they notice the power cuts more, and the blocked sewers. We stop for a tea on the edge of the infamous Hayyanijah slum, a supposed hotbed of insurgents. With Colonel Richard Stanford (the British officer who is chief adviser to the Iraqi General Mohammed) I take tea at an open-air table with local lads that we find there. One of them is an off-duty policeman, another a lorry driver, and two more have no work. In the places where they live there is no drinkable water, they tell us. Later, the colonel strolls unperturbedly along the streets of Al-Ashar, Basra’s central district, stopping to chat in fluent Arabic with passers-by. This is British ‘hearts and minds’ soldiering at its best.

The normality of the city should not be exaggerated. We move from funfair to café in heavily armoured Iraqi vehicles and, given the risk of explosive attack, we wear body armour, helmet, goggles and gloves while travelling. But an opportunistic assault on us by a gunman is judged to be less likely, so we pull off the protective kit to walk about among the locals. The Iraqi soldiers provide protection. It is notable that the public shows no fear. Heavily armed troops are apparently popular because they bring people safety.


Along the streets there are fixed police posts at frequent intervals. The city is saturated with security forces. That is the best way to thwart terrorists whose improvised explosive devices and booby traps have become increasingly effective. It is safe enough for us to go for dinner in one of the city’s many restaurants. The food and the service are good, and with a fine selection of mezze followed by various kebabs we could be anywhere from Tangier to Muscat.

In Brigadier Billal’s headquarters a huge map occupies the floor of the stairwell. Basra’s principal buildings rise from it, represented in Lego bricks. With three brigades occupying the city and 14,000 soldiers deployed throughout Basra province, you wonder how the Coalition ever dreamed of holding Iraq without Iraqi soldiers. Yet when American troops reached Baghdad in 2003, the country’s army was promptly disbanded. The shortfall of boots on the ground was compounded because the then US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had insisted on invading with a fraction of the numbers recommended to him by his military commanders. With too few allied forces and no Iraqis, the Coalition was unable to impose order. Thereafter, many thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of allied troops died in terrorist attacks.

Seeing how effective the Iraqi army is today, you have to wonder how much slaughter might have been avoided, and how much more quickly we could have arrived at the relative peace that Iraq enjoys today. A senior Iraqi officer laments to me the further error of excluding all officers who had been Baath party members from the army for some time after it was re-established. ‘It was a great misjudgment to think that the army owed allegiance to Saddam,’ he says.

Unfortunately, even if many British officers and policy advisers understood at the time the blunders that Rumsfeld was making, our government went along with the plans. The only American decision in which Britain did not acquiesce was the one that the United States got right: the surge in troop numbers announced at the end of 2006. By then the British public was war weary and its government defeatist.

History should give credit to George W. Bush for that decision, taken in defiance of the prevailing collective wisdom in the United States. A cross-party committee co-chaired by James Baker, who had served George Bush senior as secretary of state, had (it seemed) merely bowed to the inevitable in recommending a withdrawal of American forces. Bush’s unilateral decision to reinforce instead reversed the course of the Iraq conflict; but Britain contributed not a platoon to the surge.

The British army says it was not shamed when Iraqi forces launched Operation Charge of the Knights against Basra, a city nominally under British control. It argues that the Iraqis were using a plan drawn up by the British, albeit one that Maliki chose to execute prematurely, taking his allies by complete surprise. The assault faltered and required massive Iraqi enforcement and then logistical support from the British and Americans. Shifting the argument somewhat, the army also points out that in any case the Iraqi army was ‘better able’ to sustain casualties (60 dead) and to be ruthless (in blowing up terrorist-held mosques and bulldozing the Five Mile Market).

If the history of the operation itself is open to dispute, what preceded it still looks a dismal period in British military history. The government had committed too few troops to hold Basra. As levels of violence rose, British forces had to abandon their well-intentioned tactic of patrolling in berets rather than helmets. The troops soon dubbed the army’s soft-sided patrol vehicles ‘coffins’
because they offered no protection against terrorist bombs.

The Mahdi army exploited Britain’s lack of grip. When in 2006 Tony Blair decided massively to extend the British operation in Afghanistan, all hope of reinforcing Iraq was gone. British officers were obliged to make deals with the Shia militia. Their men had to seek shelter in Basra Palace, on to which mortar bombs rained. Patrolling outside the base became increasingly dangerous. The British then withdrew further to the airfield, leaving the Baswaris at the mercy of the death squads.

The fact that things are going well today, during Britain’s last months in Iraq, is largely fortuitous. Of course, the British army can take credit for some of the training that has brought the Iraqi forces up to a high standard. Certainly, it is a good thing that the Iraqis themselves have played such a decisive role in improving their country’s security. There is no doubt that British soldiers and officials are now doing a good job advising Iraqi generals and training civil servants.

But none of that quite disguises what happened along the way. The British government was more interested in spin than reality. It made too small a commitment to Iraq and became hooked on promises to withdraw from Basra and to reinforce Afghanistan. While the US surged, we were heading for the exit. We let Baswaris die on our watch. If Brigadier Billal is willing to forget all that, his generosity of spirit rivals Nelson Mandela’s.

Have we learned from our humiliation? The British army has developed its doctrine and understands that not all insurgencies are like Northern Ireland. The government has at last given our forces some proper kit, such as the Mastiffs, 26-ton lorries designed to withstand bombs and keep the men inside alive. We are less arrogant than we used to be about American tactics. Britain recognises that General David Petraeus conducted a masterful strategy that combined aggression with persuasion. He turned Sunni leaders away from al-Qa’eda.

But there can be little confidence that the Coalition will perform better in Afghanistan. Again, the US and Britain have sent too few soldiers for what they are trying to do. As in Iraq, we cannot take and then hold ground. Afghanistan, being mainly rural, is more difficult to control than Iraq with its many cities. The porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is still more problematic than Iraq’s with Iran. The Afghan army is much smaller than Iraq’s and less well trained at this stage.

President Obama has yet to strike a convincing note on Afghanistan. His pledge to send more troops gave him political cover during the presidential campaign for his promise to withdraw from Iraq, a commitment that might otherwise have sounded weak or unpatriotic. But does the pledge make sense in itself? It is difficult to sound coherent when embarking on a surge and simultaneously talking about an exit strategy.

In Iraq things now look rather good. But it took a surge, ruthlessness, political dexterity, a build-up of local capacity and a lot of luck. It is the luck that you just cannot count on.

Michael Portillo is a former secretary of state for defence. He writes for the Sunday Times.


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