Daniel Korski

Learning the Basra lesson

Learning the Basra lesson
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With a heavy heart, it may be time to acknowledge that the challenge in Helmand seems too hard for the British to carry alone. The UK might have great soldier there led by a fine commander, Brigadier Gordon Messenger, and as someone who worked out there I have huge respect for those deployed in the Helmand PRT, they are my friends, and former employees. But the UK does not seem to have the resources, will power, ministerial expertise, and bureaucratic arrangements for running an effective counter-insurgency.

Britain should see the US surge as a strategic opportunity to place the UK military and civilian presence under the US command. Britain should then exert influence from the inside.

Unfortunately, it looks like Britain is gearing up to repeat the mistakes it made in Basra, where it rejected a subordinate role and awaited US policy developments, rather than proactively seeking to influence them.

No doubt the British military will want to hold on to territory in “Helmandshire”, in part to live down criticism that they were defeated in Basra and need help on their current deployment. In a similar vein, the Foreign Office and DfiD, having spent two years trying to get civilians into Laskar Gar and at least a year organising their own effort will be loath to fold their effort into a US one.

But the lesson from Basra is clear: there a the British government rejected US offers of military support only to withdraw from the city—making then irrelevant both in Prime Minister Maliki’s successful charge of the knights which retook the city from the militias and as real partners for the US. I saw this first-hand when I ran the Basra Provincial Reconstruction Team just as General David Petraeus was surging and British troops were drawing down.

By folding the British operation into the American one, the British will encourage Nato allies like Canada and the Netherlands to do likewise. Hopefully, this will see these countries that are wavering about the mission being carried along by the US’s determination to win, something that was sorely lacking in the British effort in Basra.