Has the British Strategy in Southern Iraq Failed?

Although considerable coverage has been given to the possible failure of the British strategy in southern Iraq, relatively little has been written about its possible underlying causes. On Oct 29, the Daily Telegraph ran a sensational article which suggested the British Army's position had declined to the point where it is pinned down in its bases and can no longer persuade interpreters to accompany troops on patrol.

Rather than fight on, they have struck a deal - or accommodation, as they describe it - with the Shia militias that dominate the city, promising to stay out in return for assurances that they will not be attacked. Since withdrawing, the British have not set foot in the city and even have to ask for permission if they want to skirt the edges to get to the Iranian border on the other side. ... "We don't speak Arabic to explain and our translators were too scared to work for us any more. What benefit were we bringing to these people?"

It was a sad ending to a campaign which had been held up as a shining contrast to the U.S. campaign in Iraq. In August of 2007 the Washington Post described the shrunken state of the British influence in Iraq's oil port.

"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.

If the US embassy office still remained, the British consulate had been drawn down out of concerns for its safety. "Core staff will remain at Basra Palace and the consulate will continue to maintain a full range of activities." The US diplomatic facility was regarded as ball-and-chain by a British force which was eager to withdraw from the city into its more secure base. The Independent reported: "British forces were prevented from pulling out of their last base in Basra City for five months because the Americans refused to move their consulate, according to senior military sources." The US threatened to reinforce Basra, an act which would have humiliated Gordon Brown.

The US warned that a brigade of troops would be sent from Baghdad to take "appropriate action" to maintain security.  ... Downing Street deemed it to be politically unacceptable for the Americans to replace British troops in Basra, as it would glaringly expose the growing differences between the two countries over Iraq.

Those highlights between those differences have become more invidious with the comparative success the surge is having even in Shi'ite areas. Recently US Army Colonel Michael Garrett described a process the reverse of Basra in the area south of Baghdad where civilian reconstruction teams were being deployed -- not withdrawn -- into the provinces with increasing success. Garrett, the commander of the 4th Brigade Combat team of the 25th Division contrasted his previous deployment, when "violence was at it's highest point" to the current situation where "we really have gained the initiative ... attacking al Qaeda and Shi'a extremist militias with much vigor ... the attack levels are at the lowest today that they've been in our 13-plus months here on the ground". Most importantly, successes were being scored not only against al-Qaeda, but against Shi'ite militias. Garrett pointed out that the Shi'ites were starting to provide crucial intelligence which enabled them to neutralize high-value targets.

We're responsible for a very large area of operations ... stretching really from southern Baghdad all the way down to the Saudi Arabian border. ... We've got a large population, primarily Shi'a, throughout the battle space, but we are on what we call the Sunni-Shi'a fault line ... our mission was very simple ... it was to reduce accelerants of violence into Baghdad. It was to defeat sectarian violence ... and it was to protect the population.

The Shi'a militia, the JAM special groups remain a problem for us. But interestingly enough, we are seeing the same type of movement that we saw early on in the Sunni communities towards al Qaeda in our Shi'a communities towards JAM and especially the JAM special group members. And so today, with our concerned citizens, with the intelligence that we receive on a daily basis, we are targeting and we are detaining key members of the JAM special group network.

Brigadier General David Phillips, Deputy Commanding General of the Police Training Team told bloggers at a recent roundtable conference that some of the longstanding institutional barriers between the Sunni and Shi'a were starting to break down. "We hired about 3,000 new Iraqi policemen -- probably 99 percent Sunni ... and the National Police, as you know, are a predominantly Shi'a organization and these are predominantly Sunnis that are joining it." Although many tensions remained, there was a pronounced change in the air. Phillips recounted:

The Iraqis came up with the concept of a Unity Day parade. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think Ramadi wouild host a parade which would be led by a band playing and then also young Iraqi Boy Scouts marching with flags ... Girls Scouts ... fire department ... National Police ... regular police ... ambulances. Never dreamed I would see something like that.

The Surge from the very start was a political and military offensive. Both elements had to be present in order for each to be effective. Without a political process a military effort would be a nothing but coercion. But without a military effort providing security no political solution could possibly take root. While it is often said that "there is no purely military solution to the problems in Iraq" it is less frequently realized that there can be no purely political solution either. One of the first articles to warn against the British "softly-softly" approach appeared in the Spectator in 2005. It warned that "softly-softly" might lead to an exclusive reliance on political solutions which could not withstand the first determined military challenge from the insurgents, unless the British were prepared to respond in kind. But they were not.

The root of this failure stems from the very strategy that was once lauded as the antidote for insurgent violence. Known as the "soft approach," the British strategy in southern Iraq centered on non-aggressive, nearly passive responses to violent flare-ups. ... The media-generated facade of a successful counter-insurgency effort ignored the creeping infiltration of violent and extremist elements into Basra society, a wide-spread penetration which has led to the tenuous situation now facing both British and Iraqi authorities in southern Iraq. ...

The subterranean infiltration began to bubble to the surface in early 2004, as tensions between the coalition and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada Al-Sadr came to a boiling point. ... Not one precinct of the Basra police force responded to the violence ... Iraqis themselves were quickly brought into line by the extremists, as numerous Iraqi employees of the British government were murdered and tortured, their hands displayed on pikes outside of British headquarters.

The British response to these provocations was virtually non-existent, with army officials heeding warnings by "local leaders" that they avoid retaliatory measures. This inaction seemed only to embolden the Shi'ite extremists and their allies in the militias, who -- over the next six months -- began to accelerate their already advanced designs of transformation and intimidation.

The British government's inability to adjust to the rising danger posed by Shi'ite militias put British soldiers in an untenable position. Sworn to their ethos of non-intervention, the British found themselves virtually paralyzed in responding to provocations. Shi'ite militias quickly preyed upon this tactical contradiction, with attacks against British forces steadily increasing throughout 2004 and into 2005. The gunmen of the Mahdi Army regularly dueled with British soldiers, who were made especially vulnerable due to their command's insistence that they travel in unarmored vehicles, so as not to threaten the populace.

By early 2007, even the New York Times was noticing that the "softly-softly" approach was not all it had been cracked up to be.

Since the 2003 invasion, the British-led coalition forces have adopted a far less aggressive and interventionist stance than American troops have farther north. Some contend that this was the only realistic approach, with far fewer troops at their disposal and a more benign environment. But critics accuse the British of simply allowing the Shiite militias free rein to carry out their intolerant Islamist agenda, which involved killing merchants who sell alcohol, driving out Christians and infiltrating state institutions and the security forces.

"The British are very patient - they didn't know how to deal with the militias," said a 50-year-old Assyrian Christian who would identify herself only as Mrs. Mansour. "Some people think it would be better if the Americans came instead of the British. They would be harder on the militias." The report by the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks to prevent or resolve deadly conflicts, concedes that a recent British-led crackdown was a "qualified success" in reducing criminality, political assassinations and sectarian killings, yet nevertheless concludes that Basra "is an example of what to avoid."

It said the British had been driven into "increasingly secluded compounds," a result, the report said, that was viewed by Basra's residents and militia as an "ignominious defeat."

The question of what went wrong in southern Iraq will long be debated by historians. For the present, the challenge will be for the U.S. and the Iraqi Army to succeed where the British may have failed. While the U.S. plans for Basra have not been widely discussed, preparations to eventually replace the British have long been afoot. At a discussion of the future force structure of the Iraqi Army, Brigadier General Robin Swan, commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team, said the original estimate of 10 division Iraqi Army had been upped to 13, in part to provide more divisions for the Basra area. Moreover, the US was paying particular attention to improving the future Iraqi Army's logistical capability and partnering it at every level with American advisers. This suggested a future Iraqi Army with the capability to concentrate large ground forces anywhere in Iraq. It will be necessary to bring in soldiers from other parts of Iraq to break the power of the militias. A Daily Telegraph article quoted a soldier from the Iraqi 14th division: "Soldiers from Basra can't fight against militias," said Capt Ali Modar, of the new 14th Iraqi Division, which has taken over responsibility for security in the city. "It is difficult to overcome them. We need people to come from other parts of Iraq. Soldiers from Basra know that if they arrest anyone they will be killed, or their families will be killed."

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. The Daily Telegraph story says the British are holding the fort until the Iraqis can appear.

With no presence in the city, British forces are hard pushed to keep abreast of what is going on. They say they get their information from local newspapers and from the Iraqi army, although one battalion of that force is isolated inside the city and the other battalion is in training outside. ... "There is a vacuum of knowledge there" ...

How the Iraqi forces might cope with such intense opposition is uncertain. "No one is pretending these are first-class forces," one senior British officer said. The hope is that the local troops will suffice, but much of the force intended to secure Basra is not yet formed. Out of four scheduled divisions, only about one and a half exist and half of their men are on holiday at any one time. ...

For Britain, in southern Iraq, it is all but over. It tried force, and ultimately had to admit that force failed. Since March 2003, 171 British men and women have lost their lives in the war. British commanders can only hope that the Iraqis have more luck.

"It tried force, and ultimately had to admit that force failed. " And perhaps therein lay the problem. For force to succeed it must be present in sufficient quantities to underwrite the political task. The "softly-softly" strategy was a political check backed by the currency of force. The safety of every Iraqi who accepted the check; who cooperated with the Coalition and believed in their promises depended on the full faith and confidence in the British Army. When the British Army could not provide security for those who trusted it the political check bounced.  The new Iraqi Army being formed under American tutelage is the new gold reserve against which checks will be issued after the British have gone. And despite the recent success in Anbar, Diyala and south of Baghdad it may be some time before the residents of Basra find the willingness to trust someone else after the bitter disappointment of the past.

Richard Fernandez is PJM Sydney editor; he also writes at the Belmont Club.