Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 10 months ago

Soon after the invasion of Iraq, some thought that the British presence in Basra might very well join the short but remarkable catalog of counterinsurgency victories in history.  The British did what they have always done, including implementation of “soft” rules of engagement.  More than a little ridicule has been wasted and ink has been spilled in the excoriation of U.S. rules of engagement, which even though seen by us as lacking the robustness to win OIF at times, are “harder” than the British ROE.  Juan Cole gives us a preening communication from a British reservist from July of 2005.  “One aspect that is rarely discussed is the vast difference between the British and American rules of engagement. You will quickly respond by saying ‘oh but things are so much safer in the South because it is predominantly Shia’. Yes but if we used the American rules of engagement then I am positive that there would be far far more attacks against us. It is ridiculous for British soldiers to be ordered not to overtake any of the huge American convoys on the Kuwait-Baghdad motorway because they risk being shot at by the Americans!”

This optimism continued until the forcible rescue of two British special forces operators who had been arrested by the Iraqi police in Basra.  But the proud British ROE may have been part of the problem.

At home, Britons were stunned by the graphic footage of their soldiers being assaulted in a city thought to be “safe,” especially in comparison to the blood-soaked urban areas of the Sunni Triangle which dominate news coverage emanating out of Iraq. The violent imagery was only the latest and most troubling indication of the British military’s failure in Basra and its environs, a disastrous turn of events which seemed unthinkable two years ago, when British troops were welcomed into Basra with relatively open arms.

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. Instead of raids and street battles, the British concentrated on building relationships with local leaders and fostering consensus among Iraqi politicos. In Basra, the British were quick to build and expand training programs for a city police force. As a symbol of their faith in stability-by-civility, the British military took to donning the soft beret while on patrol, avoiding the connotations of war supposedly raised by the American-style Kevlar helmets.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, this “soft” approach seemed remarkably successful, especially when juxtaposed with the chaos that had engulfed other parts of Iraq. Basra seemed to adapt relatively well to the new order of things, with little in the way of street battles or casualties. Both the British and American media — ever-ready to point out the comparable failures of American arms — energetically hailed the peaceful and stable atmosphere in Basra as a significant indicator of the virtues of the British approach, upholding it as the tactical antithesis to the brutal and aggressive Yanks. The Dallas Morning News reported in 2003 that military experts from Britain were already boasting that U.S. forces in Iraq could “take a cue from the way their British counterparts have taken control of Basra.” Charles Heyman, editor of the highly-respected defense journal Jane’s, asserted: “The main lesson that the Americans can learn from Basra and apply to Baghdad is to use the ‘softly-softly’ approach.”

The reporting also featured erudite denunciations of the rigid rules of engagement that governed the United States military, while simultaneously championing British outreach. Ian Kemp, a noted British defense expert, suggested in November 2004 that the “major obstacle” in past U.S. occupations and peacekeeping efforts was their inability to connect with locals due to the doctrinal preeminence of force protection. In other words, had Americans possessed the courage to interface with the Iraqi, they might enjoy greater success.

It did not take long before the English press allowed the great straw man of a violent American society to seep into their explanations for the divergent approaches. The Sunday Times of London proclaimed “armies reflect their societies for better or for worse. In Britain, guns are frowned upon — and British troops faced with demonstrations in Northern Ireland must go through five or six stages, including a verbal warning as the situation gets progressively more nasty, before they are allowed to shoot. In America, guns are second nature.” Such flimsy and anecdotal reasoning — borne solely out of classical European elitist arrogance — tinged much of the reporting out of Basra.

AS A RESULT OF THE EFFUSIVE media celebration, even some in the British military began believing their own hype, with soldiers suggesting to reporters in May 2003 that the U.S. military should “look to them for a lesson or two.” As a British sergeant told the Christian Science Monitor: “We are trained for every inevitability and we do this better than the Americans.” According to other unnamed British military officials, America had “a poor record” at keeping the peace while Basra only reinforced the assertion that the British maintain “the best urban peacekeeping force in the world.”

Not too long after this incident and due to the degradation in security in Basra, the British consulate was evacuated in January of 2006.

The British consulate in Basra will evacuate its heavily defended building in the next 24 hours over concerns for the safety of its staff.

Despite a large British military presence at the headquarters in Basra Palace, a private security assessment has advised the consul general and her staff to leave the building after experiencing regular mortar attacks in the last two months.

The move will be seen as a huge blow to progress in Iraq and has infuriated senior military commanders. They say it sends a message to the insurgents that they are winning the battle in pushing the British out of the southern Iraqi capital, where several British soldiers have died and dozens have been injured.

British troop levels have dropped precipitously through Operation Iraq Freedom, from around 45,000 in March and April of 2003, to less than 20,000 by May of 2003, and then to around 7000 by the end of 2006.  The British announced another pullback from Basra in February of 2007, conveying their intent to reduce forces to approximately 5,500 by the end of the summer.  The pullback was not announced in a vacuum.  The situation in Basra was calamitous as reported by NPR.

“The problem is, in most of these four provinces, the British essentially gave up,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cordesman says U.K. forces lost control of two key provinces — Basra and Maisan — after elections in early 2005 and 2006 that brought a Shiite majority to power.

“Once they came under control, the Shiites firmly were in charge of virtually the entire area and there was little the British could do about it,” Cordesman says.

Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London recently returned from a visit to Basra, his first since 2003. He says in 2003, British soldiers were on foot patrol, drove through town in unarmored vehicles and fished in the waters of the Shaat al Arab on their days off. He says the changes he saw four years later are enormous.

“Nowadays all troop movement in and out of the city are conducted at night by helicopter because it’s been deemed too dangerous to go on the road and its dangerous to fly choppers during the day,” he says.

Beeston says during his latest visit, he noticed a map of the city in one of the military briefing rooms. About half of the city was marked as no-go areas.

British headquarters are mortared and rocketed almost everynight.

This is indicative of many parts of southern Iraq, says Wayne White, a former State department middle east intelligence officer. White says the south is riddled with rival Shiite groups vying for power, and roving criminal gangs because there’s nothing to stop them.

“There’s virtually nothing down there in the way of governance that answers to Baghdad in an effective way,” White says. “There are mayors, there are police but in many cases these people have no loyalty to Baghdad, operate along with the militias, have sympathy with them.”

We must disagree with part of this assessment (” … little the British could do about it,” and ” … there’s nothing to stop them”).  The U.S. forces are responsible for Anbar, home of the Sunnis deposed from power in the invasion.  The British, while left with fewer troops with which to work, were responsible for control of the area in which the new power lived – the Shi’a, saved from the tyranny of the previous regime.  In a clearer statement concerning the British effort and its affects, Anthony Cordesman of The Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a study entitled The British Defeat in the South, speaks openly about the situation in Basra.

The British announcement of force cuts in Southern Iraq reflects a set of realities on the ground that has dominated southeastern Iraq for more than two years. Southeastern Iraq has long been under the de facto control of SCIRI and Sadr factions. The British effectively lost any opportunity to shape a secular and nationalist Basra in the summer of 2003, and the US defeat of the Sadr militia in March and April 2004 never extended to the southeast and Basra area.

The British won some tactical clashes in Maysan and Basra in May-November 2004, but Operation Telic’s tactical victories over the Sadrists did not stop Islamists from taking steadily more local political power and controlling security at the neighborhood level when British troops were not present.

Two problems have become apparent: force size, and rules of engagement.  The calls for complete withdrawal of British forces have gotten more voiciferous, declaring that “The British troops’ withdrawal rate “should be determined not by the security situation – which allows militias and insurgents to determine our withdrawal – but by the state of training of the Iraqi forces,” said the commission, which was formed in the manner of the U.S. Baker-Hamilton commission, also known as the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which submitted a similar report to U.S. President George W. Bush in December 2006, urging Washington to change course on Iraq.  The report further added that there were “no good options left” in Iraq, indicating that the British government has to “redefine its objectives.”

The redefinition of objectives will likely involve focus on force protection, as British fatalities per unit has increased above U.S. fatalities per unit.

For the first time since the war began, British soldiers are being killed in Iraq at a proportionally greater rate than U.S. soldiers, it was reported.

The Royal Statistical Society analyzed death rates for the two armies between Feb. 5 and June 24, reported The Sunday Telegraph. During that time, Britain lost 23 of its 5,500 soldiers, while the United States lost 463 of its 165,000 soldiers, the newspaper reported.

Increased violence in the southern city of Basra, where most of the British troops are serving, was responsible for the proportional increase in deaths, said Society spokeswoman Sheila Bird.

The findings have led to more calls for the British government to withdraw its troops from Iraq, the newspaper reported.

British military and political leaders have come to regard the war in Iraq as a “lost cause,” a senior British army commander told the British newspaper.

By May of 2007 the violence had reached a fevered pitch, with rival Shi’a gangs fighting for control of the oil-rich city.

Basra, the richest city in Iraq and gateway to the Gulf, could erupt into all-out war between rival Shia groups seeking control of its vast oil wealth as British forces prepare to draw down.

The power struggle between factions of the Shia majority that has dominated Iraqi politics since the first post-war general elections in 2005 threatens to affect oil exports accounting for virtually all of Iraq’s income.

In the latest development of a turf war that has all the ingredients of a gangster movie set in 1920s Chicago, rivals of the provincial governor fell one vote short of voting him out of office last month but have pledged to keep up the standoff.

Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, is more or less free of the car bombs and the violence between Shias and Sunni Arabs raging in central Iraq, but it has descended into a chaos of its own. Sporadic militia battles, endemic corruption and death threats now scar the once tranquil port.

“Everyone’s trying to grab resources and make a quick profit without considering a long-term programme or attempting to establish a power base for the future,? said Peter Harling, an analyst for the International Crisis Group who focuses on Iraq.

“The interesting thing about violence in Basra is that it’s not related to the two big factors of violence elsewhere: fighting the occupation and sectarian violence,? he said.

Residents fear that violence could be a sign of things to come, especially as British troops disengage from the south.

In an analysis of another root of the problem, the International Crisis Group gives us a more anthropological explantion of Basra.

By March–April 2007, renewed political tensions once more threatened to destabilise the city, and relentless attacks against British forces in effect had driven them off the streets into increasingly secluded compounds. Basra’s residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before.

What progress has occurred cannot conceal the most glaring failing of all: the inability to establish a legitimate and functioning provincial apparatus capable of redistributing resources, imposing respect for the rule of law and ensuring a peaceful transition at the local level. Basra’s political arena remains in the hands of actors engaged in bloody competition for resources, undermining what is left of governorate institutions and coercively enforcing their rule. The local population has no choice but to seek protection from one of the dominant camps.

The British are not a strong tribe in Basra, and withdrawal doesn’t help matters.  In contrast, we have observed that the U.S. was the strongest tribe in Anbar, and the Marines have spearheaded a campaign that will indeed be written into the catalog of COIN victories in history.

The so-called “Anbar Awakening? is about more than just enlisting the assistance of the tribal Sheiks.  The magnitude and brilliance of this coup by U.S. forces should not be underestimated.  To assert that AQI was the only enemy in Anbar belittles the scope of the accomplishment and ignores the intricate military, political, religious and anthropological machinations that were involved to pull off this coup.  Regardless of the disposition of OIF, the pacification of Anbar by the United States Marines will go down as the greatest counterinsurgency campaign in history and will be studied in professional war college classrooms for generations to come … The coup is not merely that the tribal chiefs and their people are cooperating with U.S. forces.  It is larger than that.  The coup is that the insurgency, properly defined as indigenous fighters rather than terrorists and foreign fighters – those who were previously pointing a gun towards U.S. troops – are now pointing them at the terrorists.  Not only have many of them made peace with the U.S., but in a development just as important, the U.S. forces have made peace with them.  This has been accomplished with the new difficulty introduced by globalization (foreign fighters), and the new difficulty introduced by religious fanaticism (suicide bombers), and the new difficulty introduced by technology (stand off weapons such as roadside bombs).  This is a counterinsurgency tour de force, and as time judges this victory it will take its rightful place in the great military campaigns of world history.

The question now is whither Basra?  What will happen to this city of thugs, criminals and greedy opportunists?  What will happen to the citizens who need security and can only turn to thugs and criminals for protection?  And finally, what place will Basra take in the overall pacification of Iraq and will the U.S. forces have to step in to take control of Basra?

  • GI

    I have had a number of British and even Aussies tell me that the US ROE in the Sunni Triangle was to tough and incorrect strategy compared to what the way they do things down south.

    I always reply that they are always welcome to redeploy their forces to the Sunni Triangle and try out their strategy and see how it works and show us Yanks how it is done. They never seem to like that idea.

  • Slab

    GI, an excellent point. Don’t forget, the Marine Corps made a lot of noise about using the “soft” approach shortly before being handed Anbar province in 2004. There was a lot of talk of patrolling in soft covers, and even wearing our woodland uniforms to clearly distinguish us from the U.S. Army. We were going to do it different, and better, than the U.S. Army had done it, or so we said. That all changed when Fallujah and Ramadi blew up in our faces, of course. The difference is, we got past our hubris, and we didn’t hunker down inside our FOBs – we went out in pursuit of the enemy.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Rules of Engagement,War & Warfare and was published July 23rd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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