British Brass Defends Basra Campaign

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 8 months ago

The Captain’s Journal has a history on the one hand of defending the bravery of the enlisted British soldier, and on the other of criticizing the strategy that the British brass brought to the campaign in Southern Iraq. Without a doubt the British enlisted man wanted to participate in counterinsurgency in Basra, and also quite without a doubt, his chain of command effectively prevented him from doing so.

Now comes Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup who vigorously defends the British campaign, and more particularly, we note, the decisions by the military brass.

Although operation charge of the knights got off to an inauspicious start, its eventual success and subsequent developments have transformed the situation in Basra. But the operation has also attracted a degree of controversy, particularly with regard to the British role.

So I want to take this opportunity to lay to rest some of the myths that have emerged. Myths such as: the British had given up in Basra; that they’d done a deal to hand the city over to the militias; and that they failed to support the Iraqis during charge of the knights. But to do so, I need to take you back a bit. Back to the latter part of 2006, in fact. Now at that particular time, we and the United States were in a process of transition, working to transfer responsibility for security away from the coalition to the Iraqi government. But there were obstacles to this transition. And the obstacles were different in different parts of the country. The problem for the Americans in Baghdad and the surrounding areas was that the Iraqis were too busy trying to kill one another to face up to the question of how Shia and Sunni could co-exist politically. The problem for the British in the south east was that the Iraqis were too busy trying to kill us to focus on the intra-Shia political issues in Basra. These different problems required different solutions.

Thus has the Air Chief Marshal created a false picture of the British task versus the American task. First of all, the U.S. Army in Baghdad and surrounding areas was indeed targeted by both al Qaeda and radical Shi’a elements, including the Jaish al Mahdi. But more to the point, the Air Chief Marshal has conveniently ignored the fact that the U.S. Marines in Anbar were under attack twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year for a very long time. They know what it’s like to have fighters trying to kill them, but even before the U.S. Army in Baghdad, they implemented combat outposts, traditional counterinsurgency tactics, and even more advanced tactics such as sand berms, gated communities and biometrics, and the concerned citizens program along with payments for labor. More than 1000 Marines perished in Anbar as a result of the campaign, so it is disingenuous and insulting for the Air Chief Marshal to attempt to portray the British dilemma as somehow unique in history, or even the history of Iraq. Continuing:

The US decided to increase its force levels – the surge – in order to suppress Sunni-Shia violence and create space within which the political process had some chance of success. This was a key step. But the process got a helping hand from a most unexpected quarter: al Qaida in Iraq. Their appalling treatment of the Sunni tribes in the areas they dominated – such as Anbar province – led to their rejection by the local population, which then looked to the coalition for support.

It is an adulteration of the narrative to insert the feature of the tribal awakening and population’s rejection of al Qaeda without also including the months and even years of buildup to this via combat operations to prove to the population who was the stronger tribe and who could be trusted with security and protection. Again, the narrative must be complete in order to be accurate. Again continuing:

The UK made repeated attempts to deal with extremist militia violence in the south east. We planned and sought to execute numerous Special Forces operations. We also developed Operation Salamanca – an ambitious, comprehensive and hard-edged plan to confront and subdue the militias. All of these combined powerful offensive action with stabilisation and development activity. But each was, in the event, emasculated. Because we simply couldn’t get the agreement of the Iraqi government; their own internal politics made it impossible. The Iraqi government was at that stage still dependent on the political support of Muqtada al Sadr, which made decisive action against the Jaish al-Mahdi somewhat problematic for them. And there was a growing desire to assert Iraqi sovereignty, manifested by increasing restrictions on our offensive activity.

Here again the Air Chief Marshal is only telling his listeners part of the narrative. The Jaish al Mahdi and power of Moqtada al Sadr is largely a creation of the UK, which after he was in the actual custody of the 3/2 Marines in 2004, went to great lengths to ensure his release and safety by performing an emergency transport of Ali al Sistani (who was in the UK at the time undergoing medical treatment) back to Iraq to negotiate his release with the support of the UK. At that time, the JAM numbered a few hundred followers, and by the time the British were no longer effective in Basra they numbered in the thousands. Again continuing:

Interestingly, one of its best and most enduring legacies – the destruction of the hated and feared Jamiat police station, source of so much corruption and intimidation – brought down on us the wrath of the government in Baghdad. So the question was how else we could free Basra from its cycle of violence. Early in 2007 we came to the conclusion that we were going to have to do something significant to break the impasse. Something that would force the Iraqis to face up to their problems and to their responsibilities. We judged that the only way to do this was to withdraw our permanently based forces from Basra city, and to put the Iraqis in the lead there.

The “wrath of the government in Baghdad.” Maybe the U.S. Marines weren’t too concerned about the wrath of the government in Baghdad when the Iraqi officials turned on the Marines for engaging the Sunnis in the Concerned Citizens program (later called the Sons of Iraq) because the Shi’a officials in power believed the program to be an embarrassment to Iraq at the hands of the Americans who were making deals with “gangs of killers.” There were even reports of U.S. troops standing down far superior numbers of Iraqi troops along with armor, bent on doing harm to Sunni members of the Sons of Iraq, coming close to exchanging fire with the ISF. Take particular note of this incident – it means that the U.S. forces came close to a military confrontation with the ISF in the protection of the Sunni population. So much for the notion of the British enduring the “wrath of the government.”

The fact of the matter is that the soft cover, the almost invisible force projection and the low visibility, and the extremely restrictive rules of engagement aided the continual diminution of the security situation in Basra rather than stopped it. Further, the Iraqi government only dealt with the JAM when it became obvious that the UK insisted on there being one to begin with. A counterinsurgency strategy suited for Northern Ireland just doesn’t apply to Iraq, but the British found this out too late to do much in the way of counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, the Air Chief Marshal still hasn’t learned anything about the campaign.


What Basra can teach us about Counterinsurgency

The Good and Bad in Basra

More British Trouble in Basra

Continued Chaos in Basra

Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement

The Rise of the JAM

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You are currently reading "British Brass Defends Basra Campaign", entry #1639 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Basra,British Army,Counterinsurgency and was published December 3rd, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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