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Foreign Relations - British Policy in Iraq and Afghanistan

From time to time I have written commentaries about the underlying nature
of British policy in Iraq, since the decision was taken to reduce
British troop presence in that country and transfer the main effort to
Afghanistan. Juan Cole was kind enough to front page one of these.

Expressed simply, the Coalition forces are in danger of losing the
war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, despite such successful actions as that at Musa Qala, Helmand in the last few days. The sole answer to this
provided by the US and UK is to bolster existing forces in that
country. Other European NATO countries have been reluctant to respond.
Most none US/UK countries that have a presence in that country refuse
to take a front-line combat role.

The relations between the White House and Downing Street have not been
easy - although it would be quite wrong to characterize this as being
a rift. Bushco is fully aware that British forces are stretched to
breaking point - both materially and in terms of personnel. The UK
papers have been full of retired Chiefs of Staff condemning the poor
re-equipping of UK forces. This is strongly rebutted by the Brown
Government but there is a truth in this that goes beyond the normal
demand for more money that always comes from the military and the
opportunistic Conservative opposition to the government which sees
this issue as just another stick with which to beat it around the

As a result, the White House has reluctantly agreed to support the UK
position in the south of Iraq, to allow greater concentration on

I have written before about how we Brits are past masters
(historically coming from the handover to independence of former
colonies) in withdrawing from countries as if in victory and
"disguising" that it was a scurrying back home because maintaining a
presence was too economically demanding or internal pressures within
those countries have been too great.

This week, almost unremarked on our blogs, British Prime Minister
Brown was first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. In part this was to
distract attention at home from domestic failures. It was also used as
a way of announcing "mission accomplished" to cover further British
withdrawal in the South. So the Union Jack is taken down with drum
rolls and bugle calls and the the flag of the inadequate Iraqi Army is
run up the flag pole. Salutes are exchanged and another "successful" UK overseas
intervention is hailed by the Government, to the consternation of the
parliamentary Opposition.

Our stance could be to deride this farce as simply spin to cover up
the depletion of UK military forces and the strength of the opposition
in and around Basra. After all, it is appropriate to point out the failures in
the whole Iraq debacle.

Much more important is that, however cynically undertaken, this
withdrawal by British troops shows just how easy it to disengage from
the occupation. It can be done in a way that provides sufficient
political cover with the electorate back home and future history can
be written by those drum rolls and salutes. It is a message that
Democrats should take note of and it is one that discomfits George
Bush. Withdrawal could happen immediately, now, if he so chose.

Instead, Democrats have to cope with today's headlines in the New York
Times. "Bombs Kill 27 in Iraqi Area British Troops Left in April".
These awful deaths occurred in the Maysan Province that was handed to
Iraqis in April. The GOP response is "see what will happen if we
withdraw too early from Iraq" whereas the truth is that this was the
consequence of inter-Shiite militia rivalry. It is ugly but it is what self-
determination of the fate of their own country will entail. It is not
an argument to support our continued presence or for us to heed the
New York Times comment that it "highlighted both the volatility of
the south and the potential risks of turning over security to Iraqi
forces in areas where tensions still run high."

We need to get this sophisticated message out powerfully to counteract
the wrong take on all of this by those who favour continued Iraq occupation. No knee-jerk reaction to simply laugh and point the finger at Bush to show how his policy is
failing but the more serious message that it is a reaffirmation that
withdrawal - even in the cynically disguised British way - is possible
now and that the consequences need to be accepted if genuine Iraqi
freedom is to be made available to them.

Brown went on to Afghanistan and make his official pronouncements that
military victory is possible in that country and achievable (since
questioned unofficially by a senior British commander on the ground)
but this needs another diary. It will have to wait.

(Not cross-posted to Daily Kos because I am hoping that others will pick up and run with these thoughts in a way that will get them noticed among the frenetic diaries on that blog).