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).


and I don't know too much detail other than what I read but here is my thought:

The "southern Iraq" strategy (if you can call it that) was a means to an end - that end being the removal of British troops from Iraq.

With respect to moving troops to Afghanistan, that is long overdue, and sadly, the fact that so many were diverted in 2003 and enough attention was never paid to rebuilding where possible there made that a losing cause once the UK troops moved from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Like you say, the challenge here will be to show that the southern Iraq violence is not b/c of the removal of UK troops.

That will involve pointing out how Afghanistan is in the shape it is b/c of not enough troops or attention for 3 years, and that Iraq violence is just spreading under the "whack a mole" approach being used and the further sectarian cleansing. A global approach to Iraq (failing politically, civil war within a civil war, movement towards radical Islamic rule, etc.) is one way to counter this "short term-small minded" focus that everyone else seems to be using.


I do not agree with you Clammy, Who ordained the United States to be the world's policeman. Certainly our record recently does not suggest that we will be exporting democracy anywhere. Quite the contrary, not to mention the growing police-state apparatus that the Bush admin. is trying to put in place domestically.


exporting democracy. The Taliban was actively supporting Bin Laden and we had a legitimate reason after the attacks on September 11 to go after the Taliban. I think it's a damn shame that we probably had the opportunity in Afghanistan to invest resources in a way that would have helped rebuild a nation that had been under the extremely oppressive rule of the Taliban but let it slip when we shifted everything toward attacking Iraq. The Taliban was not willing to bend one bit when it came to Bin Laden or changing their inhumane treatment of women and others.

...whilst I will not disagree with the main thrust of your sentiments, I think the description you give of the precise events before the invasion of Afghanistan needs correction.

The Taliban had bowed to international pressure to implement the, for them, highly risky policy of cutting back on opium production (the main concern in regard to that country before 9/11). This brought them into conflict with many of those internally on whose support they relied.

Likewise, just prior to the invasion, the Taliban government also gave assurances that they would curtail the activities of Al Qaeda, with whom they had never been comfortable as a presence in their country. What they were not prepared to do was give up fellow Muslims into the custody of infidel Christians. Politically it would have been extremely dangerous for them to have done so and would have been condemned by every Mullah in the Muslim world (would we hand over any of our troops for an alleged crime to Muslim authorities? Bush says firmly "No")

As far as human rights abuses, this never featured much for the Western world in relation to its agenda with Afghanistan. Oil pipelines did. Who is to say that the Taliban would not have started to make some changes if economically they were put under pressure to do so?

If bringing Bin Laden to justice was an imperative, I have still to be convinced that covert operations with a blind eye being turned by the Taliban was not a real option when we chose to invade instead. We will never know. Public sentiment demanded that the strongly supported Bush policy of instant retaliation was the right way to go.

There is every indication that Afghanistant can easily turn into a reply of the Iraq debacle at this point.

Sorry about misspelling of Welshman.


rule is quite different. I don't have the time or energy to do a point by point and feel quite comfortable not agreeing on this one. While I never advocate a military response as the best or only course of action, my point was that the situation with Taliban/Afghanistan was quite different from the one with Iraq.

There on the front-page of DKos the writer gleefully takes the cheap shot of denouncing the Britih withdrawal and the claim of victory rather than thinking through the events more thoroughly.

So the writer's conclusion is: "The US may be obliged to send troops it cannot spare to maintain some access to this critical city."

Great. So early withdrawal doesn't work. The GOP was right all along, then? I give up.

and can't say I followed it well other than it seemed to read more as another "things aren't going well in Iraq" piece. I disagree with the assumption that there was an "utter failure of the British mission in Basra."

I am more surprised than anything with the new talk of a British failure. Last month there was a lot of positive discussion about the violence dropping in Basra since the majority of the British troops had already pulled out of the area. Some of the continued plays for power are just going to be a part of Iraqis struggling to establish new rule. We can keep troops there to be attacked or get the hell out of the way so the Iraqis can work out their own problems sooner rather than later.

...was given visibility by Juan Cole kindly providng a cross link from Informed Comment.

So maybe it was not too late after all :)