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Assessing Britain’s Legacy: The UK Withdrawal from Iraq

Commentary, 19 December 2008
Europe, Middle East and North Africa
As the UK announces its withdrawal from Iraq, an overall judgement of its deployment should be a favourable one. Although it has become clear that the softer British approach is no longer appropriate, the UK contingent has made significant progress in preparing the Iraqis to cope with their own security.

There was no surprise when Gordon Brown announced on 17 December that Britain would withdraw its troops from Iraq by mid-2009; the policy had been adumbrated by both Defence Secretary John Hutton and the Prime Minister over the last few weeks. With relative calm in Basra and all the southern provinces handed over to the Iraqi authorities, there was no need to postpone what had been planned for a long time. Indeed, many would argue that it was rather late and that Britain could have reduced troop numbers several months ago.

Even the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, had inadvertently admitted in a press interview in 2006 that he felt many of our soldiers were unnecessary, contributing to the problem rather than tackling it. He may have regretted this remark, in view of the casualties the UK was suffering and the suggestion that they might have been in vain, but it revealed the debate that has characterised the UK’s deployment to Iraq since 2003: deciding when the job is done and when we can leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

An assessment of the UK’s achievements is inevitably tarnished by bad feeling between the US and UK over the UK’s reaction to the fighting in Basra in March this year, as well as the need for the US to backfill for UK troops leaving the South. This highlights two issues: the difference in approach to counterinsurgency between the US and UK; and the American concern over main supply routes (MSR) to Kuwait combined with an obsession with security over the border with Iran, especially in the Maysan Province.

However, some assessment is inevitable on a deployment that will have lasted over six years, that started at 46, 000 troops and currently stands at 4,100 and that has suffered 177 fatalities. Overall the judgement should be favourable. But success per se is difficult to assess once the nature of conflict has shifted from high intensity to counterinsurgency. There is no doubt that the initial domination of Basra was masterful, and that General Robin Brims showed remarkable skill and patience in teasing out the enemy with limited damage to either infrastructure or population. Most of the damage was caused by Iraqi looting and vandalism.

But as the campaign progressed, it became impossible to isolate the South from what was happening in the rest of the country. With the Americans conducting their campaign at a very different tempo and intensity and the Iraqis at large becoming increasingly resentful of the occupation, it soon became clear that the softer British approach was no longer appropriate. The writ of the Americans covered the whole country and it was not possible to develop separate policies for Basra, especially with hawkish Prime Ministers such as Iyad Allawi following on from Paul Bremer.

British military policy became confused and suffered as it sought to serve the Americans – who funded 99 per cent of the security and reconstruction effort – while pursuing its own instinctive aspiration to work more closely with the Iraqis and put more trust in their abilities. But Iraqis should remember two main themes in years to come: the disciplined restraint of the British soldiers despite massive provocation and the professional way in which both the 10th and 14th Divisions have been trained and prepared for operations.

There were some unpleasant, dishonourable and highly publicised incidents regarding treatment of prisoners, but these cases were isolated and dealt with judiciously when brought to light. There was nothing as institutionalised as the horrors of Abu Ghuraib and, more importantly, there has been nothing approaching such incidents as the US Marines massacring innocents in Haditha. British self control has been a persistent characteristic in a conflict that has swayed backwards and forwards between aggressive, kinetic patrolling to quiet intelligence gathering in back street dwellings.

From the first moment the UK interpreted its role as preparing the Iraqis to cope with their own security. The formation and training of the Divisions based in Basra has been a priority, as well as attempts to regulate the police force and prevent its infiltration by militias. Training the army was clearly more straightforward and has proved successful. The police are still a problem.

Britain has also made a greater effort than the Americans to prepare the Iraqi Armed Forces for the medium and long term as opposed to simply training them to fight the insurgents in Fallujah. The UK contingent, with help and guidance from the British Embassy, played a key role in setting up training establishments for officers and technicians in Baghdad which have now been largely subsumed under the NATO Training Mission.

The Staff College and Military Academy in particular will be seen as a vital legacy of the UK’s efforts in the country. The Iraqis will also be indebted to Britain for its assistance in re-establishing its navy - which really had ceased to exist. With 97 per cent of Iraq’s wealth flowing out into offshore pipelines, security of the North Arabian Gulf is operationally essential. The Iraqi Air Force has also relied heavily on the UK for training and advice even if most of its equipment and aircraft will be Polish or American.

By Alastair Campbell, Former Director, RUSI Qatar. The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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