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Britain’s Vietnam? Learning the Lessons of Operation Telic

Antony King
Commentary, 30 April 2009
The undoubted bravery and professionalism of British troops in Iraq disguised the deeper strategic failings of their mission. Leaders need to learn from the mistakes in Basra as we now concentrate in Afghanistan.

As British troops begin to withdraw from Basra, it is perhaps an opportune moment for the armed forces to consider the implications of Operation Telic. For all the criticism, the campaign demonstrated the evident strengths of Britain’s armed forces. The bravery and professionalism of British troops – men and women – was obvious throughout. They demonstrated skill and fortitude. Iraq proved that the British armed forces are extremely successful in training their troops and remain excellent at low-level tactics especially at company level. They were also adept at mentoring and training Iraqi troops and commanders. It should not be forgotten that Operation Charge of the Knights was conceived and initially planned by British officers. These successes are considerable but should not disguise deeper failings.

Serious Failings

There was never sufficient political investment in the campaign. The government and MoD, defensive in the face of a hostile public and media, never acknowledged the requisite scale of the operation and, by 2006, were focused on Afghanistan, having dismissed Basra as a lost cause. Consequently, the British campaign was never resourced adequately. Signally, the Chiefs of Staff seemed to be incapable or unwilling of demanding resources from government – or of clarifying through ‘politically aware’ military advice, the strategic implications of this under-resourcing. Cross-governmental co-ordination was poor throughout the campaign and, only after Operation Charge of the Knights in March-April 2008, was a comprehensive approach discernible in Basra. Moreover, at the operational level, no coherent campaign was ever developed for Basra until 2008 as operational commanders mis-interpreted the Shia insurgency in Basra for criminality. Accordingly, the political causes and objectives of the insurgency were never addressed. Decisively, the British had a very poor understanding of the political and social dynamics of Basra. Indeed, even in 2008, Multinational Division-South East Headquarters was still only able to designate the amorphous and imprecise ‘consent of the population’ as its centre of gravity.

However, even at the tactical level there were shortcomings. British forces favoured short-term aggressive, raiding tactics, in order to undermine the insurgents. This preference for small-scale offensive action was partly as a result of inadequate numbers but it is also deeply embedded in British military culture in which the company has become the prime tactical unit. Yet, sporadic raids were potentially counter-productive, alienating moderate Basrawis from the British and hardening the Jaish A-Mahdi against the British without achieving their defeat. There were serious questions over whether tactical successes contributed to the achievement of strategic goals in Basra. Throughout the operation, dispersed units fought their own very brave independent battles in Basra and the surrounding region but there was little coherence or synergy between them. Despite the evident strengths of the British forces, Operation Telic demonstrated serious failings at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.

Avoiding a British Vietnam

In 1973, American forces withdrew from Vietnam. Despite numerous tactical successes, the United States had suffered a severe defeat, costing the lives of 58,000 servicemen. The American campaign was compromised by intense domestic opposition to the war, lack of clear governmental direction, a fractured command structure, an attritional approach which prioritised conventional fire-power, poor morale, heavy drug use and, ultimately, atrocities. The Vietnam War initiated a period of profound reflection and self-criticism in the United States armed forces. As a result, the United States professionalised its military and the Army eventually developed a new concept of operations ‘Air Land Battle’ which created the conditions for the so-called ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ in the 1990s. Through a painful but rapid process of reform, the United States recovered from abject defeat to develop the finest conventional military in the world.

Basra was no Vietnam; it was not a strategic defeat for the British. The troops themselves performed admirably and there were notable successes. Nevertheless, it is accepted by even those political and military leaders who have every interest in emphasising the success of the campaign that serious mistakes were made, especially at strategic and operational levels. Decisively, many senior officers are deeply concerned that the reputation of Britain’s armed forces with the US military has suffered. This is extremely serious.

In justifying the Iraq intervention, Tony Blair emphasised the illegitimacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime and, with specious claims about WMD, the threat it posed to British security. However, one of the unstated but decisive reasons for Iraq was the strategic importance of the transatlantic link. Britain went to war in Iraq in order to sustain the alliance with the United States and all the political and military benefits which flowed therefrom. Accordingly, the maintenance and enhancement of the reputation of Britain and Britain’s armed forces in the eyes of the United States and its military was a decisive, if not primary, strategic goal. Britain’s military performance in Basra has put that reputation in jeopardy, as senior officers now acknowledge. The situation has not been assisted by the arrogant presumption of many British officers that, even after 2005, they remained the acknowledged experts in counter-insurgency.

Learning from our Mistakes

The mistakes of Basra are irreversible; they are now history. However, the potential damage to Britain’s military reputation can be repaired. Decisive here is the attitude which the British armed forces, and especially its senior commanders, adopt towards Operation Telic. Ignoring the issues which Iraq raised or refusing to admit that serious mistakes were made is likely to damage US-British military relations permanently. The British forces need to accept that they were lucky to avoid a genuine Vietnam in Basra and that if they want to salvage a tarnished reputation, they must, like the Americans in the 1970s, humbly accept that they need to change. It would be fool-hardy to continue in the time-honoured British tradition of muddling through and pretending that nothing is wrong. Such negligence is likely to ensure that Basra does indeed become Britain’s Vietnam; a genuine strategic defeat for the armed forces.

By Anthony King, Professor of Sociology, University of Exeter

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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