For British leaders Iran may seem like a basket case at present, but it has to be handled politically not militarily.
This is a full version of the article by Michael Clarke extracted in the Sunday Telegraph on 16 September 2007
British troops are habitual mission-creepers. By training and through pride and personal disposition they always tend to do more than the mission strictly requires. From the ground up, they take on responsibilities that most other militaries prefer to leave alone. But the 5,500 troops now concentrated at the Basra air station will not be allowing their present mission to creep into new roles. In the Iraq operation the time for that has past.
This week American General David Patraeus and the US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, visit London for talks with British leaders. Their task will be to report to their counterparts in London how they interpret the US ‘surge’ in Iraq as working and how it affects US thinking about the future of the operation. It s generally assumed that they will also be discussing some disturbing developments all along the Iraq/Iran border and the hope in Washington that the British could do more to help out. They are likely to be disappointed on this point.
As far as the British are concerned the time for soft-hat patrolling, calls on local leaders, organising football matches and so on, ended some time ago. The phase of establishing consistent presence has also now more or less passed. The mission instead is now to extricate the force responsibly and without damaging the area’s precarious security, such as it is. General Patraeus may this week be heading an American push to get British forces more engaged in patrolling the Iraq/Iran border, but any major shift of British military priorities in Iraq is effectively out of the question. From an operational perspective there is only so much more the British could give to border patrolling. The five battle groups presently based at the air station will be reduced to four after the next troop rotation in November. One of those will be devoted to force protection, one to guarding supply routes and the rear area, a third is kept ready to support the Iraqi forces who have taken control of Basra city – a rapid intervention force should it be required – which leaves the one battlegroup helping to train the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement in Maysan on the Iranian border. They might do a bit more patrolling themselves, as troops from the 1st Mechanized Brigade began to do last week, but the DBE is only a third of the size it was in the Saddam era and needs all the training and equipment it can get.
The southern border with Iran that British forces have to worry about is over 200 miles long and extremely porus. The US is opening a new base in the area and a Georgian detachment is being expanded to brigade strength to help in policing the border. None of this will worry the smugglers, terrorists, militias and Iranian agents very much who treat the area as international common land.
For the British military the border question is not about patrolling it so much as using intelligence to intercept Iranian agents and equipment operating on the Iraqi side. British troops are quite disposed to use force against the militias and the Iranian agents who support and supply them: they welcome the chance to engage with these indiscriminate killers, but strictly within Iraqi territory. There is no appetite, or capacity, for ‘hot pursuit’ operations across the border and there is a major political red line against any action which would provoke a significant military confrontation with Iran.
This may be the crux of all the honest and cousinly exchanges taking place between British and American commanders this week. Exactly when Britain leaves Iraq has become a tough political question, but the draw-down and progressive disengagement, probably via basing in Kuwait, is effectively non-negotiable. British forces in the south can help the US by maintaining the divisional headquarters, protecting key routes, acting as the tactical reserve and contributing to growing special forces operations in the region. All the indications are that US commanders value these roles and certainly do not want them brought to an end any time soon. But British military commanders will not want to offer any more. They have at their disposal a ‘one-shot’ force these days. It can fight, extremely well, one shooting war at a time, and generally for a short period only. As Army chief General Dannatt has said, they can ‘run hot’ for a while, but the force effectively has to be rebuilt after each campaign. That time has now arrived in the case of Iraq, and the one-shot the Army intends to devote itself to is now in Afghanistan.
The military will certainly be sensitive to any prospect of being involved around the Iraq/Iran border in the event that US and Iranian forces come directly to blows across it. Being drawn into a shooting war with Iran is completely off the British military agenda; as it is off that of Downing Street and the Foreign Office. For British leaders Iran may seem like a basket case at present, but it has to be handled politically not militarily. Nor is there much sympathy for any American sabre-rattling on the Iran issue. It strengthens the hands of Iranian hard-liners without convincing the rest of the world that US forces, struggling to cope in Iraq as it is, could somehow prevail in a major operation against Iran. The best guess is that the bottom line in Britain’s Ministry of Defence is probably that the US has few realistic military options against Iran but that border clashes and careless talk (in Washington) costs lives (in Iraq). The bottom line in the Foreign Office is probably that in any US war against Iran - at least in the lurid terms presently being touted in American newspapers - the US would be strictly on its own this time. General Patraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be going to Downing Street on Tuesday this week. To US policy-makers it may feel like a place with a rather different atmosphere these days.
Professor Michael Clarke is Director of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.