British Tory Michael Portillo has begun to express doubts about the British 'softly-softly' approach in Iraq in the London Times.
Until last week it was possible to believe that British forces, operating far from Baghdad and the Sunni triangle, were relatively safe. We liked to believe that that was due to our soldiers’ superior mode of operations. While American forces roared through the streets of the capital in heavily armoured convoys, our soldiers’ friendly faces looked out from open-topped vehicles. Whereas GIs shot from the hip, British troops engaged the Iraqis’ hearts and minds.
Such illusions are shattered. Nearly 100 British soldiers have died since the war began. Toby Dodge of Queen Mary College, University of London, believes that the “softly, softly” approach was dictated not by tactics but military weakness. Britain simply does not have enough troops to police the vast area under our authority (even with Italian and Australian help). Our army has been forced to do something forbidden in military textbooks: to keep the peace among a population that we were unable to disarm.
Portillo believes that Iraq is a disaster, but cannot see an "easy" way out of it. He believes flight and surrender are not an answer but feels the coalition is stuck.
The anti-war group make fatuous comments today. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, demands an exit strategy. Well, the options are to leave on a given date or when specified goals have been achieved. The United States and Britain intend to withdraw when the constitution is in place and the Iraqis can handle their own security. The problem is not that there is no strategy, but rather that it looks unachievable.
Some of Portillo's facts are clearly inaccurate. He says, "the number of American casualties has been rising remorselessly" an indicator that progress was unachievable. The following are the casualty tables for equivalent months in 2004 and 2005. Granted, the tables only go to the 25th day of September, but the basic truth of Portillo's assertion of 'remorselessly rising' casualties is hard to sustain. The last three month's US casualties have actually appreciably dropped from an equivalent period last year and they have dropped in a period of offensive operations and in the run-up to the ratification of the Iraqi constitution, exactly when they would have been expected to rise.
|2004||last 3 mos||2005||last 3 mos|
It would be foolish to draw any definite conclusions from this data, one way or the other; but that also establishes the falsity of Portillo's assertions that "the number of American casualties has been rising remorselessly". Whether or not the British are stuck the jury is still out on whether the huge American effort in building up Iraqi combat forces, campaigning against the Euphrates and Tigris river lines, and major efforts at technological and tactical innovation will come to naught. As for the British, here is how they've now reacted to events in Basra.
Defence Secretary John Reid is planning to scrap the 25,000-strong police force in southern Iraq and replace it with a new military-style unit capable of maintaining law and order. Reid ordered a root-and-branch review of security in the troubled province following last week's disastrous clashes between British troops and Iraqi police.
Those who been closely following events in Iraq will immediately remember April 2004 in the US sector, when the hands-off approach and the reliance on poorly trained Iraq civil defense forces were shown to be inadequate by the simultaneous uprisings among the Sunnis and the Shi'a. As Yogi Berra said, "it's deja vu all over again". So it is no surprise that the British are reacting in much the same way as the US did in April 2004. In some respects, the British will be starting a year and half behind the United States. 'Softly, softly' as the history of the last days of the Clinton administration and recent events in Gaza show, often means 'ouchly, ouchly' in the end. But several things will make the British recovery easier. The first is establishment of the Iraqi government and the creation of its major combat units. Secondly, the British have probably built up intelligence on the opfor, which is something they do as a pastime whenever they are not otherwise occupied. Thirdly, they don't have to fight a two-front war since the US has taken charge of the Sunni front. Lastly, the US has made the major investments in robotics, electronic warfare and supporting fires that will provide the British Army with whatever precision firepower it needs to get out of a jam. GIs rarely shoot from the hip, whatever Portillo believes, and have invested billions investing in technologies that are wholly the opposite of this cinematic approach.
Despite these advantages, domestic British politics may impose severe constraints on Tony Blair. He has sold his public on the notion of an unworkable 'softly-softly' war, which like the "phoney war" of 1940 may only have postponed rather than solved the hard problems. Now it will be hard for him to reverse course and prepare the British for the casualties inherent in confronting the militias seriously. Whether any European nation in the 21st century can endure three-figure military casualties under any circumstances is open to question. (Speculation alert) My guess is they cannot because of the nature of their politics. In the end, all that the British may do is hold the ring until the campaign against the Sunni insurgency allows the diversion of resources to tackle whole and postponed question of Iran and the Shi'ite fundamentalist militias. The US and Iraqi army may have to finish the job.
I've been looking again at Portillo's assertion that "the number of American casualties has been rising remorselessly" and realized that I had left out the wounded from the reckoning. They are casualties too. Including the wounded in the tables of casualties gives the following:
|2004||Killed||Wounded||Killed and Wounded||Last 3 months|
|September (to the 25th)||27||97||124|
Counting the wounded as casualties means Portillo's assertion is not only unfounded, but the opposite of the truth. The reader will notice that the proportion of wounded to killed has changed from 9.3:1 in 2004 to 6.6:1 in 2005. This is consistent with the DOD briefings that there are fewer attacks, but since these may involve larger explosives in the case of IEDs, the attacks kill a larger proportion of the targeted vehicle's occupants. Still, the number of killed and wounded is 73% of last year's figures. In the last three months, the number has been 50% of the same period last year. This was quite an interesting result, considering news accounts that Iraq is 'descending into chaos' and that things are going 'from bad to worse'. Counting the wounded, the figures for September 2005 so far are lower than for any month in 2004 and 2005. Yet the mood conveyed in the press is that things are sliding into the abyss. That may be true for other reasons, but with US casualties at a quarter to a seventh of their historical values in a month full of offensives and important dates, the honest analyst must at least ask himself if something is changing on the battlefield.