Friday, 3 April 2009
Iraq: it’s the long way home for coalition troops
Coalition forces have been slowly leaving Iraq for a while now. But now it's getting real as British forces have begun their official withdrawal from Iraq. Units stationed in Basra have handed over and are on their way home.
Only the handover was to a US general, not to an Iraqi one. A multi-national division has taken over. So the Brits left, someone else moved in and I am feeling like someone is playing me for a fool, thinking I can’t tell the difference between ‘leaving Iraq’ and ‘passing the parcel’.
Still, by the end of May Britain will withdraw more than 3,500 troops, leaving only 400 in training and HQ positions.
This is good, of course. This is no time to count the dead, assess what has been achieved. And what hasn’t. No time to think unhappy thoughts. But I can’t help it.
179 British dead since 2003. Of course it could have been worse. It was worse for Iraqis. And for every person dead, dozens are left bereft and crushed. Those are the mathematics of war and we ought to always remember. One death is one death too many.
Now obviously I was against going into Iraq in the first place.
But once there you can’t just pack up and go whenever you feel like it. Realities on the ground cannot be ignored and whatever the reasons for going in, Basra is just not safe enough to leave just yet. Partial withdrawal is possible but total coalition withdrawal is not an option. Yet the presence of Western troops is part of what makes the place unsafe, the thing that rebels fight against and suicide bombers launch themselves at.
Now Maj Gen Salmon says that Iraq is in a much better place than it was under Saddam. It’s more stable, he says, and freer. Investment is pouring into the country, the Iraqi security forces are gaining confidence, free and fair elections have now been held. Iraq is a new country. He says.
How much of this is true?
How much of this will still be true when the US forces finally withdraw, when the cat’s away for good and the mice can run riot if they so will?
In Basra, the hand-over won’t change that much as the Brits were a shadow force letting the Iraqi Army and police remain the most visible presence on the streets and the Yanks will do the same. Coalition troops are not that visible. But they are still there and everyone knows it. They provide a security blanket for some, a red rag for others but even when they stay at home, they are very much still there. And part of the reason they are still there is that they are propping up structures that would cave in without them.
I’m not talking semantics here.
British troops in Basra spent time and effort training the Iraqi army. But they lacked the bandwidth to train police officers and as they withdraw, Maj Gen Salmon deplores the lack of resources to build up a credible police force in Basra. So yes, Iraqi police remains visible. And ineffectual. But backed by the big boys with the big guns.
And US troops will be there until the end of 2011.
How entrenched will they be by then?
How essential will they be to any equilibrium that has been created?
A post-war situation is an explosive chemical compound and any ingredient to stability may be more important than even its core players realise. What if the US presence becomes such an ingredient – by design, flaw or default?
Once the equilibrium has been achieved, you make changes at your own peril.
And as change goes, it doesn’t come bigger than withdrawing a foreign army.
But there is always hope that the new systems and structures will be robust enough by then to survive this change and the complete US withdrawal.
Naturally, the coalition forces have been training Iraqis to replace them. Of course they have. They’ve been working on infrastructure and preparing for transition. Ignoring the elephant in the room that is the future legitimacy of any organisation and structure that has been touched by the invasion forces.
Let’s face it, Saddam was a blood-thirsty dictator. But he had been backed by the Americans for years and although they deposed him in the end, the freedom rhetoric seemed an afterthought at best. Nobody will forget the tenuous Al-Qaeda links and tall WMD tales spun by the Bush administration to justify the invasion. And after 6 years of war and occupation, the question to ask is whether what the US forces help build will be tainted by virtue of having been built by the invaders?
I’m speculating here. But it’s happened before.
Meanwhile 2 days ago another suicide bomber struck Mosul – 7 dead and 15 injured.
All of a sudden the Coalition’s optimism sounds hollow.
Yes, Mosul remains a problem child. Yes it’s believed to be the last remaining urban stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
And yes, as British forces withdraw from Basra, a suicide bomb goes off in Mosul.
All I’m saying is, they haven’t finished what they started and I don’t know what’s worse, withdrawing before it’s done or staying around and doing it themselves, thus creating a normality that relies on their initiative and depends on their presence.