The Brits won’t leave Basra in shame

Basra — Mission Unaccomplished” ran the headline on a Guardian editorial about a week ago. On the same day the British journalist Seumas Milne argued in the Guardian that the British will be leaving Iraq “in shame”.

Not so. The British people have every reason to be proud of what their armed forces have achieved in Iraq generally and Basra specifically. Historians may debate the decision to go into Iraq, but we do not need to wait to judge the contribution that the British military has made.

We never claimed that we could solve the problems of Basra — quite the opposite, in fact. We have always been clear that only Iraqis could solve Iraqi problems. The UK’s task was to get them to the stage where they had a realistic prospect of success; to contain the situation on the ground while we grew the Iraqi capacity to deal with it.

To understand how this all came about, it is necessary to look back to late 2006. It was clear at that stage that the British presence in Basra was creating an excuse both for violence by the militias and for inaction by the Basrawi authorities. We drew up plans to confront the militias, but the Iraqi government did not want us to implement them. We needed another way to break the cycle

of violence, and concluded that the best course was to withdraw from Basra city and to put the Iraqis in the security lead there.

This would, in our (British) view, force them to confront the intra-Shia political issues that were the source of much of the violence. This judgment was shared by the Iraqi government and by our (British) US allies, who agreed that the Iraqi forces were ready. With their agreement, we carried out our plan — on our terms. We were not driven out.

This was the backdrop to Charge of the Knights — which was based on an Iraqi plan drawn up with British prompting and British help. We would have preferred it had the operation been launched in a more considered fashion, but it at least provided the clear political lead that had until then been absent in Basra and that was a prerequisite for success.

The Iraqis deserve congratulations for that. And so do the British forces, who provided air, aviation, armoured, artillery, logistic, medical and other support. Of course the operation was not a British affair. But it was the culmination of our (British) long-term plan, and we played our part in its execution. Consequently, British forces are now back on the ground in Basra completing the mentoring and training of the Iraqi forces.

Yes, Basra still has problems with rubbish and poverty. That is a legacy of several decades, not the result of the past five years. British forces have helped to improve the conditions in the city and set the foundations for future progress. Yes, the Iranians need to be watched.

The Iraqis know that. The militias have gone and the Iraqi forces — which we have helped to train — will be waiting if they return. Soon, subject to the conditions, and as part of a coalition-wide strategy, we hope to redeploy most of our (British) forces.

It is not a question of the Americans replacing the British in Basra; the Iraqis already have. The British are on the verge of completing what they set out to achieve. When they reach that point, British forces can come home with their heads held high. — The Guardian