Monday, 23 June 2008

Amid worsening wars, Brown spins

By Michael Glackin
Friday, 20 June 2008

The Daily Star

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is scheduled to make "an important strategy announcement" on Iraq next month. Much to US President George W. Bush's chagrin it will involve troop withdrawals, which are likely to take place in the last quarter of this year.

But it will not, military insiders assure me, involve the withdrawal of all British forces from Iraq by the end of the year, as some government officials were suggesting last week. That particularly tasteless bit of spin came as the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan has reached 106. You don't have to be a cynic to see the connection. But Brown is increasingly relying on spin these days as his political reputation unravels.

A humiliating by-election defeat recently was followed by the government scraping to victory in a parliamentary vote to extend the number of days terror suspects can be held without charge, from 28 days to 42. Thirty-six of Brown's own parliamentarians voted against him, forcing the prime minister to appeal for the support of nine Ulster Unionist members to win. Meanwhile, breaches in domestic security have resulted in top secret intelligence documents related to Al-Qaeda, Iraq and British defense matters being lost or stolen on three separate occasions in less than a week.

Unfortunately foreign affairs do not offer Brown much respite from his domestic woes. Military sources insisted to me last week that current British troop levels in Iraq of 4,000 would be maintained for the "foreseeable future." Another said there was a chance that around 500-1,000 of the current force could be withdrawn, but that would not occur until September or October at the earliest, because Iraqi troops are still not capable of handling the situation in Basra on their own. The military insider said: "Iraqi forces are a brigade down at the moment. They're not up to full strength, let alone trained strength. Any drawing down of troops cannot happen until these two issues are addressed."

Currently there are around 30,000 Iraqi troops in southern Iraq spread among three brigades.
A Defense Ministry source added the security situation in Basra remained "fragile." "There is still an insurgency and that still needs to be dealt with," he said. Since the row with the Iraqi government over Brown's attempt to reduce the British force by almost half earlier this year - which embarrassingly left British troops on the sidelines during the initial phase of the operation to crush Shiite militias in Basra last April - British military policy has changed.

Although a majority of British soldiers remain concentrated at the Basra air base on the outskirts of the city, a number of troops have now been embedded in Iraqi units operating in the south in a bid to improve the performance of Iraqi forces in the field. In addition, training of Iraqi forces now focuses on urban fighting rather than battlefield training.

The change in policy, which stems from Iraqi failures during the battle for Basra, is a departure from the British government's earlier cut and run policy. But it is still about paving the way for the United Kingdom's exit, albeit less hastily, within the next two years, before the next British election. That will of course free up troops for the conflict in Afghanistan. The milestone of the death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan last week reopened the debate about what purpose the British presence in the country is serving.

Defense Minister Des Browne insisted a few days ago that the West is winning the war, as he announced an additional 230 British troops would be sent to Afghanistan. Contrary to Browne's assessment, however, General Sir David Richards, the commander in chief of British land forces, told the Defense Ministry's in-house journal: "Though things have improved, don't think for one minute we can believe that we are winning."

A few days ago, 400 Taliban fighters, who escaped from a jail in Kandahar following a Taliban rocket attack on their prison, seized villages near the main British airbase there, a move that threatens the facility providing the main air link with the UK. And last weekend four US marines were killed by a roadside bomb in Farah. Total allied combat deaths in Afghanistan for the month of May exceeded the toll in Iraq during the same month.

The small area where the writ of Afghan President Hamid Karzai runs is shrinking further as insurgent attacks occur in areas, such as Herat, that a year ago were considered safe. The Taliban even came close to assassinating Karzai a few months ago. Outgoing NATO commander Dan McNeil has said that there has been a 40 percent increase in attacks this year as the Taliban moves away from direct confrontation to attacking troops with improvised explosives and suicide bombers.

As the security situation deteriorates, infrastructure and development work becomes further stalled. Political progress is virtually nonexistent and Karzai's administration is riddled with corruption. Many in the UK looked on aghast at the $21 billion pledged to Afghanistan last week. Billions of dollars have already been spent since the invasion and more than 800 allied troops have been killed, not to mention thousands of innocent Afghans. Throwing more money at the country will hold the ring for Karzai in Kabul, but it will not provide a long-term solution to Afghanistan's woes.

Against this backdrop an additional 230 British troops is hardly the cavalry arriving over the hill to save the day, no matter how much the Brown government spins it.

Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

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