A call to alms
One of the big questions behind Tony Blair's latest announcement about troops in Iraq is what he intends to do about funding for defence forces.
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About Webfeeds February 22, 2007 12:30 PM | Printable version
Behind the rhetoric and headlines about Tony Blair's decision to bring 1,600 British troops home from Basra, there are tough home truths. The announcement is a signal that Basra is now the business of the warring Shia parties and militias. Theoretically, security there is now in the hands of the 10th Division of the new Iraqi army - but whether the army ends up as a partner or client of the Shia militias is an open question.
British defence chiefs wanted to bring out at least 2,000 troops by May. They have got to send more troops to Afghanistan with the opening of the spring fighting season there, aggravated by the gathering of the biggest opium harvest ever. Next month Britain is sending a second battle group of 1,000 fighting troops to Helmand. The army wants to up this to three battle groups by the late summer - but this can only be done if they "draw down" in Basra to about 4,000 troops by the end of the year.
Tony Blair's demeanour has been less than triumphant when talking of Iraq of late for the obvious reason that it has finally dawned on him that there is no triumph to be had there. With or without the presence of American and British troops Iraq is going to be a mess for years to come. The big question now is the size of the mess, and whether it can be contained to Iraq's present borders.
As things stand now there are signs that things there, at least around Baghdad, Kirkuk and the upper Euphrates, are going to get worse before they get better. That part of the country is now in full-blown civil war - Shia groups against Sunni factions - and there is nothing the spin men of Washington or Whitehall can do to conceal this. And by the looks of things the fighters have got a few more nasty tricks up their sleeves. For the first time in Baghdad large truck bombs have been detonated releasing chlorine - which burns skin and kills instantly. From the north the use of children as hostages, proxies and couriers of weapons and bombs is now widely reported.
Many of the old patrol vehicles used by the Americans and the British, the humvees and "snatch" land rovers, have proved highly vulnerable to the new range of shaped charges that can slice through most armour protection, including that cladding most main battle tanks. This has led commanders on the ground in Basra to conclude that it wasn't much use putting patrols out to monitor the Shia and criminal gangs' private wars - in the old formula, trying to keep the peace where there is no peace to keep.
The Americans are struggling to crank up their programme of refitting their humvees and other vehicles, and will not have an adequate supply until August at the latest. The House of Commons defence committee has reported this week that the British army will not have a full set of "fit for purpose" ground patrol vehicles until 2017.
The defence committee has touched on one of the big questions behind the latest announcement of troop march and countermarch in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite his selective use of evidence to the contrary, Tony Blair has not given adequate funds and resources to support the tasks and role he has set the defence forces. Now the cracks are beginning to appear: ageing and worn out equipment, poor housing and conditions for the troops and their families, risky shortcuts in training. In real terms Blair has indulged in stealth defence support cuts. Now it is widely reported that Gordon Brown actually wants real cut in the funds voted for defence and security. No wonder there is now serious talk of the service chiefs donning their uniform to confront Tony Blair on his sofa about a crisis that they believe he and not his successor must deal with now.
He must address the issue now before he tests the patience of the service men and women who have served him so well to breaking point. The Iraq crisis is now being overcast by the shadow of Iran and yet another of George Bush's subjunctive wars - subjunctive as in Saddam might have weapons of mass destruction, Israel might try to nuke Natanz, and Ahmadinejad might bomb the Sunni triangle and neocon pigs might fly.
Moreover the international effort to keep Hamid Karzai's government going in Afghanistan is yet again threatened by coalition politics. The Italian government has just fallen over whether to pull out of Afghanistan, where some Italian units have been playing a vital role. The Danes are arguing with the British about whether their state-of-the-art 101 Merlin helicopters can be used by British forces - as if the British had the luxury of staring such a gift horse in the mouth, given their chronic shortage of helicopters - despite the Tony Blair pledge that his troops "can have all the equipment they want".
There isn't time or space for the editorialists' airy speculations about what troop reductions mean for the Blair legacy, and whether it is retreat, defeat or judicious lowering of the profile. It is time to get back to reality and facts on the bitterly contested ground of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the order of the day is all hands to the pumps.