Guardian on Iraq/Dannat:

The British officer said: 'We are now just another tribe'

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Basra
Saturday October 14, 2006
The Guardian

Members of the Royal Air Force Regiment on patrol near Basra. Photograph: John D McHugh/AFP/Getty

As the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglians prepared to set out on patrol through central Basra yesterday, risking mortar attack and possibly more, all the talk was of their boss's suggestion that they were making the situation worse.
General Sir Richard Dannatt's comments that the British military presence in southern Iraq "exacerbates the security problems" and that they should get out "sometime soon" was met with a mix of frustration and quiet agreement in the heavily fortified Palace compound, a former Saddam palace in southern Basra that now houses the consulate as well as 1,200 coalition troops.

"I can't believe they are saying these things," one embassy official said. "This whole thing is to do with politics and Tony Blair. It's not about what is happening on the ground here, but what is happening there."

Three and a half years after British forces, in the general's words, "effectively kicked the door in" to southern Iraq, many squaddies still believe they are making a difference, and that if they were to withdraw now there would be a messy collapse into open civil war.

Inside the army base yesterday, a tall, thin, 20-something private was preparing his Warrior for a patrol into the city centre. His camouflaged uniform has long since faded under the scorching sun, and his flak jacket was covered with grease. The private, who has been in Iraq for five months, and has a few weeks to go before being relieved, was unimpressed by the general's comments. "He's just saying this because he wants to take us to another ****ing war, in Afghanistan or somewhere else," he said. "He doesn't care."

The extent of the deterioration of the security situation in the south of Iraq, however, is unmistakable. Eighteen months ago, when I was last embedded in Basra, the British army still patrolled in berets and without flak jackets. Today they will only emerge in heavily armoured Warrior vehicles, wearing heavy-duty helmets with protective screens across their faces, and body armour to cover their shoulders and upper arms.

Where the army once was able to patrol around the city relatively freely, they now know there are certain parts of it where they will be vulnerable to attack. Patrols often involve a visit close to a Sunni mosque, just to reassure worshippers that the forces are there.

Part of the difficulty is identifying the enemy. Basra has become riddled with organised gangs, militias and death squads, and its police force is corrupt. According to senior coalition advisers, there are around 20 different security and police groups in the city, ranging from the directorate of education police to the justice police; the governor alone has 200 armed gunmen protecting him. Some of the police units are active in organised crime and have been infiltrated by militias, others work as death squads. There are also around a dozen religious militias.

"We are in a tribal society in Basra and we [the British army] are in effect one of these tribes," said Lt Col Simon Brown, commander of the 2nd Battalion. "As long as we are here the others will attack us because we are the most influential tribe. We cramp their style."

He can see the general's point. "There is so much poverty and frustration in the streets of Basra, as long as you are in the street, someone will shoot at you. We complicate the situation. We give the disaffected and frustrated a chance to empty their frustrations by shooting at us."

One recent episode illustrates this. A military base in Amara called Abomaji had been held by the British for months, attracting heavy mortar attack. In late August it was handed to the Iraqi army; within 48 hours, according to the commander of the unit, everything on the base had been looted. The decision was taken to set up a mobile base in the desert, shifting position every 48 to 72 hours. Staying in one place to be shot at, it would seem, wasn't worth the trouble.

"We cannot substantially influence the situation. Our powers are diminishing," said a British civilian contractor attached to the British embassy. "The army is holding the ring and they are buying us and the Iraqis time, but the talk of the troops is misleading. There can't be a military solution to what is happening in Iraq."

In the sweltering back seat of a Warrior, sweat running down his face, 2nd Lt Matt Lamber said he couldn't afford to get distracted by the general's comments. "I try not to think of that. I try to look at the smaller picture of what we are doing, and enjoy the small victories on the ground, the bad guys we arrest."

On unofficial military web forums, meanwhile, other soldiers were more willing to speak out in support of Sir Richard. "A man in the right position saying the right things NOW," one soldier serving in Iraq wrote on the British Army Rumour Service website. "We should be happy to have such a man in place who is on side and supports the army."

Another wrote: "The most impressive comments I have heard from someone of his seniority for a long time."

A third added: "I am thoroughly heartened by this and have the beginnings of a thaw in the cynicism which has dogged my service thinking since 2003."

An internet poll conducted by the website showed overwhelming support for the general, with 76% saying he had been "absolutely right" and 16% saying he was right from a military point of view. Just 2% said he had been "rather wrong".

But one soldier calling himself Merkator criticised Sir Richard's media appearances, which followed his newspaper interview yesterday. He said: "You claim to be standing up for the men and women that serve under you, but your backtracking this morning has dispelled that notion."

· Additional reporting by Matthew Taylor.

In modern warfare, politics is part of a general's armoury

Sir Richard Dannatt's comments horrified the old guard. What matters, however, is not his rank but whether he is right

Martin Kettle
Saturday October 14, 2006
The Guardian

Like Victorian children, military commanders used to be seen but not heard. The etiquette was simple. They could argue among themselves as much as they liked. They were even licensed to have rows with government ministers. Wartime leaders such as Churchill or Lloyd George were driven to distraction by furious disputes over strategy with some of their more cautious generals.

All this, however, took place in private, not public. In the end, although the generals might propose, it was the political leaders who disposed, even in the heat of war. The high-minded judgment by the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon that "if the statesman decides upon war which the soldier knows can only lead to national catastrophe, then the soldier, after presenting his opinion, must fall to and make the best of a bad situation" remains largely true today in theory and practice. Theirs but to do or die, even when someone has blundered.

The reason why this discipline is not merely a convention but the law is time-honoured. It is also vital. With its monopoly of lethal force, the military has the capacity to defy and even depose governments. It also tends, by tradition and training, to be conservative. Democracies cannot easily survive if the army disputes the people's claim to be the ultimate voice of the nation.

There is not the slightest sign that General Sir Richard Dannatt nurtures any ambition to be a British General Franco. Nor is he the first head of the British army to make his views on military matters known in public. Like his immediate predecessors (think of the familiar Sir Mike Jackson) he gives evidence to parliamentary committees, delivers occasional speeches and even grants on-the-record interviews to the media - although by yesterday he must have been regretting that one.

But Gen Dannatt's comments in his Daily Mail interview - the Mail, for God's sake - stretch the constitutional and political boundaries in new ways. By passing critical judgment on the Iraq war - which he says was based "more on optimism than sound planning" - he publicly plunges the armed forces into the most lethal dispute in modern British politics. By declaring that "we should get ourselves out some time soon" he takes his stand on the most neuralgic question facing British security policy today. And while his comment that "our presence in Iraq exacerbates the difficulties we are facing around the world" may seem a statement of the obvious, its contradiction of Tony Blair's view also makes it an act of the highest controversy - as he must surely have known.

Does all that make Gen Dannatt a fool? Possibly. Does it make him a knave? Not in my view. There was a lot of anxiety in some circles yesterday about the military crossing a constitutional boundary. And rightly so. These things matter. They are academic questions only when there are no tanks on the lawn. Maintaining what EP Thompson called the nerve of outrage on such sensitive matters is important.

But we also have to recognise that these are changed times. Military action, especially by democratic states, requires new and more modern forms of legitimacy if it is to be politically sustainable. The reason why all our political parties now agree that parliament should have the final say on going to war is because most of our foreseeable wars are elective, just as Iraq was. They are fought on behalf of consumerist societies almost wholly unaffected by any form of direct engagement. They can no longer be fought or carried to completion without ongoing public education, debate and scrutiny. Excluding the military from this process is not impossible, but it would be bizarre, not least because the military's own credibility is so much at stake too.

Britain has been here before, and quite recently. A generation ago, policing too went largely undebated. That changed because policing by consent became unsustainable without wider debate and deeper scrutiny. The change arguably came at a cost, but mostly it has been necessary and beneficial. In any case, the toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube.

Something similar is now happening on military matters. We are already in an age in which military action requires new forms of consent. The disciplines and sacrifices of the total wars of the 20th century are now a receding memory. Today's wars are won and lost on primetime, almost as if they are reality TV. Soldiers in the field now claim and exercise rights - to call up chatshows, and to phone, text and email home - that would have brought the campaigns on the western front to their knees within minutes. All of this makes military action much harder to launch and maintain than in the very different conflicts of bygone times. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a separate point. But these are debates from which military commanders surely cannot be uniquely excluded.

In the end, the big issue raised by Gen Dannatt's interview is less a constitutional one than a political one. What really matters is not who said we got the planning catastrophically wrong in Iraq, but whether it is true; it is not the name, rank and serial number of the man who thinks we should get ourselves out of Iraq soon, but whether he is right; it is not the propriety of a soldier saying that Iraq exacerbates other problems, but whether that is the case.

And what is more, the general is not alone in Whitehall in believing so. He speaks for departments anxious to wind down the Iraq deployment as soon as possible, partly in order to focus on Afghanistan. He speaks for ministers who point out that violent incidents are falling in Iraqi provinces from which Britain has withdrawn and continuing in those in which foreign troops remain. He reflects, as one cabinet minister puts it, the active consideration that is currently going on inside the government about the future of Iraq.

Tony Blair insouciantly gave Gen Dannatt his full backing at the end of the Northern Ireland talks yesterday. But it is a sleight of hand to pretend that there is no dispute between them. The prime minister may continue to deny that the Iraq factor influences a spectrum of problems ranging from Afghanistan abroad to community cohesion at home. But he is increasingly a lone voice, and he is singing his farewell aria as those who think like the general prepare for the next act.
Good post, good read.

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