Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Flying at each other's throats

I've just come across this interesting quote from Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, a British official who specialised in Middle Eastern matters. Here he is in 1931, commenting on the prospects for Iraq.
"What is going to happen when our influence is removed? My own prediction is that they will all fly at each other's throats and that there will be a bad slump in the administration which will continue until someone strong enough to dominate the country emerges or, alternatively, until we have to step in and intervene." (quoted in Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq, London 2007, p.210)

The situation in Iraq is now in flux and there is a sense that in the south, we have reached the finale of the British deployment. British troops in the south are now restricted to Basra Palace and the airport outside the town. Both are dangerous places, because they are attractive targets for regular mortar attacks by local insurgents eager to be able to claim the accolade of having forced the British to withdraw. Mortars are not the only threat. Conditions inside the airport base, where local contractors are also employed, are not deemed safe enough for British civilian officials to travel around without bodyguards. The focus of the British diplomatic effort is, apparently, not in improving relations with the Iraqis, but in persuading the Americans that it is time for the British to leave. Every optimistic British assessment you hear of the local authorities' determination to root out corruption, ability to run the police themselves, and so on, is designed to speed British withdrawal.

Initially proclaimed as a triumph for British "hearts n' minds" over American firepower, the south of Iraq has now become at least as unstable as the regions further north. The killing of the governor of Muthanna province this week is the latest sign that the Shia factions who 'rule' the south of the country have already started, to echo Cornwallis, "to fly at each other's throats". Muthanna had been a relatively quiet backwater, where the British passed control to the Iraqis last summer. Referring to the handover the defence secretary, Des Browne, said: "Today takes them one step nearer to assuming full responsibility for their own security and to building a stable and democratic future for their country." It does not look quite so rosy now. but there is widespread recognition that Britain has neither the forces nor the political will to stop the situation deteriorating further.

The prospect of a British withdrawal from Iraq explains the increasingly vocal American attacks on the British strategy in the south of the country, which are designed to counteract the optimistic British pronouncements that the local authorities are ready to stand on their own two feet, which are the overture to a pull-out. The American strategy to prevent a withdrawal they see as precipitate appears to be try to stir British pride by effectively accusing British troops of cowardice. Outraged British newspaper readers fired up by this slur would, presumably, demand that British troops should stay in place to prove the US wrong.

I wonder whether this rather desperate tactic will work. Surveys recently show that only a small percentage of the British public have friends and family serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan: there is a profound public lack of interest in what is happening in either, and that is clearly having a detrimental effect on British soldiers' morale in both. In this respect, note the successful intervention by the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt this week to pressurise the British Royal Mail postal service into delivering parcels to troops serving in both theatres free of charge. There is little general support for the war, and many people in any case believe that British intervention in the Middle East has made further terror attacks more likely, not the reverse. In other words they may support the professionalism of Britain's armed forces while believing simultaneously that the task they have been given, in the support of the US invasion, was the wrong one. If anything, the Americans' attempt to whip up British outrage is more likely to fuel rising anti-Americanism in Britain.

For Iraqis the sad question is what will fill the vacuum once the British leave. And here it is not difficult to believe that Cornwallis's analysis of the cycle of Iraqi history remains a timeless one.

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