Take UK troops out of Iraq, senior military told ministers
Army chiefs wanted to move forces to Afghanistan but were prevented for political reasons
Richard Norton-Taylor / London Guardian | September 28 2006
Senior military officers have been pressing the government to withdraw British troops from Iraq and concentrate on what they now regard as a more worthwhile and winnable battleground in Afghanistan.
They believe there is a limit to what British soldiers can achieve in southern Iraq and that it is time the Iraqis took responsibility for their own security, defence sources say. Pressure from military chiefs for an early and significant cut in the 7,500 British troops in Iraq is also motivated by extreme pressure being placed on soldiers and those responsible for training them.
"What is more important, Afghanistan or Iraq?" a senior defence source asked yesterday. "There is a group within the Ministry of Defence pushing hard to get troops out of Iraq to get more into Afghanistan."
Military chiefs have been losing patience with the slow progress made in building a new Iraqi national army and security services. Significantly, they now say the level of violence in the country will not be a factor determining when British troops should leave.
The debate has been raging between different groups in the MoD and has involved the chiefs of staff as well as the permanent joint headquarters, based in Northwood, north-west London, defence sources say. Army chiefs have expressed concern about opinion polls showing the increasing unpopularity of the war and the impact on morale and recruitment.
Political arguments, including strong US pressure against British troop withdrawals, have won, at least for the moment. US generals in Iraq privately made it clear they were deeply unhappy about British talk of troop reductions and complained that the British seemed interested only in the south of the country.
The debate within the MoD is unusual: arguments about the size and shape of the defence budget are common, but arguments about the merits of military deployments overseas are much rarer.
The fierce debate at the highest military and political levels in the MoD is reflected in a passage of a leaked memo written by a staff officer at the Defence Academy, an MoD thinktank. It reads: "British armed forces are effectively held hostage in Iraq - following the failure of the deal being attempted by COS [chief of staff] to extricate UK armed forces from Iraq on the basis of 'doing Afghanistan' - and we are now fighting (and arguably losing or potentially losing) on two fronts."
The MoD, which is downplaying the significance of the memo, said yesterday it was written by a naval commander, the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel in the army, and that it was reporting views from a variety of military sources.
Hopes for early and large cuts in the number of British troops deployed in southern Iraq have been dashed repeatedly. A year ago, the MoD predicted that the number of British troops there would have fallen by now to 3,000, fewer than half the current total.
Military commanders now accept that the number of British troops in southern Iraq will probably stay at their present level, at least until early next year. Major General Richard Shirreff, the new commander of British troops there, was determined to launch what may be the last major operation in Iraq by British troops. He launched Operation Sinbad, with Iraqi forces, in a move designed to rid Basra of serious criminals and corrupt officials. The operation, involving about 3,000 British troops, is expected to continue until February.
A significant cut in Britain's military presence in Iraq could coincide with the run-up to the election of a new British prime minister. "We can and will run both [Iraq and Afghanistan] - for a period of time," a defence official said last night.
The defence secretary, Des Browne, has recently stressed the importance the government attaches to Afghanistan and to beating the Taliban and a growing number of jihadists there. Speaking before a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Slovenia, he said yesterday Nato had to "step up to the plate to meet our collective commitment to support the government and people of Afghanistan". Britain has nearly 5,000 troops in the country.
The Nato ministers agreed on a plan to donate surplus military equipment to Afghanistan's armed forces but their offers of extra troops did not meet Nato commanders' target of 2,500, officials said.
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