Britain announced that it could withdraw its 4,100 remaining troops from Iraq by June 2009 if Iraqi elections in January go off peacefully. The withdrawal will mark the end of a six-year campaign, and the conclusion of an unpopular war both at home and abroad. Yet British troops can leave with their heads held high, for despite political misgivings about the legality of the war, they have performed with admirable professionalism and certainly won’t leave in ‘shame’ as one Guardian columnist suggests.


Seumas Milne contends that the British withdrawal signals the end to what he calls “the most shameful and disastrous episode in modern British history.” 

In the case of Britain, which marched into a sovereign state at the bidding of an extreme and reckless US administration, the war has been a national disgrace which has damaged the country’s international standing. Britain’s armed forces will withdraw from Iraq with dishonour. Not only were they driven from Basra city last summer under cover of darkness by determined resistance, just as British colonial troops were forced out of Aden 40 years ago – and Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, before that. But they leave behind them an accumulation of evidence of prisoner beatings, torture and killings, for which only one low-ranking soldier, Corporal Payne, has so far been singled out for punishment.

For a start Britain’s armed forces will not “withdraw from Iraq with dishonour.” It is one thing to state that the politicians who led us there were misguided and acting illegally under international law, but to affix that shame to our troops – who have no say in directing foreign policy – is wide of the mark, not to mention completely disrespectful to those who have perished carrying out their duties. True, there have been individual incidents of misconduct and prisoner abuse, but nothing on a scale or level unusual in war. There has been no British equivalent to Abu Ghraib. And those who were complicit in these crimes have been severely punished despite Milne’s suggestions otherwise.

Moreover Milne claims that British troops were “driven” from Basra by “determined resisitance,” but the truth of the matter is British forces handed over control to Iraqi security forces who were (correctly) believed to be capable of handling security with minimal British support.

Milne goes on to suggest that coalition forces, including the Americans, should effect a complete withdrawal leaving not even advisors behind to train Iraqi security forces.

But in any case, in the wake of Barack Obama’s election on a partial withdrawal ticket, the latest plans look a good deal more credible. They are also welcome, of course, even if several hundred troops are to stay behind to train Iraqis. It would be far better both for Britain and Iraq if there were a clean break and a full withdrawal of all British forces in preparation for a comprehensive public inquiry into the Iraq catastrophe. Instead, and in a pointer to the shape of things to come, British troops at Basra airport are being replaced by US forces.

A complete withdrawal – a “clean break” as Milne oddly puts it – would not only be reckless, but unfair to the Iraqis who have placed so much faith in being given the necessary training required to police and maintain Iraq’s security on their own.

He also criticizes the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA):

There’s no doubt that Iraq’s Green Zone government, under heavy pressure from its own people and neighbours such as Iran, extracted significant concessions from US negotiators to the blanket occupation licence in the original text. The final agreement does indeed stipulate that US forces will withdraw by the end of 2011, that combat troops will leave urban areas by July next year, contractors and off-duty US soldiers will be subject to Iraqi law and that Iraqi territory cannot be used to attack other countries.

The fact that the US was forced to make such commitments reflects the intensity of both Iraqi and American public opposition to the occupation, the continuing Iraqi resistance war of attrition against US forces, and Obama’s tumultuous election on a commitment to pull out all combat troops in 16 months. Even so, the deal was denounced as treason – for legitimising foreign occupation and bases – by the supporters of the popular Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, resistance groups and the influential Association of Muslim Scholars.

Milne refers to “Iraq’s Green Zone government,” disdainfully implying that Iraqi control is limited merely to an area around the palace. This despite the fact that thirteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces have succesfully been handed over to Iraqi provincial control. Furthermore, he doesn’t attach any significance to Iraqi agency in winning these concessions for themselves. The only reason Iraq was afforded these concessions, or so it goes, is because of the domestic situation in the U.S. and has nothing to with the Iraqi’s own negotiating skills and respect for their own sovereignty. How condescending.

Regardless of the arguments over shame and honor, the question that must be asked is will this withdrawal from Iraq see a corresponding increase in British troops in Afganistan. British officials have already suggested that extra troops could be sent if President Barack Obama, who has put Afghanistan at the top of his foreign policy agenda, asks allies for help. However, the issue is not as simple as it might appear. You can’t just transfer troops from one theater to another without proper preparations such as allowing troops time off to recuperate. The Independent:

Even if an increase in the troop numbers in Afghanistan is tenable politically, the further question is whether it is feasible militarily. The chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, last month expressed opposition to the idea that troops might simply be transferred from one theatre of war to another. Giving the clearest signal to date of military concerns about overstretch and too frequent troop rotations, Sir Jock said it was “crucial” to reduce “the operational tempo” for the armed forces.

It is possible that this week’s notice of a timetable for the Iraq withdrawal is intended not only to herald the end of that venture, but to signal to the military that there will be a pause between the two missions, and so reduce the resistance of the top brass to new deployments. Whatever lies behind the disclosure, everyone concerned – and that includes the troops and the British public – deserves a lot more clarity about the Government’s intentions.

Neil Leslie is an assistant editor of the Atlantic Counil. His views are his own.