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Sir Richard and the New British Defence Doctrine | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In 1961, Iraqi troops massed on the border with newly independent Kuwait while Colonel Abdul-Karim Kassem, the charismatic “strongman” in Baghdad, talked of Anschluss. However, before any shot had been fired, Kassem had called off the operation. The reason was the message he had received through Soviet friends that an Iraqi attack on Kuwait would be resisted by a British task force, already on its way.

Fast forward to 1969, we find British troops helping the Sultan of Muscat crush an insurgency in the Jabal Akhdhar area.

Two years later, another British task force, this time supported by Iranian troops, defeats a Communist insurgency, backed by Cuban and East German offices, in Dhofar.

Flying over almost a decade, we are in 1979. This time we have Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani raising an army of “volunteers” to invade Bahrain and attach it to Khomeini’s newly created Islamic Republic in Iran. Rouhani’s army suddenly disappears as fast as it had appeared, like a mirage in the season of sharji winds. The reason? British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had sent “a firm message” to Khomeini, informing him that any attack on Bahrain would be regarded as an attack on Britain. (According to KGB defector Vladimir Kuzishkin, the warning was relayed by the Soviets.)

Britain’s commitment to defending its friends in the region was reconfirmed in 1990 when Saddam Hussein launched an Anschluss plan of his own against Kuwait.

That commitment, however, appeared to have ended last week with an interview by the head of the British army, General Sir Richard Dannatt.

The immediate object of Sir Richard’s attention was the presence of British troops in Iraq, all 7100 of them. He blamed their presence for bloodshed at home and abroad, and advised that they be withdrawn “soon.”

The word “soon”, of course, is a literally, in this context even a poetical, term and its use by a military man, who ought to be precise to a fault, something of a surprise. A general should never use terms that could be interpreted in countless different ways, according to who hears or reads them. A general says “in a day” or ” in a week” or “in a year”, but never “soon”. May be Sir Richard was deliberately poetical because he wanted to allow Prime Minister Tony Blair to interpret the term “soon” to mean “whenever the elected Iraqi government decides to ask us to leave at the completion of our mission.”

Although the “bring-the-boys-home-soon” bit of the interview attracted most attention, partly because many in the British elite regret the toppling Saddam Hussein, it was the least significant aspect of Sir Richard’s maiden interview.

The analysis that Sir Richard wove around that topic could amount to a re-think of British defence doctrines, especially with regard to the Middle East.

According to this re-think, British forces should not enter a country unless invited. The Iraq war was wrong from the start because “we weren’t invited, certainly by those in {control of} Iraq at the time. The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in.” This, of course, could be a signal to all the bad guys on earth not to fear any British military reaction for as long as the do not issue an invitation to London. Had that doctrine been in force before Sir Richard assumed command, Britain could not have used force to flush the Argentines out of the Falklands, kick Ratko Mladic out of Bosnia-Herzegovina, chase Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo and send Mullah Omar fleeing on his motorcycle in Kandahar.

The second point in the re-think is that it makes little or no difference if the government in place in Baghdad is friend or foe. What matters is the original sin of “kicking the door in”. Nowhere in the interview does the British general show any sympathy for a democratically elected government that is supposed to be backed by Britain and its allies until it can defend itself against domestic and foreign foes.

The third point in the re-think is that military intervention should not entail any risks for British security at home or abroad. To back his advice to abandon Iraq, Sir Richard blames terrorist attacks in Britain and on British interests abroad on the British military presence in Iraq- at least in part.

Here, too, Sir Richard uses a poetical word “exacerbate” from the Latin “exacerbates” , which means brining out the bitterness. The implicit message is that it is enough for those who disagree with this or that British policy to “bring out the bitterness”, for example by organising suicide attacks on the London transport network, in the certainty that, helped by others, they end up by stopping that policy. This is exactly what happened in Spain with the terror attacks on the Madrid railway that produced a change of government in Spain and led to Spanish withdrawal from Iraq.

The fourth point in the re-think is that, even with such powerful allies as the United States and NATO, Britain cannot fight in two theatres simultaneously.

British commentators have welcomed Sir Richard’s analysis and urged the government to focus only on Afghanistan, although there, too, someone kicked the door in. By that logic, during the Second World War, Britain might have decided to stop fighting for France, because it was difficult, and concentrate on winning the war in Burma that was easier. By the same logic, it makes no difference that Saddam Hussein was a greater strategic threat to Britain and is allies than the Taliban regime. But what if Britain faced a serious threat in a third or a fourth or a fifth country? Should Sir Richard’s doctrine of “we can fight in only one country at a time” apply?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the re-think is Sir Richard’s warning that involvement in Iraq could break the British army in five or 10 years. Why is this warning not probed into and debated? The small British contingent in Iraq saw very little action in the initial liberation phase. After the insurgency started in the mainly Sunni provinces of Iraq, the British task force, responsible for four Shiite provinces in the south, never faced a major challenge from any insurgent group.

Overall, the British task fore has lost under 120 men, including those who died in non-combat circumstances. Also, the British have suffered virtually no loss of materiel. The question is: how can such a limited engagement, with minimal losses, break the British army in five or 10 years?

There is no doubt that Sir Richard wanted a debate beyond the particular case of Iraq. Had he been interested only in Iraq he could have waited until 31 December when the United Nations mandate under which the British task force operates, ends. With Christmas decorations already appearing Oxford Street, 31 December is quite “soon”. Sir Richard had no need to create the impression that he was advising cut-and-run. But he has done so, thus provoking a competition among various groups of Britain’s foes over who “threw the British out of Iraq.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already claimed the credit by reminding everyone that Britain is part of the “sunset” civilisation of the West. For his part, the ambitious Muqtada Sadr, has claimed the credit for his Mahdi Army. The Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, which is nowhere near the British in Iraq, is also beating the drums about its fictitious victory in driving the “sick, old British lion” out of Mesopotamia.

The truth is that no one is driving the Brits out of Iraq, and few Iraqis want them to leave precipitously, to use a poetic term that might please Sir Richard. It is the majority of British elites who want to leave Iraq because their heart is no longer in it, if it ever was. All that Sir Richard has done is echo their sentiment. And, in doing so, he has acted as a politician rather tan a solider. And we all know what Clemenceau had to say about that such a long, long, long time ago.