London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Six years after participating in the Iraq war with 46,000 troops, Britain is preparing to end its military missions in the country and to keep around 400 troops, in the foreseeable future, to help train the Iraqi forces. After being the second largest force in Iraq in terms of the number of troops, the British government is stressing its commitment to secure Iraq and is expected to sign an understanding agreement with Baghdad within this context.
Bob Ainsworth, the British minister of state for the armed forces, has explained that the British forces’ stay in Iraq is going to be “a matter of years rather than months” but stressed that “this depends on the Iraqi government and our ability to stay. But this is a continuing relationship.”
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he said: The British government is today negotiating with Iraq to conclude a new bilateral agreement which includes details of the British forces remaining there. On the British forces’ role in Iraq today, the British minister of state said: “We are in the stage of switching from practical deployment to continuing relationship with the Iraqi government and people. This is what is happening at present.” He explained that this switch “is from having 4,000 persons in Iraq who are doing too much in terms of training with the 14th Division and the deployment of some of our elements in the city with the Iraqi army units to the stage where there are 400 persons training officers, coordinating, and doing some training with the navy.”
Ainsworth expected the switch to take a few months. Training the Iraqi navy is considered an important part of the agreement between the Iraqi and British forces. He said: “The Iraqis are very keen to develop the navy, particularly as most of the oil and the country’s revenues come from the oil pipeline outlet. There is still a long way for achieving this.” He added: “A large part of the forces remaining in Iraq will be occupied developing Iraq’s naval capabilities. I do not know how long this will take.” He pointed out that “it is a matter of years and not months.”
In reply to a question about the British interest in keeping its forces in Iraq because of its strategic location, Ainsworth said: “Iraq is important for us and the relationship is important for us. We lost many young men in liberating Iraq and much has been invested in the country and we want it to come out in the best possible shape.” He refrained from specifying the financial cost of the war saying: “There are different ways for measuring the cost of the military operation but there is a greater cost, especially in the lives we had lost.” According to Reuters, the war cost the British 847m sterling pounds between 2002 and 2003, 1.3bn between 2003 and 2004, and around 910m the following years until 2008 when it cost 1.8bn pounds.
Ainsworth praised what he called the “big efforts to establish reconciliation, in particular between the Sunnis, which were very necessary” and added: “Iraq’s story has not been told yet. We are still in a transitional stage hoping it will be a very successful state. But the reconciliation which includes all the parties should continue. If the Sunnis, Shi’is and Kurds in Iraq are working together with a reasonable rate of independence and mutual respect, then we will be on a very successful road and will one day be proud of the small role we played in this.” He went on to say that “after much pain, and more pain for the Iraqi people than our people, we have reached a major stage of progress in Iraq and I feel positively about what we have been able to achieve there.”
On what Britain has gained from its participation in the war, the British minister said: “No one is saying that mistakes were not made in Iraq. I personally voted in favor of the operation in 2003 and I really believed then that there were weapons of mass destruction [WMD] and a clear intention to use them” if the former Iraqi regime had possessed them. He added: “When we went to Iraq, we thought that there were WMD and that we were liberating a country and not staying long. We therefore did not plan for the post-operation stability stage to the required extent. When thinking about this issue in terms of operating and the need for resources, it means that we keep these matters in our minds before moving to a similar scenario.”
There are internal British demands for an inquiry about that decision but Ainsworth said: “We are not ready for such an inquiry when there are still 4,000 troops in the operations field. I do not believe that the Defense Ministry should focus on the lessons that can be learned from Iraq when there are still troops there.” He added: “After that, I am certain that the pressures to hold an inquiry will continue as I am also certain that there are lessons which we can learn. Yes, there will be an inquiry in some way in future.” He went on to say that after the decision to participate in the war “we had the responsibility of continuing and making sure that things would end more positively in Iraq.”
This is what Ainsworth, who recently visited Basra, believes. He said: “I saw, to a surprising extent, much improvement last year. When I visited Basra, I walked along the promenade and talked to shop owners and all their emphasis was on the economic needs. Of course, security remains important but it has dropped lower in the list of priorities.” The relative calm in Basra followed years of the armed and bloody conflict in the governorate. While the British troops remained deployed in the Basra, the Iraqi forces were at the forefront of the conflict with the militias and secured the city in an operation supervised personally by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in March 2008.
Ainsworth acknowledged that it was the Iraqi forces which confronted the militias and said: “The decision was that of Prime Minister Al-Maliki. The major intervention was very decisive and successful and took us to where we wanted to reach and I am not criticizing this.” He reiterated “we knew that it was necessary to take such a decision and act on it but it was the prime minister’s decision to take in the end.” He stressed that “the intention had always been to hand over security responsibility from the British forces to the Iraqi ones. This was what should have happened but it was impossible to do this smoothly in an environment of constant action.”
On the reasons why the militias in Basra were left to become stronger before the March 2008 operation, the British official said: “The Iraqi government had several priorities and was consulting with the coalition partners. Basra was not the only problem and there were high-level cases of violence in large parts of the country. But it is he (Al-Maliki) who should be asked why he took the decision at that specific time.” He pointed out that Iraq is facing several security challenges, foremost of them the need to train the Iraqi police to be responsible for the country’s security instead of relying on the army and said: “The army elements should be in the barracks and responsible for the defense of the country instead of confronting the insurgents.” He added: “The Iraqi forces are very confident and this is very important. They have done a lot and are respected by the people and determined not to lose this respect. This is worth its weight in gold.” But he noted however that “there is still much to be done. The police should be trained so that the army does not remain at the forefront all the time. This is a matter that will worry the Basra people for a long time.”
Britain had added its voice to officials in Iraq and the United States who complained about the Iranian interference in Iraq and their negative impact on the country but statements about this relatively lessened recently. Ainsworth said: “We are still convinced that there are harmful moves across the borders from Iran and that elements inside Iran are backing some insurgents in Basra.” He added: “The only thing that we can say is what we are regularly telling Iran, namely, that they are naturally interested in the developments in their neighbor but it is in their interest for Iraq to be a successful country and for them to have a constructive role.” He stressed that “we are not there to prevent them from playing a constructive role. We want them to do that, to be part of the solution and not the problem.” He refused to go into details of the accusations that Iran is playing a negative role in Iraq and said: “I do not know at what level Iran takes joint decisions for the government. I expect there are separate power bases.” He added: “I wish they can see that stability in the Middle East is in their interest and act to have everyone in Iran coordinate in a positive way” to support Iraq.
While the British forces prepare to reduce their presence in Iraq, Afghanistan remains the difficult mission for Britain and the United States. Ainsworth pointed out that “lessons” Britain learned in Iraq would help its efforts in Afghanistan, like “the need for many resources that are enough to back stability and the need for coordination between government departments, between civilians and the military.” But he added: “It is a bigger problem in Afghanistan. There is not the basic infrastructure. There is not a wealth similar in any way whatsoever to Iraq’s.”
Referring to the cultural differences between Iraq and Afghanistan towards Britain, he said: “The cultural gap between us and the (Afghan) people is very wide, which increases the difficulties. The Iraqis view positively our presence in Iraq in the 1920s more than I thought from my reading of history.” He was referring to Britain’s role in the establishment of the Iraqi State following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
He added: “On the other hand, Afghanistan was on the borders (with India) and paid the price for this. I am certain that this feeds the opinions against the British there. He went on to say: “But our presence in Afghanistan is totally different from the past. We are there because of our fears for our security and we cannot imagine that it is possible to bolster our security without the presence of a good state in which the Afghans can live. There are no imperial objectives.”
He pointed out that Britain’s aim in Afghanistan today “is a developing, peaceful, and stable country that can give its people safety and does not pose a threat to us. There are no other aims.” As to the challenges facing the British army, he said: “The British army contributed in these two operations during the past years and we were asked for more than we anticipated under our plans. We asked our elements for more than what was possible and we have to act on this.” He added: “We must get the equipment that is suitable for these operations. We are living in a world lacking stability and the stage of wars between countries might return in future. But it is important at present to obtain the equipment that is suitable for wars in failed countries and this is what we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.”