Blair should stop playing fall guy in Rumsfeld's war games
Britain is throwing up a stooge's smokescreen to cover US withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is no need for such folly in Iraq
Wednesday November 16, 2005
The GuardianIraq is miring all who touch it. What does Tony Blair say when he reads that American forces at the siege of Falluja used "shake-'n'bake" shells on residential areas? White phosphorus, as reported by George Monbiot on these pages yesterday and confirmed by the Pentagon, is worse than napalm. Since it is "chemical" in its effect on humans, it falls under a ban by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention for use against "areas of high civilian population".One of the most-cited reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein was his deployment of chemical weapons against his own people. That does not justify us in using them. If Sir Christopher Meyer is right, Britain never complains to Washington over what happens in Iraq. But when the full story of these decisions is told, serious charges should be laid against British ministers. Will they use Donald Rumsfeld's line, that "stuff happens"?
Hence the rising tempo of Whitehall's search for an exit strategy. Yesterday Downing Street picked on the suggestion of the old Kurdish warlord Jalal Talabani that he might let Britain go home by the end of next year. On Monday John Reid had in effect rejected Talabani's offer. "A process of British withdrawal", he told the Commons, may start by the end of next year or it may not. When asked by MPs what would decide the date, he said it would depend on the strategy. What was that? Not to fail but to succeed, was the reply. It is astonishing that MPs buy such rubbish. But by yesterday the government was clearly distancing itself from granting the Iraqis any right of veto on British departure. Everything now depends on "security".
If Blair wants an exit strategy, one is staring him in the face. It is being adopted by his comrade in arms, Donald Rumsfeld no less. The Rumsfeld doctrine was that if you want to beat hell out of a place, do so and get out. If you want to punish the Taliban for hosting Osama bin Laden, smash them to pieces. Bomb their cities, kill their families, but do not stay. Staying is for pinkos and social workers.
Rumsfeld's Iraq strategy may have been full of holes, but it originally stuck to the same principle. Eliminate Saddam Hussein, obliterate his regime, but do it "lite". Never get bogged down in nation-building, whatever the neocons or neoimperialists may say. Find some stooge such as Ahmed Chalabi and leave him to sort the place out. Avoid large armies of occupation and, above all, avoid allies with moral scruples. As Condoleezza Rice told George Bush during his first election campaign: "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."
In Afghanistan Rumsfeld's plan is now almost complete. From the start Washington insisted that once it had fixed the election of its puppet, Hamid Karzai, to office, it would get out fast. Democracy was in place. Afghanistan should be left to Karzai, the warlords, the Pashtun mullahs and the drug runners. If the Taliban returned, too bad. Find some stooge ally to throw up a smokescreen and get out.
Who is that smokescreen? The answer is John Reid. He is sending 4,800 British troops allegedly to wipe out the world's most lucrative opium trade and bring democracy, stability and protection to southern Afghanistan. How re-impoverishing Afghan peasants will encourage them to defy a resurgent Taliban is unclear. The identical strategy failed after the 2001 invasion. Already Nato's byzantine diplomats are fighting like rats in a sack over who will do what and where in the mountains of Khyber and the wastes of Helmand. Nato and Britain have been suckered to the miserable task of covering America's retreat. The Pentagon must be laughing fit to bust.
How the same strategy will play in Iraq is harder to see. Talabani seems to accept what has long been the view of the British army, that foreign troops will no longer be needed in the south of Iraq by next summer. Since army training is in coalition hands, the coalition can notionally decide when that army is ready. Iraqi troops have no problem being trained, only in being motivated, a quite different matter.
Most intelligence regards any exit strategy based on a revived Iraqi army as fantasy. Its brigades will not be deployable outside their areas of primary recruitment, if only because the defence ministry is not that stupid. The ministry, like the police, is increasingly in thrall to one or other party militia. Army units deployed in possibly hostile provinces, at least without coalition cover, will almost certainly refuse to fight. Indeed the federal constitution appears to give regional governors the right of veto over such deployment. The reality is internal security in each of Iraq's three regions will be in the hands of police and unofficial militias. This has already been recognised in Kurdistan.
Talabani is accordingly inviting Britain to declare the Iraqi army (in which, as a Kurd, he has little interest) to be a "superb fighting force" and leave next year with its head high. This offer is worth taking. But it will require the coalition forces to hack deals over bases and equipment with whatever local power structures emerge as dominant in next month's elections.
These deals will be tough further south because the occupation has injected the poison of insurgency into both Sunni and Shia areas. They will get tougher the longer the occupation continues. By late next year, one intelligence analyst told me, "We may as well negotiate an exit strategy direct with Tehran".
Reid claims that if Britain leaves soon there will be "civil war". I find no intelligence to support this classic imperialist excuse. There will be bloodshed in places, but there is that now. As Talabani knows, the occupation is protecting his ministers, but it is fostering militancy everywhere and hopelessly undermining his authority. The one hope for Iraqis is to own their country and be free of the humiliation of foreign rule. That cannot come too soon.
The default mode of American foreign policy is isolation and of British policy continued intervention. America is shrewdly retreating from Afghanistan, knowing that the place is heading for trouble. Britain is the fall guy. Will the same happen in Iraq?
Reid should explain why he is really committing 4,800 troops to act as Taliban targets in Helmand and why he is so sceptical of Talabani's offer. He might also ask himself why Rumsfeld is laughing.