Monday, December 22, 2008

Hutton and Stirrup respond to commentators on Iraq

Defence Secretary John Hutton and Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup have written to national newspapers in response to critical media comment of Britain's military achievements in Iraq.

Mr Hutton wrote:

"As the Prime Minister announced, there will be a fundamental change of mission for UK forces in Iraq from the end of May next year, with a shift from combat operations towards a long-term defence relationship focussed on training and education. That will allow our forces to reduce from 4,100 to around 400 by the end of July.

"As we reach this point, it is not surprising that commentators are analysing what our forces have achieved over the past six years. They have achieved much, as I saw for myself a few weeks ago when I was able to have a cup of coffee in Basra's Five Mile Market along with Iraqi forces and our soldiers who are training them.

"The reason we are redeploying our forces is simple: because our mission is on the verge of completion. By the time our troops withdraw, our job will be done. If it was not, we wouldn't be going.

"Iraq today is a nation that has been changed for the better because our plans for transition have delivered. Plans which progressively built up the capabilities of the Iraqis to the point where they could take the lead in ensuring their own security.

"The scale of the challenge in Basra has been daunting. We never claimed that we alone could solve the problems of a city neglected for decades by Saddam. But by helping the Iraqis find Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, our Forces have achieved their aims.

"Since 2003, the UK has helped to train over 20,000 Iraqi troops and more than 22,000 police. As Dr Saleh put it: 'Today, Iraqi soldiers and police are initiating and leading operations across Iraq and are gaining the trust and support of the population.'

"That was always where we were trying to get to. We have never abandoned the Iraqis or barricaded ourselves in our bases. We have been there alongside them, offering support and advice. During Operation Charge of the Knights from the end of March, when the Iraqi forces that we trained confronted and comprehensively defeated the militias in Basra, we were with them, providing mentoring teams on the streets as well as air support, artillery, medical treatment, logistics and a lot more.

"Basra is not perfect. But compare that to the situation we discovered when we arrived in Basra in 2003. Thirty per cent of Basrawis still do not have access to piped water. In 2003, that figure was 77 per cent. There have also been huge improvements in power supply, hospitals and medical care, nutrition, school attendance and, of course, democracy.

"It is because we - working in partnership with the Iraqis we have mentored and our US and other allies - have succeeded in turning around the security situation over the past six years, that attention is now focussed on problems like water and electricity supply, litter in the streets and traffic congestion. Security now ranks fifteenth in the list of people's list of concerns.

"A place where people are thinking about such everyday matters is a place where people are not living in fear of being blown up – or, for that matter, persecuted by their own government.

"We are now seeing the sort of continuing development that will improve the standard of living of all Iraqis: building infrastructure, supporting businesses, developing key industries such as agriculture and energy, and growing the economy. As the military mission ends, the challenge now is to ensure that the business and reconstruction mission takes up the charge. There are great opportunities for British investment and I hope we take them.

"For the first time in living memory, Iraqi people can now start to benefit collectively from their country's wealth and resources, rather than see the revenue creamed off and squandered by a corrupt regime. None of this would have been possible without the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices of our service people and civilians, who can feel justifiably proud of a job well done. If that is not an achievement, then I do not know what is."

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup wrote:

"Last week the Prime Minister announced that the UK expects to have completed its current military tasks in Iraq by the end of May next year. Consequent on that, and in line with what we have been saying for some time, we shall then move to a more normal bilateral relationship with the Iraqi Armed Forces. We shall provide assistance and training in those areas where the Iraqis judge we can continue to help: tasks that will require only a few hundred military personnel, rather than the four thousand or so we currently have deployed in country.

"It's natural that at such a pivotal moment there should be considerable debate about the whole endeavour. The analysis of the causes and courses of the Iraq campaign will no doubt occupy commentators and historians for years. But some of the views currently being expressed about the role of the British military in Basra seem to me to misunderstand the both the nature of the problem we faced there and the key to its solution.

"First the challenge. We had to get the place and the people to the point where the Basrawis could take control of their own destiny. It was not our task to set Basra to rights – that was always beyond our reach. The poverty and dereliction in the south of Iraq were the results of decades of oppression and neglect; turning the situation around was and remains a long-term project.

"Security in the city depends upon the various elements of Basrawi society being able to co-exist peacefully; reaching the necessary compromises and accommodations is a matter for the inhabitants themselves. So our job was to hold the ring until the Iraqis could take charge of their own security and create their own basis for sustainable economic growth.

"The challenge for us was to get the Basrawis to the start line; it was never possible for us to run the race for them.

"Military power was not the key to this. As in Afghanistan, so in Iraq, the military are essential to success, but cannot by themselves deliver it. We have always recognised, and repeatedly said, that in both cases the solution must be essentially political. This is nothing new for us in the military – it's almost pure Clausewitz.

"But we faced a particular problem in Basra. Our presence there provided disaffected locals with a focus for violence. It also gave the politicians an excuse for avoiding the difficult choices they needed to make: they could always blame us.

"We continued to plan aggressive operations against the militia factions in Basra City, but the Iraqi government did not want us to implement them. So we found ourselves the focus of and – in some cases – the reason for violence, but constrained from responding militarily. We had to find a way to break this deadlock.

"The answer, in our view, was to withdraw our permanently based forces from the centre of the city, and to give the Iraqis responsibility for security. Our training of the Iraqi Army had progressed well, and we judged they were up to the task. And putting them in the lead meant that the Iraqis would be forced to face up to the intra-Shia political problems that were the root cause of insecurity in Basra.

"The Iraqi government and our US partners – who faced a similar conundrum in Baghdad's Sadr City – agreed with this judgement.

"So in the second half of 2007 we passed provincial control of Basra to the Iraqis, and redeployed our forces – on our own terms, and as part of a deliberate plan. We were not driven out; we did not cede control of Basra to the militias.

"And we then worked with General Mohan, the commander sent by Baghdad to take control of Basra, on an Iraqi plan to deal with the militias; a plan agreed by the Iraqi government and US coalition leaders.

"In the early months of 2008, Prime Minister Maliki decided that he would lead this effort personally in what was called Operation Charge of the Knights. The initial stages were not as adeptly handled as we would have liked, but at last we had the commitment and political leadership that were the essential prerequisites of success – that we had been pressing for and working towards for over a year.

"Our forces, alongside their US colleagues, provided essential support. But as intended, it was essentially an Iraqi operation. And the results were exactly what we had hoped for and predicted. Charge of the Knights was both the culmination and the vindication of our plan to break the political deadlock in Basra.

"The city has been transformed as a result. Not in a physical sense: the infrastructure remains in a poor state, and unemployment is still high. But the Basrawis are now at the point where they can take responsibility for their own future with a realistic prospect of success.

"Over 1200 candidates, representing some 53 parties, will be contesting next month's provincial election. International companies are looking to invest significantly in Basra. The people have a sense of direction and hope that has been absent for decades.

"The path ahead will not be easy. Iraq has many difficult challenges still, and we cannot tell how and with what success its people will handle them. But it is their country, not ours. The challenges are theirs to face. We have helped get them to the position where they are able to do so.

"That was our mission in Basra; a mission the British military has accomplished with great courage and unsurpassed professionalism. I salute them for it, and so I believe will the British people."

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