Tony Blair’s Iraqi headache

The US and UK’s forces in Iraq are confronted with a conflict they were not set up to fight, and mounting casualties on all fronts have forced an increase in expressions of discontent among military men, forcing both governments to redefine their conceptions of success and rethink their strategy in Iraq.

General Dannatt’s candid remarks, coming amid revelations by independent US and Iraqi sources that more than 600,000 civilians had been killed since the US and British-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 further weakened the Blair government’s muddled foreign policy and fuelled resentment against the continued occupation of Iraq.

Besides stoking a severe political headache for Tony Blair’s troubled government, which has so far lost two cabinet ministers over the illegal occupation, Dannatt’s remarks revealed growing degrees of despondency among British soldiers on the battle front and sent shivers across the British and American governments.

The fever seems to have quickly spread across the Atlantic, where mounting US casualties in Iraq and a perceived policy failure by the Bush government have triggered panic ahead of mid-term Congressional polls, with increasing similarities drawn between the situation in Iraq and the disastrous Tet Offensive in Viet Nam in 1968.

US casualties in Iraq are reported to be at their highest. Dannatt, who is chief of the general staff in the UK’s once respected military said UK forces were supposed to leave Iraq “sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems”, adding that overstretching the 7,000-strong British army in Iraq was likely going to “break it”.

His words, coming against a bastion of collective Anglo-American bravado that has seen over a million combatant and civilian casualties in the messy confrontation, weakened the Blair government’s stance on the conflict and set off a torrent of debates on the legitimacy and viability of the continued occupation of the volatile regions of Iraq.

Disclosures by the UK-based Lancet Medical Journal that 600,000 non-combatants had been killed since the invasion came amid reports that the US forces had suffered their heaviest death toll since the occupation, with more than 70 troops having died in combat in month of October alone.

The US has so far lost an estimated 3000 troops in Iraq. Britain’s force in Iraq is concentrated in Basra, where a force of 7,000 troops is trying to secure the city against a torrent of sectarian violence and simmering conflict fuelled by anger against the western occupation and fights for control following the collapse of the Saddam regime.

General Dannatt’s remarks come in the same season as the American occupation forces’ demands that they either get ‘more material or less to do’, and other British army chiefs in Afghanistan’s calls for more equipment if they are to hold up against an impending Taliban onslaught in Helmand province.

“My intention is particularly to speak up for what is right for the army,” Dannatt, who has since come under pressure from the British government for the remarks, declared, boldly adding, “That is my job. That is my constituency.”

The general’s remarks struck a political note whose music was unmistakable to both the British and American political establishments, which is that their forces in Iraq were beginning to feel stuck in a sort of “mission creep”, wherein they were sucked into a conflict with no discernible end.

The impact on British forces in the trenches was messianic, as the general’s distress call received widespread approval from anti-war legislators and campaigners. British soldiers both on the home front and in Iraq welcomed the remarks, as seen on their unofficial websites.

In a bid to prevent the Dannatt fever from spreading across the Atlantic, the US administration briskly tried to spin Dannatt’s statements and sew them in line with the British government’s stance, saying he meant the forces would hand over control to Iraqis after the completion of their mission.

The US forces also feel bogged down in Iraq , as they face mounting resistance from insurgents at a time when their forces have been exhausted by years of a seemingly endless conflict.

“From high school teachers to taxi drivers, America is seen as a new colonial power,” said Fawaz Gergis, “Few Muslims accept the American narrative that touts democracy and freedom; they view America’s presence in the Arab heartland as a sinister plot to divide the world of Islam and subjugate Muslims.”

“By staying the course in Iraq , Bush plays into the hands of extremists and alienates the floating middle of Muslim public opinion. The bottom line is that a way must be found, and soon, to extract American troops from Iraq ‘s shifting sands and to stop the shedding of Jewish and Palestinian blood,” wrote Gerges, a Carnegie Scholar.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the allied forces so trained and hardened in conventional warfare face what has been described as Fourth Generation Warfare (G4) wherein states confront non-state and quasi-military organizations like Al Qaeda, Taliban, Lebanese Hezbollah and the multiple bands of insurgents raging in Iraq today.

G4 entities are generally seen as difficult to subdue because they lack centralized command structures and operate in small and irregular groups that are loosely made up of experienced fighters, sympathizers and absolute martyrs, all blended into civilians and exempted from the Geneva Conventions that bind states.

The conventional definition of ‘enemy’ fits loosely in G4 warfare, where the enemy is an ordinary civilian who refuses to stop at a military check-point, or one who stops and detonates a device before he’s searched and kills several people, propagating an atmosphere of fear and despondency.

In Afghanistan , senior British army officers recommended that heavy armour be sent to their positions following the Taliban’s replacement of traditional “human wave” attacks with a much more lethal campaign involving suicide car bombers and roadside explosives.

October 2006
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