27 November, 2006

Des Browne: Chatham House speech on Iraq.

Des Browne, Defence secretary, has given a speech at Chatham House on the government's policy in Iraq. It is the first coherent exposition of the government's Iraq policy, by a senior minister, that I have come across. For the full text of the speech, click here

The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and the Times all emphasise Browne's intention to significantly reduce the number of British troops in Iraq by the end of next year, although some troops will remain to assist the Iraqi government.

From a close reading of the speech, I would say that, although Browne intends to reduce troop numbers as the Iraqi government takes over the country, he has left the door open for the continuing long-term presence of the British army in Iraq.

Browne began by locating the current tensions in Iraq within an historical context and arguing that a unified Iraq is vital to regional stability. He then identified three major British policy imperatives :

First, we are helping the Iraqis build up their own security forces. Second, as these forces develop we are handing them control, province by province, city by city, moving to the point where they have complete responsibility. Third, we are underwriting that handover process by leaving in place quick response forces - not to do front line security work but ready to support the Iraqis if the situation gets out of control.
The Iraqi government, Browne continued, has control over 14 of the 18 provinces and the major question is: how long it will take to handover the rest. Baghdad and Basra are the most difficult issues but, even in Basra, Operation Sinbad, is making progress and it is hoped that the Iraqis will be able to take over next spring (as envisioned by the Foreign Secretary in her speech last week). Then it will be possible to scale back the British forces to a level needed to mentor Iraqi forces and protect Coalition supply routes. Then comes the paragraph, which the press have seized upon:
How large a force will this be? ...I do not believe it is right to give precise numbers, nor to assume what the next 12 months will hold. But I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower - by a matter of thousands. The planning for this has been going on for some months, and I have been pressing our planners to look at all the options, to make sure we do not ask a single extra soldier to remain in Iraq longer than is necessary.
In the early press reports, rather less attention has been paid the last sentence of the paragraph:
In the end, of course, it must depend on conditions on the ground - including the level of threat and the capacity of the Iraqis to deal with it - and the final decision will be down to our commanders.
That could be interpreted to mean that UK forces will will stay in Iraq however long it takes to do the job, in other words, until the most troublesome provinces - Maysan and Basra - can be handed over to the Iraqis. Especially if Iran starts stirring up the Basra area, that could require reinforcements from more peaceful provinces and, inevitably, take longer than a few months. In any event, it is likely to require a longer time-scale than the Foreign Office's previously stated view of a few months. If the government adheres to its stated policy imperatives, it could be a little too early to talk about large scale withdrawals as anything other than an ambition.

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