British Troop Drawdown Rationale And Risks

The Bush administration is spinning as good news the British decision to reduce its presence in the southern Iraqi city of Basra by at least 1,500 troops. By this perspective, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision reflects an improvement of the security situation in at least one Iraqi city and may provide a model for other parts of the country.

Indeed, the British decision to reduce its troop presence in Basra is understandable and probably acceptable at one level. Basra, an overwhelmingly Shia city, does not face the sectarian struggles Baghdad and other parts of central and northern Iraq have wrestled with over the last year. And it is further removed from the tactical sanctuaries and car bomb factories and operational headquarters of al Qaeda in Iraq, making it less prone to suffer from terrorist strikes.

To be sure, there are still risks for Basra in this decision. That city and its environs have faced serious periods of warfare among various contending Shia militias in recent years. Some militias are more closely affiliated with Iran, meaning Tehran may sense more of an opportunity now to promote extremist groups that are friendlier to its interests. And any increase in chaos, due to such intermilitia strife or to simple criminality, could slow efforts to make Basra an example for the rest of the country — not to mention efforts to improve oil production and transportation in and around southern Iraq, something crucial to the entire country’s economy.

Overall, however, I believe the local risks can be tolerated. If the rest of Iraq could have Basra’s problems, we would all be better off. And on balance British troops have made a notable contribution.

But on balance the British decision is bad news. We need more help in Iraq, not less. The British troop drawdown works against the overall thrust of the surge strategy. It is not a fatal problem for the coalition, to be sure. But it is surely not good news.

The overall Iraq mission really needs more troops in and around Baghdad — the city Tony Blair has just rightly said is crucial to the whole country’s well-being. The fact the United States is adding 17,000 troops to its presence in Baghdad, consistent with the counterinsurgency strategy favored by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, was determined by available American force levels. It is not truly an adequate number. As such, U.S. troops could certainly use help from NATO’s most accomplished military in counterinsurgency and stabilization missions, the U.K. armed forces.

While British forces are certainly strained in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, their proportional contribution to key allied military missions (adjusting for the two countries’ relative populations) is less than half that of the United States. The real reason British troops are going home is not, first and foremost, because of excessive military strain. It is because British politics demand it.

This news will not be welcome in the United States, and will not help Mr. Bush. Of course, it also needs to be put in perspective. Americans have long known they are getting only minimal help with this war, and have long wrestled with the fact it is not popular abroad. At this point, however, Americans are also pragmatic. They know the British presence, while important, is not huge to begin with.

And they also know we are in Iraq not because we want to be, not because we relish it, not because it is a well-received mission internationally, but rather because at this point we must find some way to salvage a minimal level of stability in Iraq (if at all possible) for Iraqis’ good and our own strategic interests. The British decision will not change this basic reality.

Clearly, the main reason British troops are going home rather than to Baghdad has to do with British domestic politics more than any military or strategic rationale. While understandable at one level, and hardly the end of the world, it is also too bad given what it means for the burden faced by American troops — and the still-mediocre prospects for success of the overall mission in Iraq.