If the United States is going to achieve a surge-style victory in Afghanistan, it cannot depend on what was once its most reliable ally for help. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and many U.S. commanders on the ground have expressed doubts that Britain has the political will to fight.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s move to withdraw British troops from southern Iraq and his demonstrated lack of will to deploy extra troops to Afghanistan in the numbers required by NATO commander Gen. John Craddock has the Americans believing that the PM has given in to a strong anti-war sentiment among Britons. Craddock specifically needs more British troops in the Afghan province of Helmland, where the Taliban are mounting a strong insurgency. Instead of the 3,000 additional British troops that were planned for, Brown so far has only committed to send 300.
Gen. Craddock told the Sunday Times:
“I don’t think 300 more, if you are talking about Helmand province, will do the trick. We’ve got to hold down there until we’ve got some Afghan street forces who can take over,” Craddock said.
The last time the U.S. put its trust in the British to secure a province was in Iraq, and the results there were extremely disappointing to the Americans. The primary British mission in Iraq was to keep the peace in the province of Basra.
But according to the Times’ Michael Portillo, Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair deferred to public opinion at home and quickly reduced British troop strength in an effort avoid casualties among their numbers. The result was that British forces lost control of Basra, leaving the local population at the mercy of insurgents and warring militias, including forces under the control of Moqtada al-Sadr.
An additional reason for the British failure, in Portillo’s opinion, was hubris:
In the early days in Iraq we bragged that our forces could deploy in berets and soft-sided vehicles while US forces roared through Baghdad in heavily armoured convoys. British leaders sneered at the Americans’ failure to win hearts and minds because of their lack of experience in counterinsurgency.
Pride has certainly come before a fall. British commanders underestimated both the enemy’s effectiveness and the Americans’ ability to adapt.
The difference, says Portillo was at the very top of the U.S. and British chains of command:
If a fair-minded account of the Iraq war is written, credit should go to President Bush for rejecting two years ago the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that called for force reductions. He defied conventional wisdom and ordered a troop surge instead. It has been an extraordinary success and, unlike Britain, the Americans will not withdraw in defeat. During debates in Washington, British forces’ ignominious withdrawal to barracks was cited to argue that the United States could not contemplate being humbled in a similar way. In the end Bush was not a quitter. Blair “cut and ran”.
The final humility for Britain in Iraq was that Iraqi forces, with American support, routed al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and chased them out of Basra. A justifiably proud Iraqi General Mohammed Jawad Humeidi boasted that his troops fought valiantly for a week before getting any help from the British. Gen. Humeidi added insult to injury with his observation that for five years the al-Sadr’s forces had “ruled Basra without being punished or held to account.”
In Portillo’s opinion, the unpopularity of the war in Britain is no excuse:
Our mission was to provide security for the Iraqi people, and in that the US and Maliki’s government have recently had marked success and we have failed. The fault does not lie with our fighters. They have been extremely brave and as effective as their orders and their equipment would allow.
It raises questions about the stamina of our nation and the resolve of our political class. It is an uncomfortable conclusion that Britain, with nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and the latest generation of fighter-bombers, is incapable of securing a medium-size conurbation. Making Basra safe was an essential part of the overall strategy; having committed ourselves to our allies we let them down.
Indeed, George Bush has paid the price of his resolve with low approval ratings and a media which not only criticizes him, but mocks him as well. But Bush, unlike Blair and Brown, has at least the spark of the spirit of Sir Winston Churchill in him. A distant blood relative of the great statesman who led Britain to victory in World War II, Bush inherited Churchill’s bulldog determination to prevail. In a return to his old school Harrow in 1941, Churchill said in a speech:
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
The lesson was not lost on Bush, who observed upon receiving (ironically as a gift from Blair) a bust of Churchill, “He is a constant reminder of what a great leader is like.”
Hated by the left for the war in Iraq and criticized by the right for his failure to reign in federal spending and the size of government, George W. Bush never faltered in his pursuit of victory in Iraq and the right of self-determination for its people.
And now, with Bush’s days in the White House winding down, America’s commanders in Afghanistan are surely wondering what sort of commitment they will have to work with from their incoming commander in chief. And with the need for more international troops to protect the local population while the Afghan army has a chance to be expanded and trained, as was the Army of Iraq, they worry that they may already know the answer to the question, “Do the British have the stomach for Afghanistan?”
Meanwhile, in the parish churchyard in Bladon, Oxfordshire, Sir Winston Churchill must surely be turning slowly in his grave. He died in 1965, but his bulldog spirit had lived on, first in Margaret Thatcher, then, after laying dormant for a while, in George W. Bush. As Sir Winston’s father was British and his mother an American, this is not remarkable. But when the president retires to Texas next month, that spirit must rest again until some other leader with Churchill’s great resolve arises. On which side of the Atlantic Ocean will it again be seen? Given the mood of the British, I believe that it will be reawakened in the home of the brave and the land of the free.