>> Sunday, November 29, 2009
Some interesting bits in this Telegraph report from last week:
Top British commanders angrily described in the documents how they were not even told, let alone consulted, about major changes to US policy which had significant implications for them and their men.
When the Americans decided, in March 2004, to arrest a key lieutenant of the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr – an event that triggered an uprising throughout the British sector – “it was not co-ordinated with us and no-one [was] told that it was going to happen,” said the senior British field commander at the time, Brigadier Nick Carter.
“Had we known, we would at least have been able to prepare the ground.” Instead, “the consequence [was] that my whole area of operations went up in smoke… as a result of coalition operations that were outwith my control or knowledge and proved to be the single most awkward event of my tour.”
Among the most outspoken officers was Col Tanner, who served as chief of staff to General Stewart and of the entire British division during Operation Telic 3, from November 2003 to May 2004.
He said: “The whole system was appalling. We experienced real difficulty in dealing with American military and civilian organisations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way.
“I now realise that I am a European, not an American. We managed to get on better…with our European partners and at times with the Arabs than with the Americans. Europeans chat to each other, whereas dialogue is alien to the US military… dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians.
“If it isn’t on the PowerPoint slide, then it doesn’t happen.”
Broadly speaking, the pendulum of opinion on British participation in Iraq has swung back and forth during the conflict. At the beginning of the insurgency, the British had a (perhaps undeserved) reputation for capability in counter-insurgency conflicts. Senior British officers were not shy about criticizing what they believed to be the incompetence and cultural insensitivity of their American allies. However, as time went by there seemed to be little indication that the British Army was doing any better in its sectors than the Americans were doing in the rest of the country. During the Surge, it became widely believed that the British were having serious problems holding onto what should have been a relatively easy sector. The Iraqi Army offensive into Basra of spring 2008, supported by the United States, embarrassed a British contingent that had essentially conceded the city to a variety of militia groups.
And so these leaks can be read as after-action bitterness on the part of an organization that saw its reputation for counter-insurgency success crushed in Iraq. On the other hand, it's difficult to run competent COIN in one sector while the rest of the country is falling apart, and it's really difficult to do so when directives from HQ are contradictory, incompetent, or simply absent. We know that some of the critiques leveled by the British are undoubtedly true; Sanchez did a poor job of communicating with his own commanders, Americans did display arrogance and cultural insensitivity in the first years of the war, and so forth. The difficulties of communication (PowerPoint and all that) are to be expected when any two organizations work together, and probably shouldn't be blamed on either side. However, I'm not sure that these can fully explain the situation that held in Basra in early 2008.