A British Harbinger of American Defeat

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Don Rumsfeld is fond of historical analogies when pontificating about Iraq; he particularly favors comparisons to the Nazi era and the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II. Unfortunately, any historian will tell you that Rummy’s parallels are invariably false, even ludicrous. So we thought we’d give the beleaguered Pentagon warlord a more accurate and telling analogy to chew on.

Try this one, Don. Imagine that British occupation troops in, say, Hanover, had been forced to abandon a major base, under fire, and retreat into guerrilla operations in the Black Forest — in 1948, three years after the fall of the Nazi regime. And that as soon as the Brits made their undignified bug-out, the base had been devoured by looters while the local, Allies-backed authorities simply melted away and an extremist, virulently anti-Western militia moved into the power vacuum.

What would they have called that, Don? "Measurable progress on the road to democracy?" "Another achieved metric of our highly successful post-war plan?" Or would they have said, back in those more plain-spoken, Harry Truman days, that it was "a major defeat, a humiliating strategic reversal, foreshadowing a far greater disaster?"

You’d have to wait a long time — perhaps to the end of the "Long War" — to get a straight answer from Rumsfeld on that one, but this precise scenario, transposed from Lower Saxony to Maysan province, unfolded in Iraq last week, when British forces abandoned their base at Abu Naji and disappeared into the desert wastes and marshes along the Iranian border. The move was largely ignored by the American media, but the implications are enormous. The UK contingent of the invading coalition has always been the proverbial canary in the mine shaft: if they can’t make a go of things in what we’ve long been told is the "secure south," where friendly Shiites hold absolute sway, then the entire misbegotten Bush-Blair enterprise is well and truly FUBAR.

The Queen’s Royal Hussars, 1,200-strong, abruptly decamped from the three-year-old base last Thursday after taking constant mortar and missile fire for months from those same friendly Shiites. The move was touted as part of a long-planned, eventual turnover of security in the region to the Coalition-backed Iraqi central government, but there was just one problem: the Brits forgot to tell the Iraqis they were checking out early — and in a hurry.

"British forces evacuated the military headquarters without coordination with the Iraqi forces," Dhaffar Jabbar, spokesman for the Maysan governor, told Reuters on Thursday, as looters began moving into the camp in the wake of the British withdrawal. A unit of Iraqi government troops mutinied when told to keep order at the base — and instead attacked a military post of their own army. By Friday, the locals had torn the place to pieces, carting away more than $500,000 worth of equipment and fixtures that the British had left behind. After that initial, ineffectual show of force, the Iraqi "authorities" stepped aside and watched helplessly as the looters taunted them and cheered the "great victory" over the Western invaders.

The largely notional — if not fictional — power of the Baghdad central government simply vanished while the forces of hardline cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which already controls the local government, stepped forward to proclaim its triumph and guide the victory celebrations in the nearby provincial capital, Amarah. "This is the first city that has kicked out the occupier!" blared Sadr-supplied loudspeakers to streets filled with revelers, as the Washington Post noted in a solid — but deeply buried — story on the retreat.

British officials were understandably a bit sniffy about the humiliation. First, they denied there was any problem with the handover at all: the Iraqis had been notified (a whole 24 hours in advance, apparently), the exchange of authority was brisk and efficient, and the Iraqis had "secured the base," military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge insisted to AP. But when reports of the looting at Abu Naji began pouring in, British officers simply washed their hands of the nasty business. The camp was now "the property of the Maysan authorities and Iraqi Forces [are] in attendance," said Burbridge; therefore, Her Majesty’s military would have no more comment on the matter. In this casual — not to mention callous — dismissal of the chaos spawned in wake of the Hussars’ departure, we can see in miniature the philosophy now being writ large across the country in the Bush administration’s "Iraqization" policy: "We broke it; you fix it."

And where are Her Majesty’s Hussars now? Six hundred of them have dispersed into guerrilla bands in the wilderness, where they will survive on helicopter drops of supplies while they patrol the Iranian border. The ostensible reason behind this extraordinary operation is two-fold, said the doughty Burbridge: first, to find out if the Bush administration is up to its usual mendacious hijinks in claiming that the evildoers in Iran are fuelling the insurgency among the happily liberated Iraqi people; and second, to do a little more of that Iraqization window dressing before finally getting the hell out of Dodge completely, beginning sometime next year, according to reports across the UK media spectrum.

Of course, the good major didn’t put it quite like that. "The Americans believe there is an inflow of IEDs and weapons across the border with Iran," he told the Post. "Our first objective is to go and find out if that is the case. If that is true, we’ll be able to disrupt the flow." The second aim is training Iraqi border guards, he added.

Yes, a few hundred men wandering through the wasteland, dependent on air-dropped rations, will certainly be able to seal off an almost 300-mile border riddled with centuries-old smuggling routes. And modern-day Desert Rats rolling up in bristling Land Rovers to isolated villages where Shiite clans span both borders will no doubt be gathering a lot of actionable intelligence from the locals. And of course it is much easier to "train Iraqi border guards" on the fly in the wild than at a long-established base with full amenities and, er, training facilities.

In other words, the British move makes no sense — if you accept the official spin at face value, i.e., that it’s an act of careful deliberation aimed at furthering the Coalition’s stated goals of a free, secure, democratic Iraq. But those in the reality-based community will see it for what it is: a panicky, patchwork reaction to events and forces far beyond the Coalition’s intentions or control.

The other six hundred Hussars driven out of Abu Naji have retreated to the main British camp at Basra — another "safe" city that has now degenerated into a level of violence approaching the hellish chaos of Baghdad, the Independent reports. British troops who once walked the streets freely, lightly armed, wearing red berets instead of helmets, are now largely confined to the base, except for excursions to help Iraqi government forces in pitched battles against the Shiite militias that control the city. Harsh religious rule has long descended on the once freewheeling port city, again presaging the sectarian darkness now settling heavily across Baghdad.

Just a few months ago, the UK’s Ministry of Defence was churning out "good news" PR stories about life at Abu Naji — such as the whimsical tale of the troop’s pet goat, Ben, a lovable rogue always getting into scrapes with the regiment’s crusty sergeant major, even though the soldiers "knew he had a soft spot for Ben." The goat, we were told, had enjoyed visits from such distinguished guests as the Iraqi prime minister and the Duke of Kent. Now this supposed oasis of British power has been destroyed, with the Coalition-trained Iraqi troops meant to secure it either fading into the shadows or actively joining in with the rampaging crowds and extremist militias. Meanwhile, the Hussars are reducing to roaming the countryside on vague, pointless, impossible missions, killing time, killing people — and being killed — until the inevitable collapse of the whole shebang.

The goat is gone. The canary is dying. The surrender and sack of Abu Naji is a preview of what’s to come, on a much larger scale of death and chaos, as the bloodsoaked folly of Bush and Blair’s war howls toward its miserable end.

Chris Floyd [send him mail] is the author of Empire Burlesque: The Secret History of the Bush Regime.

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