Three years ago, a brutal insurgent attack on a British outpost in southern Iraq set into motion a chain of events that would result in America’s biggest ally in the Iraq war withdrawing from the country, even as more U.S. troops “surged” in. Is the same dynamic at work in Afghanistan, where 9,000 Brits represent the second-biggest coalition contingent, after the U.S.? That’s the subject of my latest piece forWorld Politics Review
The 2006 rocket and mortar attack on Camp Abu Naji in Iraq convinced the British Army that it would be better off without small bases — “removing the irritant,” one officer called it. Besides, popular opinion back home was decidedly against the war, which eventually claimed nearly 200 British lives. So mobile patrols replaced outposts, and the Brits steadily withdrew to fewer and bigger bases. At the same time, the American “surge” saw thousands of extra U.S. troops dispersing into small, urban outposts, in order to protect the local population. The American strategy was the exact opposite of the Brits’.
By 2008, the British were essentially isolated at a single base outside Basra. When fighting flared between Iraqi soldiers and insurgents in Basra that spring, the British mostly remained inside their walls, while U.S. troops raced south to reinforce the Iraqis.
The same process seems to be playing out in Afghanistan. Last week, British fatalities in the eight-year-old Afghanistan war passed 200. A recent poll showed some 60 percent of Britons oppose the war. And as more U.S. troops pour into the country, the British are steadily handing over their patrol bases to U.S. Marines, pictured. Ministry of Defeat author Richard North describes a situation “where one can imagine that the force is concentrated … before retreating entirely to barracks and thence onto the ramps for the final airlift which will take them back home.