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IRAQ: The Fatal Divide at the Heart of the Coalition

US security contractors and regular US soldiers who are evangelical Christians," writes John Geddes, the ex-SAS soldier "see themselves in a crusade against the Muslim hordes. In my view, they're not much different to the Iraqi militiamen and foreign fighters who see themselves at the heart of a jihad against the Christian crusaders."

by Max HastingsThe Telegraph
March 12th, 2006

Here is a quote from a British security contractor in Iraq about his American counterparts: "I hate those bastards more than the scumbag insurgents." A British colonel recently returned from a tour in the country said that, in our next war, he would sooner fight alongside the Russians than the US.

This is another quote from a British security contractor: "The American way is not my way. I don't mind a scrap but I draw the line at mooning the enemy and inviting him to shoot at my backside, and that's virtually what the Yanks are doing. I'm also convinced that many Americans hate the Iraqis, not just the insurgents but all Iraqis… What a mess."

Those last lines are taken from a rather good new book about the experience of Iraq today, Highway To Hell, written by an ex-SAS man who signs himself John Geddes. My point in all the above, is to show that Ben Griffin, the former SAS soldier who vents his dismay about what is happening to Iraq in today's Sunday Telegraph, is not a lone voice.

There is a widespread belief in both British special forces and line regiments that American tactics are heavy-handed and counter-productive; that firepower continues to be used as a substitute for a "hearts and minds" policy; that local people will never be persuaded to support Coalition forces unless Americans, in uniform and out, treat ordinary Iraqis vastly better than they do today.

Historical parallels should be cited cautiously. But it is impossible to study any informed critique - including some written by Americans - of operations in Iraq without recalling the Vietnam debacle. There, too, most Americans treated ordinary Vietnamese with contempt, whatever their political allegiance. American convoys forced Vietnamese vehicles off the road, killed peasant livestock with impunity, brought down fire on suspected enemy positions heedless of civilians in the target zone, and treated even educated, professional Vietnamese with condescension.

All this is being repeated in Iraq, with predictable and identical consequences. Iraqis feel a bitter resentment towards foreign troops, whom few would call liberators without irony. US special forces are perceived as behaving, if anything, worse than line combat units because they have a wider and more aggressive mandate, an intensely macho ethos, and less accountability.

"I've had conversations with many [US security contractors] and regular US soldiers who are evangelical Christians," writes John Geddes, the ex-SAS soldier quoted above, "who see themselves in a crusade against the Muslim hordes. In my view, they're not much different to the Iraqi militiamen and foreign fighters who see themselves at the heart of a jihad against the Christian crusaders."

In fairness, we should acknowledge that when Britain was "top nation" in the last days of empire, the British Army was sometimes less good at "hearts and minds" than we delude ourselves. Things happened in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurgency, in Cyprus, Aden and elsewhere that would today result in an orgy of war crimes trials.

Counter-insurgency experts and many special forces officers of all nationalities would assert that it is impossible to fight a campaign of the kind being waged in Iraq with completely clean hands. The enemy strives to goad or deceive Coalition forces into actions that will harm innocents. In Northern Ireland, the British Army learned over 30 years how hard it is to fight insurgents without alienating the civil population.

In Iraq, the problem is multiplied many times by the gulf of language and culture, and by the fact that the declared allied aims are probably unattainable. With wholly inadequate forces on the ground, the Americans and British are striving to hold the country together as a unitary state; to restore economic and social activity; and to enable local forces to provide security against criminality as well as terrorism. All this, in place where historically law and order has been enforced exclusively by terror, torture and summary execution.

There is a further dimension, even more fundamental. From the day the first American forces crossed the border into Iraq in 2003, neither they nor their government have resolved the issue of whether they are there to serve Iraqi interests, or those of the United States. Whatever Washington may say, most Americans think they are working for their own country.

From President Bush downwards, the doctrine has been propagated that every insurgent engaged and killed in Iraq is one less to assault the US homeland. "Force protection" - the welfare of those wearing US uniforms - is the governing factor in any tactical situation. Only a tiny handful of American servicemen have been disciplined, far less put on trial, for excesses in combat that have cost civilian lives.

All this makes many British servicemen feel as uncomfortable as Ben Griffin. Because there is only around one British soldier in Iraq for every 20 Americans, it is hardly surprising that our influence on policy and tactics is small. We have the worst of both worlds: responsibility in the eyes of international opinion, but precious little power to determine events.

It is often justly said that the US army respects the British, and in particular our special forces. But mass matters, and we do not have it. There is no way of getting around this. If Britain, with its tiny armed forces, chooses to engage alongside the US in Iraq or anywhere else, we should never again delude ourselves - as have so many British prime ministers - that the mere fact of throwing a few chips on the table will enable us to call the turn of the wheel.

Reading all that I have written above, I dislike it because British bleating about our position vis a vis the United States sounds so unattractive. There is a case for putting up and shutting up, acknowledging that we are in Iraq whether we like it or not, and should simply persevere.

Yet are the things true, said by people like Ben Griffin and John Geddes? The answer is almost certainly "Yes". They are what make it so hard to be optimistic about Iraq and what our forces are trying to do there, hanging on to American coat tails.





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