We cant defeat terrorism without unity
By Con Coughlin | August 21, 2007
It's not the constant barrage of rockets raining down on their heavily fortified compound in Basra that is sapping the morale of British troops. It is the seemingly endless salvos of invective that are being directed at them on an almost daily basis from across the Atlantic by America's top brass.
It has been a long time since the reputation of the British military has taken such a severe battering from what, after all, is supposed to be its closest ally. British and American officers, the majority of whom have trained and risen through the ranks together on Nato exercises, often indulge in the banter that goes with intense professional rivalry.
While having a grudging respect for the British Army's professionalism and dedication to duty, American officers cannot help themselves when it comes to ribbing their British counterparts about having to rely so heavily on superior American firepower and resources to conduct their operations.
The British, for their part, question the Americans' gung-ho, shoot first, ask questions later attitude, while being deeply envious of the fact that, when it comes to procuring equipment, they get whatever they need - and in abundance.
If - as seems increasingly likely - British troops do withdraw, it will be the Americans who provide covering fire for the retreating convoys.
But the irreverent tone of the exchanges has changed dramatically since the Bush administration's mounting frustration with what it regards as the British military's failure in Basra has erupted into the open.
It started soon after Gordon Brown had his first awkward official encounter with President George W. Bush at Camp David in July, when the Prime Minister made it clear that a British decision to withdraw its military presence from Iraq would be taken at a time of London's choosing, not Washington's.
Almost immediately, anonymous American intelligence officials started briefing to the effect that the British had been defeated in the south, and that the 500 British troops based at Saddam Hussein's old palace in the centre of Basra were "surrounded like cowboys and Indians".
The sniping has continued ever since, with a succession of senior American generals providing damning indictments of the failure of British military policy in Iraq's second city.
It reached a crescendo at the weekend when General Jack Keane, the mastermind behind the Americans' surge strategy in Iraq and a close confidant both of US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, gave a damning assessment of the current value of Britain's contribution to subduing Iraq's lawless militias.
"It is disappointing and frustrating to see a situation in Basra that was once working pretty well, now coming apart," said Gen Keane in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph. "The situation there has been getting worse for some time."
The fact that so senior a figure in the Bush administration is prepared publicly to criticise the effectiveness of British forces in Basra is a graphic indication of how strained relations have become between the countries which were in the vanguard of the military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
To an extent, the British have only themselves to blame for this sorry impasse.
For far too long senior commanders encouraged the view that the British Army, with its long experience of peace-keeping operations in Northern Ireland, had done a better job than the trigger-happy Americans in restoring law and order to the four Iraqi provinces they administered, following Saddam's overthrow.
Mr Brown himself appeared to reiterate this view at Camp David when he boasted, at the joint press conference with Mr Bush, that Britain had successfully handed over three provinces to Iraqi control and intended to hand over Basra itself - the fourth - by the end of the year.
The clear impression Mr Brown gave Washington was that, once Basra was safely handed over to the Iraqis, the British mission was effectively complete, and London could give serious consideration to withdrawing its troops.
The Americans were furious, not least because the security situation in southern Iraq was hardly anything to boast about, and because the timing of Mr Brown's comments could not have been made at a more inappropriate time, just as Mr Bush's much-vaunted military "surge" of extra troops was beginning to pay dividends in curbing the murderous activities of Iraq's various insurgent groups.
Since the extra 30,000 American troops Mr Bush committed to Iraq at the start of the year became fully operational in mid-June the number of monthly civilian casualties has halved and General David Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq, is expected to give an upbeat assessment of the military campaign when he makes his eagerly awaited report on the effects of the surge to Congress next month.
It is difficult to exaggerate the delirious effect one piece of good news will have on the beleaguered Bush administration, which would be able to claim that, after four long years of struggle and sacrifice, America was finally gaining the upper hand in Iraq.
By comparison, the British garrison in Basra, which for so long lorded it over its American coalition partners as Iraq's lone success story, finds itself at its most beleaguered, with an estimated 450 rockets being fired at the British airbase on the outskirts of Basra in the past three months alone.
While British commanders on the ground bitterly resent suggestions that their mission has failed - they point out that Basra, unlike the rest of the country, has adequate supplies of electricity and water - there is a growing belief among American commanders that the British have become casualty-averse and are only doing the bare minimum in terms of maintaining a military presence on the streets of Basra.
After already suffering more fatalities this year than during the whole of 2003, the year the Iraq war was launched, this is understandable, particularly as the new British government is itself sensitive to any suggestion that it supports keeping a British presence in Iraq a day longer than is necessary.
Nor is it any secret that Mr Brown desperately needs to free up the troops currently serving in Iraq to reinforce the British mission in Afghanistan.
Even so, the ugly spat that has broken out between the American and British military establishments over precisely what has been achieved in Basra does not bode well for the wider campaign against Islamic terrorism.
If the two most important allies in the war on terror cannot agree among themselves over tactics, the long-term chances of the military campaign achieving its ultimate objectives get slimmer by the day.