As it leaves Iraq, Britain looks warily to Afghanistan
British politicians called for an investigation into intelligence mistakes that led the country into the Iraq war.
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On Thursday, British Forces handed over their airbase to a US brigade, having completed their mission to train two Iraqi Army divisions. Almost all 4,000 British troops will leave Iraq by May 31, with 400 British servicemen remaining in Basra's port city of Umm Qasr to continue training Iraqi forces.
Now that the final chapter of the United Kingdom's time in Iraq has officially come to a close, many British citizens and government officials are reflecting on their involvement in the largely unpopular war and looking warily ahead at the escalating conflict in Afghanistan.
"The road to success has been long and, at times, painful," said Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, according to The Guardian newspaper. "As in any operation of this nature and complexity, things did not always develop as we might have expected. It is therefore critical that we, as an army and within defence as a whole, learn from our experiences in Iraq and implement those lessons for current and future operations."
Despite significant security improvements in Basra, many British newspapers highlighted the fact that, rather than handing the airbase over to Iraqi forces, an American brigade slightly larger than the outgoing British forces will take over the base.
Throughout the war, the UK has struggled with public disdain for the soldiers tasked with fighting the contentious war, as happened in the US during the Vietnam War. For soldiers preparing for a homecoming, the question of how they would be received by the public still loomed large.
"My grandmother took part in marches against the invasion. I had my own strong doubts. But we are soldiers; we follow our orders and all we can do is the best we can and not abuse our power. I think we have done some good in Basra, but I can fully understand the Iraqis not wanting foreign troops in their country," one British officer told The Independent.
The Times of London highlighted British Defense Secretary John Hutton's remarks, delivered at the handover ceremony, about the military's role in helping to pacify the southern region of Iraq. He also acknowledged what is regarded by many analysts as the British military's biggest failing in not stopping militias from infiltrating security forces, which created chaos throughout the city. A joint Iraqi-coalition operation helped return calm to the city last year, but Mr. Hutton said a "proper investigation" would be made into any potential missteps on behalf of the British military.
"Iraq's progress over the six years, no matter how uneven or uncertain it may have appeared at times, shows that their sacrifice has not been in vain," said Hutton in the Times.
Shortly after the handover and a memorial ceremony for the 179 British soldiers who died in Iraq, British politicians began calling for a full inquiry into the mistakes and faulty decisionmaking that led the UK into the war. Among other issues, the investigation will examine inaccurate intelligence that wrongly cited the presence of weapons of mass destruction, as well as whether the military properly equipped its forces, reports the Daily Telegraph.
"After years of foot dragging, I believe it is the time for the government to announce a proper Franks-style inquiry. Instead of starting in many months' time, it should start right now," said Tory leader David Cameron, according to the Telegraph, referencing the investigation by Lord Franks after the Falklands War in 1982. "There are vital lessons to learn and we need to learn them rapidly and the only justification for delay can, I'm afraid, be a political one."
While the UK grapples with whether their involvement in Iraq was necessary or misguided, an editorial in The Scotsman argues Britain's Labour Party is likely to bear the heaviest burden as a result of the conflict. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Labour Party member, aligned with President Bush at the onset of the war and is largely blamed for dragging the nation to war.
A political cartoon in The Guardian showed already mounting concerns that the nation is shifting its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal, however, reports that the UK may find it difficult to take on too great a role in Afghanistan, as its military is contracting in both size and budget. Since 1997, the number of personnel in the British military has been reduced by 20 percent to about 200,000, and military spending accounts for only 2.8 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, while it accounts for 5 percent of American GDP.
"Facing a dour economy and staggering government debt, the UK is widely expected to shrink its military power further still, despite criticism at home that the forces are so poorly funded they're ill-equipped for the roles they're asked to play," reports The Wall Street Journal. "Such cuts are sapping strength from US-backed military efforts in places like Afghanistan."