The simple Basra truth: our troops must get out quickly

By Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 12/08/07):

Gordon Brown is receiving lessons in what it is like to be American. Whatever you think of our allies in Washington, they bear a burden for the world that lesser powers like Britain rarely experience fully. For example, they have attracted global opprobrium for locking up without trial in Guantanamo Bay some very dangerous men who might otherwise wreak mayhem in our cities. Also, Americans have for years had to watch mournfully as the star-spangled coffins returned home.

Now our government has agreed to take five former UK residents from Guantanamo. It must wrestle with the no-win problem of how to handle men against whom it may be impossible to bring a charge, but who could nonetheless be dangerous.

Also, the focus has now shifted from the rate of attrition among American servicemen to the slaughter of British soldiers in southern Iraq. It may, after all, be British public opinion rather than American that cannot stand the flow of body bags. Brown, who has emerged enhanced by his handling of thwarted terror plots, floods and foot and mouth disease, may yet be pinioned by the loss of young British lives in Basra.

After meeting President George W Bush two weeks ago, the prime minister described their talks as “full and frank”, suggesting that despite the president’s warm words of welcome, they had disagreed. The briefing given to The Washington Post last week by a senior US intelligence official may hold the key to how their private conversation went. He said: “The British have basically been defeated in the south [of Iraq].” Also, a former British defence official commented that London’s push to withdraw forces had been criticised “at the highest levels” in Washington.

Perhaps it was in that context that Brown offered to take the small number of Guantanamo detainees. The Americans would certainly like other nations to share the problem. It helps to shift the debate from an attack on American violations of human rights to a discussion of how men trained in terror can be handled anywhere in the globe by democracies who value the rule of law.

America’s answer to the dilemma has horrified the world and lost the democracies important moral high ground. The United States has chosen to bypass all the protections offered by the constitution by keeping the detainees offshore.

By contrast, what has occurred in Britain is more in keeping with what you would expect in a democracy, but still messy. The detention without trial of a dozen men in Belmarsh prison was found, in House of Lords decisions, to be unlawful. But after suspects were placed under a control order in their homes, seven out of 17 absconded. They include Lamine and Ibrahim Adam, brothers of Anthony Garcia who was convicted for his part in the fertiliser bomb plot.

Whether even control orders are legal has yet to be decided. The Lords must rule after six Iraqis won a Court of Appeal declaration that their orders were incompatible with article 5 of the European convention on human rights. Tony McNulty, a Home Office minister, has said that the control order system might be inappropriate and commented that “it may be that we have not thought in rigorous terms on how we capture these individuals under the law”.

In fact, it has been thought about long and hard. Defenders of civil liberties urge that suspects be brought to court and ministers retort either that a trial might betray intelligence sources, or that a prosecution would not be successful. Brown’s inclination to allow the use in court of evidence from intercepted conversations may help with the first point. But the broader problem is unlikely to vanish. Parliament and the courts are right to decry detention, whether in prison or at home, as a breach of Magna Carta. But ministers know that they will be blamed if these men go free and are later involved in terror at home or abroad.

When in 2004 and 2005 nine Guantanamo detainees were returned to Britain, they were released. The authorities may take a different attitude to the five who are soon to arrive. But given the precarious state of Britain’s control order regime, the Americans cannot have much confidence that the men will remain captive. Brown was able to sound tough on new powers to detain terror suspects for longer before being released or charged. But the issue of how to handle those who are unlikely ever to be charged remains intractable and Brown is as sensitive to the political risks as Tony Blair was.

However, Brown has chosen, or felt obliged, to import the Guantanamo dilemma to the UK. So unwelcome a problem must be part of the price for a quick British exit from Iraq.

The British situation there is evidently worsening fast. This year 41 soldiers have died, with four lost in three days last week. The US intelligence official described the British in the Basra Palace base as being “surrounded like cowboys and Indians”. A Washington think tank described the British legacy in southern Iraq as “political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism [and] criminal mafias”.

There is apparently some feeling in Washington that it will be left to the United States to clean up the mess. It is as likely that what has happened to the British in Basra is a foretaste of what the allies — the Americans included — may leave behind throughout Iraq.

The grim reality for Brown is that as the British drawdown proceeds, the dangers for our soldiers multiply. The mission also becomes more pointless and morale weakens. That is in marked contrast to, say, Northern Ireland where the army has just completed its long and successful deployment. There the casualty rate fell steadily as commanders adapted their tactics and thwarted the IRA. In Basra the death toll is rising as the mission shrinks — the army will soon be confined to Basra air base alone. It is the enemy that is becoming more sophisticated, with British troops feeling increasingly that they are actually fighting Iran.

Talking to British soldiers it is astonishing how positive they have felt about their tasks until now. But it is harder to be upbeat today when almost the only point of being in Basra is to delay a little longer the moment of leaving. Lack of support on the home front is also becoming an issue. Servicemen on home leave are sometimes abused in pubs for being part of the Iraq war. The death of a valued comrade often commands only a column inch in a newspaper, while whole pages are devoted to celebrity trivia. Britain seems determined to cold-shoulder the war. The casualty figures are intensifying the country’s disgust.

Brown — and David Cameron, too— should do more to increase the nation’s respect for the armed forces. If the prime minister is determined to withdraw them fast from Iraq, he will be in a stronger position to call on Britain to recognise what they have done and what they have sacrificed. Unless public attitudes to the military improve, Iraq may permanently damage the relationship between civilian and soldier.

Brown assured Bush that Britain would not embarrass America by rushing away from Basra. He would await the verdict of his generals, just as the president awaits the report from General Petraeus on what the troop surge in Baghdad has achieved. But unless our commanders can stanch the flow of UK blood, which seems unlikely, Britain’s decision will revert from a military to a political one. If the death toll of recent days continues, the allies’ orderly timetable will be confounded.

British forces in Iraq have done what they can in a deteriorating situation. When first deployed to Basra they tried to win hearts and minds, to display soft power, to be evenhanded and to defend peaceable Iraqi people. As violence has increased they have fought the bad guys hard and have died with courage. It is a mission of which they can be proud.

They can do no more now. If, while London and Washington finesse the “optics” of British withdrawal, our soldiers go on dying, it will be a disgrace. Brown cannot afford it.