Sunday, September 25, 2005

On the Remarkable Prescience of Steven Vincent

Steven Vincent's seminal piece in the NYTimes about the eroding situation in Basra, written mid-summer, is still available here.

Read it to discover why last week's debacle in Basra, between the Iraqi police and the British army was forseeable long in advance. As Steven Vincent did:
Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.

The results are apparent. At the city's university, for example, self-appointed monitors patrol the campuses, ensuring that women's attire and makeup are properly Islamic. "I'd like to throw them off the grounds, but who will do it?" a university administrator asked me. "Most of our police belong to the same religious parties as the monitors." ...

...[T]he British stand above the growing turmoil, refusing to challenge the Islamists' claim on the hearts and minds of police officers. This detachment angers many Basrans. "The British know what's happening but they are asleep, pretending they can simply establish security and leave behind democracy," said the police lieutenant who had told me of the assassinations. "Before such a government takes root here, we must experience a transformation of our minds."

In other words, real security reform requires psychological as well as physical training. Unless the British include in their security sector reform strategy some basic lessons in democratic principles, Basra risks falling further under the sway of Islamic extremists and their Western-trained police enforcers.
Many people believe that Vincent was killed only a week after he published this piece, by the Shi'ite militia controlled police hit-squad that he described.

The British have only belatedly come to a similar realization, at least in public, in response to the arrest of two undercover SAS soldiers, and the refusal of the Basra police to hand them over, countermanding an order from the Iraqi Interior Minister for their release. The arrest of these two soldiers came a day after the arrest of two leaders of the outlawed Mahdi army, the sectarian militia loyal to Muqtada al Sadr. As well as an explicit threat from this militia to retaliate. By the time the British soldiers were rescued, they were no longer in the police station, but in a house.

The SAS is a British specialist regiment trained in commando warfare and undercover operations.
After two years in which the British have prided themselves on ‘working with’ the Iraqi police, and ‘building them up’, it was necessary for the British army to attack and demolish a police station in Basra. For two years we have all been kidding ourselves that the British and the Iraqis have been working hand-in-glove to restore public confidence, in Basra, in the forces of law and order. This week the citizens of Basra saw British soldiers firing on the Iraqi police, crushing Iraqi police cars with their tank tracks, and destroying the very symbol and locus of civic authority.
As a result of the crisis, the British Ministry of Defence is moving "to scrap the Basra police and start again."
The dramatic events in Basra last week, when British troops attempted to rescue two SAS men from an Iraqi jail and were confronted by angry local police and protesters, have forced an urgent rethink.

There was a further setback yesterday in attempts to restore normal relations between the British military and Basra city officials when it emerged an Iraqi judge had ordered the arrest of the two special forces soldiers who sparked the incident. The original withdrawal plans foresaw a reduction in the British military presence in two of the four UK-controlled provinces in southern Iraq - Maysan and al-Muthanna - by the end of this year. The handover would have been completed next spring with the withdrawal from Basra and Dhi Qar and the departure of the last of Britain's 8,000-plus troops.

But the general decline in security, and the disclosure that many members of the Basra police force owe allegiances to rival militia leaders, has sent UK planning back to the drawing board.

MoD officials fear the only lasting solution to the infiltration may be the creation of a new military police force, uncontaminated by external influences. Creating the new force - which would wear combat uniforms and be trained in military tactics - could take over a year.
Unfortunately Britain seems to suffer from the same paralysis that the US often does. Wait for a crisis to strike, and once the situation has already imploded, then react and reorganize.

This need to re-establish the police force has forced Britain to put on hold plans to withdraw part of their troops early next year. And forced Geoffrey Hoon and Tony Blair to confess that they had not prepared adequately for the level of fanaticism which would arise in the wake of the freeing of Iraq from Saddam.

Now that the election is over, Tory leader Michael Howard appears to be reverting to making sensible comments on Iraq.
Michael Howard, the outgoing Tory leader, warned the Government against setting out a timetable for coalition withdrawal from Iraq.

"I think that would play into the hands of the insurgents and give them a kind of green light that after a period of time they would be able to take over," he said.

"I think that if we were to leave prematurely we would leave behind a country that would be in danger of becoming a real hotbed of international terrorism and that would be a disaster."
Niall Ferguson weighs in here.

Unsurprisingly, the Guardian appears to read the tea leaves in the exact opposite way, emphasizing that the British will pull troops out starting next May, despite Blair's protests that he won't be held to a timetable.


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