There is no risk of mission creep in Iraq, for Britain at least. This is worth saying as speculation mounts in the media each time even a handful more troops are deployed there. As a Mirror headline put it, “Fears UK could be dragged into war against ISIS as more troops sent to Iraq.”
There is, though, no risk of Britain being “dragged into war.” The Britain of today, its imperial vestiges shed, has neither the political leadership, popular will nor military capability to expand operations in Iraq, even if it wanted to. As one adviser currently stationed in the Baghdad Green Zone put it to me, even after the latest deployment of 125 more troops last week, “Cameron is not in Iraq.”
For the sensible amongst us, this should produce a sigh of relief. A Britain which once distributed death in its millions through an all too often savage global empire has subsided into impotence; it’s no longer a threat to the world. After the Second World War, Britain transitioned neatly into being a useful idiot for the heirs to its global empire, American “exceptionalists” in Washington, who believed that the world is theirs thanks to their own perverse quasi-religious political ideologies. Now, as Cameron faces increasingly pointed calls from Washington to increase defence spending, he is refusing point blank to commit. Britain’s economy might still be strong, but its international punch is near zero.
Take our latest war in Afghanistan, for example. The Taliban were entirely correct to declare victory against British troops last December. Lightly equipped but tactically superb Taliban fighters thrashed us over thirteen long years that cost the British taxpayer a reported £40 billion. More importantly, the war also cost the lives of 453 British soldiers, while 247 lost limbs and a further 2,600 were wounded in other ways. Just as importantly, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians — brothers, mothers, sons, sisters and fathers —continue to mourn the tragic losses of their loved ones, all killed unnecessarily.
Afghanistan is now ravaged by record opium harvests, corruption and gang crime. Half of its children still face chronic malnutrition. GDP per capita rides at around $2,000, a twentieth of the same measure in Britain.
There was no “Victory Afghanistan” parade on the streets of London in December, when the war ended in a historic puddle of mediocrity. Military parades in Afghanistan by the departing formations of British troops were miserly in scope. Instead, a quietly organised and under-publicised “UK-Afghanistan” conference, held in a nondescript corner of Whitehall shortly after British troops completed their withdrawal, was the “celebration” of the end of our defeat.
The agenda at the deliberately and extremely dully monikered “UK-Afghanistan Conference” didn’t mention “victory” in the slightest. Instead, the British government focused on “a call for shared responsibility”, a polite way of saying “Sod off Afghanistan so that we can all forget about the hurt we’ve caused you.” The only long-lasting commitment Britain has made to the Afghan people is not to invade them again, by virtue of its own total embarrassment.
In Iraq today, another ordinary public are facing persecution, death, torture, rape and other war crimes perpetrated by a neo-Taliban group calling itself ISIS. The Iraqis have already faced invasion once — in 2003 — to get themselves out from under the nasty dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Before the US-led (and Britain-supported) invasion, the Iraqi people endured UN-imposed sanctions, labelled accurately as “The Biggest Crime You’ve Never Heard Of” by the left-wing Morning Star recently. These sanctions, support for which was orchestrated in the UN by Britain and the US, may have claimed the lives of five hundred thousand children.
Now, Iraqis are facing a fresh round of war. Luckily, it’s “only” Cruise missiles, drone strikes and bunker busters this time, and no “boots on the ground”, as war-weary Western leaders are quick to remind us. It’s still unclear whether being killed by a tank shell or rifle bullet is any different to having something explosive dropped on your head, but the semantics mean that the West can pretend that it hasn’t re-invaded Iraq, for the time being, at least.
As America co-ordinates this new incursion enthusiastically, a major “co-commitment” from Britain, as once may have been expected as part of the “Special Relationship”, is missing. It has been this way for years on Iraq. A recent Defence Select Committee report noted that Foreign Office commitment of resources to Iraq tailed off rapidly as early as 2007.
In 2009, Iraqi officers were unceremoniously un-invited from military training programmes at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. In 2011, the British Consulate General in Basra, where UK operations were based, was shut down. Defence and development officials withdrew almost entirely from the country. The select committee report complained that those few officials still posted in Iraq had poor language skills and were inexperienced. Britain abandoned Iraq just as soon as it was realised in Whitehall that it wasn’t worth hanging on.
Britain’s final withdrawal from the world stage has now begun, which makes mission creep in Iraq, or anywhere else, highly unlikely. Though nostalgic imperialists may weep, this is undoubtedly a positive development for the world, and for the British public. If the British government could go the full hog, and withdraw their puny military presence from Iraq entirely, so much the better.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.