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Rewriting Basra

How did Britain's indecisive siege of Iraq's second city come to be seen as a brilliant military tactic?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

As British forces patrol an allegedly liberated Basra, their two-week stand-off on the outskirts of the city is being reinterpreted as a genius military tactic.

Before moving into central Basra on Sunday 6 April, British forces stayed in the suburbs for 12 days. Now, Max Hastings of the Daily Mail says this was the very ‘model of new war tactics’. ‘It is not a “softly, softly” approach to battle’, wrote Hastings, ‘but rather an impressively sophisticated “softly, toughly” one’ (1). According to UK prime minister Tony Blair, the Basra operation was a ‘great success’. ‘Anyone who has seen the joy on the faces of people in Basra knows that this was, indeed, a war of liberation’, says Blair (2).

Are they serious? It may have started just a couple of weeks ago, but already the siege of Basra is having its history rewritten. The two-week siege was a result of indecision, not sophistication. The city did not so much fall to British troops, as simply fall apart. And far from using brilliant military tactics, you could argue that, had British forces acted more decisively, civilian lives and infrastructure may have been spared.

Max Hastings describes the British siege as an ‘impressive demonstration of what can be achieved with limited forces, tightly-controlled use of firepower and intelligent command’. ‘It is the old cornered tiger principle’, says Hastings: ‘Don’t follow a dangerous animal into the undergrowth and force him to fight you, lure him out…’ (2). According to the UK Sun, the decision to ‘lay siege’ before moving into Basra was ‘brave’, and has since been vindicated (3)

The siege actually came about as a desperate response to the failure of the coalition’s plans for Basra. As part of the risk-averse military strategy for Iraq, Basra was supposed to fall easily, with ‘minimum risk’ to coalition forces and ‘little need’ to engage enemy troops. As one report put it on 25 March, as it was becoming clear that Basra might not be such a pushover: ‘Coalition commanders…had talked of the possibility of a negotiated surrender, and apparently believed that the city would then become a showcase for the liberation of Iraq.’ (4)

Having envisaged Basra falling through the magic of wishful thinking, coalition commanders were unprepared for the ‘pockets of resistance’ in the city. It wasn’t that the resistance was especially fierce. Reports varied from there being ‘40 or 50 Iraqi soldiers’ to ‘hundreds of irregular militia’ ruling the city with an iron fist to ‘al-Qaeda-linked terrorists’ doing their bit against the West (5). Rather, when the coalition’s strategy was to show their hand and wait for things to collapse or implode, just the existence of resistance must have been a shock

Both before the war and during the siege, discussions about Basra and its potential resistance revealed more about the coalition and its mindset than about events on the ground. The pre-war plans for Basra (city falls, residents cheer, whole war is vindicated) appear to have come about, less as a result of serious intelligence-gathering in southern Iraq, than as a consequence of the coalition forces’ desire to avoid risky battles.

Likewise, during the siege, British commanders’ speculation about what was lurking inside Basra wasn’t based on a clear analysis of the city’s residents and their movements, but on commanders’ own fears. On 24 March, a Reuters article headlined ‘Armed Iraqis stalking troops in south’ reported on British claims that southern Iraq was an especially dangerous place for their troops. Apparently, ‘Roaming bands of Iraqi soldiers are preying on invasion troops in southern Iraq while the bulk of the US-led forces pushes north towards Baghdad’ (6).

That is how the siege of Basra came about – not as a clever ‘cornered tiger’ tactic, but as a fallback position when the low-level, low-risk strategy for Basra looked increasingly unlikely. On 24 March, US forces abandoned Basra in favour of the rush for Baghdad, while British forces took up their position on the city’s outskirts, keen to avoid being drawn into ugly urban combat and unsure of what to do next.

Even during the two-week siege, British military officials continued to hope that the ‘Basra problem’ might resolve itself. British forces appeared to employ a ‘wait and see’ strategy for the city. According to one senior UK defence official, ‘Ideally we want the mayor of Basra to come out, have a cup of tea, and agree to hand over the city peacefully’ (7). One commander said the British military ‘had time on its side’, and could wait for the resistance positions ‘to fall’ (with the help of heavy bombardment from the sky, of course).

The two-week siege of Basra is now talked up as a clever strategy, but during the siege British forces were desperately trying to think up a new strategy. On 24 March, Group Captain Al Lockwood was asked what the British planned to do next, now that the majority of American forces had moved on and that British forces had retreated to the outskirts of Basra following a firefight the day before. ‘When we have a clear plan that will minimise risks to civilian infrastructure, the civilians themselves and of course our own troops, then we’ll execute it’, said Lockwood (8).

In their keenness to avoid launching an all-out assault to win central Basra, British forces employed two tactics during the siege – they moved into parts of Basra in small groups to launch attacks, before retreating again; and they called in American airpower to weaken resistance inside the city. Often, the British incursions into Basra seemed to be less strategic missions to win the city bit by bit, than attempts to make symbolic gestures of strength. In one operation, the British smashed two statues of Saddam in a pre-dawn raid, ‘to show the people…we will strike on any representative token of that regime’ (9).

Even the British forces’ final push into central Basra over the weekend wasn’t strictly speaking a final push. It seemed to come about more by chance than design. British commanders admit that it was only after learning that resistance inside Basra had ‘all but faded away’ that they decided to venture slightly further into the city. And only during this push, when they realised that the resistance was sporadic and paltry, did British commanders take the decision to move all the way to the centre of town.

As one report put it: ‘The original plan was to move into the suburbs to set up checkpoints. But there was little initial resistance and the decision was taken to press on into the heart of the city.’ (10) Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Blackman, commanding officer of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, describes the move into central Basra as follows: ‘We leaned on the door and it burst open….’ (11). This hardly sounds like the daring and concerted effort to ‘take Basra’ described in some reports.

One claim now being made about the British operation is that, by exercising patience and restraint, it spared lives. How can we know this? If British forces had moved into Basra in force on day one, they may have won the city much faster. Indeed, the Basra operation showed up some of the dangers of a risk-averse military approach. The city was fired on by American helicopter gunships (‘relentlessly’, according to the Washington Post), and the two-week siege of the city created more than its fair share of hunger and suffering. According to one relief organisation, the city was on ‘the verge of a humanitarian crisis’. For those on the receiving end, it seems, caution can be as deadly as conquest.

Basra was not really ‘taken’ by British forces; rather, it crumbled. The resistance, however strong or weak it may have been, simply faded away (helped by the fact that British forces left the northern route out of the city open, and made Arabic announcements via loudspeakers encouraging resistance fighters to flee). Yet now, the bumbling siege of Basra and the accidental push into the city centre are hailed as works of genius. It’s one thing for messy war ops to be rewritten in the history books years after the event – but to be rewritten in a matter of weeks…?

The hollow nature of Britain’s ‘victory’ in Basra is reflected in the general chaos and widespread looting that followed it. If the city had been won, decisively, with the routing of the old regime and the implementation of some kind of stability, it is doubtful that there would be such a disagree of disorder. But as a consequence of Britain’s indecisive stand-off and its chance takeover, confusion reigns supreme in Basra now.

In claiming Basra as a great success, British forces have snatched ‘victory’ from the jaws of indecision.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Hollow victory in the war that never was, by Mick Hume

The road to Basra, by Brendan O’Neill

Power trips, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘Softly, toughly’, Max Hastings, Daily Mail, 7 April 2003

(2) Bush and Blair declare UN will have vital role, New Zealand Herald, 9 April 2003

(3) ‘Welcome to Basra’, Sun, 7 April 2003

(4) ‘Desert rats retreat under fire from Basra’, Ian Cobain and Philip Webster, The Times (London), 25 March 2003

(5) See The road to Basra, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) ‘Armed Iraqis stalking troops in south’, Reuters, 24 March 2003

(7) ‘Pockets of resistance frustrate advance of coalition’, Michael Evans, The Times (London), 24 March 2003

(8) British declare Basra military target, Washington Post, 25 March 2003

(9) New peril from Iraq, Sacromento Bee, 30 March 2003

(10) Two key cities taken, Melbourne Herald Sun, 8 April 2003

(11) Two key cities taken, Melbourne Herald Sun, 8 April 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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