A British commander's lessons from Iraq should give the West a Ukraine wake-up call

The US-led occupation is still handicapping western militaries in the face of the conflict in Eastern Europe

A British soldier keeps watch over a street in Al Zuber outside of the Iraqi port city of Basra in December 2003. EPA
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Gen Richard Shirreff, who commanded the British forces in Basra, recalls the low point of his tour of the city, when a stand-off occurred at the airport with local politicians on the province’s security committee as he pleaded with them to join him on a flight to Baghdad.

An officer who had cut his military teeth in late-1970s Belfast and would go on to serve as deputy supreme commander of Nato, Gen Shirreff had arrived in Basra in mid-2006 appalled at the challenge he faced to keep order. Three years after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, Basra had oil but roads were wrecked, and water and electricity were scarce. Sewage – or worse – filled its canals.

“A city of 1.3 million people was very much in the hands of a militia,” he recalled a few days before the 20th anniversary of the invasion.

Local representatives, some of whom were close to the militias, did not want to facilitate Gen Shirreff’s forthcoming offensive for the city. Then prime minister Nouri Al Maliki had final say on the plan. The Iraqi leader did veto the plan at the meeting, known as Operation Sinbad, named after a mythical son of the city, but he relented when it was presented as a reconstruction initiative.

The term occupation for the US-led coalition mission is loaded with the idea that a heavy military presence should keep control. Gen Shirreff found a different situation. “In Basra, the troop levels on the streets or the ability to put troops on the streets was minimal,” he told me. “Absolutely minimal. And the result was that every movement we made around the city became an operation in its own right and usually led to some sort of fighting. And it brought home the extent to which there was no clarity of strategy about what the British effort was all about.”

At the time, Britain was focused on transferring the city to local Iraqi control. To Gen Shirreff, this was impossible if the troops on the group could not grip its challenges.

While the junior partner in Iraq, the problems faced by the UK in Basra were the same issues facing the US elsewhere.

After witnessing the first demonstrations against the already beleaguered British administrators in the summer of 2003, it was clear to me during my time reporting there that without the basics, such as electricity and jobs, the city could not be won over. Iran was already a factor then. Briefings from the UK side put blame on problems posed by smuggling, especially of fuel for generators and the electricity plant. This very quickly escalated into an Iran-backed insurgency complete with a deadly arsenal of shaped-charge roadside bombs and kidnapping on an industrial scale.

When I visited again during a brief lull in 2008, Anas Mohammad, the owner of the Hamdan restaurant, did not so much blame the British as see the struggle for control of Basra as a three-sided issue: the frustration at the conditions, the Iranian-supported groups and the unwillingness of the locals to ensure their own security.

"I do not blame the situation in the last years on Britain,” Mr Mohammad said. “They could not fight the militias without Iraqi help, but now there are police and army everywhere and the British are helping them. With God's help, things will become better."

Two years earlier, Gen Shirreff had grappled with the problem at its height. On the ground, there was immense gap between the coalition’s stated goals and the army’s limited footprint.

“What was extraordinary was [even though] the British army had by 2006 been [in Iraq] for three years, but it really didn't have a feel for the ground,” he said. “Up against that was the Provincial Council, which was firmly in the grip of the militia. And they didn't want their heartland to be lost. So it all came to a head.”

The moment of greatest danger was when 1,000 British troops surrounded Basra’s Jamiat Police station and blew it up with a cargo of anti-tank mines in the last week of 2006.

Three years later, the British withdrew from Basra and despite some setbacks, the city has gradually got back on its feet. The current US National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, was last week asked about the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, in response to which he cited some recent events in the city. “Iraq hosted a climate conference in Basra and recently hosted, I was sure everybody knows this; they hosted the Gulf Cup soccer tournament,” Mr Kirby said.

The world has moved on, too, and the Ukraine conflict has recast thinking about future wars. Gen Shirreff looks back at the Iraq war as a failure of strategy that was a product of a divided government in London. These splits were replicated on the ground in Iraq. The wider US coalition was also dogged by division. “With the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, I wonder if it was ever possible [to succeed in Iraq],” he said. “I can’t see how any western coalition countries would have invested the effort required to establish a genuine lasting peace. It was seen as an occupation force. The coalition did not help itself by not thinking through what was required.”

As one of the first senior military figures to call for a rearmament of Nato, Gen Shirreff sees countries such as the UK having continuing responsibility to help fragile states, even as the focus shifts from the era of counter-insurgency to the threat of major state warfare.

He worries politicians took the wrong lessons when the priority was pulling back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our warfighting capability has effectively been dismantled,” he adds. “I think the Iraq and Afghan campaigns has led to a reluctance to use force on land.

“Major state-on-state warfare requires really significant formations of troops on the ground – and to resource them, at a minimum, putting ourselves on war economy footing.”

Published: March 19, 2023, 9:18 AM