After the first honeymoon, security deteriorated. The conflict became politically toxic in Britain, and when the US skyrocketed in 2007, London had no appetite to do the same. Instead, British commanders signed a secret treaty with Shiite militias in which they exchanged the release of prisoners for the cessation of attacks on British bases.
This “shelter” fell apart in March 2008 when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki abruptly sent troops south. The British General Commander was on vacation in a ski resort and Maliki publicly cursed his deputy. US and Iraqi troops went into action while the British stayed at the airport late into the day.
The events in Basra cast a long shadow. Later in Kabul, a British officer asked General David Petraeus how long it would take the US to forget what had happened there. A generation? he asked. Petraeus’ answer was significant. “A little longer,” he said.
In spite of all its scale and resources, the US military did not “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the conflicts damaged the reputation of the British military with its most important ally.
What have been the key issues in the British Army’s experience and performance since 2001?
I see four interconnected areas. First, accountability. Almost every senior British military commander who has crossed Iraq and Afghanistan has been promoted, no matter how badly things went wrong in the field. In parallel, the UK implemented a novel system of probes for junior grievances on the battlefield, from legal proceedings allowed by the creeping reach of European human rights law to massive public investigations. (Some of these investigations were unfounded, but in other cases the army committed atrocities.)
The point is that Britain has allowed a “flood situation” to develop, in which excessive accountability is low and none is higher. This created moral hazard and meant that top commanders were encouraged to take bad action without taking action.
Second, the army needs to revise its approach to learning. While the institution has been able to take into account low-level tactical experiences, it has consistently suppressed initiatives aimed at determining what had gone wrong in a broader area of responsibility, either suppressed or problematically recorded. Throughout Iraq and the Afghan conflicts, avoidance of embarrassment for seniors was higher than a full post-operative wash-off.