Within the next week – or so we are told – the Prime Minister will be delivering a statement of firm intent about the future of our troops in Iraq. The ground has been prepared, the journalists invited out to see the security progress made in Basra. Interviews have been conducted with the soldiers on the ground and the generals up above. The time has come to declare victory and start withdrawal
Not that Gordon Brown can be expected to use the language of exit, of course. He might like to. Indeed, he wanted to when he took over last year. But the US put a stop to that. The UK may feel pretty divorced from US policy in Iraq, and even from the "surge" (the Americans had to come down to Basra themselves when they wanted to extend the surge to the south), but we are still partners in this venture and must obey the imperatives of US policy towards drawing down troops.
But there is enough good news coming out of Basra and the training of Iraqi forces to claim that the troop reduction postponed at US request will be able to go ahead at the end of this year and that, over the following year or so, we will be able to pull out most of our forces. Not a retreat, you understand, not a final exit. But it will be cast as a recognition of what Iraqi forces can now do. And it will be accompanied by a long-term commitment to help the Iraqis with training and civil reconstruction. We will go in force, but remain in spirit.
And why not? One of the bugbears of any rational debate on Iraq (or, for that matter, Afghanistan) is the way that everything always has to be distorted by the question of whether the war has been a success or not. Opponents of the war are no more right to wish it go all wrong – and thus constantly play up the negatives – than proponents are to proclaim the undoubted improvement in security in Iraq as justification for the invasion and occupation.
After all the sufferings that we have visited on the population of Iraq, no one in their right mind could want the Iraqis to suffer more just to prove how wrong the occupation is. And no one in their right mind could think that the security improvements, however welcome, can block out all the suffering caused by such an ill-conceived occupation, or think that a reduction in deaths by violence is proof of anything other than a reduction in violent activity.
It doesn't tell you anything about whether Iraq can prosper as a secular country, whether it can recover from war, or what will happen once the US and the UK start pulling down troop numbers. Indeed it doesn't even tell you whether Iraq can hold together as a single nation, or whether the reduction in violence doesn't partly reflect a pause before the real struggle for dominance gets under way once the troops are gone.
Which is precisely the point. Right from the beginning of this enterprise, none of the invading powers has ever taken any interest in the Iraqis themselves or their interests. True, their name has been called on to give moral colour to all the baser mix of motives that lay behind Washington's initial decision to invade and London's decision to support it. Nor, in ordering the occupation, were their views ever taken into account. If they had been, the last five years might have been rather more fruitful.
So now with the discussion of the surge. It's all to do with how we look at ourselves. What it means for the Iraqis themselves is just taken for granted. In John Humphrys' series of reports for the Today programme yesterday, it was as if the Iraqis didn't exist except as extras saying how nice it was to have a bit of peace and quiet for a change.
The Iraqis still don't matter in this debate. Having brought them total insecurity for five years, we now think reducing the level of that insecurity answers all their problems – of unemployment, emigration, ethnic violence and internecine struggles for power in the vacuum we have created.
Over the coming months, the Iraqis are going to have to decide the basis for new elections, the form and division of oil revenues, the question of regional security and the role of Iran, and the relationship between different electoral interests, quite aside from the thorny questions of policing, the judiciary and religious law.
In all these questions, we are as much part of the problem as the solution. We can help with money, we should certainly be helping more with the refugee problem, and we may be able to help with expertise, but anything that smacks of control or ownership is simply unacceptable to the Iraqis.Which is why Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now says that the the next best move for the foreign invaders would be a clearly-defined timetable for departure.
We should give him what he wants. Forget all the pretensions of achievement, the only proper statement from Gordon Brown next week is the honest one. We are on our way out not because of the situation in Iraq but because opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the public, here as in the US, have concluded that the whole Iraqi venture was a dreadful error. And most Iraqis would seem to agree. The rest is verbiage.Reuse content