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James Hanning: Our troops know Iraq. Let's listen to them

As British soldiers face a long haul in Afghanistan, politicians should look to Basra to avoid making the same mistakes

British troops can leave Basra with their heads held high, wrote Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, on Thursday. If he meant the men and women on the ground, indeed they can. In difficult circumstances, and at the cost of 178 lives, they have performed with customary dedication and professionalism. There have been serious lapses of discipline, notably at Camp Breadbasket, which have played into the hands of anti-war campaigners, but on balance they deserve credit. They also deserve immense gratitude from Britain's politicians, who deserve precious little credit. The barmy decision to go to war in the first place is, in one sense, water under the bridge. Tony Blair, at least, believed in the mission and faced the consequences. Those who knew it was wrong but lacked the balls to resign (eg Straw, Brown, if you believe the latter's unspoken protestations, which many won't) were more craven. They hoped the storm would blow over, leaving them able to tiptoe away from the scene of the crime soon after.

Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy. Where once there had been no link between Iraq and al-Qa'ida, Bush and Blair created one. Terrorists swarmed across Iraq's borders. Brown and Straw hadn't bargained for just how big a mistake they had made.

Confronted by this, what should the military have done? They performed their diplomatic role with distinction – helping Iraqis run an army, an economy, a police force. Barring the occasional clash of cultures, they did the hearts and minds work with credit. We were standing by our commitment to the Iraqi people.

Well, actually we weren't. Really standing by the Iraqi people would have meant seeing off the Shia militias, which would have meant more money, more soldiers and, initially at least, more British lives at risk. And we couldn't do that, could we? That would have involved fighting a war properly, and we all know this war wasn't our war: it was Tony Blair's. All very unfortunate, you understand. Blair's successors and the military top brass just wanted to get out ASAP, so together they opted for redefining the mission to fit the resources available, i.e. to fight a half-cock war. Our troops did their best to see off the Shia, while the politicians, holding their collective breath, unbolted the emergency exits.

The high point of this handwashing came just over a year ago. Britain lost 13 soldiers in a month, which was not what London's career-minded politicians wanted at all. Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, and others, said the presence of the Brits was the problem. If we weren't there, we wouldn't get killed. And the violence would stop. Brilliant! But it wasn't as simple as that. The British were being attacked because they – in the designated half-cock way – were the ones standing in the way of the lawlessness, and getting killed as a result. The status quo was unsustainable, so instead of doing the brave thing, we did a deal with the hoodlums. We would go back to the barracks on the outskirts of town and release 120 terrorists in return for the militias stopping killing us. The result was anarchy in central Basra. More importantly for Britain's politicians and generals, though, there were no bad headlines back in Britain.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki was furious. The British had sold the pass. Instead of keeping the peace, they had unleashed mayhem. He, and latterly the Americans, organised the Charge of the Knights, a massive Iraq-led and US-backed attack on Basra, which won the streets back from the militias, initially in defiance of British expectations.

No wonder Mr Maliki was angry, and still is. Sir Jock Stirrup (pictured) tells us the British withdrew to the airport to spur the Iraqi authorities in Basra into taking responsibility for their own affairs. It is true that the British soldier's frequent refrain has been that the Iraqis were only too keen to become dependent on the willing foreigner. But is he seriously saying that political face-saving and a get-out-quick attitude did not drive that policy? And what can he mean when he says: "There was no 'deal' that left Basra prey to militias"? Come, come, Sir Jock. Who wrote your article?

Iraq cannot be transformed overnight. We shouldn't have gone in, but having done so, had we committed greater numbers of men and resources, we could have done more. But that wouldn't have suited the "half-cock war" strategy preferred by our politicians. Did they ever hear the truth about our options, ie, that either we dramatically expand our forces there or get out? This Government does not admire those who tell truth unto power.

One well-kept secret is that a great many peaceable Iraqis were grateful for our presence, despite the need for the Charge of the Knights, and wished we could do more. Having helped build up law and order and the economy, we could have been made welcome, even by Iraq's politicians, and stayed in greater numbers to help overcome the chaos that could still be round the corner. As it is, this weekend our stoical soldiers are being humiliated in a political game that could still prevent them having any legal status in Iraq in 10 days' time.

Let us hope some of these lessons have been learnt, as we dig ourselves in for a long haul in Afghanistan. (The alternative is to do it half-cock again and then move aside to let the Americans do the job properly.) To believe that, you have to believe the military top brass are giving the politicians no choice but to learn those lessons. We live in hope.