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Richard North: Another half-hearted war, another defeat

Calling the British Army's withdrawal from Sangin a 'redeployment' betrays a lack of political will reminiscent of Iraq

Is Sangin another Basra? Will our troops end up besieged, as they did in Basra air base, in Iraq, before withdrawing and leaving the streets to the murderous mullahs and the Mahdi Army? The Government insists that the British troop withdrawal from Sangin, in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, and replacement by United States marines is a tactical move, not a reflection of the British failure to pacify the area.

In fact, there are better parallels, uncanny ones, between this and the earlier but less well-known withdrawal from Al Amarah, in the northern part of the then British sector of occupied Iraq. Al Amarah is the capital of Maysan Province, the second most populous city in south-east Iraq after Basra. It was occupied by the British in 2003, when the soldiers were initially welcomed but where, in the town of Majar al-Kabir in June 2003, six Royal Military Police were slaughtered. This was followed in late August by the killing of Fusilier Beeston in a well-planned ambush in a village near Ali al-Gharbi, also in Maysan.

These barely remembered milestones in a distant campaign were, at the time, warnings that the British were taking over an area that had never been fully subdued, even by Saddam Hussein. It was an area riven by tribal and factional rivalries – with the city of Al Amarah split between the two rival Shia groups, the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army, and the countryside dominated by the tribes – and one in which the British Army was to fare no better than Saddam.

In that sense, Sangin is very similar, as it too is riven by tribal and factional strife, where the tribal mix is unusually complex, even by Afghani standards. In earlier times, through the 19th and early 20th centuries when British troops occupied the same areas, there was frequent discussion of tribal structures and loyalties in contemporary books. Yet one gets no sense that the military even begins to understand the subtlety of the "human terrain".

In fact, in both areas we heard complaints that British intelligence had been unable to get a grip on the tribal structure in the areas. In Iraq in 2006, this made it hard to cut deals with the key players and protect British forces. The same problems are being experienced in 2010 in Afghanistan, where befriending the wrong tribal groups simply makes enemies of the larger and more dangerous groups. Both places were the focus of epic conventional battles (in Al Amarah, the battle of Cimic House, and in Sangin, the four "platoon house" battles) both won by the British.

Following their defeat, however, in each case the insurgents turned to what is known as "asymmetric" warfare – what amounts to classic guerrilla war "hit and run" tactics. In each case, the British Army was singularly unprepared, and then too slow to take the necessary countermeasures.

In Iraq, the focus was on a new, terrifying form of roadside bomb known as the explosively formed projectile (EFP), which combined with the merciless mortaring and rocketing of their base in Abu Naji, eventually forced the British into a humiliating and premature withdrawal in August 2006.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, despite being warned publicly that success by security forces in conventional confrontations had in the past always led to insurgents adopting asymmetric tactics, the army chose to ignore the lessons. Still fielding the same vulnerable Snatch Land Rovers that it had fielded in Iraq, with a variety of equally vulnerable vehicles such as the Vector and the Vixen tracked carrier, soldiers have been ripped apart by increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Forced out of their vehicles because they were becoming too dangerous to drive – with a hostile media recording the growing number of wrecked vehicles – the army resorted to foot patrols. Then they met the same tactics that had been used in Northern Ireland and in Iraq – to say nothing of Aden, Malaya and Cyprus – the "come on" bomb with secondary devices primed to explode as soldiers took cover or went to the aid of their comrades.

But, while US, Canadian and latterly French forces have been buying high-tech anti-IED equipment, with the US forces using such equipment in Afghanistan since 2003, only in November 2008 did the British order a limited amount – under the project name Talisman – having specifically rejected it in 2005 when asked in Parliament to consider it.

Even now, the equipment is not fully deployed in theatre, although the MoD is congratulating itself for obtaining a "revolutionary" system that other armies have had for seven years, claiming: "It keeps soldiers out of the contact zone of the IED, massively reducing the danger." And so it does, the absence of which until now probably explains why the British casualty rate is twice that of their US counterparts.

This is a danger to which troops, and especially bomb disposal officers have been unnecessarily exposed, equipped as they have been with little more than hand-held metal detectors, walking in front of vehicles in a ritual which has similarities with men walking in front of cars with red flags.

Eventually, in Iraq, it was the mounting casualty rate which turned the British nation against the continuing occupation, a steady attrition rate without any apparent progress.

Now as then, the steady attrition in Sangin and elsewhere has turned the British nation against this war. In a variety of ways, history has repeated itself, right up to now when we are forced to retreat from the field of combat under the guise of "redeployment", letting the Americans do the heavy lifting – the final humiliation which we also experienced in Al Amarah when it was left to US and Iraqi forces to recover that which we had abandoned.

On that issue at least, history has not repeated itself. No longer trusting us, the Americans have decided to move in before we leave. That much is progress, but nothing much else has changed. And if David Cameron thinks more can be achieved, he is deluding us and himself. This half-hearted war is not going to be won by defeat dressed up as redeployment.

Dr Richard North is a political analyst and author of 'Ministry of Defeat: The British War in Iraq 2003-2009'