Every once in a while, someone will get something right for the wrong reason. Consider Robin Cook, a former British foreign secretary and an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.
Cook was upset because some 850 British soldiers from the Black Watch (search) regiment were to be moved from southern Iraq to the Babil province, south of Baghdad. The redeployment followed a request from U.S. commanders for British forces to play a support role for American troops about to launch the major offensive to retake the insurgent-held city of Fallujah (search).
In an article for the Guardian ahead of the redeployment, Cook wrote of the suspicion that “we sent a third of the British army into Iraq not in pursuit of our own national interests but in support of the White House’s political agenda.” He adds, “it is equally obvious that the request was the product of U.S. politics.”
Cook’s right about one thing: This is about politics. But not American politics. Iraqi politics.
The timing of the redeployment had everything to do with the January elections in Iraq and nothing to do with the U.S. elections on Nov. 2. Significantly, the matter of British troops being moved closer to Baghdad never even registered as an issue in the American presidential race, despite the efforts of Cook and other antiwar MPs to present British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a subservient “poodle” of President Bush.
However, it has registered at home. The government’s decision to redeploy soldiers to the Baghdad area is a major controversy. The move has been condemned by the leadership of Britain’s third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as by the left wing of the ruling Labour Party. For example, Charles Kennedy, leader of the Lib Dems, warned against Britain “allowing itself to be sucked further into the mire in Iraq.”
But the suggestion that British troops are being used as “political pawns,” as some members of Parliament have alleged, does a huge disservice to the sacrifice, bravery and professionalism of the British Army in Iraq. British soldiers have been sent to the most dangerous part of the country not as part of a “tawdry political deal” but because they have a track record of being among the best soldiers in the world.
The key reason for the redeployment of British forces is to free up U.S. Marine divisions for offensive operations against terrorists operating in Sunni-dominated cities in the Baghdad region. The U.S. intends to capture or eliminate Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) and destroy the Tawhid wal-Jihad (search) group he heads.
Al-Zarqawi has pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden (search) and is responsible for the brutal kidnapping and murder of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, as well as numerous Western and Iraqi hostages. Al-Zarqawi and his followers also are responsible for a large number of suicide attacks in the Baghdad region and have claimed responsibility for the massacre of 50 Iraqi army recruits in northeastern Iraq.
Coalition leaders know the Black Watch can handle this assignment because it has an illustrious reputation as one of the greatest regiments in British history. Its soldiers have won 14 Victoria Crosses and have fought bravely in many of the most important battles of the past 200 years, from Waterloo in 1815 to the D-Day landings in 1944. More recently, the Black Watch played a key role in freeing the city of Basra from Baathist tyranny in 2003.
Overall, Britain made an outstanding contribution to the liberation of Iraq, sending 46,000 military personnel — roughly a third of the country’s armed forces — to the Gulf as part of the U.S.-led coalition. More than 8,000 British troops remain in Iraq, and British forces have maintained peace and security in the southern third of the country with outstanding success. They have performed a critically important role in laying the foundations of democracy in the Shia-dominated south, and the British sector of Iraq has been a model for much of the country.
The British record in Iraq is one to be proud of, and the redeployment of British forces to the Baghdad area is a reflection of the great esteem in which the British Army is held.
Repositioning some British forces alongside their American counterparts is an important reaffirmation of the Anglo-U.S. special relationship and the common cause in which Britain and America are joined: winning the war on terror.
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is a fellow in Anglo-American security policy at the Heritage Foundation.