Who are the British to Talk?

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In the brouhaha over British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster's criticism of the U.S. military in Iraq, one important fact has been lost: the British are hardly any better.

In an article published in the current edition of Military Review, Brig. Ailwin-Foster rips into the American military, charging it with arrogance, self-righteousness and cultural insensitivity bordering on "institutional racism." These traits, he suggests, prevented the Americans from building productive relationships with Iraqis — they may even have helped fuel the insurgency that wracks the country today.

Having helped train Iraqi troops, Brig. Ailwin-Foster has had plenty of interaction with the American military. And, having myself watched the U.S. military from close quarters in Iraq for nearly three years, I find it hard to disagree with him. American cultural insensitivity was on display even in the minutes before Saddam Hussein's statue was famously toppled in Baghdad — remember the soldier who covered the statue's head with the Stars and Stripes? The Iraqis gathered in the square to celebrate the dictator's downfall took offense to that gesture.

The soldier quickly removed that flag — but the military has not always been so responsive to local sentiments in Iraq. I have witnessed scores of instances of American soldiers behaving badly toward Iraqis. But, I've also seen British soldiers doing the exact same thing.

British commanders (and the British media) routinely cite their country's colonial history as the basis of a superior understanding of Middle Eastern politics and people. Because the British once ruled Iraq, they must be better than the Americans at dealing with Iraqis today.

It is theory rooted in arrogance — and it is dead wrong.

For one thing, nobody serving in the British contingent in Iraq was even alive when it was part of the Empire, so Brig. Ailwin-Foster's fellow soldiers don't have any real colonial experience. For another, the British were hardly beloved as colonizers — they were booted out of Iraq, just as they were from most of their colonies — so there was no reservoir of goodwill awaiting their return.

In the first months after the war, the British media made a great deal of the contrasts between the British and American areas of control. While American soldiers were dealing with a nascent insurgency in Baghdad, forced to wear full body armor (when available) and shelter behind high blast walls, their British counterparts were patrolling Basra in soft caps and smilingly accepting cups of tea from roadside vendors. This bonhomie was claimed to be the result of that superior understanding of Iraqi culture. Never mind that managing mostly Shi'ite Basra was a picnic compared to running the much more heterogeneous and volatile Baghdad.

Still, things soon soured for the British in southern Iraq. The turning point was the June 2003 killing of six British soldiers in the town of Amarah after they had inflamed local sentiments by taking sniffer dogs into a mosque. You don't need any colonial experience to know that bringing an animal to a place of worship is likely to offend the worshippers — no matter what their faith.

It went downhill from there, to the point where the British are just as unwelcome in the Shi'ite south as the Americans are in the Sunni Triangle. An opinion poll conducted shortly before the Dec 15 elections showed that Basrans are overwhelmingly hostile toward the British. So how come the British suffer so few casualties, as compared to the Americans? That's mainly because, unlike the Sunni insurgents who attack the Americans in and around Baghdad, the Shi'ite militias in the south already wield political power — they may resent the British presence, but it doesn't stop them from running the cities and provinces as they please.

These days, Basra is practically run by Shi'ite militias, with the British only intervening when their own soldiers get into trouble — as they did last fall, when two soldiers were "arrested" by militiamen, requiring the British to mount a rescue operation. I have not been to Basra for some time, but friends there routinely report instances of British soldiers behaving in a hostile manner, even with those once-friendly tea vendors.

Bad behavior by British soldiers is no excuse for similar behavior by the Americans. The U.S. military would be well advised to take Brig. Ailwin-Foster's criticism seriously and train troops to be more sensitive to Iraqi culture and better behaved toward Iraqis. But it would be a good idea for the British military to do likewise.