Britain Shifts Focus to Afghanistan

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Exposed wires dangle from the ceiling in the dusty hallway outside the medical center at the military base on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Conditions on the base are spartan and, amid mounting casualty rates, some of the young British soldiers serving there as part of the NATO-led mission complain their work isn't properly appreciated back home. They expressed these concerns during a July visit by the U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband and, within the past two months, they have been able to make their case to a stream of visiting VIPs: Defense Secretary Des Browne, his Minister for the Armed Forces Bob Ainsworth, Britain's army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt and David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party. Despite the soldiers' fears of neglect, however, Britain's political classes and military leaders are, in fact, fully focused on Afghanistan, the country that Britain's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown describes as "the front line against terrorism."

That assessment came during Brown's Camp David press call with President Bush on July 30. The Prime Minister was noticeably less bullish on the British role in Iraq, referring simply to "duties and responsibilities" there. The only high-level visitor to Iraq since the start of Brown's premiership on June 27 has been Armed Forces Minister Ainsworth. On July 24, Ainsworth assured the House of Commons Defense Committee that British forces in southeastern Iraq are unlikely to be reduced below 5,000 after Iraqi forces take over control of Basra. According to Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, head of the U.K. armed forces, that handover could come soon. "Our mission [in the South of Iraq] was to get the place and the people to a state where the Iraqis could run that part of the country, if they chose to, and we're very nearly there," he said in July. "Our mission was not to make the place look like somewhere green and peaceful, because that was never going to be achievable in that timescale."

The Prime Minister is expected to make a statement about the timing and management of a further drawdown in October, when parliament returns after the long summer break and after delivery of a situation report by U.S. General David Petraeus, expected in September. Speculation is rife that Britain is heading as fast as possible for the exit. "The British have given up and they know they will be leaving Iraq soon," the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr told the British daily The Independent, on Aug. 20. His gleeful tone contrasted with the increasingly irritable mood music in Washington. A British pullout "will be ugly and embarrassing." That was Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and military adviser to President Bush, in interview with the Sunday Times of London on Aug. 19. General Jack Keane, who is advising General Petraeus, told the BBC that U.S. forces needed in the central part of Iraq may be forced to redeploy if British troops depart. In his Aug. 22 radio interview, he said that the U.K. had "never had enough forces to truly protect the people" in the British zone of operations and that the situation around Basra "has been gradually deteriorating with the breakout of almost gangland warfare."

The Prime Minister has been at pains to emphasize his commitment to warm relations with the White House, but his popularity in Britain has been boosted by a widespread perception that he's shifted away from the backslapping chumminess of the Blair era. He's now preparing to fight an election, possibly even as early as this fall, to turn that popularity into a fresh political mandate. That means, says Dr. Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College, University of London, he'll be "trying to draw a thick black line under the Blair legacy. Of course, the big stinking fish of the Blair legacy is Iraq."

The British public isn't alone in wanting an end to British involvement there. Armed Forces chief Dannatt is lobbying for a withdrawal in public and private, says Dodge: "He's saying Afghanistan is most important and I won't have my army broken over the knee of Iraq." With an army of fewer than 100,000, the U.K. doesn't have the manpower to maintain a significant presence in Iraq and continue ramping up operations in Afghanistan. The government may not yet have figured out exactly how to extricate British troops from Iraq but that calculation is becoming ever more urgent as efforts to fight the Taliban intensify.