October 21, 2004

The British are coming!

With all this hand-wringing over Tony Blair's decision to send 700 British troops up to Fallujah, no one's even stopped to ask how effective the British actually are. John Burns in the New York Times had a rather fawning piece on Sunday noting that the British have taken a light-handed approach down South -- fighting defensively for the most part, targeting their aid projects to the poor districts, holding local elections, and leaving tribal and religious governing structures mostly in place:
"When Sadr's people kicked off, we could have jumped in with big boots and killed 400 to 500 people, but we couldn't have defeated them, because they would have melted away into the side streets, and we'd have created another Najaf," Colonel Donnelly said. "We've got to find a solution here that is based on nonviolence, or we'll be here for years and years."

Now this of course sounds good, and plays to our notion that Americans are clumsy, heavy-handed barbarians while the British are smarter and world-weary (Burns actually says "world-weary"), but I'm not sure everyone agrees that the British approach is working. I was recently talking with an insurgency expert coming back from Iraq (no, not Bruce Hoffman) who noted that the British were not even doing "minimal policing," as has been claimed—rather, they were simply surrendering whole towns over to Shiite fundamentalists. "Establishing a quasi-theocracy" was the way he put it. Now maybe that's the best we can hope for in Iraq. But the British certainly haven't found that much-sought after middle ground between choking and hugging. And their approach certainly won't work in Fallujah.

For present purposes, this doesn't matter much, because I doubt the British will be used significantly in Anbar (this seems like a symbolic move, an election stunt, more than anything else). Still, there seems to be a tendency to treat the British as "effective" occupiers, and that's probably not the case at all.

Update: Okay, now I see. The British are going to do some police work elsewhere in the Sunni triangle order to free up American soldiers to assault Fallujah. The point above still stands, though its topical relevance is I suppose diminished.
-- Brad Plumer 11:13 AM || ||