Well, the "decision that hadn't been taken yet" has now officially been taken. Geoff Hoon stood up in the Commons and said that the Black Watch are indeed officially going to the region of Iskandariyah. It's worth pulling out and unpacking some of the arguments that the government has used on this one. The first is that "it's a military decision, not a political one".
Nonsense. All military decisions are political decisions. Who gives the military its orders? Well, if you're talking about Britain, not (say) Indonesia, the government does. If the military doesn't agree, it either buckles down or resigns. Who is the government responsible to? The House of Commons, the last time I checked, and what with the way things are going I try to check daily. It is not a sound argument that we should "keep politics out of it". Also, it's not as if the army came up with this on its own, which brings me to my second point.
"They will be under British command". We heard a great deal of this, but what we didn't hear so much about was whose control they will be under. Most people don't know the difference, which is helpful. All British troops, anywhere, at any time are strictly speaking under British command. Even if they are part of an allied force, they are technically ours. But they can be under someone else's operational control at the same time. The difference is that command, in this sense, means the right to pull out of the allied operational control. The principles go back to the Beauvais agreement between the British, French and Belgian general staffs in 1918, which created an unified command on the Western Front. The deal was this - we will place our armies under the control of a new headquarters, led by Foch and mixed-manned, and they will take orders from it. But, if the commander-in-chief of our army believes that the survival of that army or a supreme national interest is at stake, he has the right of appeal to national authorities. Obviously, if they agree, they will either take up the matter between governments, or pull out of the joint command, taking back operational control.
It just isn't honest to pretend that the Watch will be as much under British control as if they were on Salisbury Plain. They won't. A battalion doesn't have that much independence. No US brigade commander will honestly believe the British lieutenant colonel who says "I'm sorry, I'll have to call London before we send four squaddies down that particular alley". A division in a allied force of (I think) 5 divisions does, though, and it has a general covered in braid and stars to speak for it. The Watch will answer to a US brigade, which answers to a US division, a US corps, and finally to the Coalition Land Forces HQ. They will leave the zone of British autonomy when they go north, and we ought to be honest about this. This also affects my first point. It's not a military judgement by the British generals in southern Iraq, or for that matter in London. They can't decide to send troops to somebody else's tactical area of responsibility (TAOR), except of course the enemy's. This was a "military decision" in that the military decide whether it is possible. The Americans made their decision and requested. It was a military decision whether we could do anything. It was a political decision whether or not to do it. General McColl's remark that "I don't think it would be militarily sensible to do so" (that is, turn down the request) is more interesting for what it doesn't say. What military consequences does he expect?
A couple more - firstly, the figure of 650 men is false and no doubt so common because it's less. 900 is more accurate. There are about 650 men in the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch. But we're not sending them. We are sending the Black Watch Battle Group, that includes a squadron of tanks from the Queen's Royal Lancers, a troop of engineers, an armoured medic section, some logistics people and some signallers. Secondly, Hoon made a big point that "no more" troops were going, denying a report that the current reserve battalion on Cyprus were going out to replace the Watch as division reserve. But he also said that one of the reliefs for the current forces, the Scots Guards, would be going earlier and that this would (I quote) "provide an extra armoured infantry battle group". So, an extra battle group but no more troops? Work that out. And finally, they really better had be back by Christmas, 'cos "sources" tell me that there will be no supply route to them. They are taking 30 days' supplies in containers instead. And although the Americans will be able to provide rations and fuel, they don't hold British vehicle spares. It's a long walk back.