Right - I know this is slightly late, but whilst at least something of the post-Basra Jailbreak atmosphere of debate about Britain's role in Iraq is hanging around, I thought I'd dig into this a bit.
For a start, there's "that" John Reid "withdrawal plan" that was quietly sent to what the army calls File Zero (the recycle bin). Now, I think it's worth pointing out exactly what the plan would have achieved even if it had been put into operation. Depending on which version of the story you read, it foresaw either that British forces in Iraq would be reduced to 3,500, or that 3,500 British troops would be withdrawn in the first lot. I suspect this is either Chinese whispers editing, confusion between the number withdrawn and the remaining force, or perhaps a reflection of two different planning options. Why? Because, basically, there are currently 8,500 squaddies in Iraq.
This is significant because the British occupation force was never meant to be that big. The initial invasion, Operation TELIC, included 4 army brigades under the command of 1 (UK) Division, not counting RAF or Naval units. Those were 7th Armoured, 3 Commando, 16 Air Assault, and 102 Logistic Brigades. After the Iraqi collapse, 3 Commando and 16AAB were withdrawn to the UK as quickly as possible. This is because, as the so-called "elite" force, they are specialised in deploying very quickly in unusual ways - respectively by sea over the beach and by air, either by parachute, helicopter assault or airlanding - and therefore represent the UK's emergency reserve force. Once used, they need to be rolled up again quickly.
7 Armoured soldiered on as the core of the Multinational Division South-East, as did 1 (UK) Division HQ, until both were replaced by 19 Mechanised Infantry Brigade and 3 (UK) Division HQ. (It was this deployment that was accused, both falsely and truthfully, of mistreating prisoners.) To go on from here, a word on 1 (UK) and 3 (UK). The British Army has two division HQs, and these are they. Normally, they swap responsibility for the command of any division-sized operation the army may start every six months. In order to resume this, 3 (UK) was replaced by a new organisation, an ad-hoc HQ called simply MND(SE) HQ. The plan was that the British contribution would be, in essence, our share of MND(SE)HQ and the division support troops, one brigade, and any other fancy bits (special forces, Civil-Military Cooperation teams, specialist engineers and such) that came up.
But it didn't happen like that. Not only did MNDSE turn out to be less MN and more D than planned, but things failed to get better in Iraq. By the spring of 2004, the generals in Iraq were looking for reinforcements. They were offered first one infantry battalion, the one based on Cyprus, and then another. Both of these were officially "temporary". Later yet, another armoured regiment (note: a tank unit the same size as an infantry battalion is called a regiment in Britain. Yes, it's anomalous. But when did that ever stop the British?) was needed. The problem was, though, that, as the Germans say, nothing lasts like what's temporary. The reinforcements came back all right, but they were always replaced with more troops, just as the brigades were swapped over every six months. Now, what do you get in a brigade? A British mechanised brigade, like 12 Mech currently in Iraq, has three infantry battalions (one with Warriors, two with Saxon vehicles), an armoured regiment with Challenger 2 tanks, a recce regiment, guns, medics, engineers, signals and such.
To be clear: we've got 7 battalions' equivalent in Iraq rather than 4 according to the plan. Almost double the infantry and tank bill. This is why we've now rotated through the whole army - the next rotation is - guess who? - the 7th Armoured, going out for a second tour as a formation (some units in it will have already done two tours, and some individual soldiers three, especially short-supply specialists) The "Reid plan" would, I think, only have got back to the original plan, at least at first. To be clear: sending out the 7th is not an "escalation" of the UK presence in Iraq - they are no more troops, and it's not because they are the Desert Rats. They are the next cab on the stand.
Now, with that out of the way, let's move on to some speculation. There is a growing degree of support for pulling out now. Simon Jenkins in his rejuvenated Guardian mode is perhaps the most eloquent advocate for this. He recently wrote that he opposed the argument that an early retreat would lead to civil war because its proponents "believe that Western troops do only good whereever they go" (I may be misquoting). I cannot agree with him here, even though I've already called the beginning of a civil war (so has Anthony Loyd in the Times, I see. Go read.). The reason for this apparent paradox is that the one thing they are doing is to deter the one action that would push over the limit from a civil war in slow motion to the real all-out mass slaughter Beirut Breakdown - that is, a blatant coup de force attempt in Baghdad.
That may not sound very much, but it is a lot more than nothing. The question arises, though, whether their presence is causing the situation to break down so much faster that it outweighs the gain of a no-coup guarantee. If they were following anything like a sensible strategy of getting control of the streets in Baghdad first, or failing that doing nothing and therefore not shooting anyone, it might be a strong argument against going now. I've said before that I'm suspicious of a timetabled strategy - especially a published timetable, which it would have to be to achieve the benefits it's meant to have. Once the deadline is made public, we lose our bargaining power. (More TYR on this here.) If you don't like the terms on offer, all you need to do is wait and prepare to take what you want in the civil war - or alternatively crank up the violence in order to either chase us out early, or force us to modify our terms in exchange for a quiet life (not to mention seizing the resistance mythos for your post-occupation political career).
Some people may still think that minimal goals are still achievable in Iraq, perhaps especially in the south. Our forces would move off the streets and out to a convenient airfield (it strikes me, writing this, that the same people were saying so in mid-2003). Rather than trying to rule Iraq, we would be off the hook but still have useful Middle Eastern bases - and the option of reintervening. The model might be Malaysia after the Emergency and independence - the British forces stuck around past independence, and as late as 1976 at one base on Singapore. For that matter, the Aussies still use Butterworth air base in northwestern Malaysia. It's a crazy notion. The model wouldn't be Malaysia, it would be Aden - the British forces in the bases ended up spending all their time dealing with mortars flying over the wire, and the announcement of a timetable just invoked all the problems above and the John Kerry principle ("How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?").
So - what the hell should we do? Well, we ought to accept and internalise that it's fucked. I see Kevin Drum quoted Sir Richard Mottram's legendary conjugation - "I'm fucked. You're fucked. We're all fucked. The whole fucking department's fucked." There is now no point in doing anything in Iraq but damage limitation. We should have a firm commitment to pulling out, but enough uncertainty to bargain - a hard, hard problem in game theory. And, looking at the increasingly bad relations with the SCIRI and Sadrist authority in southern Iraq - we shouldn't be looking at the Cabinet Mission's decision to set a timetable for Indian independence as a model. We should be digging out Field Marshal Wavell's Breakdown Plan, on what to do in the event of a Shia rising and total loss of cooperation with local authority.
Further reading: US Army in Iskandariyah on the Shia-Sunni demographic frontier,
the cooperators are out of control, What do the Americans think they are doing?, Adnan al-Dulaimi is the Sunni leader who is campaigning for participation in the constitution - and they just raided his house!, Kurds making their own oil arrangements - VERY significant, with Canadian company (Is that the same Heritage Oil as in Tim Spicer/Tony Buckingham/EO/Sandline/Air Leone/our Russian friend?)