Two and a half years after the liberation of Baghdad, the British government faces growing calls for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Opinion polls show that a majority of voters support a clear timetable for pulling out British troops stationed in the country. However, a pullout would damage the Anglo-U.S. alliance that has led the war on terror, threaten Iraq's future, and hand a victory to al Qaeda and Iraq's insurgents. British troops must remain until Iraq is stable and secure enough to stand on its own feet.
The escalation of violence in the past month against UK forces is taking a toll on the British public's willingness to support the Iraq mission. The graphic imagery of British troops set on fire by rioting mobs on the streets of Basra has greatly increased public disillusionment. In the latest ICM/Guardian survey on the issue, 51 percent of those polled "want the government to set out plans to withdraw troops from Iraq regardless of the situation in the country." Just 41 percent of respondents believe that "troops have a duty to remain in the country until things improve." Similarly, a new YouGov poll showed 57 percent of Britons responding affirmatively to the question "Should British troops pull out of Iraq?"
The polls have coincided with mounting speculation in the British press that plans are being drawn up for a British withdrawal. An article in The Observer newspaper suggests that British troops may begin to return home from southern Iraq in May 2006, a move that will likely prompt other coalition partners to follow suit. The reports have been firmly denied by the British Government.
Blair, Brown and Iraq
Prime Minister Tony Blair has steadfastly refused to support a timetable for the withdrawal of British forces, insisting that the UK will remain in the country until the "job is done." Blair has staked his reputation on Iraq and will firmly resist attempts to change British policy on Iraq. However, he will be under immense pressure to agree to an exit strategy for British forces if they face more attacks and the security situation deteriorates. And if Blair relinquishes the keys to Downing Street long before his final term expires, all bets are off.
After a temporary rise in support following the July 7 London bombings, Blair's approval rating has sunk back to less than 40 percent. Many within the ruling Labour Party would have him give way to his heir apparent, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Iraq is likely to loom large against Blair and may further erode the Prime Minister's standing both within his own party and the wider electorate. A poor showing for Labour in next year's local government elections could seriously wound Blair, prompt a leadership challenge, and greatly accelerate the impetus for an Iraq pullout.
Gordon Brown remains an enigma on Iraq, and it is doubtful that he will display the same enthusiasm for the war as Tony Blair. While Brown will be wary of undermining the Anglo-American alliance, he will be acutely aware that Blair's political standing has taken a hammering due to his close partnership with President Bush and will wish to focus more on his domestic agenda. Brown's strategic thinking will also be influenced by the UK's slowing economic growth, expanding budget deficit, and shrinking defence spending, all important factors for a nation facing the prospect of several years of military conflict in the Middle East. The possibility of a reversal of Britain's Iraq policy under a Gordon Brown premiership cannot be underestimated.
Why Britain Must Not Withdraw
An early withdrawal of British forces from Iraq would be a mistake. A British pullout would shatter the international coalition, greatly weaken America's position in the center and north of the country, strengthen the insurgency, embolden al-Qaeda, and allow Iranian-backed militia groups to increase their influence in the Shia-dominated south. Specifically, a pullout would directly lead to:
- A Propaganda
Victory for Al-Qaeda and its Allies. Al Qaeda would portray a
pullout of British and other European forces from Iraq as a
victory. This would embolden al Qaeda's terrorist network in the
country, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and provide a
massive boost to the insurgency. Al Qaeda would certainly link any
withdrawal to the July 7 London bombings, for which it has claimed
responsibility, and claim that the attacks forced a change in
British policy. This would set a dangerous precedent and greatly
increase the likelihood of future al Qaeda atrocities on European
soil. A British withdrawal would also be celebrated by Saddam
loyalists, who have played a major role in the Sunni
- Collapse of
the Multinational Coalition. Britain is the key to holding
together the international coalition in Iraq, and Blair played an
important role in crafting the U.S.-led alliance that ousted Saddam
Hussein from power. After the United States, the UK is the biggest
contributor of forces to Iraq, with 8,500 troops on the ground. The
British currently hold operational command of Multinational
Division South-East, which includes deployments from Italy, the
Netherlands, Japan, Romania, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and
Lithuania. If Britain left Iraq, she would likely be joined by much
of the South-East division, which is heavily dependent on the
British security umbrella. Japan has already signaled its intention
to pull out of Iraq if Britain goes first. A British withdrawal
could also precipitate a complete collapse of the Centre-South
Multinational Division, whose lead nation, Poland, is already
drawing up plans to remove most of its 1,500 troops from Iraq due
to military and financial shortfalls.
- The Boosting
of Iranian Influence. Iran would be a geostrategic beneficiary
of any British pullout from the Shiite-dominated South, where it
already wields great political influence. A British withdrawal from
Basra and its southern bases would create a power vacuum that
dozens of Iranian-backed militia groups are ready to
exploit-including Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades, and
the Mujahidin for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A British pullout
would force the United States to send thousands of troops to the
South, undermining operations against the Sunni insurgency in the
North. This would place huge strain on already overstretched U.S.
forces and Iraqi security forces.
- A Strained
Special Relationship. A unilateral withdrawal from Iraq would
have damaging implications for the future of the Anglo-U.S. special
relationship, the most powerful military and political alliance in
modern history. It would weaken the ties that bind the two nations
and create a gulf in trust, greatly reducing the impetus for future
joint U.S.-British operations. Anglo-American leadership has been
the engine of the global war on terror, and a division between the
two allies would undermine the West's ability to effectively combat
al Qaeda and state sponsors of terror, such as Iran.
A London-Washington split would also be exploited by opponents of the Iraq war in France, Germany, and Belgium, who will welcome tensions between the U.S. and UK in their drive toward closer defense and foreign policy integration in Europe and the creation of a European Union counterweight to the United States.
- The Undermining of British Power. Retreat is not a word that figures prominently in British military vocabulary, and Britain has an unrivalled record of military success over the past 300 years. A British withdrawal, even for political and strategic rather than military reasons, would prove damaging to Britain's prestige and standing and force a negative revaluation of Britain's role in the world. It would have echoes of the Suez crisis of 1956, which split America from Britain and undermined British confidence for a generation. A withdrawal would dramatically weaken Britain's resurgence as a world power and reduce the UK's assertiveness on the international stage.
An early withdrawal of British troops would have catastrophic implications for the future of Iraq and be seen by many Iraqis as a betrayal of trust. By liberating Iraq and removing one the most brutal regimes of modern times, Britain and the United States made a powerful commitment to the future of the Iraqi people that must be honored. There should no pullout of Allied forces from the country until Iraq is stable and secure, which is likely to take some time.
There is also a fundamental national interest at stake for both the U.S. and UK in staying in Iraq and defeating the insurgency. An early withdrawal would be viewed across the Arab world as a humiliating defeat for the West and an emphatic victory for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and those who represent al Qaeda in Iraq. A pullout would be an unparalleled propaganda success for a barbaric terror organization that has murdered thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children.
Iraq today is the central battleground in the global war against terrorism and, together with Afghanistan, is the only place in the world where American and British troops can actively engage al Qaeda and its allies. Iraq is a test case of the resolve of the West to confront and ultimately defeat the al Qaeda threat, and this is an epic confrontation that must be fought and won by U.S., British, and Iraqi forces.
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow in the Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
See "Blair Out of Step as Voters Swing Behind Iraq Withdrawal,"
The Guardian, September 26, 2005, at
 "Defiant PM Says: I'll Face Down Iraq Protestors," The Independent, September 24, 2005, at http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article314994.ece.
"Britain to Pull Troops from Iraq," The Observer, September
25, 2005, at
 "No Arbitrary Date for Withdrawing Troops, Says Blair," The Daily Telegraph, September 25, 2005.