Home by Christmas? Make that 2010 at least

The first British soldiers who deployed to Iraq immediately after the 2003 invasion – on what was called Operation Telic 2 – thought that they were going to be the last troops to be sent.

But they shared the disappointment experienced by many generations of soldiers – that they were not going to be home by Christmas – as the insurgency grew in ferocity out of the post-war power vacuum.

British troops will now spend their fourth Christmas in Iraq and, according to the Prime Minister, another four after that – almost double the amount of time their fore fathers stayed in the trenches of the Western Front.

The soldiers of Telic 8, who have recently started their six- month operational tour, know that there is a good chance they will be back when Telic reaches its teens, if not earlier.

The question remains are they happy to return? The Army thrives as one of the best in the world simply because it is on almost continuous operations.

Iraq and Afghanistan have made it a substantially more effective fighting force than it has been for decades.

Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland in its final years were all – with some terrifying exceptions – humdrum affairs by comparison, lacked this enemy’s suicidal intent.

While Iraq has claimed 111 British lives, the majority of soldiers still want to go on live operations. But, although constant operations might help the Army’s effectiveness, there must be some concern at the loss of experienced NCOs whose families can no longer take the burden of husbands being away.

There is also another worry that the Ministry of Defence would rather was not discussed.

It still refuses to provide precise figures of the number of troops wounded in Iraq and there are rumours that this could number several thousand – in addition to those who are also suffering from the psychological trauma of the war.

There is also paranoia that if no operations are found for the 100,000-strong Army the Treasury will find an excuse for another round of regiment slashing.

“There is the fear that if we reduce our commitments now the Army will be reduced again,” said a senior planner.

The news of another four years will come as no surprise to military chiefs, who have been quietly planning to be in Iraq until 2010. While Tony Blair has trumpeted troop withdrawals over the past year, defence chiefs have known that a sizeable force will have to remain to support the Iraqi army in its infancy.

Without that backing, the British-trained 8,000-strong Iraqi 10th Division would probably unravel, undoing all the investment of lives and dangerous work of the past three years.

While the 10th Division is capable of carrying out counter-insurgency operations, occasionally under its own steam, the command and control discipline is not yet there.

The Iraqi army’s generals appear competent, and with more equipment and training, it might be a legacy the Army can be proud of, but similarly it might also become a tool in any future political and sectarian struggle.

There is also a worry that the violence against coalition troops could intensify with various insurgent groups jockeying for power if they knew the final date of the coalition departure.

Although American planners in Baghdad are said to be detailing a structured timetable of withdrawal – possibly at moments that could prove helpful to the White House – the British presence will gradually draw down in battle-group size chunks of 800 men every Telic.

By 2010 the force in Iraq – about 3,500 – will equal that of Britain’s deployment in Afghanistan, giving the military two fronts on which to sharpen its professional skills for the next conflict.

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