No way out for the coalition troops

The US is considering introducing a limited military draft if it is to keep its present force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon advisers have warned British colleagues. Next month, US forces in Iraq will peak at around 170,000, and GIs in the new units are being told they could be on operations for at least 15 months.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Americans have been faced by the grim statistic that in the year since the last Memorial Day, very nearly 1,000 US military have been killed in Iraq, and many more wounded. These are the worst casualty rates since the coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003.

British Army chiefs are mulling over a new report that reservists, mainly from the Territorial Army, are suffering combat stress worse than regulars because of lack of attention when they return home. Commanders are concerned by the high rate of young officers applying for voluntary redundancy when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan; in some frontline infantry battalions the rate of officers applying for early retirement is as high as 17 per cent.

“Morale is very high in these regiments when they are actually on operations,” said a senior officer, speaking anonymously, “but the officers just say they’ve had enough, and they want to do something else now, thank you.”

US-led operations in Iraq appear to have reached yet another turning point with the American commander, General David Petraeus, due to hand to Congress a report on his latest strategic thinking. He appears to have given up on the so-called ‘surge’ which has brought an extra 21,000 US troops to central Iraq. According to advance reports from Baghdad, the surge has failed because the Iraqi government and forces were not prepared to fulfill their promise to back it in word and deed. Last week, a US patrol shot dead an Iraqi in the act of concealing a roadside booby trap bomb – and discovered his identity card showed he was a sergeant in the new Iraqi army.

Gen Petraeus’s plan B seems to focus on ‘soft’ power, getting the combatants inside Iraq – with the exception of al-Qaeda groups – to talk to each other and their sponsors in the neighbourhood, principally Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Yesterday saw the first face-to-face diplomatic negotiations between the US and Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979. The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, met his Iranian opposite number, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, for four hours. The meeting was reported to be businesslike – though Crocker took the opportunity to warn Iran against arming the Shia militias and other extremists in Iraq.

Though the two sides agreed to a re-match of the meeting, it is clear they are pretty far apart. The US has been formally warned by Tehran for running spies and saboteurs in Iran’s border provinces. There seems little chance than Iranian Revolutionary Guards are going to stop arming and training Shia militants against the British in the Basra sector.

To mix a metaphor, both the Americans and the British seem caught in a drifting impasse now in Iraq. They cannot go forward, nor suddenly pull out, for fear of triggering a major regional war – for which all the combustible ingredients are in place. Both London and Washington face the issue of forces and equipment reaching exhaustion point by this time next year.

Now even the Democrats in Congress have stepped back from setting a deadline for American forces to withdraw from Iraq. The only voices arguing for a sensible timetable are the two Democrat presidential front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The question for Britain now is whether Gordon Brown will follow the messianic policy laid down by Tony Blair, or cut loose and follow the counsels of Hillary and Barack.

The question is more than intriguing. It could be vital, and a lifesaver for our forces.
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