Today’s Daily Telegraph has an interview with UK Defence Secretary Des Browne. The interview covers a range of topics, and some of what he has to say is likely to prove controversial.
Browne’s assessment of the situation in Iraq is upbeat, despite (and even because of) this week’s developments in Basra:
The Defence Secretary is remarkably calm under fire. Last week, he visited Basra and returned “as optimistic as I have ever been about the future of Iraq”.
That optimism has not been blown apart by the violence this week. “The Iraqis have decided that they’re ready to take on the militia. Their very presence in the city engendered a response. That was to be expected.”
The British did not, in his view, cut and run. “We left at exactly the right time. The majority of the violence when we were in Basra was directed at us.”
There is no plan for British troops to return to the city, although he does not altogether rule out re-engagement.
To my surprise he says the British withdrawal of troops could be “accelerated” rather than delayed by recent events.
“This operation is taking place on a timescale that’s quicker than we would have thought as a consequence of the growing confidence of the Iraqis. We hope by spring to be able to get to about 2,500 [British troops]. I’m not thinking that everybody could be home by Christmas but when the time is right we can reduce our forces.”
Such optimism isn’t entirely misplaced. As Max Boot has argued, “If Maliki is now getting serious about asserting the supremacy of the Iraqi state over the militias, that is a development to be cheered.” This echoes an argument put forward in the Financial Times, in which Steve Negus states that, while enormously risky, “If the prime minister succeeds, the pay-off would deliver a big boost to the credibility of a shaky government, proving that the growing national army is capable of taking on powerful militia and addressing fears that a withdrawal of US troops would leave Iraq’s fragile state at the mercy of armed factions.”
However, Browne’s repetition of the standard government line that the initial withdrawal from Basra was justified by the fact that the majority of the violence in the city had been directed against British troops is less convincing. The argument fails to acknowledge that the current clashes are in part a consequence of the British failure to displace the militias from the city, which made the kind of reckoning we are seeing now inevitable eventually.
Browne goes on to argue that we should be talking to militants such as the Taliban and Hizballah. This is likely to be questioned by some, coming as it does after the controversy that erupted following comments made by Jonathan Powell – a former aide to Tony Blair – who suggested it was a mistake not to be talking to groups such as Al-Qaeda. It is worth noting, however, that unlike Powell, Browne draws the line at engaging with Al-Qaeda:
In his view, the West must be seeking diplomatic as well as military solutions. Controversially, he argues that Britain should be willing to talk to extremists groups.
“What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics.”
A former Northern Ireland minister, Mr Browne says there will always be some people who are “irreconcilable” to a peaceful path – he draws the line at al-Qa’eda because “their demand is an end to our way of life”.
But, he argues that the West should be willing to talk to people with a history of violence – including elements of the Taliban and Hizbollah.
“In Northern Ireland I talked to people with a past. There are different varieties of these organisations. There’s no question that some of them if we succeed will transfer into the political dimension.”
Read the interview here.