Archive for June, 2007

‘Nineteen. Twenty in a few months.’

June 28, 2007

One Friday afternoon this February, I boarded a train to Waterloo from Ash Vale, in Surrey. The country around that route is mainly scrubby and sandy, but the winter sunlight was particularly clear and I enjoyed the view from the windows. At the next stop, Brookwood, a young man got on. He was carrying two heavily packed bags, one a green patrol sack, and was rather obviously a soldier going home on weekend leave.  The carriage was quite crowded and nobody moved their bags for him. They would have been equally inert for any heavily laden youth, I think, not just a serviceman.

I said ‘Some room here, mate’, shifting my luggage, and he gratefully dumped his bags and sat down opposite me.  Wondering if he’d want to talk, I asked him what unit he was in: the Royal Anglians, a line infantry battalion with a tough reputation. He had thick, tattooed forearms, a direct look and blonde hair. I asked him how long he’d been in. ‘Nearly five years. Joined when I was fifteen- I was a Junior Soldier.’ He clearly did want to chat. Are you twenty, then, I asked- he looked terribly young, despite his strong build. ‘Nineteen. Twenty in a few months.’ 

So was he an NCO now, with his experience? I expected him to say he was at least a lance-jack, and was surprised how vehement his answer was: ‘No, couldn’t do that, mate, couldn’t do it.  I mean, having to look out for blokes, and get things right for them, and carry the can, know I’d got things wrong, if they got blown up, if they got shot. Couldn’t do that, can do that for myself but can’t do that for other blokes, the responsibility of getting it right for them.’ He spoke with considerable energy. Once he’d used a phrase it would recur in his speech, a shifting pattern of tics.

Had he ‘done a Telic’ then, I asked. The British Army’s codename for its Iraq operations is ‘Telic’. ‘I have, mate. And in two fucking months I’m off to Afghanistan.’Where was he off to? ‘Helmand, mate. Dunno where exactly. Helmand.’ Soldiers normally call the country ‘Afghan’, or refer to it by its codename, ‘Herrick’. I said I’d heard the Grenadier Guards were down to go to Afghan.

‘Right fuck-up that’s been, mate. The Guards knew they was off on this tour a year ago. Then after 3 Para come back they decide one battalion can’t do the job on its own, they’ve got to send two out together. Two months ago we was told. I’m telling you mate, a real fuck-up.’ He started to stuff more swearwords into his sentences and there was  a little coughing and shifting amongst the other passengers.

So were the Anglians training hard? ‘Fucking hard, mate. It’s gonna be tough out there.’ He was angry about the fucking REMFs attached to the battalion who couldn’t keep up on the runs and the tabs. ‘At the fucking back, mate. First four fucking miles and they’re chinstrapped. How they gonna keep up in fucking Afghan?’

I said I knew a guy who’d been out with 3 Para in Helmand. ‘The Paras are great fucking blokes, mate’- none of the normal regimental rivalry, which surprised me. ‘My theory is the Paras gone out there and fucking had the Taliban, ‘cos they’re shock troops. Hit them fucking hard which they weren’t expecting. Then the Marines have gone out there and gone out after them in the fucking mountains, chased them. And now we’re gonna go out and do this hearts and minds stuff but they won’t fuck with us ‘cos the Paras have fucking shocked them and they don’t want any more of that.’ At the time it struck me as a pretty half-baked theory and only now can I see that he was hoping for a quiet tour.

He talked about people, civilians, in Britain. ‘They don’t understand, mate, don’t fucking understand. You don’t see people who’s fucking shooting at you, it’s not like the fucking movies. People in this country… They don’t understand, mate, people here don’t understand’- and that started to recur in all he said now.

I asked if he was married. ‘Gonna be. Gonna be. Done Telic, gonna do this tour, and I’m out. Six years in the Army and I’m out.‘ This said with even more intensity. I was relieved for him. ‘Going home to my girlfriend now. We’re gonna get married when I get back from Herrick, gonna have kids and all.’

What are you going to do then, I asked? I thought to myself that if he’d been a Junior Soldier  from a technical unit he’d have transferable skills when he became a civilian, but as an infantryman since the age of fifteen he’d have none.  And he’d clearly thought about that: ‘Gonna go back to Iraq, mate. Work Close Protection for one of the security companies.’

I said, cautiously, that I knew some people who’d done that and it didn’t sound like a good deal to me. ‘I’ve got a plan, mate. Work three months in Iraq doing Close Protection: earn what, thirty thousand. Come home to my wife, take three months, go out there another three months, another thirty thousand, then I can get myself sorted.’ He didn’t seem to know what he’d do with this money if and when he got it.

I said, again cautiously, that I didn’t think he’d get 30K for three months work, as he hadn’t been in special forces, whose veterans get the high rates in the security industry. ‘What did your guys say about it?’ I only knew a couple of blokes, I said, but I’d heard people got hacked around, worked from morning to night, didn’t get the protection or the backup or the medical support they’d been sold on. The guys who own the companies were rip-off merchants, some of them. I didn’t say what I wanted desperately to say: You are nineteen and you are about to be sent into a warzone for the second time in your life. Don’t put yourself into war again, don’t do it a third, fourth, fifth time. Don’t wreck yourself. Don’t get yourself killed or come back a mental case. Don’t brutalise yourself further. He looked terribly young, even trusting.

He heard me out on the owners of the security companies,  and frowned: ‘You always get fucked around mate, don’t you?’ I was hoping I’d sown doubts on the subject of mercenary work. ‘Like the Army. They tell you you’re gonna get this, you’re gonna get that. They fuck you around. Whatever you do, you get fucked around.’

I was older and he seemed grateful every time I agreed with him, and answered my questions in great detail. It was shaming to see the politeness he showed me, when I thought of what he had seen and done, and what he was about to see and do, all of it beyond my experience.

We both got off at Waterloo. He shifted one bag onto a broad shoulder, grabbed the other in his left hand and stuck his right hand out towards me. ‘It’s been good speaking to you, mate. Really good speaking to you, and good luck’. Good luck, I said.  He’s in Helmand now, unless he’s been shipped back home on one of the casevac flights.

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Southern Iraq: are US troops moving into the ‘British’ zone?

June 20, 2007

This story has been ignored, from what I can see, by every single British newspaper and TV news programme, but if true it is highly significant. Buried away towards the end of a story in yesterday’s New York Times, we learn that American soldiers have been fighting in towns deep in the nominally ‘British-controlled’ part of Southern Iraq.

The relevant passages are (bold added where appropriate):

‘In what appeared to be a separate operation deep in the south near the Iranian border, a ferocious battle between American troops and Shiite militants left at least 20 people dead and wounded scores more, Iraqi and American officials said.

‘The clashes, in Amara and Majjar al-Kabir, a pair of mostly Shiite towns just north of Basra, started early Monday. They were sparked by raids on what American officials described as a secret network involved in transporting “lethal aid” from Iran to Iraq, particularly deadly roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s.

‘Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American military spokesman in Iraq, said American troops have intensified their focus on finding and dismantling places where those weapons are built, like the towns raided Monday, because the weapons were especially hard to stop at the border. “It’s hard to catch because they are shipped as components, not completed weapons,” he said.

‘According to officials aligned with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr in Basra, the fighting involved members of Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The battle appeared to be the largest clash with Mr. Sadr’s loosely affiliated gunmen since the start of the new American security plan in February.

‘In addition to the 20 dead, six suspects were wounded and one was detained, officials said. A hospital official said that at least 60 people were wounded. ‘

These towns weren’t on any ‘border’ between American and British forces, so we’re not looking at a case of hot pursuit. The two towns mentioned had a significant British military presence until recently. Amara had a British infantry battalion stationed in the town until 25 August 2006,  and the UK occupation is described in some detail in Rory Stewart’s excellent memoir ‘Occupational Hazards’. Majar al-Kabir is where six British Military Policemen were killed in June 2003, and it too was frequently patrolled by UK forces. Basra, as the NYT notes, is only a few miles from both towns, and – as it doesn’t note- contains several thousand British troops. So why did US troops raid Amara and Majar? 

We can discount the possibility that the NYT invented the story:  a named US Army spokesman is on the record saying that US troops have been fighting in both towns.  It is possible that this was a raid mounted by a joint team of British and US forces, and that the US Colonel forgot, or ‘forgot’, to mention the Brits. But if this was truly an entirely American raid, there are several possibilities, all highly disturbing.

Did the US ask the British to raid targets in the South and get a refusal? Did they then ask for, and get, British military approval for a raid by US forces? Did they simply go ahead and tell the British forces that they would be carrying out the raid? If the British refused to carry out the raid themselves, was this because there were insufficient British troops in the area to do so? Or because they thought that the raid was unnecessary, or would provoke the local civilian population?

If this was simply a raid carried out by a joint force of British and American special forces, then it is another piece of evidence that the war in the South is increasing in intensity, and that what appears to be Gordon Brown’s favoured strategy (remain as an occupier in Southern Iraq, whilst drawing down the number of troops deployed, as a sop to British public opinion) is unworkable: you can’t get away with PR stunts in war, not if the enemy doesn’t want you to.

The other possibilities are even worse: all of them imply that the US military have become impatient with the British conduct of operations in Southern Iraq, and that they have taken matters into their own hands.

 UPDATE: One question I should have asked but didn’t:  is the formal responsibility for military backup to Iraqi government forces in Amara and Majar the preserve of the British after the withdrawal? Or is it in a sort of legal no-man’s land, meaning that there is nothing formally preventing the Americans from moving forces in?  This is the kind of question that seems like legal petifoggery but is actually vital to understanding how armies operate. If the Americans feel that they can’t move into towns near the biggest British base without sparking a major political row, they won’t. If they don’t feel that- and if they think that British troops have been insufficiently aggressive in dealing with insurgents, as a lot of US officers do think- then they will.

The Law Lords and Baha Mousa

June 13, 2007

The Law Lords have ruled that the killing of Baha Mousa in the custody of British troops is indeed covered by the Human Rights Act and that there must be an independent inquiry. Whilst this was the best ruling that they could have made,  it is hardly good news. The Government- and it is the Government, not the hated ‘military’, that must take decisions of this kind- has been dragged to the point it should have reached when Mousa was killed over four years ago.

If a foreign detainee dies in the custody of British troops, we need a full and clear inquiry as soon as possible, and criminal charges must be pressed wherever the evidence merits it. With the death of Mousa, we had a Court Martial four years after the event, which found that one Junior Non-Commissioned Officer (a Corporal, who would normally be in charge of eight soldiers and paid about fourteen or fifteen grand) had kicked, but not killed Mousa, and that no-one else in uniform was to blame for anything at all. This stinks. 

Other aspects of the case probably  stink as badly.  It’s hard to comment in detail, since the dopey British media have not covered the case with any real journalistic assiduity:- op-ed writers on the Guardian and Independent have bleated Mousa’s name as a justification for their own belief that all British soldiers are murderers, whilst the Mail and Telegraph have wound themselves up into a fury over the supposed martyrdom of the most senior officer acquitted by the Court Martial, but we haven’t had any detailed reporting of the trial itself in the newspapers.

But a few facts have seeped out. There has been a disturbing BBC ‘Panorama’ documentary, which seems to confirm my initial instincts. I felt when I first read about the case that a junior NCO could only have killed Mousa if his death had been the result of a beating of an hour or so before he was ‘processed’ as a detainee. The longer he was held, the more officers and Senior NCOs would be involved in controlling his detention and the harder it would be for one junior rank to gain access to the prisoner.  That does not necessarily implicate the Battalion CO of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, Col. Jorge Mendonca, but it does mean that serious questions have to be asked of him and of a whole series of officers below him in the chain of command. ‘Panorama’ made a number of serious allegations against one particular Lieutenant commanding a rifle platoon. I would like to know the roles played by that man’s Company Commander, Company Second-in-Command and Company Sergeant Major, as well as the Battalion Intelligence Officer, and the Brigade Intelligence staff who were apparently present at the time.

One of the arguments offered in defence by the lawyers of Colonel Jorge Mendonca was that a highly questionable policy of ‘softening’ detainees was put in place, against his objections, by higher (un-named) authority. This policy, Mendonca’s defence seems to have argued, was not expected to kill detainees, but some soldiers, having been allowed to beat detainees, ‘went too far’ following the killing of a popular officer, and killed Mousa. Now this is a credible, internally consistent story; one can imagine how it would happen. We need to find out if it actually did happen: either Mendonca is lying when he says it did or the MoD is lying when it says it did not.

If such a policy was in place, who authorised it? If someone in a position of authority ordered British soldiers to maltreat captives, that would be  very serious; and if the civilian politicians in charge of the uniformed military connived at such a policy, for example by not insisting on the highest standards in detainee treatment, that would be more serious still. There has been surprisingly little follow-up on the ‘Independent’s recent allegations that a British Army lawyer, Colonel Nicholas Mercer, quarrelled with the (civilian) Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, over the standards required for the treatment of Iraqi civilians. According to the Independent, which has backed its story with a number of leaked emails, Colonel Mercer argued that Iraqi detainees be treated according to the Human Rights Act, whereas Goldsmith, backed by a number of senior civilian lawyers at the MoD and FCO, argued for what was described as a ‘more pragmatic’ policy. Pragmatic, practical: we need to be very afraid when we hear these terms being applied to interrogations.  

Essentially, the Law Lords’ judgement confirms Mercer’s belief that Iraqi civilians detained by British troops are covered by the Human Rights Act, which has rather more stringent protections than those offered to detained combatants by the Geneva Conventions. (The Law Lords also ruled that another Iraqis who were not detained by British troops but were shot by them or otherwise came into contact with them during the course of patrols were not to be treated according the HRA’s provisions.  Essentially, the Lords accepted that hostile or neutral civilians encountering the British Army on foreign soil were ‘extraterritorial’ but that civilians detained on British bases were subject to all the protections of the law. This opens up another set of questions, about how the Army ought to, and how it does, treat civilians and combatants encountered outside its bases, which we will have to deal with elsewhere.)

If this did happen, it would not be the first time that the military showed a greater attachment to the rule of law than their political masters: in 1972, Ted Heath and his Attorney General instructed the then head of the Army, Field Marshall Sir Michael Carver, that his men could shoot IRA suspects on sight even if they were unarmed, only to have Carver refuse to issue the order on the grounds that it would be unlawful. 

But who knows? Perhaps the senior military really did originate a policy of brutality, with the political leadership blissfully unaware: the Secretary of State for Defence in 2003 was Geoff Hoon, who revealed to Lord Justice Hutton that he had rather a gift for not knowing the policy of his own Department.  Or perhaps this really was a case of the lower ranks, abetted by one or two junior or middle-ranking officers, running amok in the wake of British casualties. We do need to know: which is why one’s heart does not exactly leap at the news that the Law Lords have stated that there must be an independent judicial enquiry.

  My prediction is that this inquiry, like previous ones, will do a fine job at apportioning blame among the lower ranks and see no faults committed by their seniors. This is not entirely bad- several soldiers kicked Mousa to death or connived at his beating, and I would like to see them all serve jail terms, not just one scapegoated thug as at present. But I would also like to learn if there was a deliberate policy of brutality against detainees, and if so who instituted it. Here one can expect the usual veil of ambiguous phrases drawn over the higher ranks. Will lawyers criticise lawyers, when they can find that all wrongdoing was the fault of  some 18-year old soldier from Manchester?

 More generally, what system should be in place to investigate deaths in British custody? We need to realise, first of all, that Mousa’s is – so far as I can determine- the only reported suspicious death in the custody of British troops in over four years of the occupation of Southern Iraq. Given the deaths of dozens of British troops in Southern Iraq in the same period, this is no mean achievement. Any system investigating military actions should probably have soldiers as all or at least some of its investigators: any investigative team consisting entirely of civilian police officers or lawyers would have very great difficulties in understanding the language and procedures of soldiers, whether they were guilty or innocent of any crimes. A Court Martial is the system that soldiers expect to be tried under.  There might be a case for creating a new agency, not the Royal Military Police, to investigate allegations against soldiers. There might be a case for trying cases in civilian Criminal courts, not Court Martials. But we should scrap the investigative role of the RMP, or the judicial role of Courts Martial, only if it could be proved that these institutions themselves, and not their present funding or managerial regimes, or meddling by higher authority, were to blame for the contemptible errors in the Mousa case.

(Parenthetically, the Attorney General managed to get one 22-year old soldier committed for trial at the Old Bailey for the alleged murder of an Iraqi civilian, only for the Judge to throw the case out with contemptuous remarks about the weakness of the case. Why do I link to the Telegraph as a news source for this story? Because the Guardian and the Independent seem not to have found it particularly newsworthy, for unfathomable reasons; the Indy’s in-house right-wing op-ed columnist gave the case a mention but it won’t be figuring too prominently in the writings of Deborah Orr or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. UPDATE 14th June: Quite untrue with regard to the Guardian, as I should have been more careful to check; apparently true regarding the Independent. My apologies to the news editors of the Guardian, should they read this. The Guardian’s op-ed writers seem not to have let the Kevin Williams trial fiasco upset their cherished world-views, on the other hand.)

Again, we need an Inquiry to tell us why it took over four years to bring charges in what must have been a rather simple case: there were, or should have been, clear records of who was on duty when and who had, or controlled, access to Mousa in the hours that he was killed.  Was there genuine incompetence or the willed variety? Again, any such investigation is going to mean criticism of the higher ranks of the Civil Service, probably the command ranks of the Army, and quite possibly of the Cabinet Ministers set over them, so one shouldn’t hold out especially high hopes of this ‘Independent Judicial Inquiry’ achieving great things.

Put soldiers in the midst of a foreign, partly hostile populace and you will need systems to prevent them killing detainees, and systems to properly investigate such killings if they do occur. This is not merely true but obvious. But, looking upon our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one begins to despair when one sees the ability of this country’s leaders to ignore even the most basic precepts of good sense. 

Mousa and Mendonca

June 1, 2007

 Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel receptionist suspected of storing insurgent arms, was arrested by British troops in September 2003 and died in their custody. A mere 41 months later, a Court Martial of various soldiers was held, including the Commanding Officer of the Battalion which seized Mousa, Colonel Jorge Mendonca. Having since been told that he a) would not and b) would face possible internal, non-criminal disciplinary action, Mendonca has now decided to quit the Army, to the fury of the Telegraph and the Mail.

 1) We don’t know how Baha Mousa was killed and we need to.

We know that Baha Mousa died as the result of being kicked and punched whilst being held in custody by the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.

What we don’t know, because contradictory evidence was brought at the court martial of the soldiers accused of killing Mousa, is whether he was beaten to death as a result of a deliberate policy of maltreating detainees – and if so who agreed on such a policy- or if he was killed spontaneously  by aggressive NCOs and Private soldiers, angered by the recent killing of their comrades by ‘insurgents’ – and if so who the Officers were who could and should have made it their business to know of, and prevent, such maltreatment.

It is entirely possible that the killing of Baha Mousa combined both explanations: if soldiers have been told that a certain amount of maltreatment of detainees is ‘policy’, then all it takes is one or two sadists as the dominant personalities in one infantry section, or one or two men angered by the recent killing of one of their mates, for that ‘certain amount’ of maltreatment to become a matter of kicking a man to death.

This is why the rules against torture have to be as strict as possible and as strictly enforced as possible. Soldiers in Iraq are young men in an entirely foreign environment living in justifiable fear for their lives. Limits on what they can do to civilians and guerrilla suspects are not just there to protect the civilians: they are there to protect the soldiers too.

The British Army has, to its credit, followed this policy with regard to when soldiers may open fire in Iraq and what kind of weaponry they may use. It is right that British troops do not call in artillery or air strikes on crowded Iraqi towns; it is right that British troops are prohibited from firing at anyone they cannot say is directly threatening life; it is right that British troops have no American-style ‘force protection doctrine’ which privileges the lives of troops above civilians. These things are right even if British troops lose their lives as a result; they are right even if the more moronic of their British fellow-citizens are ignorant of the dangers and sacrifices that British soldiers are making. The Army  must follow the same principle with regard to detainees.

 At the original Court Martial, the Prosecution said that the Army had done so. Mendonca’s defence said that he had specifically queried the rough treatment of detainees and been told that some maltreatment was official policy. Someone is lying and we need to know who.

2) The use of ‘war crimes’ legislation was mere window-dressing.

One NCO, Corporal Donald Payne, admitted beating Mousa, though not causing his death, and was convicted under a War Crimes statute. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that his punishment would have been lighter or his conviction less likely had he been charged, as he could easily have been, under the existing British Criminal or Military Laws governing assault and homicide.  There is no reason, therefore, to believe that any deterrent effect was achieved by dragging War Crimes legislation into this squalid affair. Payne committed a crime and deserved to go to jail. But the demand for a War Crimes prosecution that is said to have emanated from the Lord Chancellor’s Department shows, yet again, the genius that this government has for focusing on the inessentials, particularly in matters of life and death.

Of course a British soldier who helps kick a detainee to death should be imprisoned. But the screeching lawyers so obsessed with charging him under their shiny new statute failed utterly, and grotesquely, to investigate the death of Mousa in a full or a timely manner.

3) The length of time taken to investigate and prosecute British soldiers is a disgrace, which hurts all involved in such cases.

It took nearly four years to prosecute the case of a man killed in detention, despite the fact that the soldiers who detained him were known to the investigating authorities, thanks to the Army’s strict record-keeping, and easily accessible for interrogation. This was not, surely, an especially complex case.

Even less complex was the case of the seven paratroopers accused of beating an Iraqi to death, which took over two years to bring to trial and collapsed humiliatingly when six prosecution witnesses admitted lying in their statements, and suddenly discovered that they could not, strangely, remember where they had buried the body of their ‘murdered’ relative. Also un-complex was the case of the tank crewman who fired a machine-gun man assaulting a comrade with a rock, whose shots killed both men: it took over three years to tell him that he would not be facing a trial for murder or manslaughter.

In all three of these cases, British soldiers have been kept waiting for years to find out if they would go to court on homicide charges; and in the Mousa case, at least, this exquisite cruelty was extended to the Iraqi relatives of a man who really had been killed unjustifiably by British soldiers. It is a disgrace that this is happening.

4) The likeliest cause of such delay is the massive underfunding of the Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular.

I would agree with anyone who says that lives may be lost if the Army cannot properly investigate and prosecute crimes allegedly committed by its soldiers, and that, to this end, the military police should be properly funded or replaced. Anyone who says that this must be the Army’s sole or main priority is a fool. Lives are being lost by the despatch of soldiers to Afghanistan with cheap Pakistani-manufactured machinegun ammunition; lives – and many of them will be civilian lives- are likely to be lost by the absurd game of sending out tiny numbers of British soldiers to the Taliban heartlands of Helmand, to be ‘cheaply’ backed up by air and artillery support.

Anyone who has been anywhere near the bases of the British military over the last few years knows the truth: everything is being stripped to the bare bones so that the Government can fight two wars whilst buying a lot of shiny and dubiously useful new weapons systems. The underfunding of military justice is a disgrace, but is of a piece with every single corner of defence policy not linked to big spending on the products of arms manufacturers located in sensitive constituencies.

5) The prosecution of Col. Jorge Mendonca is puzzling, and possibly- but not necessarily- the disgrace it has been painted.

The Mail and Telegraph have alleged in the plainest terms that Mendonca was only prosecuted after criticism of an earlier trial in which private soldiers and Junior NCOs, but not Officers, were tried for the beating and humiliation of Iraqi looters. An officer was to be charged, and Mendonca, say the rightwing press, fit the bill. Maybe, maybe not. It is a little odd, to say the least, that the Commanding Officer of a Battalion was charged and not the officers, and WOs and Senior NCOs, whose had direct responsibility for the men accused of beating Baha Mousa. Were Donald Payne and his cohorts taken from the Intelligence Section, in which case the responsible officer should be the Battalion’s Intelligence Officer, a Captain? From the Headquarters Company, which would have been led by  a Major assisted by  a Company Sergeant Major? Again, we need to know.

If it was indeed the case that the Attorney General- a man who made a deeply dishonest change of mind over the legality of an attack on Iraq at a key moment in 2003- simply ordered the scapegoating of Colonel Mendonca, that would be a serious abuse of power. It would still, though, be less serious than the killing of Mousa, a matter which the ‘Mail’ and ‘Telegraph’ seem rather eager to forget.

6) We need to get out of Iraq. Out, out, out.

There has not been an atrocious British rule in Southern Iraq: we have evidence of no massacres, no mass roundups, no bombings or shellings of densely inhabited areas. The stupider newspaper columnists, and their more credulous readers, will think that all British soldiers are all murderous thugs regardless of the evidence (and at least some of them will come clamouring for ‘military intervention’ by these same irredeemable butchers the next time there is a crisis like Sierra Leone in 2000 or Rwanda in 1994). That is irrelevant.

But many things are more pressing. We cannot fight any war on the cheap, and yet the Government is trying to fight two wars on the never-never. Yes, it is mere conventional wisdom that fighting in Iraq left us unable to fight and rebuild Afghanistan: and conventional wisdom is right.  Britain has escaped the worst of the Iraqi conflict, partly by the tact and discipline of its military- and we can and should say this even in the context of a crime like Mousa’s death- and partly because British forces were located far from the ethnic shatterzones or the concentrations of Sunni rebels.

Now things are changing. The Shi’ites of the South are competing for local power, and they will not stop at non-violent means. The Iranians are, we should admit, the dominant power across most of Southern Mesopotamia, and they are unlikely tolerate the continuing incoherent mix of threats and negotiation from the lame-duck Bush Administration. Nobody knows if it is possible to bring Sadr into an understanding with a stronger Iraqi government, should one improbably emerge. The situation in Southern Iraq is probably now as stable as it will ever get. If British troops are pulled out of Iraq now, they will go with less of their own blood spilled, and less Iraqi blood shed, than will be the case if we stay.

There are things worth fighting and killing for, but giving the Bush Administration time to search for a clue is not one of them. A sensible policy is sometimes the most radical policy: a sensible Brown policy on Iraq would be withdrawal in a maximum of six months. And we are unlikely to see that, since there are simply too many threats that the Bushites will make. 

Brown will not want to see the ‘Aid and Trade for Africa’ agenda wrecked, and Bush is easily vengeful enough and irresponsible enough to threaten that. We will continue to have troops in Iraq, in smaller numbers, with the new Prime Minister hoping that you can be a little bit of a military occupier the same way that you can be a little bit pregnant. We will continue to have insufficient numbers of troops in Afghanistan, while airpower and artillery strikes keep bases secure and kill civilians, and while British ministers vapour about ‘reconstruction’ and ‘allied contributions’.

We are heading for more British military deaths, more Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths, a certain defeat in Iraq and a probable- and even more serious- defeat in Afghanistan. We are heading into these things with our eyes closed and our mouths open: look out for the first Brown speech about how he refuses to do ‘the easy thing rather than the right thing’ in Iraq.

The killing of Baha Mousa was a squalid and brutal affair, and the failure of all subsequent inquiries invite nothing but contempt.  But wars bring far worse  things than the death of one detainee. Leaving British troops in an ever more unstable war zone, attached to an ally flailing desperately for survival, is to invite more deaths, all squalid and all brutal and all, most importantly,  futile.