A minor political imbroglio has been spinning its way through London this week, with the prime minister and the leader of an opposition party exchanging public letters arguing their differences of opinion on Iraq.
Earlier this month, Sir Menzies Campbell, of the Liberal Democrat party, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown urging a complete withdrawal from Iraq.
Brown has now responded with a lengthy and articulate "no," arguing that British forces still have a responsibility to the Iraqi people and their international partners.
MENZIES CAMPBELL TO GORDON BROWN
Dear Prime Minister,
It is now urgently necessary for a reappraisal of government strategy in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan. The current level of British casualties is unacceptable.
In the case of Iraq, what is being achieved by the continuing British presence? Our troops are severely restricted in what they can do and they are subject to unreasonable risks. There is now a clear recognition that the objectives of their mission cannot be achieved.
It is nearly a year since Sir Richard Dannatt's realistic analysis of the British position and nothing has happened since to contradict him. Is it the case, as some have argued, that our continuing presence in Iraq is now only to show solidarity with the United States? Were that to be so, could it be justified against the present level of our casualties?
There are persistent reports that there will be a reduction in the number of British forces deployed to Iraq. It is time to set a framework for the complete withdrawal of all of our forces. The need to do so is underlined by the situation in Afghanistan where our forces are at full stretch. Their position would be made much easier if we were not engaged simultaneously in two such demanding deployments. Afghanistan poses a severe challenge for our forces with its triple requirement to fight the Taliban, to win hearts and minds, and to implement the counter narcotic policy.
In short, is it not clear that withdrawal from Iraq would give us a considerable advantage in Afghanistan, where the military advice is that NATO's mission can still be successful.
It is time to make the necessary strategic adjustment. Recent events demand it.
Yours sincerely, Menzies Campbell
GORDON BROWN TO MENZIES CAMPBELL
Thank you for your letter of 16 August about Iraq and Afghanistan. First of all let me say that like you I deeply regret and am saddened by each and every casualty and loss of life. Our armed forces deserve all our praise for the courage and dedication they show.
I disagree however with your contentions about UK strategy in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I have made clear in the House of Commons, UK forces, along with their coalition partners, continue to have an important job to do in Iraq, assisting the Iraqi Government and its security forces in delivering security and helping build their capabilities - military and civilian - so that they can take full responsibility for the security of their own country.
I believe that we continue to have clear obligations to discharge. We are there at the express invitation of the Iraqi Government, implementing a UN mandate renewed last November in UNSCR 1723. We, together with the rest of the international community, have undertaken to support the country's political and economic development through the UN-led International Compact for Iraq. These are commitments it is not in our interests simply to abandon.
As I have made clear, decisions on UK force levels and posture in Iraq are dictated by conditions on the ground. In the three provinces handed over to Iraqi control in Multi-National Division (South-East), the Iraqi authorities have proved themselves sufficiently capable of dealing with outbreaks of violence using a combination of security and political responses. The situation remains challenging. Our aim is that Iraqi Security Forces will be capable of delivering security across the South and that we will be able to draw down our forces.
It is wrong to say that the continuing presence of UK forces in Iraq will achieve little, or that they are severely restricted in what they can do. UK forces in Basra continue to have the capability to strike against the militias and provide overall security. They will continue to work with the Iraqi authorities and security forces to get them to the point where they can assume full responsibility for security. We will support them in this endeavour, but it is for Iraqi leaders to make the political decisions and compromises which are essential to the future of Basra and their country.
So I am determined that our approach to Iraq should be based on the principle that we will fulfil our obligations to the Government and people of Iraq and the United Nations. These obligations are set out in United Nations Resolutions. That is why I reject your approach of a pre-determined exit timetable that would undermine our international obligations, as well as hindering the task of our armed forces and increasing the risks they face, and therefore would not serve our national interest.
Decisions on the ground will be made on the basis of advice from our military and other experts, taking fully into consideration the safety of our armed forces. I will do nothing that puts at risk the ability of our armed forces, who have done and are doing a magnificent job, to accomplish their work. And we will continue to work closely with the Americans and our other coalition partners to ensure security and then to fulfil the key overwatch functions - training/mentoring; protection of supply routes; and maintenance of a reintervention capability.
Turning to Afghanistan, I do not seek to hide the tough, dangerous and difficult tasks and terrain involved there, but as in Iraq I will strongly defend the integrity, bravery and intelligence with which UK commanders and forces are taking forward the strategy they have developed. The UK has a strong force in Afghanistan - the second largest international force in the country, enabling us to make a contribution to the Southern region as a whole. We are operating as part of a multi-national mission of some 37 nations, working with the Afghan Government to build strong and sustainable Afghan capacity and institutions. The international community is united in its desire to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a failed state. Many nations, not just the UK, are offering military, financial and political assistance. In Helmand alone, the Provincial Reconstruction Team has implemented over 130 projects bringing real benefits to local Afghans, including wells, roads, new and refurbished schools, updated healthcare facilities and better irrigation systems for local farmers. There is much to do, but progress will be measured across a wide range of activity - covering governance, reconstruction, economic development and the building up of local security forces.
Yours sincerely, Gordon Brown