The Goat Song of Tony Blair: Presaging the End of the Iraq Misadventure

"Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind." -- Shakespeare, Hamlet.

In light of the British retreat from Iraq -- whose true significance is well-covered by Juan Cole and Patrick Cockburn -- I thought it might be a good time to revisit a piece from August 2006: "Goats and Hussars: A British Harbinger of American Defeat." The story, which originally appeared on, told of the precipitate abandonment of the British base of Abu Naji in the "safe" Iraq south -- a retreat under fire from "friendly" Shiites.

The story was derided by some at the time as a typically overwrought piece of anti-war agit-prop. The general line (much cleaned up here, purged of the usual aspersions on one's parentage, patriotism, sanity, sexuality, etc.) went like this: "This is just a long-planned, tactical restructuring of forces; it does not in any way presage a larger British pullout -- and certainly not an eventual American withdrawal under duress!"

But as Cole and Cockburn make clear, the situation in Britain's occupation zone has been falsely portrayed by the Anglo-American coalition all along -- a deliberate deception eagerly accepted by a lazy corporate media (and abetted by the fact that Bush and Blair have turned Iraq into such a hell on earth that independent journalists can scarcely travel outside the tiny Green Zone enclave in Baghdad). The events of last August were in fact an accurate presaging of the current pullout, right down to the pathetic attempts to spin a military and political defeat into a ringing success for the "Coalition" -- and the genuine triumph of violent Shiite extremists over the Bush-backed "Iraqi government forces" in asserting their dominance over the region.

The British retreat from Abu Naji was, as the article noted, a canary in the mineshaft, pointing the way to the latest withdrawal and foreshadowing the larger bug-out to come. There is really no other way for the murderous tomfoolery of Bush's idiotic and criminal invasion to end: under fire, in disarray, by fits and starts, in desperation and deception.

Certainly, better scenarios can be imagined. ("Better" being a highly relative term here; there are no good resolutions to this wilfully created horror, only less bad ones.) These would include: 1. Setting a firm timetable for a quick, orderly -- and complete -- withdrawal of the invading armies from Iraq. 2. Immediately opening direct negotiations with all nations in the region with the aim of mitigating as far as possible the instability, tension and rise in terrorism spawned by the aggression. 3. Convening an international conference with these same aims, as well as: securing Iraq's inviolability as it rebuilds from its ruined and supine condition; providing aid to help in its reconstruction, primarily through reparations from the US and the UK in acknowledgement of their blood guilt; possibly establishing peacekeeping forces, excluding those of the invaders, to provide security for reconstruction. 4. Opening America's borders to the many Iraqi refugees who will be forced to flee the harsh sectarian state that will be -- and always was -- the inevitable result of Bush's witless bloodlust in Iraq. 5. And, on a somewhat lesser level, turning over to the Iraqi people the billion-dollar Crusader fortress that Bush is building as a monument to his himself and his "conquest" (and his crony contractors).

These are a just a few things that could be done to lessen the blow. But they will not be done -- even when Bush and Blair are no longer in power -- because too many in the American and British Establishments share the arrogant and ignorant assumptions that led to the invasion of Iraq and the brutal, blundering occupation in the first place. One such assumption is that the Anglo-American powers have the right and duty to dominate world affairs -- and that they can, will and should enforce this right with military force, if need be. There is no figure in the national political firmaments of either country who does not buy into that unspoken -- indeed, often unconscious -- assumption. Or rather, there is no dissenter from that assumption who has the remotest chance of coming to power in either country.

And so the goat song will go on. (As Gore Vidal points out, "goat-song" is the literal Greek meaning for our word "tragedy": 'goat,' tragos, plus 'oide,' song.) The current British retreat, like last August's curtain-raiser, is the bad beginning; worse remains behind, and we will doubtless sup full of horrors before it's over.

Goats and Hussars: A British Harbinger of American Defeat
Chris Floyd |
August 31, 2006

Don Rumsfeld is fond of historical analogies when pontificating about Iraq; he particularly favors comparisons to the Nazi era and the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II. Unfortunately, any historian will tell you that Rummy's parallels are invariably false, even ludicrous. So we thought we'd give the beleaguered Pentagon warlord a more accurate and telling analogy to chew on.

Try this one, Don. Imagine that British occupation troops in, say, Hanover, had been forced to abandon a major base, under fire, and retreat into guerrilla operations in the Black Forest – in 1948, three years after the fall of the Nazi regime. And that as soon as the Brits made their undignified bug-out, the base had been devoured by looters while the local, Allied-backed authorities simply melted away and an extremist, virulently anti-Western militia moved into the power vacuum.

What would they have called that, Don? "Measurable progress on the road to democracy" ? "Another achieved metric of our  highly successful post-war plan"? Or would they have said, back in those more plain-spoken, Harry Truman days, that it was "a major defeat, a humiliating strategic reversal, foreshadowing a far greater disaster"?

You'd have to wait a long time – perhaps to the end of the "Long War" – to get a straight answer from Rumsfeld on that one, but this precise scenario, transposed from Lower Saxony to Maysan province, unfolded in Iraq last week, when British forces abandoned their base at Abu Naji and disappeared into the desert wastes and marshes along the Iranian border. The move was largely ignored by the American media, but the implications are enormous. The UK contingent of the invading coalition has always been the proverbial canary in the mineshaft: if they can't make a go of things in what we've long been told is the "secure south," where friendly Shiites hold absolute sway, then the entire misbegotten Bush-Blair enterprise is well and truly FUBAR.

(Continued after the jump.)

The Queen's Royal Hussars, 1,2000 strong, abruptly decamped from the three-year-old base last Thursday after taking constant mortar and missile fire for months from those same friendly Shiites. The move was touted as part of a long-planned, eventual turnover of security in the region to the Coalition-backed Iraqi central government, but there was just one problem: the Brits forgot to tell the Iraqis they were checking out early – and in a hurry.

"British forces evacuated the military headquarters without coordination with the Iraqi forces," Dhaffar Jabbar, spokesman for the Maysan governor, told Reuters on Thursday, as looters began moving into the camp in the wake of the British withdrawal. A unit of Iraqi government troops mutinied when told to keep order at the base – and instead attacked a military post of their own army. By Friday, the locals had torn the place to pieces, carting away more than $500,000 worth of equipment and fixtures that the British had left behind. After that initial, ineffectual show of force, the Iraqi "authorities" stepped aside and watched helplessly as the looters taunted them and cheered the "great victory" over the Western invaders.

The largely notional – if not fictional – power of the Baghdad central government simply vanished while the forces of hardline cleric Motqada al-Sadr, which already controls the local government, stepped forward to proclaim its triumph and guide the victory celebrations in the nearby provincial capital, Amarah. "This is the first city that has kicked out the occupier!" blared Sadr-supplied loudspeakers to streets filled with revelers, as the Washington Post noted in a solid – but deeply buried – story on the retreat.

British officials were understandably a bit sniffy about the humiliation. First they denied there was any problem with the handover at all: the Iraqis had been notified (a whole 24 hours in advance, apparently), the exchange of authority was brisk and efficient, and the Iraqis had "secured the base," military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge insisted to AP. But when reports of the looting at Abu Naji began pouring in, British officers simply washed their hands of the nasty business. The camp was now "the property of the Maysan authorities and Iraqi Forces [are] in attendance," said Burbridge; therefore, Her Majesty's military would have no more comment on the matter. In this casual – not to mention callous – dismissal of the chaos spawned in wake of the Hussars' departure, we can see in miniature the philosophy now being writ large across the country in the Bush Administration's "Iraqization" policy: "We broke it; you fix it."

And where are Her Majesty's Hussars now? Six hundred of them have dispersed into guerilla bands in the wilderness, where they will survive on helicopter drops of supplies while they patrol the Iranian border. The ostensible reason behind this extraordinary operation is two-fold, said the doughty Burbridge: first, to find out if the Bush Administration is up to its usual mendacious hijinks in claiming that the evildoers in Iran are fuelling the insurgency among the happily liberated Iraqi people; and second, to do a little more of that Iraqization window dressing before finally getting the hell out of Dodge completely, beginning sometime next year, according to reports across the UK media spectrum.

Of course, the good major didn't put it quite like that. "The Americans believe there is an inflow of IEDs and weapons across the border with Iran," he told the Post. "Our first objective is to go and find out if that is the case. If that is true, we'll be able to disrupt the flow." The second aim is training Iraqi border guards, he added.

Yes, a few hundred men wandering through the wasteland, dependent on air-dropped rations, will certainly be able to seal off an almost 300-mile border riddled with centuries-old smuggling routes. And modern-day Desert Rats rolling up in bristling Land Rovers to isolated villages where Shiite clans span both borders will no doubt be gathering a lot of actionable intelligence from the locals. And of course it is much easier to "train Iraqi border guards" on the fly in the wild than at a long-established base with full amenities and, er, training facilities.

In other words, the British move makes no sense – if you accept the official spin at face value, i.e., that it's an act of careful deliberation aimed at furthering the Coalition's stated goals of a free, secure, democratic Iraq. But those in the reality-based community will see it for what it is: a panicky, patchwork reaction to events and forces far beyond the Coalition's intentions or control.

The other six hundred Hussars driven out of Abu Naji have retreated to the main British camp at Basra – another "safe" city that has now degenerated into a level of violence approaching the hellish chaos of Baghdad, the Independent reports. British troops who once walked the streets freely, lightly armed, wearing red berets instead of helmets, are now largely confined to the base, except for excursions to help Iraqi government forces in pitched battles against the Shiite militias that control the city. Harsh religious rule has long descended on the once freewheeling port city, again presaging the sectarian darkness now settling heavily across Baghdad.

Just a few months ago, the UK's Department of Defence was churning out "good news" PR stories about life at Abu Naji – such as the whimsical tale of the troop's pet goat, Ben, a loveable rogue always getting into scrapes with the regiment's crusty sergeant major, even though the soldiers "knew he had a soft spot for Ben." The goat, we were told, had enjoyed visits from such distinguished guests as the Iraqi prime minister and the Duke of Kent. Now this supposed oasis of British power has been destroyed, with the Coalition-trained Iraqi troops meant to secure it either fading into the shadows or actively joining in with the rampaging crowds and extremist militias. Meanwhile, the Hussars are reducing to roaming the countryside on vague, pointless, impossible missions, killing time, killing people – and being killed – until the inevitable collapse of the whole shebang.

The goat is gone. The canary is dying. The surrender and sack of Abu Naji is a preview of what's to come, on a much larger scale of death and chaos, as the bloodsoaked folly of Bush and Blair's war howls toward its miserable end.