Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Saturday, 26 September 2009 12:03 UK

Iraq legacy for Afghan campaign

As the debate continues about increasing troops in Afghanistan, questions are being posed over whether an alternative strategy should be pursued to sever local support of the Taliban. Hugh Sykes in Baghdad reflects on the lessons that could be learned from the experience of British forces in Iraq.

Flag lowering in Basra
Iraqis claim the Iraqi military were the ones who stopped militias in Basra

On the day United Kingdom troops hauled down the Union flag in Basra earlier this year, a British brigadier burst out of his office and shouted at one of my BBC colleagues: "That Hugh Sykes - get him in line."

He then stormed off without explaining what he was upset about.

But I suspect he had heard a report of mine broadcast after I spent four days in Basra city itself, wandering about, asking people what the British had achieved there.

Most of them said not much had been achieved.

Everyone I spoke to complained that the infestation of competing militias in Basra was only really tackled after the British had retreated to their airbase out in the desert.

They told me they believed that the militias were only truly neutralised by an Iraqi military operation called the "Charge of the Knights".

One man told me the British presence at bases in the city had actually made the militia problem worse, by acting as a magnet to the men with guns, with numerous civilians caught in the crossfire.

When I was there earlier this year, the city certainly felt calm.

Fetid canal

The Corniche along the Shatt al-Arab waterway came to life in the evenings, with families wandering along in the dusk under coloured lamps, cafes and kebab stalls doing good business. Children were diving off a pontoon bridge and larking about in the water.

We ate, twice, at a floating restaurant, a converted pleasure boat, with tables on deck.

But in many other places, the city looked worse than it did when the British first arrived - especially in the canals.

Troops deal with symptoms not causes

In 2003 the canals were crumbling from years of neglect during Saddam Hussein's regime.

But six years on, they were even worse, with putrid stagnant water filled with rubbish, used nappies, engine oil, and broken cars and bikes.

One day, I went into a bookshop to buy a copy of a novel about Basra that I had been recommended.

I was warmly welcomed and given tea with a thick layer of sugar at the bottom of the glass.

Market quest

Desperately seeking evidence of some positive legacy of nearly six years of British occupation, I asked the bookseller for directions to the fish market that had been reconstructed by British forces. It was one of the projects UK Ministry of Defence press officers had often told me about with pride.

"Fish market?" he pondered, "what fish market?"

British troops in Basra
The British legacy seems unknown to the people of Basra

I asked several customers in the bookshop the same question. No-one knew what I was talking about.

Well the fish market does exist, but it is a tiny detail in a broken city. And people do not seem to know about it.

That is a simple failure to market success. It is also a pointer to another feature that American and British interventions in Iraq and in Afghanistan have in common.

There is an assumption that military power, and ever greater numbers of troops, can solve all the problems.

But my sense after spending many months in Iraq, and several weeks in Afghanistan, is that the assumption is deeply flawed. Troops deal with symptoms, not causes.

The previous US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, acknowledged that even his famous troop surge only worked in parallel with the awakening movement of Sunni tribes who decided to turn against their former al-Qaeda allies and work alongside the Americans.

'Restoring hope?'

In Afghanistan, Nato troops have, of course, fixed roads and schools and so on, but not enough, not enough to win those crucial hearts and minds.

I have spent a lot of time with British and American forces here in Iraq.

Many senior officers have told me privately, and passionately, that military operations against insurgents are doomed unless they are matched by major civil projects to improve people's lives and give them work and hope.

In 2005, walking round Zafaraniya, a poor suburb of Baghdad, an American battalion commander Colonel Brian Doser (who is also a civil engineer) showed me the new sewage and clean water systems that he and his team had installed.

"We should have done this much sooner," he volunteered.

And then he made a really persuasive point.

"You can't wait for the security problem to be solved before you work on reconstruction," he said.

"If you wait to solve the security problem before you improve the infrastructure, you may never solve the security problem."

Cash incentive

I spoke to some of the young men that he had employed as labourers. One told me that he had been in the main local Mehdi Army militia before getting this job.

Afghans with UK troops
Many officers think more major civil projects are needed

"I needed the money," he said.

In Kabul, a young man started sobbing as he told me about his life.

"Why is my country so miserable?" he asked.

"What have you done for us over the past eight years? If the Taliban come to see me now, I'll join them."

Back in Basra, six years ago, walking around the city centre, British Captain Dan Guest told me that some of the young unemployed men there had to survive on a few dollars a month.

Then he told me that going rate for an insurgent to mortar a British base was $25 (£15.6).

"It's a no-brainer," he added.

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