Britain's six-year presence in Iraq officially came to an end yesterday, as British forces took down their flag at a base in Basra, handing it over to U.S. forces (Pentagon video here). Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a meeting in London with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki; afterwards, he declared Iraq a "success story" at a news conference.
The Iraq war was deeply unpopular in Britain, and it drew massive protests, especially during Britain's initial involvement. Indeed, the size of protests abroad sometimes dwarfed those in America: on a worldwide day of protesting in February 2003, a London protest drew 750,000; Barcelona, 650,000; and Rome, 1.3 million, all according to police estimates, as it became apparent to the world that American forces would invade. We all remember the international tension felt during those days, despite the coalition of nations that supported America as it toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. For a reminder of America's strained relationships in 2003, and the wildly varying strains of foreign policy that ran through our culture, one needs only to remember Freedom Fries.
With those times behind us, one can't help but think that yesterday's development will help U.S./British relations and make room for Obama to secure what he needs from the Brits--a continued and significant backing in Afghanistan.
In November, two thirds of Britons believed their troops should leave Afghanistan within a year, according to an ICM/BBC poll. Given the messiness of that mission and the Taliban's significant gains in recent years, plus the threat of a destabilized Pakistan and the use of border regions as a haven for Taliban rule, it's reasonable to assume one year is too short a time frame.
Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan said in March that British forces could stay there another five years, and from a U.S. perspective that would certainly help. Insofar as public opinion determines whether that happens, the end of one unpopular war might provide cover for the continuation of another.
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