We blundered in. Let's not betray them too

Iraq elections - Stephen Grey argues that Britain has completely failed in Iraq and that if we keep

My friend Mohaned, an Iraqi doctor, writes from Baghdad. "It's a horrible place these days," he says, "no public services at all, six hours of electricity, and finally, no tap water at all since six days. Very nice circumstances for a happy elections!" Like most Iraqis, he despairs of what has happened to the country since the Americans and British invaded and "really can't imagine" what the future will bring.

But the last thing he wants is for western forces to run for the border after the elections. After all the suffering, he hopes that some form of democracy can be salvaged. As he puts it: "I don't think the new politicians will be any less corrupt, but at least we should have the chance to vote them out every few years."

Others I have met around the country share those hopes. They believe the invasion was misconceived but they want something to show for it - and not just a civil war. Most educated Iraqis would like a taste of western-style democracy. Are we simply to abandon these people?

Whatever the propaganda may say, almost everything tangible about the invasion has been bad for the Iraqi people. Their government, schools, hospitals, water, electricity, fuel, roads, salaries and sense of security have all suffered and the only gain has been the intangible promise of freedom and democracy, towards which these elections are supposed to be an important step.

Yet it is precisely at this juncture that calls in Britain for a troop withdrawal, for a "cut and run" strategy, are gaining momentum.

I know there are many who honestly believe that a withdrawal of foreign troops is the only way of ending the violence , or at least that it might make the inevitable civil war less bloody. Yet I suspect there are also many who, in calling for a retreat, are indulging a sneaking desire to see everything in Iraq go wrong. They hope, at least at the back of their minds, for a disaster that would vindicate their opposition to the war.

Britain's armed forces, I have learned, are hedging their bets: preparing for both the long haul and the swift escape. On the one hand, whole brigades are preparing for deployment to Iraq in 2006, and on the other, blueprints exist for an exit within weeks.

Last summer I heard the head of British defence intelligence, Lieutenant General Andrew Ridgway, predict that Britain could start withdrawing soon after these elections. He argued that a government in Baghdad could win credibility only by ensuring that foreign troops left. Besides, he said, much of the violence in the country was, of itself, generated by the presence of outsiders like us. "I believe that our manoeuvre troops [the infantry battalions] will be out by the end of [2005] at the latest," he said then.

Ridgway was right to say that a new government must at least go through the motions of negotiating for the withdrawal of foreign troops, but, like many others, he was wrong to think that newly trained Iraqi policemen and National Guard units would be ready by now to "hold the bridge" against insurgents. It may be years before that point is reached.

If we are in, therefore, we must be in for the long term; there will be no sudden upturn in Iraq to make our troops redundant. So now is the time to confront any doubts. Britain must decide: do we stay and carry on, or do we withdraw and leave the US with the responsibility for clearing up a mess that, after all, is largely of its own making? That second option would be a political crime of the worst kind, for we would be reneging on every promise we have made to the Iraqi people.

Whatever glee the war's opponents might have in saying "I told you so", would it really feel good to abandon the Kurds, who have suffered so much; to abandon the Shias, whom we abandoned before in 1991; and to abandon the peaceful democrats whom we promised to help establish a new political future? Leaving now would be the "Congo solution": destroy a country's native society, as Belgium did, and then abandon it to its destruction. And the ensuing bloodbath could be comparable with the slaughter of Hindus and Muslims when India was partitioned.

There is also a wider strategic consideration. Would it be in Britain's interests to allow Iraq to become a new Afghanistan - with entire regions left lawless, where training camps for militants could be freely established for the preparation of recruits for a worldwide battle against the west?

Entering Iraq may have been a vast strategic blunder - and I have yet to meet a Briton in Iraq who will say it was not - but it is time to move away from refighting the politics of the 2003 invasion and turn instead to the politics of how we help to get this country on its feet. The great undiscussed subject here is how we have failed the swathe of Iraq that is in effect under British rule.

Visiting Basra before Christmas, I saw a disturbing opinion poll conducted for the military which revealed that an incredible zero per cent (that's not a single person) had noticed any economic reconstruction since Saddam Hussein was toppled.

The evidence was everywhere - pools of sewage in the streets, tap water scarcely available, queues for petrol and fuel oil that were longer than I'd ever seen, and electricity that worked for six hours a day (nearly a year after the British announced the restoration of round-the-clock power). "You can see why it's hard to maintain consent here," remarked one British officer.

At the British divisional headquarters I met Lieutenant Colonel Paul Hodge, just leaving after a tour spent trying to get to grips with such problems. "We have not been able to carry out the reconstruction we would have expected," he admitted. As the Americans diverted money to pay for increased security up north, Hodge saw one major project after another - in sectors such as electricity, water and sewerage - being cancelled. Up to $3bn of promised reconstruction cash was diverted by the US from its programme for the south. "I would hesitate to use the word 'raped' but I would say they have taken away money from the areas that desperately needed money," he said.

Meanwhile, Hodge revealed that money was squandered on badly thought-out projects, such as a new gas-power station built in the desert without thought of a pipeline to supply the gas. Like his predecessors, he had hoped to solve the shortage of electricity with a scheme to connect Basra to Kuwait's national grid, where there is an excess of supply, or through quick-build power stations on the Kuwaiti side of the border. All such schemes have been vetoed from Baghdad without explanation, however. "The truth is that people here are going to carry on living in the desperate state they are in," he said. "As a soldier, I didn't come out here for Blair or Bush, I came out to help rebuild the country and we have achieved a lot. But I wanted to achieve so much more."

Brigadier Paul Gibson, commander of Britain's 4th Armoured Brigade in the Basra area, was hardly more positive. "Most people I talk to have the view that things have not changed. There was a great expectation after the war. We are not scratching that itch. We are spending money but are not capturing people's imagination."

Britain has been running a few of its own projects, some paid for from the American pot, others by our own Department for International Development (DfID) - but many of the projects run by the army are geared, quite reasonably, to looking after their own soldiers' safety, or "force protection", as it is called. Money is channelled to communities near their bases and to known insurgent hot spots in an effort to buy off hostility.

What of Britain's financial contribution? Do the British really have any right to complain when the Americans turn off the tap of money to the British zone? Did we arrive in Iraq simply as mercenaries, with no plans or projects of our own? That last question produces a wry smile from British soldiers because the hope was to fund reconstruction from Iraq's oil exports.That was never realistic. It ignored the billions needed for the job and it overestimated the value of Iraqi oil. With almost no taxes coming in, current oil revenue just about pays for the government's day-to-day budget; it can hardly fund reconstruction.

So Iraq needs money to rebuild. Having invaded and disrupted the place, we owe its population at least the price of restoring order. The insurgency will run and run until people find jobs and don't feel that every aspect of their lives has got worse. Blair's war has a cost that we have not yet paid.

Even if we had the money, though, that is only the start, for the experience of Iraq teaches us an unexpected lesson. We need more than cash and more than well-drilled fighting men. We need administrators who are capable of organising the work of reconciliation and repair effectively. The army has tried, but this is not its role. Apart from anything else, officers spend at most six months in Iraq; some commanders (due to rotations of command) are spending just three months. Nor is aid from DfID the answer - the department quite rightly wants to concentrate its money and best people on tackling world poverty.

Like it or not, Britain's mission in Iraq is neo-colonialist; it is about the projection of power and the installation of a new regime more acceptable than the previous one. For this job, we need people who serve not as soldiers but as administrators.

It is time, then, to reinvent Britain's Colonial Office, with a staff of people who are prepared to rough it like the old political agents on the North-West Frontier, and who will know their territory and accept the risks in exchange for the romance of doing a valued job in wild places. And yes, some of them will die for their work, just as the political agents once did. It could be called the Office for Foreign Administration, or something like that.

We need it. Look at the rush of interventions since the end of the cold war - Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. Iraq is not a one-off. Yet we insist on using amateurs, volunteers from around Whitehall, to handle the politics and administration.

Handling complex negotiations with an Iraqi tribe is not something that an army officer with a one-month course in Arabic, or a young diplomat on detachment from his London desk, can be expected to do successfully alone. Without a specialist institution, a proper department staffed by real experts, the danger is that we will make a botch of one intervention after another.

We must not leave Iraq now. That would be a betrayal. But carrying on as we are is no better an option. Iraq needs sophisticated, intelligent and dedicated support. If Britain is to be a policeman on the world stage in this way, it is not a job that can be fairly left to our soldiers alone. We need civilian officials capable of picking up the pieces and rebuilding the communities for which we are assuming responsibility.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, An election riven with contradictions