Iraq War Hurts British Military Recruiting

The British public's deep misgivings about the Iraq war seem to be making it harder for the British army to recruit.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Britons are following the US debate over withdrawal from Iraq with great interest. Eight thousand British troops are deployed there. The war is unpopular in Britain, and like President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair is under pressure to show the end is in sight. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

A smiling picture of Queen Elizabeth greets new recruits in this British army recruiting center in central London.

Warrant Officer JIM DUNCAN(ph): This is now test one.

AMOS: Warrant Officer Jim Duncan explains the aptitude test to two young men. It's the first step for enlistment.

WO DUNCAN: Speed and accuracy, speed and accuracy. All right, good luck to you then. The test will start, and I'll come back in about 15 to 20 minutes to see how you're doing.

AMOS: Twenty-one-year-old Ben White(ph) concentrates on the computer screen. He wants to become a combat medic, a dangerous assignment. He knows he could be sent to Iraq.

Mr. BEN WHITE: I'm one of these people that believe in fate. And if it's supposed to happen to me, it's going to happen to me whether I'm walking down the street coming here or if I'm in the middle of Iraq. It doesn't matter.

AMOS: But despite a new multimillion-dollar media campaign, British recruiters say they will miss their targets by 15 percent in the next year. In the Territorial Army, similar to the US National Guard, more than a quarter of the troops have resigned from the volunteer service since 2003, according to the Ministry of Defense. The result is a military force that is overstretched, says Christopher Langton, a defense analyst with London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER LANGTON (International Institute for Strategic Studies): Where there is overstretch is in the sort of middle ranks of the officers and the non-commissioned officer corps, who are going on operational tours sometimes more than once a year. So those people, the very valuable people, are leaving gaps.

AMOS: Overstretch was one reason given for a recent scandal in the British Royal Marines when a video showed new recruits naked, beating each other until one was kicked unconscious. Former defense officials said more experienced officers had been moved out of the training units.

There are several reasons for the drop in recruitment; a strong economy is one. But Michael Clarke, who teaches defense studies at Kings College in London, says Iraq is key because of the tempo of deployments and, says Clarke, because of the politics at home.

Professor MICHAEL CLARKE (Kings College, London): Privately, defense chiefs understand that Iraq is not doing them any good not because there are losses in Iraq, not because that the events in Iraq are not very pleasant, because public support for it is ebbing away, and that does the military some damage.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: Remembrance Day every November commemorates the sacrifices of British armed forces from Iraq and other conflicts dating back to the world wars. The British army is much smaller now, but the percentage of soldiers on active duty is more than in the Second World War. Their deployments include Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Iraq. There are new duties this spring leading a NATO force in Afghanistan.

Mr. AMYAS GODFREY (Armed Forces Program, Royal United Services Institute): It's something that Britain said it would take on, and this might be a problem of further overstretch.

AMOS: Amyas Godfrey, the head of the Armed Forces Program at the Royal United Services Institute, says the British military had counted on a faster exit strategy for Iraq.

Mr. GODFREY: To be honest, the major deployment to Afghanistan's in May, and they're not going to have been pulled out.

AMOS: In July, a leaked memorandum showed the British government was considering a drawdown from more than 8,000 soldiers to about 3,000 by next summer, a plan that met the timetable for Afghanistan. Now the British Embassy in Basra says force levels will not change before the end of 2006. The British exit strategy, the same as the American one, depends on trained Iraqi troops able to win the war on their own, says military analyst Christopher Langton.

Mr. LANGTON: I think we've done our best to get it right, and we don't know whether we got it right yet. The political side may not be quite so correct. And certainly, the force opposed to the British troops in Basra and around that area now is increasing.

AMOS: A force that has specially targeted British soldiers in the past few months. A series of suicide car bombs has also raised questions about stability in the south and the number of British soldiers still needed, says Langton.

Mr. LANGTON: There will be a drawdown of some sort. It won't be as dramatic as perhaps some people think.

AMOS: The American president's vow to settle for nothing less than total victory binds British soldiers to an American timetable, as both armies struggle with how to turn Iraq over to Iraqis. Deborah Amos, NPR News, London.

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