All right, I ended up writing this after a discussion online.
What Actually Happened
The political situation in Britain, 2002/3, was something of a historical oddity. To sum up a long and complicated story, Tony Blair became Leader of the Labour Party and managed to create his own political consensus, which he termed New Labour. His plan was to appeal to marginal Conservative voters who disliked the Tory Party (Thatcher polarised the Tories as much as she did anyone else) but manifestly disliked the idea of dour Old Labour. This succeeded remarkably well, allowing him to crush the Conservatives in the general election.
It did not take long for cracks to appear behind the scenes. New Labour was hip, Cool Britannia, all about being flashy and promoting Britain. Old Labour was dour, cynical, deeply suspicious of the monarchy and reflexively anti-American. Blair rapidly emerged as a narcissistic personality that not only refused to tolerate bad news, but also struggled to ‘spin’ bad news into good news. It was important for him to seem important – and he saw 9/11 as a godsend, allowing him to parlay his way into becoming a major global player. However, he also managed to give President Bush the expectation that Britain would provide all the support America wanted, without gaining anything in return.
Unsurprisingly, the push towards war was challenged in Britain. Blair was lucky; New Labour was largely behind him, while the Tories were lukewarm about taking a valid anti-American stance. Blair suffered defections from his party, but he managed to keep the loyalty of key supporters – including Gordon Brown – and managed to push the vote for war through the Houses of Parliament. France helped by making it clear that recourse to the UN was not an option, allowing Blair to blame the breakdown of talks on the French. Britain would take part in the war.
This caused something of a political/military separation between the US and UK forces in Iraq. Because it was important to keep the narrative of a separate war – and then ‘peaceful’ Basra vs. violent Baghdad – British and American forces often ended up working at cross-purposes. For example, the US-backed Iraqi Provisional Government needed the backing of Shia militias, which meant they would put pressure on the UK not to prune them back sharply (thus ensuring that the UK never really controlled Basra); in the meantime, UK officials were reluctant to admit that Iran was gradually gaining in influence in Basra and that everything achieved in Iraq was at serious risk of being lost.
What Might Have Happened?
Part One: The Political Battle
Blair was riding a tiger. One slip and he might have fallen off. I see Gordon Brown as one of the key personalities here; Brown not only wanted to be Prime Minister himself, he also thought that New Labour had gone too far in reshaping the base of what the Labour Party was supposed to stand for and planned to roll back the clock. However, Brown is in something of a blind. Open disloyalty to the party leader, particularly disloyalty that led to a vote of confidence, would certainly make him look very bad.
Let’s have Brown ask a few more questions of Blair, then challenge his optimistic assumptions about the outcome of the war. This probably won’t go down well with Blair, who will begin (as always) to try to mock the messenger. Brown’s position, however, gives him good grounds to be suspicious of any assumptions. His supporters in the party, including Robin Cook, line up behind him, goading him into a direct test of strength against Blair. He challenges not only the reasons for the war, but everything from the lack of UN support to the apparent shortage of any plans for the post-war Iraq. This plays well to Old Labour – they distrusted the United States – and also causes doubts to spread through New Labour.
This creates a major headache. If Labour’s two heavyweights fight it out, whoever wins will inherit a broken party and probably lose power completely. Blair attempts to do an End Run around Brown by forming an alliance with the Tory Party. However, the Tories have been having their own doubts. Their price for joining Blair in a coalition government (which in itself would be utterly bizarre by UK standards) is the adoption of several Tory polices. A number of Tories loathe Blair and want to watch him self-destruct. Others take a look at the shortage of plans for post-war Iraq and start to worry.
At this point, the promises Blair has made to Bush blow up in his face. Brown is outraged – and he’s not the only one – that Blair basically told Bush he could commit Britain to war on his own authority. The Tories are equally hacked off, for different reasons. Blair finds his political position disintegrating around him; everywhere he looks, there’s another major crisis or a political defection. A sharp-eyed Parliament is looking at every military move and assuming the worst, that Blair is likely to push Britain into war without authorisation. Former military officers add to the chaos by pointing out that Blair has overseen a number of cuts, some of them quite dangerous, to the British military.
Blair gambles. He calls a snap vote in the Houses of Parliament and lays out his case for war. It goes down about as well as Robespierre’s final speech in France; one by one, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Iain Duncan Smith rise to condemn the march to war. By the time the day ends, Blair’s position has been utterly destroyed. He resigns as Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party the following day, if only to prevent a Vote of Confidence that would lead to a general election. Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister largely by default, but – to a very dangerous degree – Britain has a coalition government.
Brown and Bush have a long and somewhat unpleasant series of talks. Bush was always more aware of Blair’s weakness than it seemed (historically, he did offer to accept Britain largely staying out of the war) and Brown has far less room to manoeuvre. They compromise; a handful of British SF operators will serve in Iraq, while Britain will reinforce its commitment to Afghanistan, thus allowing more American forces to be redeployed to Iraq and used there. The Pentagon hastily revises the plans to move American troops to Kuwait, now that Basra will have to be taken by an American force. (Among other things, the 4th Infantry Division gets rushed to Kuwait.) No matter what happened in the UK, the generals think, the war will begin on schedule.
Part Two: The Invasion of Iraq
No (or very limited) British participation in the war makes for some minor changes, at least in the early stages of the invasion. American forces will still push north, but several units will have to be deployed to secure Basra. This will hamper American plans to race to Baghdad, but – perversely – it will allow more time for the US to secure its lines of communication and deal with Saddam’s stay-behind units. America will, overall, advance much slower, but do a better job of clearing the rear first.
Basra is unlikely to hold out longer than OTL, for the simple reason that the US will want to deal with the city as quickly as possible. Quite what this will do to the immediate post-war settlement is impossible to determine; the US might well charge into the city, prototyping the Thunder Run concept, and then discover that the stay-behind units are still capable of causing trouble. (Historically, the UK fought a semi-separate war in Basra that involved picking out the edges rather than charging into the city.) However, once the city has fallen, most of the units that took the city will be hastily redeployed northwards, leaving Basra in the hands of second-line units. (And Shia-led militias.)
Saddam will not, I suspect, see any prospect of the US launching an attack from the north in this timeline. The 4th ID posed a threat Saddam took seriously, even though Turkey had refused to grant permission for the US military units to cross its territory and deploy into Iraq from the north. Instead, Saddam will rotate his units to the south … which may not make much difference, as the US will have complete control of the air. The US may find that the passage through the Karbala Gap costs more than it did in OTL, but the Iraqis are unlikely to be able to stop them.
However, this does give Saddam more time to prepare his capital to stand off the Americans. This causes a political nightmare for the US; from a purely pragmatic standpoint, leaving the city to starve is the easiest way to deal with it, but politically such an outcome would be inherently unacceptable. Bush doesn’t want to have to deal with media reports of starving Iraqi children because the mean old US isn’t allowing food through the lines. In the end, the US would probably be forced to take the city by force, using the Thunder Run concept.
Here is where things start to get interesting. If the Thunder Run concept was used in Basra, Saddam’s planners will have a good idea of what is coming their way. (Of course, given how divorced Saddam was from reality, they may not have a chance to prepare anyway.) The Iraqis will basically allow the US columns to punch their way into the city, then try to surround and destroy them. Historically, several of the US units almost did get overwhelmed by the Iraqis. Even so, the US has a great deal more firepower and absolute command of the air. The Iraqis are unlikely to be able to stop the US, but they can ensure that taking the city costs the US badly. By the time the fighting finally grinds to a halt, a number of Americans are dead, large parts of the city have been devastated and thousands of innocent Iraq civilians have been killed in the crossfire. Saddam’s forces make matters worse by hammering the city’s power, water and sewer systems as the city falls, trying to give the US a major crisis to cope with.
Perversely, the US actually has a better position than it did in OTL. The enforced pause to deal with Basra swept a great many future insurgents out of existence (as well as capturing or destroying supply dumps), making it much harder for the regime loyalists to prevent the US from moving supplies through the country. Furthermore, far more regime loyalists and foreign jihadists rallied to the final battle and were killed there. On the other hand, the US is still spread pretty thin and there are already clashes between Kurds/Shia and Sunnis. Worst of all, perhaps, Saddam has escaped the city and remains at large.
Part Three: The Early Occupation
The US has a major problem. No matter what promises they make, they cannot possibly actually keep them for months or years after the invasion. Iraq’s infrastructure is a mess, Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) are hitting any collaborators they see and the delicate balancing act between the various ethnic and religious groups is starting to come unglued. Both the Kurds and the Shia have been engaged in limited ethnic cleansing, the former clearing Sunnis out of Mosel and the surrounding regions while the latter have been driving Sunnis out of Basra and the south. Unsurprisingly, this feeds hatred amongst the Sunnis, who see themselves as having no choice, but to fight back.
Matters are complicated by the sheer incompetence of several US officials. Rumsfeld and his supporters have been planning to draw American forces out of the country, thus making it impossible for the occupation government to know what it can count on from a day to day basis. Worse, just about everyone who was anyone in Iraq was a party member. Now, party membership is grounds for barring someone from holding a government post. Sunnis who might otherwise have supported the occupation have largely joined the insurgency. As the summer grows hotter, so does the war.
The first attempt to put together a provisional government flops. The Sunnis boycott the government in droves after the first three members were rejected on grounds of ties to the Baath Party. (They were actually minor members of the party, people who had to join to keep their jobs.) The Shia and Kurds come to a covert agreement to marginalise the Sunnis for the next decade; the Shia start putting together plans for a Shia theocracy. Worried, the US decides to unilaterally cancel the plans for handing power over as quickly as possible.
There are just too many problems for the US to solve quickly; the Kurds may be inclined to assist the US, but the Shia are suspicious (the US let them down in 1991/2) and more inclined to turn to Iran. Shia troops flock to US-run recruiting stations for the New Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police, but once in the field they tend to be either militias – instead of stopping the cleansing they are actually making it worse – or cowardly. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency grows hotter and hotter, plunging Iraq into civil war. The US is forced to struggle to move supplies from Kuwait to military bases in Iraq.
The US’s solution to this is to start turning Basra into a shipping hub. Supplies will be shipped through Basra to Baghdad, cutting miles off the journey. This is greeted with mixed feelings in Basra; on one hand, the increased traffic will provide thousands of jobs, but on the other hand the militias have gotten used to a free hand. More to the point, Iran’s proxies want to keep the Shia resoundingly opposed to the US. Various agents keep spreading propaganda, pointing out that the US abandoned the Shia once and will probably do it again.
Matters are made worse by the arrival of a second wave of foreign fighters (from Syria, Saudi Arabia and several other Muslim countries.) AQ has arrived in force, offering the Sunnis help and support – and the Sunnis have few others to turn to. Their involvement, on the other hand, makes it much harder for the US to consider doing any deals with the Sunnis, after 9/11. The insurgents rapidly start attacking Shia targets, which incite retaliatory attacks, which in turn provoke more attacks. US troops are caught in the middle as civil war sweeps over southern Iraq.
With elections looming in the US, Iranian-backed proxies attack several US supply lines and contractors in Basra. Some of the attacks succeed, but others fail disastrously; however, when the US gives chase, they run into problems with Shia militias in the city. It dawns on the US that the Shia have effectively created a state of their own and, worse, that they are collaborating with Iran. Indeed, various army and police units have turned into the spearheads of militia formations. The proof that Iran has been supplying weapons to the insurgents cannot be denied.
Bush knows he cannot hesitate, not with elections breathing down his neck. His solution is to move reinforcements into the region and attempt to cut off the supply lines from Iran to Iraq, while delaying any more violent solution to the militias. This works, at first, then small US patrols are engaged by both Shia units and deniable Iranian proxies. Fire is exchanged regularly between Iranian and American warships. As Bush wins the elections, US officials have to come to terms with the fact that the Shia have effectively become the enemy … and they cannot rely on the Sunnis either. It starts looking as though the war is unwinnable.
Part Four: The Later Occupation
Having won the election, Bush doubles down and orders various American military officers to come up with a plan to turn the situation around. Their conclusion is that the US should focus on the Kurds and redeemable Sunnis, then deal with the Shia and their Iranian backers. This causes political problems, however; US-backed Kurdish factions will irritate both Turkey and the rest of Iraq. However, it is the only reasonable approach to take.
US forces are surged forward into Baghdad and various other locations in Central Iraq. They rapidly start working with the local population, hiring as many Sunnis as possible to serve as everything from soldiers and policemen to workers and guards. This shift in power helps reassure wavering Sunni factions, while at the same time undermining Shia factions who opposed the US. As more and more terrorists are rooted out, the US shifts slowly towards preventing ethnic/religious cleansing and working to separate redeemable Shia from Iran-backed terrorists.
It isn’t easy. Iran has no intention of letting the Shia go, not when they see a chance to take most of Iraq for themselves. However, as the US is flowing more combat power into the Gulf, Iran finds itself largely boxed in. The US isn’t inclined to turn a blind eye to Iranian probes across the border, nor is it willing to let its ships be harassed. Indeed, now that the US controls the oil wells and harbours, Iraq is slowly starting to export more and more oil to Europe, America and even China. There are even plans to build a pipeline across the desert through Jordan to Israel or Lebanon.
Bush’s military commitment is matched by a reformed economic and technological commitment. The US military may dislike nation-building, but that is what it finds itself doing as 2005 becomes 2006. Iraq has resources, including manpower and oil wealth; it just needs to be able to apply it. Each success leads to more success, slowly weaning some Shia factions from Iran. Bit by bit, Iraq turns the corner as more and more tribes sign up to the American side. AQ terrorists are slowly rooted out or forced to flee into Styria. The Shia see the Sunnis slowly reasserting control of Iraq and start breaking with Iran openly, keen to get in on the act before it’s too late. They are rewarded by being allowed to stand for elections, although this worries the Sunnis. The Shia are still the demographic majority in Iraq.