London -- Gordon Brown waited 10 years for Tony Blair to pass on the prime ministership, and no sooner does he finally inherit the job than he has to figure out a way to pull the British troops out of Iraq in the middle of the American "surge."
The 5,500 British troops in Iraq are by far the largest foreign army after the Americans, but they control almost nothing except the ground they are standing on. Five hundred are under permanent siege in Basra Palace, and the rest are at the airport outside of town, under constant attack.
They have almost no influence over the three rival Shia militias and the associated criminals who actually run the city and fight over the large sums of money to be made from stolen oil.
Forty-one British soldiers have died in Iraq already this year, compared to 29 in the whole of last year. The deaths are wasted, and it's high time to go home, but Brown is reluctant to anger the White House by pulling all the British troops out before the Americans are ready to leave.
That, however, is unlikely to happen before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009, as British generals are well aware.
The Democrats in Congress clearly prefer to see the Republicans go into next year's election with the albatross of Iraq tied firmly around their necks.
Bush says his policy is to "wait to see what David (Petraeus) has to say' when the commanding general in Iraq reports in mid-September on what progress the "surge' is making. But Bush didn't give Petraeus the job without knowing in advance what he would say.
Petraeus will see light at the end of the tunnel, as he always does. The Democratic majorities in Congress will criticize his report but not rebel against it, and U.S. troops will probably stay in Iraq at roughly the present numbers until Bush leaves office 17 months from now.
Several thousand American soldiers will have to die to serve these agendas, but so will around a hundred British troops.
British generals are deeply unhappy at this prospect, but as students of the indirect approach in strategy, they have chosen to argue not so much that the war in Iraq is lost (though it is), but that the war in Afghanistan is still winnable.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, was at it again last week, telling the BBC during a visit to Afghanistan that "the army is certainly stretched. And when I say that we can't deploy any more battle groups [in Afghanistan] at the present moment, that's because we're trying to get a reasonable balance of life for our people.'
The too-frequent cycle of combat deployments is certainly harming Britain's forces, with divorces and suicides soaring and retention rates plummeting, but Dannatt's unspoken subtext was: you can fix this by pulling us out of Iraq.
There are already more British troops in Afghanistan (7,000) than in Iraq, so the argument makes a kind of sense. Except that Afghanistan, in the end, is also an unwinnable war, at least in the ambitious terms still used in the West.
President Hamid Karzai's best chance of survival is for the Western troops to leave soon. Then he would at least be free to make the deals with warlords, drug dealers and renegade Taliban, in the traditional Afghan style, that would secure his authority and prolong his life. But if false hope about Afghanistan provides the pretext for pulling British troops out of Iraq, why not?
When Gordon Brown faces Parliament again in October, his biggest Iraq problem will not be pressure from the public. It will be from the army.