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British Army`s "Unfinest hour"
on 28 June 2009
Richard North has written a devastating history of the British Army`s involvement in Iraq. He has stated his case with a lot of verve and passion. He should rightly take some credit for highlighting the "Snatch landrover" scandal, but in many ways the book falls short of its considerable promise.
For instance, the book almost invariably cites references to newspapers` coverage of events but the author does not appear to have interviewed many significant individuals involved in the conflict who might have shed greater light on some of the wider issues involved - he does not seem to have interviewed any US politicians or military for their input, and I was also surprised to see he was not able to access any major documents from US under "Freedom of Information". I find it difficult to believe that there are not some rich pickings from US diplomatic, military and intelligence sources on their views of the British involvement.
Mr North also takes aim at Tony Blair re his opportunism and lack of reality but then again Blair was no novice in the employment of military forces as John Kampfner has set out in "Blair`s Wars" - he committed British forces to action five times in six years. Where Blair seems to have fallen short is poor selection of politicians of a sufficient weight and stature as Defence Ministers to exercise robust oversight over the conduct of the war, and particularly the military, in Iraq and that he probably should have made some changes in senior personnel similar to Bush`s overhaul of his military ie the appointment of Gates as a "heavyweight" Defence Secretary, Petraeus as forces commander etc.
And it is in this sphere, the conduct of the war on the ground and its political supervision, Mr North has tended to "pull his punches". There was quite rightly, as he has identified, major deficiencies in the procurement system. (There is an anti EU slant given to why procurement was badly skewed - due to a deal with Chirac re future EU forces, but this fails to convince entirely). Mr North only leaves it really to the final part of the book when he starts to take aim at the British officers and their inability to confront the situation on the ground - as Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup is quoted: "I think that we were a bit too complacent about our experiences in Northern Ireland and certainly on occasion we were a bit too smug about those experiences". As readers of "Fiasco" and "The Gamble", as well as "The War Within", know: the Americans had to ascend a very steep, learning curve in learning how to cope with the insurgency and there was a fair amount of "we have the background and experience gathered in Northern Ireland etc" from the British side for them to contend with. The Americans seem to have been able to find it within themselves to revamp equipment, tactics, training and personnel, particularly senior officers, to at least start to turn things round. There seems to have been nothing approaching this on the British side and it is unfortunate that the author doesn`t see fit to comment on why not.
This is troubling as the UK military commitment to Afghanistan is being increased and one wonders whether, based on the unhappy experiences in Basra, we may be setting up our forces for a major fall there. Have the forces learnt the lessons from Basra - are they able to adapt to a new situation? The author seems to be proffering proper "procurement" as the answer but he does admit to there also being required "right structures, tactics" although he does not much elaborate thereon.
In addition, while criticising the UK government for withdrawing the forces over the period from 2003 onwards, the author states "More troops devoted to fighting the insurgency are not necssarily an answer". But this flies in the face of one of the reasons why the US forces were able to reduce the level of violence by means of "the Surge". The author doesn`t elaborate why this was not pursued by the British in their area of responsibility. In the US context, it was a small group of army officers, some retired, under the cover of President Bush and Republican Senator McCain, who pushed through an increased level of forces to successfully conduct a counter insurgency campaign as a counterproposal to the military and political establishment`s view of a progressive, if not outright, reduction of forces in Iraq. There does not seem to have been any military officers on the British side pushing for changes in troop levels or tactics etc. Did officers believe that there was no way to adjust tactics or consider alternatives? Did officers believe their forces were adequate? The author is silent on this whole area. In the US context, US forces were also initially poorly equipped for the insurgency and Rumsfield was called to account by disgruntled troops on a visit to the area re lack of protection. But this was viewed by some at the time as a secondary (albeit still important) symptom of a wider set of problems connected with an insurgency that seemed to have spun out of the US` control.
The US forces seem to have successfully turned around significant numbers of hostile locals - sometimes by arming them and getting them to fight other insurgents - why did this not take place in southern Iraq? Could they not find or persuade anyone?! Was there no political will? Was there a military decision not to do so? Were the forces on the ground inadequate to train significant numbers of Iraqis to fight? Again the author is silent.
Most successful counter insurgencies to some extent rely on good intelligence gathering eg Malaysia, Northern Ireland etc - again this is not really addressed by the author throughout his book.
The 'for you, Tommy, the war is over" moment came in May/June 2008 when US and Iraqi forces, without any substantive British military involvement, launched Operation 'Promise of Peace' in Basra and southern Iraq which killed 2,000 of the Mahdi Army - long a major bugbear of the British forces in their area, and significantly curtailed their abilities to terrorise the local population. The Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki thereafter appears to have effectivly terminated the British presence in the country due to "nonperformance".
Overall, Mr North should be complimented on writing this book on what appears to have been one of the British Army`s saddest and most unsuccessful military actions in a very long time. He rightfully deserves credit for identifying problems in the army`s procurement system. It is regrettable however he has not more fully explored some of the other major issues arising - some of which he briefly alludes to but without developing further in his book. Also he may have missed an opportunity to comment on whether lessons have been learnt for Afghanistan.