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Analysing the past actions of the British army is key to understanding its future

Kim Sengupta
·10-min read
<p>British soldiers in Basra in 2004</p> (Giles Penfound/British Army via Getty)

British soldiers in Basra in 2004

(Giles Penfound/British Army via Getty)

In March 2006, a colleague and I were leaving Helmand for Kabul having spent time there covering the impending arrival of the British forces – who were meant to be a mission not lasting more than two years.

“Are you guys going to the British embassy in Kabul?” asked Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley as we were getting on a helicopter. “If you are, can you ask them what exactly is HMG’s policy on poppy eradication? Because no one has told us down here.”

Henry was in charge of a small UK military group at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base in the Helmandi capital, Lashkar Gar, which was being handed over by the Americans to the British to become the task force headquarters.

One of his main tasks was to convince the local population that the latest foreign army to arrive in their land would come as friends, bearing aid and development. He and his deputy, Major Sean Pendry, took us to village shuras in soft-skinned Land Rovers, the soldiers without body armour and helmets in an effort to look unthreatening.

But, at the same time, the American private security company DynCorps started coming into town to carry out out poppy eradication. Listening to the village elders complaining about famers having their livelihoods destroyed, and warnings of how the Taliban would exploit the discontent, Henry sought guidance from London on ways of suspending the crop destruction for the time being.

He had little joy. DynCorps started eradicating poppy fields, the farmers waited for the promised compensation. Soon the contractors took to coming over to the PRT base for dinner with their fellow Americans. One evening, while we were there, a car packed with explosives followed them and drove into the main gate. It was the first suicide attack in Lashkar Gar.

Henry, a former SAS officer, a brave man of charm and modesty, died in 2016, just as he was close to making history, completing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole. He was raising money for the Endeavour fund for injured servicemen and women. In the intervening years we would talk from time to time about all that went wrong and right in those early Helmand days.

In April 2003, as the statue of Saddam Hussein was being pulled down at Firdous Square in Baghdad, I found myself standing next to Colonel Brian P McCoy of the US marines, who had led one of the columns of American forces into the city.

McCoy winced when he saw an American flag being put on the face of Saddam and ordered that it should be replaced by an Iraqi one. Some of his men protested. That particular Stars and Stripes, they claimed, was the one which had flown over the Twin Towers on 9/11, and had been rescued for that very day. “That’s bulls***”, was the colonel’s reaction. “Look at it, it’s brand new.”

An Iraqi flag was found and placed on Saddam’s face. But the 30ft edifice refused to come down, despite strenuous efforts. At the end they brought in a Hercules, a vehicle used to salvage broken 75-ton tanks, which smashed down the steps to the plinth along the way. At last the statue fell, and the Americans had their television pictures and the symbol of victory.

I asked McCoy how long he and his marines would stay in Baghdad. “We need to leave as soon as possible, our job’s done, hanging around could be trouble,” he replied. A few days later a mob from the suburb of Saddam City (now Sadr City) came into Baghdad to loot and burn government buildings, offices and homes. US troops, including the marines, stood and watched.

When asked why they weren’t stopping the lawlessness, they said that the order “from back home” was not to intervene; this was to be seen as a popular uprising against the regime. “They sure do look like patriotic revolutionaries don’t they?” said a young captain shaking his head, gesturing at six men carrying away curtains, a sofa, and umbrellas from an apartment block.

These are anecdotal examples of how British and American forces sent to conflicts had to cope with the lack of planning by their governments and fit in with false, self-serving narratives of politicians to justify wars.

There is no doubt that politics back home played a major part in creating some of the debacles of the Iraq and Afghan wars. A new book, The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11, focuses primarily on the military failures and puts the blame on senior commanders.

Its author, Simon Akam, spent a gap year in the army before university, but has no other service experience and thus has not, one assumes, an insider’s axe to grind. The book is impassioned. It is long, at around 700 pages, has taken five years to write and is based on 560 interviews, mainly with those in the armed forces, with a smattering of diplomats and journalists. It has led to controversy, dividing opinions, but that is what happens with any serious work on important subjects. It is a valuable addition to analysing the past, present and future of a venerated institution.

The ensemble is overwhelmingly British, with brief passing appearances by Americans, and even briefer ones by Iraqis and Afghans. This is a problem when it comes to painting the big picture. The British were the junior partners in both the conflicts, and their action, or inaction, was in many cases influenced by American policy. The internal Afghan and Iraqi politics increasingly affected western military tactics as the conflicts stretched on into years and the west sought an exit strategy from the unpopular wars.

In the early part of the book there are references to works on soldiering in the declining days of the British empire, such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Akam finds that little had changed in army culture since those times when Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns came along.

In the author’s view the army hierarchy was based on class, with polo-playing officers swigging Pol Roger and general drunkenness in the lower ranks. Some units, like the Parachute Regiment, were overly aggressive, while many former SAS men who wrote accounts of their exploits grossly exaggerated them.

The focus of the book is on Iraq and, specifically Basra. An operation called Charge of the Knights is portrayed as the Dien Bien Phu for British reputation. What led up to the way it took place had a lot to do with Iraqi politics. But the upshot was that an operation planned by the British with the Iraqi commander in the south, General Mohan al-Furayji, to clear out Shia militias was taken over by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and conducted by American and Iraqi forces with the British initially excluded.

For Akam, what happened in Basra “is a story about the nadir, the end of days ... What some observers will later describe as the greatest British military disaster since Suez in 1956 ... In Basra the idea that the British army took to war in 2003 – that you could go abroad and simply do good with a rifle – came crashing down.”

Akam recounts reports at the time that the Americans had lost confidence in the British military’s handling of Basra. He tells of a conversation (the content of which is disputed) between the US Major General George Flynn and the British Brigadier Julian Free in which the American officer questions British capabilities.

In Free’s recollection, Flynn said: “I have been sent here to ensure overwatch does not fail again, overwatch is all about situational awareness, which you do not have.” Another British officer present, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Harkness, remarks that “it was the moment of ultimate humiliation and embarrassment”.

It was fairly well known at the time that the Americans and the British did not see eye to eye on everything. The habit of the British regularly referring to the insight gained from the “Northern Ireland experience” and Templar’s Malaya campaign of a half century ago began to jar with some Americans. At the same time there was the accusation that the British had been insufficiently robust with the Shia militias in the south, and had let them gain control over swathes of areas.

But there was also British concern, at times turning to distaste, over the aggression displayed by the Americans in the early years of the occupation. Those of us spending extended periods of time amid the ferocious violence of Baghdad witnessed examples of this. It was this culture which enabled terrible abuses like those at Abu Ghraib to take place.

There is not enough in this book about the British and American political failings which permeated the Iraq and Afghan wars. There are plenty of examples of this. There is the abandonment of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, when security and stability should have been established, with resources switched to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. There is also the deception over weapons of mass destruction in invading Iraq. And the replacement of the US General Jay Garner and the British Major General Tim Cross as the head of the post-invasion administration by Paul Bremer, with his disastrous policy of “de-Baathification”.

Could the British military commanders have done more to question and caution politicians? Lord Boyce , the chief of the defence staff, did demand assurances from the Blair government that the Iraq invasion was legal. The circumstances surrounding the advice given by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, that it was legal remain a matter of bitter dispute.

In the run-up to another war, with David Cameron demanding intervention in Libya, General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, (now Lord Richards of Herstmonceux) stressed the need to the prime minister for caution and a longer-term strategy. When Richards expressed his reservations publicly, Cameron’s response was: “I tell you what, you do the fighting, I will do the talking.”

Akam concludes in The Changing Of The Guard that the army had learned lessons. “In almost every respect, the institution that pulled out of Camp Bastion in late 2014 was, compared to the army which lined up in Kuwait in 2003, more professional, better led, less racist, sexist and drunken and far better equipped,” he writes.

But what plan would a British government have beyond regime change when the military engages in the next war of intervention? Would it be to establish a presence to promote democracy and civic society? Or to seek commercial interests? There is little sign of a British footprint in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. There is little indication that politicians have got any better at defining their long-term goals and how to achieve them when sending men and women into wars.

This remains the case even when a war of intervention is deemed to be a success. I went back to Kosovo two years ago for the 20th anniversary of the war in which General Sir Mike Jackson’s British-led Nato force had headed the mission. The British had been hailed as liberators. Tony Blair had visited post-war Kosovo to a rapturous reception. Such was his popularity that there was a vogue for naming baby boys “Tonybler” in his honour.

At the anniversary celebrations, there were European dignitaries, and a large American delegation with Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and General Wesley Clark, the US commander of Nato forces at the time on whose behalf Jackson famously refused to “start the third world war” with the Russians.

But there was not one single British minister present, or any senior officer from the British military. Blair’s only namecheck came when Clinton mentioned that he had a photograph of the former British prime minister at his office in New York.

‘The Changing of the Guard: The British Army since 9/11’ by Simon Akam, Scribe, 704pp; £25

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