Task Force Black: a review

Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq by Mark Urban

The Sunday Times review by Stephen Grey

Ever since the fiasco of Andy McNab’s unauthorised publication of Bravo Two Zero (his rather skew-eyed but gripping look at the regiment’s operations in the first Gulf war), attempts to record the SAS’s place in history have been obstructed by a draconian contract of confidentiality imposed on all members of the special forces.
In this ground-breaking investigation into the SAS war in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, Mark Urban has worked his way around all that and, with obvious top access, has put together one of the few truly authentic accounts of the modern SAS outside the world of fiction. Such an account is needed. With the success of the main British mission in the Iraq campaign (namely, running the city of Basra) getting a somewhat iffy verdict, it is only by knowing at least something of what Britain’s special forces did in the war that a fully rounded view of the UK’s contribution can be offered.
Occasionally, Task Force Black is weighed down by the influence of the Ministry of Defence censor. Sometimes the perspective seems a bit too aligned with that of the SAS. But, for all that, there are some re-markable insights here. And the most prominent of them is that, for all the recognition its role has now achieved, the SAS only carved out its place in Iraq after heated infighting with its military superiors back in London.
When the Americans assaulted Fallujah in November 2004, British troops from the Black Watch moved up to support. But after the unit lost five men in the first fortnight, Downing Street started to backpedal. On the ground the SAS’s D Squadron, fuelled by what Urban calls its “airborne aggression” and the Para motto of FIDO (“f*** it and drive on”), wanted nothing more than to join the fray. Filling their wagons, they drove out to a rally point just outside Fallujah. By now, their friends in the US Delta force were already in combat. But then a “red card” came down the command chain and they were told to withdraw.
More controversially, when two SAS troopers were captured by rogue Iraqi policemen in Basra in September 2005, no clear “green light” or “red light” was given from the UK about whether a rescue could or should be attempted. For hours, while the two men were beaten and interrogated, some key people in the command chain could not even be found. One senior UK general, according to Urban, was “rumoured to have turned off his mobile while playing golf”. So, when A Squadron stormed in to rescue their men, it was, suggests Urban, on their own orders.

Ultimately, the story of the SAS in Iraq, as described here, is an account of how a buccaneering, heart-on-the-sleeve, tall, blue-eyed commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Williams (who had made his name in Afghanistan when he led his men up a hill to assault a dug-in Taliban position, despite being hit by four bullets), managed to defeat the political roadblocks and got stuck into the main fight, the bloody battle against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. None of this happened fast.

After the blundering of the early parts of the American campaign, what had emerged by 2006 was new US military leadership and new tactics, among them a special-forces campaign led by an American ­general, Stanley McChrystal — who is now centre stage as the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan. Confronted by all the squabbling in Iraq, McChrystal forged a joined-up operation to confront the suicide bombers and jihadists. Instead of a patient approach of developing and then staking out targets, as used by the SAS in Northern Ireland, he demanded a blistering attack on the enemy. SAS squadrons, when they joined the fight, were told to launch raids every night.

The cultural and political barriers to British involvement were considerable. American special ops maintained a “black site” prison where abuse was reported. They were also much more willing to use airstrikes than the British. Located at Balad airbase, the special-forces headquarters was unofficially known as the Death Star, says Urban, because, using air power, “you could reach out with a finger, as it were, and eliminate somebody”.

But, as Urban portrays it, by early 2006, Williams had bludgeoned his commanders into getting the SAS fully involved in McChrystal’s “machine”. Most vital was access to the huge amounts of American intelligence assets that made this tempo of operations possible. The McChrystal method — most obviously vindicated with the hunt for and then, in June 2006, the killing of the bloodthirsty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — dictated that the key purpose in dropping from helicopters and kicking down doors each night was to find intelligence for the next raid.

According to Urban’s chilling account, McChrystal’s invention of “industrial counter-terrorism” created a ruthless machine that successfully suppressed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to a great extent because of the thousands of people it killed. “The truly disturbing thing (to those of a liberal mind, in any case) about the special operations campaign in Iraq,” he says, “is that it suggests that a large terrorist organisation can be overwhelmed under certain circumstances by military force.”

In Afghanistan, McChrystal has promoted a much softer approach and has emphasised how victory is rarely won in an insurgency by the killing or martyrdom of more of the enemy. In Iraq, though, he is portrayed as being committed to the conventional and bloody business of “attrition”.

By Urban’s figures, in six years in Iraq UK special forces captured around 3,000 insurgents, and killed about 350 to 400. American special forces, his estimates suggest, captured up to 9,000, and killed about 3,000. As one SAS officer put it: “We were beyond the martyrdom argument, it had become an attritional campaign — we had to take them apart.”

The SAS was at the centre of all this for at least two years. The roller coaster of raids took the UK’s special forces on a trail that led to British hostage Norman Kember — found on March 23, 2006, after a total of 44 house assaults. It took them on another raid in April 2006 that led America directly to Zarqawi. In Basra, the SAS seized the leader of the Mehdi Army, killed a senior Al-Qaeda prison escapee named Omar al-Faruq, and, most controversially of all, seized two key members of a secret branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. That raid led directly to some very public acts of Iranian retribution — including the capture within days of 15 Royal Navy seamen and Marines. When they finally pulled out last year, the SAS had lost at least nine men, with dozens more injured.

Was this ruthless campaign and its sacrifice as decisive as Urban believes? Though his conclusions are quite strident, proving his point would take a much deeper look at the whole evolution of the anti-coalition rebellion. Certainly, interviews I conducted in the Baghdad neighbourhoods suggested that many US night-time special raids, at least in the early years, were based on such poor intelligence that innocents were often targeted. The overall effect of the dragnet and the way prisoners were treated also stirred up great hatred of the Americans.

As Urban concedes, many factors led to the dampening down of Iraqi violence — among them the growing revulsion felt by the locals against foreigners such as the murderous Zarqawi, the efforts to exploit that revulsion through negotiations with disaffected insurgents, and the “surge” of conventional forces orchestrated by ­General Petraeus in 2007.

What the SAS did get, but many others on the UK payroll didn’t, was that however crazy the decision to invade Iraq might have been, the allies were faced with a very real, organised and terrifyingly violent rebellion that had to be dealt with. Studying the exit sign was no strategy for getting out.

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