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.

Retreat from Basra – learning the lessons

By Stephen Grey
IN the dark of the night, as the bugler sounded the “advance”, the British Army began its retreat, quitting its last base in Basra and leaving the Iraqi city in the hands of a murderous Shi-ite militia.
That withdrawal from Basra Palace on September 2nd 2007 marked, in the eyes of many in the British Army, the nadir of this country’s entire military reputation.
As was revealed later in the Sunday Times, the pull out from Basra proceeded without incident and un-molested only because of a secret British deal with the Mehdi Army enemy who had killed 11 of the departing British battalion and who, according to one officer present, “provided security all around for our convoy.” It was he said, an “utter humiliation.” (more…)

MoD blocked warning that Britain faces Afghan defeat

From The Sunday Times September 6, 2009
By Stephen Grey

THE Ministry of Defence has suppressed a report which warned that British troops are facing “strategic defeat” in Afghanistan.

The decision to block publication of the critical academic paper in the army’s in-house journal coincides with a scathing attack by a senior US military officer on the “arrogance” of UK tactics in Iraq.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, who worked closely with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq until a year ago, said Britain’s political and military leaders had “abdicated responsibility” in Basra by failing to protect local people. (more…)

Abandoned by Britain, the interpreter fleeing from Iraqi death squads

By STEPHEN GREY – first published Mail on Sunday on 11th November 2007

A senior British Army officer has hit out at the lack of protection given to his former translator after the man was forced to go on the run when Iraqi insurgents murdered his brother-in-law and kidnapped his wife.

He says the Iraqi interpreter, who also worked for the Foreign Office, was turned away by British officials and told: “Make your own way to safety.”

Last night, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, who was head of the Army’s legal service in Iraq, said Britain had an obligation to help Haider Samad.

He said: “We owe this man an enormous debt – we can’t abandon him and his family.”

Lt Col Mercer said Samad had been crucial to his work in establishing law and order after the British took over in southern Iraq. “We couldn’t have done it without him,” he said.

The news comes despite Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s promise to protect former employees of UK Forces in Iraq and allow them to settle in Britain. (more…)

Iraqis stop British purge of police

by Stephen Grey in Basra (first published in Sunday Times, London)

A BRITISH Army operation to purge an Iraqi police unit blamed for torture, murders and attacks on troops is being opposed by senior politicians in the southern city of Basra.

British commanders say they have repeatedly clashed with Mohammed al-Waili, the provincial governor, and other elected leaders during a crackdown on the local police’s Department for Internal Affairs (DIA). Al-Waili threatened last week to break off relations with the British after troops arrested two senior policemen.

The row dates back to last September when two SAS soldiers became involved in a gunfight and were held at Jamiat police station, which served as DIA headquarters.Whitehall sources said the soldiers had been following a senior member of the DIA when they were spotted.

Al-Waili, who belongs to a Shi’ite group called the Islamic Virtue party, angered the army by refusing to call for the soldiers’ release.The DIA has been blamed not only for killing and torturing prisoners, but also for effectively operating a death squad whose victims may have included Steven Vincent, an American journalist who was killed last August. (more…)

Desert Rats' Diary

BBC Radio’s: Desert Rats’ Diary :
From an old colonial hotel on the banks of the Shatt al Arab River, the Desert Rats go about the business of reclaiming Basra City from years of devastation. Stephen Grey has been given exclusive access to their inner circles, and for the last several months has been following their work in southern Iraq. He reports from the frontline – where being bricked and mortared is a way of life.
Broadcast: Radio 4 (UK) 9 February 2006 and 16th February 2006; at 8pm; and BBC World Service on Thurs 2nd March and Friday 3rd March; both days at 11.32 and 1532 GMT.
Hear episode 2 by streaming audio: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/radio4_aod.shtml?radio4/desert_rats_diary

We blundered in. Let's not betray them too

New Statesman Special Issue Stephen Grey Monday 31st January 2005

My friend Mohaned, an Iraqi doctor, writes from Baghdad. “It’s a horrible place these days,” he says, “no public services at all, six hours of electricity, and finally, no tap water at all since six days. Very nice circumstances for a happy elections!” Like most Iraqis, he despairs of what has happened to the country since the Americans and British invaded and “really can’t imagine” what the future will bring.

But the last thing he wants is for western forces to run for the border after the elections. After all the suffering, he hopes that some form of democracy can be salvaged. As he puts it: “I don’t think the new politicians will be any less corrupt, but at least we should have the chance to vote them out every few years.”

Others I have met around the country share those hopes. They believe the invasion was misconceived but they want something to show for it – and not just a civil war. Most educated Iraqis would like a taste of western-style democracy. Are we simply to abandon these people? (more…)

Shias wait for elections, or war

first published in the New Statesman, Saturday 1st January 2005

Observations on Iraq. By Stephen Grey

On a cold winter’s night in Iraq, a young shopkeeper stands outside in the
driving rain, his storefront illuminated by a sputtering petrol gen-erator.
It is a flickering pool of light in a city of darkness. Basra has been
getting barely four hours of electricity a day – one year after the British
army announced the restoration of round-the-clock power.
The young owner, Mohamed Hussein, shows us a poster, plastered with a
picture of a Shia saint, that announces the Iraqi elections on 30 January.
As we talk, a Kalashnikov bullet echoes across the street. The British
soldiers with me drop down for cover. Hussein does not flinch. “There is not
a single person in this city that will not vote in January,” he says. “We
have waited all our lives for this moment.”

Talking to Shias in southern Iraq, you get the impression that however many
suicide bombers or assassins stalk the streets, they will cast their vote.
Their leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has ordered them to vote: they
will obey. (more…)

Britons sounded alert on Abu Ghraib

first published in the Sunday Times, Dec 05, 2004.

by Stephen Grey

BRITISH officials in Iraq warned the Foreign Office and American authorities of serious concerns about the treatment of prisoners six months before the torture and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was revealed.

Several civil servants seconded to reconstruction jobs in Iraq have described in interviews how they witnessed ill-qualified American guards ignoring basic human rights as they turned Abu Ghraib into a military interrogation facility — rather than the civilian installation they wanted.

Gareth Davies, governor of Pentonville prison in London, discovered in December 2003 that Americans were using leg irons and belly chains to hold prisoners — a violation not only of new Iraqi laws adopted by coalition forces but also, he believed, of international conventions and of Britain’s 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act.

Davies, awarded an OBE yesterday for his six months’ work in Iraqi prisons, protested to American and British officials. He also withdrew British prison staff from Baghdad to avoid complicity in any wrongdoing. The scandal erupted in May this year with publication of photographs showing US guards humiliating their charges. (more…)

'We have your daughter and we're going to kill her tonight' :

by Stephen Grey

In the thick, sweaty heat of a Baghdad night, a family sit in their garden

under a full moon, and wait for news. They’ve been sitting and talking for

many hours now, smoked too many cigarettes and drunk too many cups of tea.

Now they just sit on plastic white chairs and listen.

Many sounds are familiar and reassuring: the occasional dog’s bark, the buzz

of crickets, the rustling of fronds in the date palm tree, the steady

clack-clack of the electric fan propped up on the lawn. From a distance come

other sounds that would normally have them on edge: the bursts of a

Kalashnikov machine gun and the roar of an American fighter plane. But

tonight, the sounds that fray their already stretched nerves, the sounds

that might mean an end to the waiting, come from the road just beyond the

garden wall: the screech of tyres, the horns, and the slamming of car doors.

Photographer Steve Bent and I are waiting with Harb Nayma and his family for

the return of their 23-year-old daughter, Shayma – kidnapped seven days

previously. This afternoon, 62-year-old Harb went alone to a deserted

backstreet to hand over a ransom. The kidnappers had promised to release

Shayma and send her home within one hour. Five hours later, there is still

no sign of her. (more…)

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Operation Snakebite

OUT IN PAPERBACK updated edition, OPERATION SNAKEBITE (UK) and INTO THE VIPER's NEST (USA edition) is the story of British and American involvement in the conflict in Helmand, Afghanistan Frontline combat, strategic chaos, political intrigues, the truth about the enemy, and a tale of true heroes .... in the most dangerous place on earth.

The Latest Reviews

"Devastating … It explains why the world's most sophisticated armed forces are being defeated by the world's least sophisticated"- Simon Jenkins, Books of the Year 2009, The Times Literary Supplement

"One of the most courageous and important pieces of reporting of the Afghanistan campaign"- General Sir Richard Dannatt

"Grey tells the story with immediacy, drama and sometimes anger. A gripping and moving narrative"- Soldier Magazine

"magnificent ... a meticulously reconstructed account of the battle for Musa Qala ... frequently more vivid than any film .... confers immense authority ... "- Misha Glenny in the Mail on Sunday

"exemplary...an uncommonly vivid portrait of battle, matched by sharp investigation of purposes, intrigues and cock-ups... " - Max Hastings in the Sunday Times

"superb .... captures the grit and the gore, the exhaustion and emotion, the killing and the dying, the horrors and the heroism... a fine piece of war reporting ..."- Raymond Bonnner in the The Guardian.

"Excellent" - (Daily Telegraph)

"Exceptional"- (New Statesman)

"Fascinating"- (Financial Times)

"enthralling and unvarnished .... a persuasive and thoughtful account of an unwon war" -Glasgow Herald

Illustrated with 8 maps and 65 colour photos. Join the facebook page

Synopsis

In December, 2007, Stephen Grey, reporting for the Sunday Times, was under fire in Afghanistan, ambushed by the Taliban. He was amidst the biggest UK-led operation fought on Afghan soil since 9/11: the liberation of a Taliban stronghold called Musa Qala. Taking shelter behind an American armoured Humvee, Grey turned his head to witness scenes of carnage. Two cars were riddled with gunfire. Their occupants, including several children, had died. Taliban positions were pounded by bullets and bombs dropped on their compounds. A day later, as the operation continued, a mine exploded just yards from Grey, killing a British soldier.

Who, he wondered in the days that followed, was responsible for the bloodshed? And what purpose did it serve A compelling story of one military venture that lasted several days, Operation Snakebite draws on Grey's exclusive interviews with everyone from private soldiers to NATO commanders. The result is a thrilling and at times horrifying story of a war which has gone largely unnoticed back home.