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