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.”
Within six months there was a further humbling, when Basra had to be recaptured from the same enemy in an operation, known as Charge of the Knights, that, despite being ably supported eventually by British soldiers, had to forced upon British (and American) generals and ministers by the Iraqi prime minister, al Maliki.
During all these times, the official story of the Iraq campaign was one of success after success, culminating in the final lowering of the British flag last April. Officers who harboured doubts were told to stick to the “official narrative.” Gordon Brown declared a job well done.
Finally, however, the Army’s real opinion of events in Iraq is beginning to emerge. Driven by the new head of the army, Sir David Richards, a new ‘glasnost’ is taking shape that challenges the politically-convenient version of history. It is time, records an explosive edition of the Army’s official journal, the British Army Review, for the “brutal truth” to emerge.
The journal provide a damning indictment of politicians and the military’s own commanders. Both are accused of engineering defeat in the Iraq campaign by, among other things, misunderstanding, conceit and deal-making with the enemy.
None of this verdict has emerging without a rear-guard fight by mandarins at the Ministry of Defence who imposed an unprecedented line-by-line censorship of the publication and forced the exclusion of three different articles.
Among those banned from the Review was one by two academics from King’s College London, which in a “step too far”, linked “strategic defeat” in Iraq to what they alleged was an equally failed campaign in Helmand, Afghanistan.
Rather than to cause political embarrassment, it is the ongoing bloody campaign in Afghanistan that provides the real motive for why General Richards, though barely days in the job, is lending his support to a public debate about military failings – and how to fix them.
Unless the history of Iraq is told truthfully, say senior officers, it is unlikely the Army can learn the lessons to win in Afghanistan. As the journal states baldly, an over-riding duty is to expose the “brutal truth… It is not an academic exercise, we are fighting a vicious war in Afghanistan and our experience in Iraq must be used to good effect there.”
The editorial adds: “Soldiers have died and been maimed by brutal violence; their sacrifice demands and justifies full open and honest analysis.”
LIKE most of those in the inner orbit of General David Petraeus, the American commander whose ‘Baghdad surge’ helped to turn the war in Iraq, Colonel Peter Mansoor is forthright and blunt.
As the general’s former chief of staff in Baghdad (technically his ‘executive officer’), Mansoor says the American army fought with the wrong strategy in Iraq for as long as the US fought Hitler in Europe in World War Two and “that nearly led the United States and its allies to defeat in Iraq.”
But the difference between the US and Britain, his article in the British Army Review makes clear, is that American learned its lesson – realizing the Iraq war would be won not just by offensive operations to kill or capture terrorist leaders, but by recognizing it was a so-called “counter-insurgency” like Vietnam. The key to winning lay not with destroying the enemy but with securing and winning over the population.
Britain by contrast, says Mansoor, misread Iraq as a peacekeeping operation like the Balkans and regarded their own experience as more suitable than that of the Americans. “This conceit led to a serious understanding of the situation in southern Iraq,” he said.
Misreading an initial calm in southern Iraq, British forces had failed to deal with the growing threat of Shi-ite militias like the Mehdi Army of Muqtadr al Sadr. And when security deteriorated in 2006 they engaged in “futile” attacks against the militias without the ability or resources to protect the population from the Medhi Army’s death squads. And then at the end of 2007 they pulled out of Basra completely – just as General Petraeus was doing the opposite in Baghdad.
“Rather than protecting the Iraqi people in Basra and thereby insulating them from militia violence and intimidation, British political and military leaders had abdicated responsibility for their security – the exact opposite of what was happening in Baghdad and elsewhere, as US forces were moving off their large forward operating bases to position themselves among the Iraqi people where they lived.”
Operation Charge of the Knights, launched on March 3, last year (2008), to recapture the city proved, says Mansoor, that at least one person, the Iraqi prime minister, knew what was happening. When the initial attack faltered, General Petraeus “piled on support”, including US troops from Baghdad, that helped turn the tide of the battle in Basra.
The “British failure in Basra” was not due to conduct of British troops, “which was exemplary”’ but rather to “a failure by senior British civilian and military leaders to understand the political dynamics at play in Iraq, compounded by arrogance that led to an unwillingness to learn and adapt, along with increasing reluctance to risk blood and treasure to conduct effective co-insurgency warfare.”
With the British public losing their will to fight, British forces were hampered by political constraints and had a government that “insisted on running operations from Whitehall”. Meanwhile, British “attempted to cut deals with local Shiite leaders to maintain the peace in southern Iraq, an accommodation that was doomed to failure since the British negotiated from a position of weakness.”
Is Mansoor alone in his views? To prove he is not, the Army Review publishes two further papers that support his thesis, although a third more controversial one was blocked by the Ministry of Defence.
Dr Daniel Marston, an American military historian who was a regular adviser to UK forces in Basra and is an acknowledged expert on counter-insurgency, claims that many officers and soldiers blame many of the Army’s bigger mistakes on Whitehall and the lack of a joined-up approach with other agencies “and they are correct to do so.”
With its past experiences, many expected the British to do better in a counter-insurgency war than the Americans but the British Army, in practice, “appeared to be losing its way” with applying its theories. While the Americans turned their efforts to protecting the population, Marston says that agitation by mid-ranking British officers for British strategy to follow suit were ignored for too long.
Although the British, he says, did play their part in the Charge of the Knights and turn a defeat into success but the Army “cannot turns its back on a difficult campaign and disregard the lessons some of which are admittedly very tough to swallow… Whitehall and also some senior officers failed to understand the nature of the growing insurgency in the south and as a result they failed to implement a counter-insurgency strategy until the 11th hour.”
Anthony King, a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter who has been studying change in the Army, writes that the British Army is “currently in a predicament which as a close to a crisis that any public institution can likely to get… as even senior generals admit” the Army has emerged from Iraq with a damaged reputation.
Suggesting that commanders realise the need for a top-to-bottom transformation, King suggests: “Reform – and that means admitting mistakes – is bad for morale. Strategic defeat is worse.”
AFTER all the terrible trauma and military failures of World War One, the Imperial General Staff, notes Mansoor, chose not to even establish a committee to examine the lessons learned until 1932. Even then the chief of the general staff “suppressed the report because it was too critical of army performance.”
Likewise after the Vietnam War, the US Army did adapt its doctrines but it chose to wish away the concept of counter-insurgency warfare. The special forces centre at Fort Bragg was told by army leaders to throw away their files on the subject “since the US would supposedly never fight that kind of war again.”
As American and Britain are embroiled ever more deeply in the so-called “brushfire” conflict of war against guerrillas, an ever growing contrast has emerged, say many generals, between the open public debate that now characterizes US military strategy, and the attempts in the UK to stifle that debate.
And while the Army Review edition reflects a certain glasnost when it comes to Iraq, ever more vital lessons, say commanders, need to be drawn rapidly from nearly eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, including three years of intensive conflict in Helmand.
While US Afghan commander General Stan McChystal was this weak talking openly of revising a failing strategy, Britain’s own chief of defence staff, Sir Jock Stiirrup, spoke in Helmand of Britain’s own successful strategy.
Banned from the British Army Review by the Ministry of Defence was a paper published by two academics at King’s College department of war studies, David Betz and Anthony Cormack, both with extensive access to the military, and who described what they called a “strategic defeat” in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The plain fact of the matter is that, at the time of writing, it seems entirely possible that the Britain will suffer what amounts to a strategic defeat in both its ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns.”
Always struggling through a lack of resources — whether numbers of troops or numbers of helicopters — the Army has been undermined in Afghanistan because of past decisions taken to slim-down the British military to make for a “high tech” fighting machine designed to deliver huge combat power for fighting the Soviets or other major armies but not support the “boots on the ground” required for guerrilla warfare.
But because “given that a fish rots from the head,” they say, the root cause of military failure is British government is itself lukewarm in its commitment to the Afghan war and therefore unwilling to provide the resources needed for success. “The confluence of these factors has created a strategic void into which the Army has fallen.”
The decision to ban such words from a British Army publication was surprising, said Betz, because the same paper had already been published in the US
“It is very disappointing,” said Betz. “It’s important to learn lessons from Iraq but even more important to learn lessons from what’s happening in Afghanistan and apply them fast while there is still an opportunity of changing things.”
According to Army insiders, the decision to impose line-by-line censorship came after a previous edition of the British Army Review in which a military intelligence officer described the British presence in Helmand as an “unmitigated disaster”. A total of three articles were removed by the censors and the editorial was also watered down to remove a reference that implied a criticism of politicians.
“The line from Whitehall is that it’s OK to talk about mistakes in Iraq but not helpful to reveal errors in Afghanistan,” said one senior Army officer.. “The Army is being openly self-critical of itself and is really trying to learn the lessons from Iraq, “ he said, and “attempts to censor debate to limit short term embarrassment of ministers or ambassadors in the end loses wars and gets soldiers killed.
General Richards, meanwhile, is to press on with attempts to stir a public debate. He is to call for the creation of a British version of the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) that the US set up after the Vietnam War to completely overhaul its army. For now, he hopes, Afghanistan is not quite Britain’s Vietnam. But to win, he believes the Army still needs a radical transformation