Cracking on in Helmand

(Published in Prospect Magazine 27th August 2009 — Issue 162)

Britain’s bloody campaign in Afghanistan has been marred by hubris, confusion and a failure to understand our Taliban adversaries

A cartoon was on the television but little Lilly grabbed the album and leafed through the photos of her father, the late Sergeant Lee Johnson. I was talking to her mother about his death, which I had witnessed in Afghanistan. When I saw Lilly up in Stockton-on-Tees last November, and I thought of my own young child, I struggled to reconcile my doubts about this war with wanting to remember Johnson’s death as honourable and meaningfulEven in chaos and dysfunction, the British army is good at preserving a belief in order and purpose. And when men die their officers steel them and move onwards with poetic speeches, just as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson did on 10th July 2009, after a dreadful day near the town of Sangin in Helmand in which five of his men were killed. In his eulogy Thomson wrote about men saluting the fallen, and returning to the ramparts. “I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts, and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to ‘crack on’… And that is what we shall do.”

Crack on. From Basra to Sangin, I’ve heard that phrase as regularly as Amen in church. Cracking on: the army’s greatest quality, and perhaps its greatest weakness. I remember standing vigil on Sergeant Johnson’s body at dusk on a hilltop, after he had died in the battle for the town of Musa Qala in December 2007. His fellow soldiers were silhouettes, drawn close to their commander. On the horizon muffled bombs flashed through the drizzle. Major Jake Little told his men to put their grief to one side, to deal with it later. After the battle.

Cracking on could also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy. In the year I spent studying the Helmand campaign for my book, I sensed a questioning, a doubt about whether it was worthwhile. One senior Whitehall figure stunned me by declaring, almost as his first words, that Helmand “was a terrible strategic blunder.” His views were not uncommon.

The public debate has rarely reflected the mixed-up reality of the war. Continue reading Cracking on in Helmand

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.” Continue reading Retreat from Basra – learning the lessons

Aiding the Enemy?

This is the official response to my piece on the British Army Review.

British Army Review
MOD Director of Media and Communication Nick Gurr has responded to Stephen Grey’s article in The Sunday Times in which the MOD is criticised for ‘blocking’ publication of a piece about UK efforts in Afghanistan in the British Army Review (BAR) – an official Army publication.

Mr Gurr said: “British Army Review has for many years published thought-provoking and controversial articles from a wide range of contributors about the British Army and its activities. It continues to do so. Mr Grey quotes at length from a critical piece in the latest edition of BAR by US Colonel Mansoor in his article and his colleague, Mike Evans, ran a double page spread earlier in the week on a number of others.

“Unfortunately, BAR has been seized upon in recent editions for easy stories and cheap headlines. A Sunday newspaper ran a splash in July about one article written last year by a junior officer based in Whitehall as evidence of ‘failing’ strategy in Afghanistan. This was seized upon as an authoritative and up-to-date ‘view from the ground’ – which it was not. At no point was it made clear that this was a dated article written by someone who had never served in Afghanistan. In order to avoid giving such propaganda gifts to the enemy in future we have found that, regrettably, we need to be a bit more cautious about what we publish or – in this case – republish. Hopefully, this will not always be the case.”

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. Continue reading MoD blocked warning that Britain faces Afghan defeat

The Fog of War

published in the New Statesman, 13 August 2009.
Stephen Grey

IN 2001, British troops marched into Afghanistan on a mission to combat al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban. Eight years and thousands of ruined lives later, they remain mired in conflict, with no sign of a way out. What are our soldiers fighting and dying for? How long will they stay?

Out into the attack with the Royal Marines last year, we drove in dust-choked Viking armoured vehicles through the sand desert and to the crest of a ridge that overlooked the lush, irrigated valley along the Helmand River known to the soldiers as the Green Zone, their battlefield. Then, in the landscape below, people began to run. Men on motorbikes went from house to house to announce the battle. In all directions spread a panorama of terror, as women, children, boys, anyone not fighting, ran for safety. The Americans call this the “blue stream” – the indicator, almost every time, of an impending engagement. Continue reading The Fog of War

UK made use of CIA 'torture' evidence

Right or wrong, Britain did benefit from evidence obtained by from the CIA’s now-notorious programme of High Value Target (HVT) interrogation, the use of methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in boxes, and throwing prisoners against (specially-modified) walls.

That’s what emerged from an investigation I did for BBC Radio’s File on Four and BBC World Service ‘Assignment‘ into the vexed question of alleged UK complicity into the methods used by the United States in combatting terrorism. (Download the PODcast of this program here or Listen to File on Four now 0r World Service version here. )

The former No 2 at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, Sir Nigel Inkster, was among those on the program. Asked by me if the UK agencies reap the benefits of the most controversial US methods, he said:

“To some degree I would say that the answer to that question is yes they did…Lets not forget that we’re dealing with a situation in which both the UK and the US had significantly under-invested in intelligence and security capacity for the preceding decade, so neither the CIA nor their British counterparts were exactly staffed up to deal with this global insurgency. And the material that came from these detainee interrogations was unquestionably valuable; one has to say for better or worse because as it now becomes evident you know some of the ways that information was obtained are ones that the UK government could never willingly have gone along with.”

What’s interesting is that, like some ex high-ups in the CIA I interviewed for this program, the significance Sir Nigel makes of these HVT interrogations is not their revelation of great plots but rather the way they filled in the details of an Al Qaeda network that on 9/11 was still largely un-canvassed. Not much of a ticking bomb scenario, in other words. That’s not really how it worked at all. Continue reading UK made use of CIA 'torture' evidence

The UK Comprehensive Approach in Afghanistan: a parody of reality?

I gave evidence to the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee on 30th June, 2009. Extracts based on uncorrected transcript:

“…we owe it to all those that are sacrificing themselves in Helmand, to be brutally frank about what is going on there and what is going wrong, because it is only with that frankness that I think certain things can be put right. From the perspective of those on the ground, I think the Comprehensive Approach has largely been a parody of reality. In some ways the failure to get that right has done as much to stir up conflict and cause what is happening as it has to bring peace to Afghanistan, which surely is the ultimate objective there.”

“…the impression you get from very senior people within the military is that they are confronted with other departments who have no genuine belief in the value of this conflict; there is a sense in which they are not sure there is a real will to win.”

Attached here is a copy of the full uncorrected transcript of my part of the evidence in full.

A Lack of Cover

The deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan are not being given prominence in the press because the MoD is restricting access to conflict zones, making truth a casualty of war, says frontline correspondent Stephen Grey

* Stephen Grey
* The Guardian, Monday 15 June 2009


New York Times photographer Tomas Munita at work in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, on a mission with US troops. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Thirteen British soldiers died last month in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Their deaths were reported, for the most part, in small paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers. Why? Because journalists find it almost impossible to reach and report from the frontline of the conflict. When the Royal Marines launched a fierce hand-to-hand battle last Christmas in the muddy poppy fields of central Helmand, four soldiers died – but the only news that escaped was a press release from the Ministry of Defence.

As in so many wars, truth seems to be the first casualty of this conflict. There has been a devastating breakdown of relations between many defence correspondents and officialdom, journalists say. “Dealing with the Ministry of Defence is genuinely more stressful than coming under fire,” says the Telegraph’s defence correspondent, Thomas Harding. “We have been lied to and we have been censored.” Continue reading A Lack of Cover

Libya says missing CIA prisoner "committed suicide"

By Stephen Grey

ONE of the most important members of the Al Qaeda captured by the CIA in the months after 9/11 has been found dead in an alleged “suicide” in a jail in Libya, according to the country’s news media.
Ibn Al Sheikh al Libi, a former Al Qaeda camp commander, was controversially sent by the CIA to Egypt as part of the agency’s “extra-ordinary rendition” program and was allegedly subject to extreme torture, returned back into CIA custody, and then transferred onwards to Libya.
Described by former CIA director George Tenet in his 2006 autobiography as “the highest ranking al-Qa’ida member in U.S. custody” just after 9/11, al Libi was captured by the CIA before the agency had established its own secret prison program. And he was one of a handful of the most senior Al Qaeda leaders in US custody that were sent for interrogation at the hands of foreign countries. Continue reading Libya says missing CIA prisoner "committed suicide"

Jonno the Brave


More than 150 British service personnel have died in Afghanistan. Like many of them, Sergeant Lee Johnson was just a name until Stephen Grey – who witnessed his death – uncovered his profoundly moving story

B Company of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) was formed up and ready for action. The officer commanding approached and reviewed his men. “Permission to have a go, sir?” asked Corporal Carl Peterson.
“I don’t think so, lads,” said the OC. “Not tonight.”
They were, after all, in Blackpool.
Major Jason Alexis Little, 36, had a twinkle in his eyes. He had known some of these men for nearly 16 years. He had grown up with them. They all addressed him formally as “sir”, but for the seniors among them he was simply Jake and he was one of them.
He probably knew Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson the best. Jonno was the reason they were all standing outside the Walkabout club in Queen Street, Blackpool, in early September 2007. The bouncers had just evicted him for being drunk, not to mention for wearing flip-flops. Jake had gone out to remonstrate. If Jonno was a little drunk, as most were that night, then he was a happy drunk and no cause for worry.
The rest of the company had followed Jake out and that was why they were lined up for action. Jonno was something of a legend in the regiment and not always for the best of reasons. As a boxer and army judo champion, his nicknames varied from “Judo Johnson” to “Mad Dog Johnson”. Every man with something to prove wanted to take on Jonno and it invariably ended up in big trouble.
When Jake had joined B Company as a green young subaltern, Jonno had seen himself as his protector. If they were in a club and someone started to pick a fight with Jake, he would come steaming to the rescue. Although they were poles apart in many ways, everyone remembered them as very close.
While Jake had been steadily promoted, Jonno had moved up the ranks and been busted down again more times than anyone could remember. It had taken him until he was 33 to realise he was a good soldier, a born leader. Everyone in the regiment was proud of what he had become. But even as he achieved self-belief he became convinced that he was about to die. Continue reading Jonno the Brave