Monday, April 6, 2009
The Sunday Times review by Max Hastings
Robert Southey famously wrote in The Battle of Blenheim in 1800: “ ‘But what good came of it at last?’ quoth little Peterkin. ‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said \,‘but ‘twas a famous victory.’ ” In December 2007, Stephen Grey reported for The Sunday Times the capture of Musa Qala in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The fighting was among the heaviest of the war. The commitment of 5,000 British, American and Afghan troops was required to drive out the Taliban.
Now, he has written a book that seeks to portray the battle, and answer Peterkin’s question. Although allied forces fought with conspicuous courage, skill and determination, what was it all for? Have the British, Americans and Afghans been striving and dying simply — in the soldiers’ striking phrase — to “mow the grass”: seize ground, kill insurgents then retire to their forward operating bases until the next time?
The attack on Musa Qala was carried out, says Grey, at the specific and eccentric demand of President Hamid Karzai. In the autumn of 2007, Karzai told the British and Americans that an important Taliban commander, one Mullah Salaam, was ready to “turn” and join the government, but he was beleaguered in his house in the town; the allies must get him out. The British were highly sceptical. But the Americans were anyway much displeased with their ally for having taken and then abandoned Musa Qala a year earlier, after striking a local deal with the tribes. They believed that the place should be reoccupied, and Karzai’s wishes met. It was decided that, in the awful military jargon, a “kinetic solution” should be adopted, and on a grand scale. The British 52nd infantry brigade was reinforced by a battalion of US paratroopers and formidable air support.
In the weeks preceding the operation, as Grey describes, the British were heavily engaged elsewhere in Helmand. Between December 4 and 6, they began to close on Musa Qala. From the outset of operations, British forces have been handicapped by a scandalous shortage of helicopters. As a result, most operations require road advances. However heavily armoured vehicles may be, the Taliban respond by laying ever larger explosive traps in their path. The night before the main operation, Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson of the Yorkshires wrote to his fiancée Lisa McIntosh in England: “Well angel, I’m going at 2 in the morning. You must understand that this could be my last message to you. You know I love you with all my heart.”
On December 7, D-day for the Musa Qala assault, Johnson, one of the best and bravest NCOs in his battalion, was blown out of his Vector armoured vehicle by a mine and killed. When a civilian car sped towards the advancing British, it was shot to pieces by men understandably convinced that it was driven by a suicide bomber. In reality, it carried a family fleeing the battlefield; they died, along with an unknown number of other local people in the course of the battle.
The attackers faced up to 2,500 Taliban bent on fighting it out. The US contingent, landed by helicopters, found itself locked in one of the bitterest actions of the war. Grey’s descriptions of the firefights are exemplary. He is brutally frank about the rival doctrines of the allies. Many Americans thought the British wet. The British recoiled from American enthusiasm for “prophylactic fire”, and from the US senior officer who concluded his briefings: “Let’s go and do bad things to bad people.” An American chaplain prayed: “Let the Apache pilots rain down fire on the heads of our enemies.”
Grey has plenty to say about woeful British equipment shortages, and the Ministry of Defence’s apparent resistance to accepting the problem. He writes of the policy and command confusions dogging Nato. He fears that special forces, committed to “decapitation operations” against the Taliban leadership, are out of control. When Gordon Brown arrived on a visit while the Musa Qala operation was at its height, a flood of anxious signals descended on operational commanders, urging that no embarrassing news, especially about civilian deaths, must emerge from the battlefield while the prime minister was in the country.
Musa Qala was at last secured. Mullah Salaam, for whose safety Karzai had demanded the operation, suddenly appeared on December 23 and began proclaiming his loyalty to the Kabul government. But persistent rumour held that this Mullah Salaam was different from the one that Karzai wanted. Another rumour suggested that Kabul’s real objective in promoting the operation was to restore a police chief to control of the huge local opium operation. Whatever the truth, Grey remains profoundly sceptical whether the large and bloody operation to take Musa Qala was justified. Military successes, the mere killing of insurgents, serve little purpose against the mindset of such Taliban commanders as Mullah Sadiq, whom he quotes: “This country needs blood. It is a war. I need to be martyred.”
Lt-Col Brian Mennes, who commanded the US paratrooper battalion in the operation, mused aloud to Grey: “Another high-risk air assault, found caches and killed a bunch of guys, but what for?” The author is sceptical of the exalted objectives proclaimed for the allied commitment in Afghanistan. Instead he approvingly quotes a bombardier, who says: “We’re here simply to pick up the pieces. We made a mess of the place and we have a responsibility to sort it out, to get things straight.” Grey comments: “It seems a less lofty goal, but also an honourable one.”
This is an uncommonly vivid portrait of battle, matched by sharp investigation of purposes, intrigues and cock-ups. He says, justly, “It was an irony that the more you cared about Afghanistan, the more critical your voice became.” The only people who say that things are going fine are those who are not much interested, and those whose job it is to conceal the failures of American and British strategy.
I suspect that Grey, like me, believes we must reluctantly persevere, try to salvage something from the shambles. The Taliban’s triumph would be a tragedy for Afghans as well as for the western allies. But to achieve even a draw will take a long, long time. The patience of western electorates may not last the course. More serious still, of course, the West now knows that it is fighting the wrong war. Pakistan’s threatened implosion would create a disaster besides which the fate of Helmand recedes into insignificance.
Operation Snakebite by Stephen Grey
Viking £16.99 pp368