June 2012

Arts & Letters

Winning Enemies

By John Birmingham
An Australian light armoured vehicle, Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 2011. © SPC Eward Garibay/ISAF

The humiliating retreat from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, into cantonment at the airport, is widely regarded as the modern nadir of the British military. On 2 September 2007, a bugle sounded ‘Advance’ to signal the withdrawal, and a convoy carrying the last few hundred stragglers of Her Majesty’s 4th Battalion away from Basra Palace lurched forward.

The British had not just lost control of the city, they had willingly handed it over to four competing and equally murderous gangs, one of which was the aptly named Serious Crimes Unit of the local police force. By the time the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, finally lost patience with the Hobbesian violence and chaos in Iraq’s main port city, a Shia militia, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), had all but established itself as the de facto government. Indeed, the British were only able to pull out without further embarrassment because their retreat was secured by the gunmen of al-Sadr’s militia.

Despite American objections, al-Maliki decided to stage the Battle of Basra, or Operation Saulat al-Fursan (meaning ‘Charge of the Knights’ in Arabic), to regain control of the city. In the early morning dark of 25 March 2008, lead elements of the Iraqi Army’s 10th and 14th Divisions drove into the rubbish-strewn streets of the al-Tamiyah neighbourhood with a deep rumble of armoured personnel carriers. Unsecured weapons and equipment rattled and clanked. Shouts of alarm and bluster from poorly trained sergeants and junior officers echoed down the narrow mudbrick canyons, waking the fighters of the Mahdi militia. The first shots soon cracked out and a long, desperate battle for control of Basra erupted. Before it was done, nearly 50,000 men would rake at each other in fury. Hundreds died. Great swathes of the city burned. The sides’ respective backers, the United States and Iran, fought a short, nasty and brutish proxy war, and the humiliation of the British Army in Iraq was complete.

In Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale University Press; $45.00), one of the best autopsies of Western strategic failure after September 11, Frank Ledwidge quotes the renowned TE Lawrence from an earlier British misadventure in Iraq: “The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows … We are today not far from a disaster.”

But history’s cautionary words about the failed efforts to “appear as a benign power bent on imposing a benign administration” seem not to have impressed themselves upon any of Her Majesty’s ministers or generals as they prepared to return to Mesopotamia for the war against Saddam Hussein. The last time the British had attempted to overthrow the rulers of Baghdad, the Ottoman Turks, after the Great War, they’d sought to ingratiate themselves with the Iraqi people by resolving their various tribal blood feuds. The immediate result was to unify the tribes against the British themselves. The next consequence was a small, savage war in which King George V’s benign power over his new subjects was secured by means of “proscription bombing”, whereby tribal villages that proved troublesome were warned via airdropped leaflets to desist, or they would receive airdropped munitions; a proof of concept for the Royal Air Force’s then squadron leader, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, that he later put to good use reducing Germany’s cities to ash and bones.

The 2008 Battle of Basra and the utter failure it represented will not long be remembered outside the profession of arms. It was just one battle in a long war in which we had lost our way much earlier, possibly even before the Twin Towers fell on 11 September 2001.

While, in the popular imagination at least, the origins of the war that defined the first decade of the new century could be found in the smoking crater that was the World Trade Center, the true cause and effect has become so confused and entangled with the cascading failures of the US and its allies that we can’t even agree on a name any more. ‘The War on Terror’ went out of fashion with the neo-con statesmen who coined it. ‘The Long War’ never caught on outside a clubby circle of military journals and academies. And to reduce the global struggle with fascist Islam’s shifting protean cell structure to just two theatres, the Afghan War and the Iraq War, obscures more than it describes.

Time and again when surveying the literature of these wars, which is vast now, the observant reader is struck by the strange, contrary winds blowing through the narrative. The truism that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it echoes like the tolling of a cathedral bell. And when some actor does turn to history, hoping to eke out a lesson that might inch him that little bit closer to victory, or at the very least away from defeat, the past misleads and betrays.

If there is a golden thread running through the myriad books that form the ever-growing canon of the war, it might simply be the admonition of Sun Tzu: know your enemy and know yourself. The British failed in Basra because, in the end, they did not know their enemies. When the 7th Armoured Brigade and the Parachute Regiment stormed the city in 2003, they knew the enemies were the Iraqi Army and the Fedayeen militia. They were found, fixed and destroyed. Then everything went pear-shaped.

Ledwidge details the myopia of the British occupation, the wilful blindness to the rise of paramilitary gangs and religious militias within Basra. Because at first these preyed only on the civilian population, the Brits were able to claim to have pacified the city. After all, they were not being targeted. Their troops were able to take coffee and sweet treats in the local markets and cafes. They patrolled in berets, on foot, not zipped up inside armoured carriers and swaddled in ballistic vests like their American comrades elsewhere in the country.

Losing Small Wars forensically examines the mistakes made by the British in Iraq and Afghanistan, mistakes that often came down to an inability to recognise the real enemy faced. But Ledwidge’s focus is necessarily limited, being a study of specifically British disappointments, and he consciously declines to consider the wider question of whether the misadventure in Iraq was perhaps the greatest misstep. The former soldier, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, goes to great lengths to establish that Losing Small Wars is not an attack on his former comrades, but rather an indictment of the strategic and political failures that committed them to perdition. The men and women, but mostly men, who bore the brunt of fighting in both theatres proved adaptable at a tactical level. The US Army in particular demonstrated a dark sort of genius among its lower ranks and junior officers for accelerated evolution in the face of murderous opposition. But in the halls of power far above them, their ministers and commanders often seemed to blunder about with limited or no vision, unsure of whom to trust and what to do.

As the end state approaches in Afghanistan – ‘end state’ being the buzzword du jour for the septic mess being left behind – the prospect of Western strategic failure is no longer an open question. Only the specifics remain to be resolved. How long will the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, survive? Will the collapse of what passes for the Afghan state wait for the final withdrawal of Coalition military forces? Will the Taliban retake the country? From these specifics flow the increasingly horrific general unknowns, many revolving around Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. One question haunts all of the literature, however: Was the war ever winnable?

The mission in Afghanistan was clear. A war for modernity. The enemy were primitive, death-obsessed theocrats. Tribal warlords and mullahs and drug barons, some supported by foreign spies and arms, most pledging loyalty one moment and unsheathing their daggers the next. The imbalance in power, the correlation of forces, promised a swift, if brutal, resolution. For the cause was just: land reform, an end to hunger, the liberation of a whole gender, the education of an ignorant, wilfully impoverished peasant class. The mullahs in the villages would scheme against change, but it wouldn’t matter. Their people wanted it.

In Karen Middleton’s An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan (Melbourne University Press; $36.99), a player is quoted: “For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, women were to be given the right to education … We told them that they own their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pets.” The unnamed true believer was a communist, and that “first time” ended in madness, desolation and despair as the broken husk of the Red Army dragged itself out of Afghanistan. But it could as easily have been George W Bush, or Hillary Clinton, John Howard or Julia Gillard, all of whom have at one time or another framed this war in the graveyard of empires as a struggle of the modern against the mediaeval, when they weren’t unpacking its simple, more prosaic roots as an act of vengeance or a power-realist play in risk management and alliance politics.

The war in Afghanistan may or may not have been winnable. But the squandering of so much blood and treasure was probably unavoidable. Middleton does a worthy job of reminding her readers where the impulse for war began, starting her story on 11 September 2001 in the US, where she was following John Howard’s prime ministerial visit for the West Australian. Recounting that day of atrocity and mass horror she reminds us that more atrocities and horror were inevitable from the moment the first jet punched into the World Trade Center.

But how the war unfolded, how it was fought, was not preordained. The pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq, the fetishisation of network-centric warfare, smart weapons and destruction from a distance: none of these things were necessary prerequisites for finding, fixing and destroying Al Qaeda. Nor was the failure to plan for the post-war period predestined.

Middleton’s An Unwinnable War is more a retelling than an analysis, and, focused as it is on Australia’s role, sits in an even smaller niche than Ledwidge’s study of British military failure. (Middleton is unafraid to weave the most arcane details of Australian domestic politics into her meta-narrative of the war, with Mullah Omar and Saddam having to share stage time with the likes of Piers Akerman, Laurie Brereton and Thérèse Rein.) In foregrounding the local angle, however, she does illuminate some of the wider issues.

John Howard, for instance, did not just fail to plan for any Australian contribution to the reconstruction in Iraq or Afghanistan, he refused even to consider the matter. While his military officers were minuting their concerns about the lack of post-war planning, Howard – like Bush and Dick Cheney – simply refused to ‘do’ nation-building. And in that failure, having laid waste to cities and towns where enemies might be found, we created many more.

Ledwidge tells a droll story about British forces being drawn into an arcane dispute in Iraq, where one cabal of used-car dealers convinced them that a rival group were terrorists. Only after the doors had been kicked down and the business competitors brutalised did the British realise they’d been had. Still, even after witnessing the failure in Iraq from an uncomfortably intimate vantage point in Basra, Ledwidge flew into the war’s other theatre, convinced that in Afghanistan, at least, the cause was just and the prospects for victory less abysmal. Arriving there during the consulship of General Stanley McChrystal, he felt safe to say he had “never felt more at home” in his life. The war here was different, the enemy well defined. The British Army in the Helmand province had their measure, and in McChrystal the Coalition had a commander who knew how to fight and defeat an insurgency.

The American general was not the sort of two-fisted brute who believed in the old Roman strategy of making a desert and calling it peace. He was a special forces operator who brought to the fight an appreciation that massive, industrial-scale violence was not always appropriate. He questioned what Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist, describes as “shoot-first-and-blow-shit-up soldiering, the default attitude of most infantry personnel”.

It was McChrystal who had overseen the systematic targeting and annihilation of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Not by pushing heavily armoured divisions hither and yon, crushing all under foot and tank tread, but rather by quietly amassing vast stores of intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s post-Saddam Iraqi franchise, through forging local alliances and then quietly, stealthily, sending out into the night small teams of special operators to seek out the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Asked by Hastings to estimate how many insurgents McChrystal’s teams captured and killed during “the surge” of 2007 in Iraq, one US general shrugs: “Thousands, I don’t even know how many.”

McChrystal applied the lessons of Iraq, largely about knowing thine enemy, to his new mission. Upping the number of special forces killer teams from four to 19, he brought in his own junior Strangelove types to work the data. “The Boss would find the twenty-year-old kid with a nose ring, with some fucking brilliant degree from MIT, sitting in the corner with sixteen computer monitors humming,” one commando told Hastings. “He’d say, ‘Hey – you fucking muscleheads couldn’t find lunch without help. You got to work together with these guys.’”

The approach was a radical departure for the US military (although not, incidentally, for the much smaller and more resource-constrained Australian Army). The geeks mapped out the networks, isolated the targets from the human clutter around them, and the Green Berets and SAS and Navy SEALs went out and laid hands on them. Military experts, says Hastings, described McChrystal’s operations as “industrial-strength counterterrorism” and the man himself as a killing machine.

Stanley McChrystal was sacked when Hastings’ profile of him and his inner circle was first published in Rolling Stone in April 2010. Instead of the flattering portrait McChrystal’s advisers had wanted, Hastings’ long feature foregrounded the drunken, foul-mouthed anti-Obama rants of the commander of allied operations in Afghanistan.

At one point in Hastings’ story, now expanded into a book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan (Orion; $29.99), which the term ‘rollicking’ doesn’t begin to describe, McChrystal visited a frontline unit to explain how things would be different with him in charge. McChrystal preached about the need to step lightly, to do nothing that the men could not justify to their wives and children when they went home: “Don’t make moral judgments that the ends justify the means. At some point you’re going to have to live with everything you’ve done. Don’t get cynical.”

Already demoralised by casualties and barely coping with a war they knew was already lost, the men all but mutinied. “Fuck McChrystal,” one soldier told Hastings. The unit blamed the general and his new way of doing things – less shooting first, less blowing shit up – for getting one of their guys killed, pointlessly, a few weeks before. The troops were in open revolt, telling McChrystal that his plan wasn’t working. One man told him directly, “We’d rather err on the side of caution. Ninety percent of the people are not friendly. All they want to do is kill us.”

The enemy was everywhere and everyone. As much as the White House was angry with McChrystal for dissing them in print, Obama’s advisers told Hastings they were more troubled by the collapse in morale and discipline that seemed to be accelerating under his leadership.

The Englishman Ledwidge, too, found himself quickly disenchanted. “I began to suspect that the constant briefings we were receiving (and indeed giving) represented the war the Army would have liked to have been fighting, rather than the one in which it was actually involved.”

Although nominally under the command of McChrystal, the British were very much fighting their own war in the Helmand province. So disgraced had the army been by its failure in Iraq that no less an eminence than General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, characterised a return to Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore credibility. But the forces deployed were unsuited to the mission of stabilising the province. Dannatt sent Apache helicopter gunships bearing the 16 Air Assault Brigade – the shock troops of the British Army and, in Ledwidge’s words, the very last unit you would place “in an environment that required subtle and measured activity”.

Having gone into both Iraq and Afghanistan boasting of their credentials in the difficult business of conducting “war among the people”, the British ended up seeking and getting a high-intensity conflict that destroyed much of the land they were supposed to be protecting.

Hastings, who enjoyed much more intimate access to the high command than Ledwidge, believes the war in Afghanistan was legitimately launched to seek out and destroy Al Qaeda for the mass atrocity of 9/11. But by the time Stanley McChrystal arrived to bring his very special talents to bear on the problem of the ‘forgotten war’, his best estimates of the number of surviving Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan was somewhere a little north of one hundred men. As recently released documents show, even bin Laden despaired of how far his creation had fallen. But by then, of course, there were other enemies to fight, pretty much all of our own making.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


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