The Changing of the Guard: The British Army since 9/11 
by Simon Akam.
Scribe, 704 pp., £25, March, 978 1 913348 48 9
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The invasion​ of Iraq was a generational disaster, but its effects will endure far longer. American and British armies descended in 2003, initiating the kind of cataclysm that registers in the fossil record. The war left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, most of them civilians. There is still no authoritative count, only estimates with confidence intervals equivalent to tens of thousands of lives. The war’s survivors were forced into violence or flight. A polity that had already endured a decade of genocidal sanctions suffered total collapse. The subsequent occupation was upheld through the use of torture and justified by the evidence of depleted uranium ammunition, a poor cousin of the weapons of mass destruction falsely held up as the reason for the invasion. Most former champions of the war accept that it led to an increase in global jihadist activity, culminating in the rise of Islamic State. All these consequences were predicted by the anti-war movement. To speak of individual war crimes is to ignore the fact that the war itself was a terrible crime, a reckless assault of the sort that nations were once disarmed for committing.

During the first act of the ‘global war on terror’, which began late in 2001, British elites – along with their European, Russian, Chinese and Japanese counterparts – could pretend that the US was engaged in an orderly action, even if it was motivated by retribution. The bombing and invasion of Afghanistan risked humanitarian catastrophe, but US ‘allies’ weren’t inclined to oppose its exercise of authority. Terrorism was in any case a useful pretext for introducing domestic security measures of the sort to which all states are drawn. But Iraq was different. The arguments marshalled in favour of war in 2003 were dishonest. That its purpose was to reinforce US domination of the Middle East after the challenge mounted by al-Qaida was clear. The intelligence services knew, as the senior MI6 officer for the Middle East later admitted, that WMDs were a ‘vehicle’ for going to war. The British government didn’t hold its nose and accept that it had to join the invasion in order to retain its position in the US global order. In certain circles, enthusiasm for the war was high.

After seeing its terrible consequences one might have expected the countries responsible to reflect on what had happened. But the UK has continued to evade scrutiny. Every prime minister since Blair has supported Britain’s involvement; none has paid for it politically. Nor have pro-war intellectuals suffered. Much of the lingering criticism of the war falls back on legalistic critiques of process – the lack of UN Security Council resolutions, the misleading PR leading up to the invasion – where there ought to be condemnation. No convincing account of the British role in the war has yet been written. The Chilcot Report was delayed until it was so overshadowed by Brexit that the parliamentary debate on its findings was attended by only a handful of MPs. Patrick Porter’s Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq (2018) showed that responsibility lay with the British elite as a whole and couldn’t be limited to Blair. But Porter’s account also perpetuated the official story that the war ‘exposed the deadliness of good intentions’ and that it was prosecuted by principled idealists misled by a commitment to liberal democracy. Never mind that the honest idealists in the Bush camarilla were also Saddam Hussein’s major sponsors in the 1980s, or that Blair’s ideals stretched a few years later to selling his services as an adviser to other Middle Eastern and Central Asian dictatorships. The war’s erstwhile supporters remain for the most part in a state of wishful forgetfulness, its uncounted victims not spoken of.

There have been more and better accounts of the military failures in Iraq than of the decision to invade in the first place. Ben Barry’s Blood, Metal and Dust: How Victory Turned into Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq, published last year, describes British military conduct in Iraq as a ‘strategic folly on a level equal to that of Napoleon’s 1812 attack on Russia and Hitler’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union’.* In 2009 the Ministry of Defence commissioned Lieutenant General Chris Brown to carry out a review of British strategy, later released under the Freedom of Information Act as the ‘Operation Telic Lessons Compendium’. Brown concluded that the army hadn’t been prepared for the occupation, and that wars as unpopular as Iraq risked undermining ‘the UK military’s wider reputation’. This assessment stood in stark contrast to the confident war planning for Iraq that Donald Rumsfeld ordered in November 2001. Fresh from the swift removal of the Taliban with special forces and airstrikes, American military planners felt that its imperial tasks could now be managed by means of an air war and a modest number of specialist shock troops. Throughout 2002, plans for the invasion of Iraq were reformulated to put a greater emphasis on special forces operations. Iraq would require a larger ground force than Afghanistan but would be approached using the same tactics. In both cases, a fascination with the speed of the initial victory led to an underestimation of the problems of occupation.

Simon Akam’s account of British military involvement in the war for the greater Middle East (2001-present) begins with a portrait of the British army at the start of the millennium. The UK’s contribution to the Iraq invasion force involved the 7th Armoured Brigade, 16 Air Assault Brigade, 3 Commando Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade. Akam reconstructs the path to war of one of the armoured regiments, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Before Iraq, the regiment was part of the British f0rce based in North Rhine-Westphalia. Its main function was ‘sitting in Germany boozily waiting for the Russians’ (Akam seems to have a puritanical interest in the drinking habits of soldiers). It’s a cliché that generals are always fighting the previous war, but the Royal Scots Dragoons seem to have been preparing for World War Two. The tank exercises they conducted on the Alberta plains would prove unsuited to engagements in the Middle East. They wasted time on intra-regimental squabbles. Officers were more concerned with ritual and class nonsense than professional soldiering. This is a picture of a decaying institution, but there is a sense that the decay doesn’t matter much. Infantry training was already less interesting to the army than special forces operations. As Akam puts it, exaggerated stories of recent special forces feats, particularly in Sierra Leone, had reinforced the idea that ‘going far away and trying to do good with a rifle actually works.’ And whatever state it was in, the British army was sure of its own superiority.

Akam’s book is largely based on interviews with the officers who conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: a history through the eyes of the invaders. It was no surprise that the formal defences of the Iraqi state disintegrated when faced with the might of US forces. But even with a clear technological advantage over a poor and half-starved enemy, the war exposed British incompetence. The army was tasked with capturing and securing Basra, a city of around a million people, because anything else was beyond it. The British supply chain could only reach 95 kilometres from staging grounds in Kuwait. Their tanks required constant maintenance and couldn’t be relied on to go further than that. Some of them crashed, or were delivered into ditches, and the operators lacked the plastic explosives necessary to drive them out. In April 2003, a Special Boat Service unit had to be rescued by coalition helicopters near Mosul. Before the invasion the talk had been of demonstrating British prowess to the Americans. But claims of expertise and finesse soon ran up against reality, even when faced with a military as badly equipped as Iraq’s: the Iraqi army could only field T-55s, designed in 1946, and many of the tanks destroyed by the British on the approach to Basra had already been abandoned. Unlike the defenders, the invasion force had air support. Akam neglects to say that British forces fired more than two thousand cluster bombs at Basra, and never properly investigated the civilian casualties.

Having overcome Basra’s flimsy defences, the army had to administer an occupied city. The British and American forces seemed to see the resistance they faced as inexplicable, nihilistic violence. The looting and burning of Basra Central Library in the first days of the occupation came to stand as a symbol of the disorder the invaders had unleashed. British officers told the Americans that they knew what they were doing thanks to their exploits in Northern Ireland. Yet they failed either to pre-empt or recognise the emerging Shia resistance. The British army proved incapable of securing the city, and not for lack of trying. In September 2003 British forces arrested a group of men, including the hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, and took them to battalion headquarters. There, Akam writes, ‘Mousa died of his injuries’ – one way to describe torturing a prisoner to death. Mousa was hooded and suffered 93 distinct injuries. Here were the skills acquired in Northern Ireland. The army was warned by its lawyers to prevent the abuse of prisoners, but Akam reports that the divisional commander, General Peter Wall, refused to give this order to the forces under his command. He was later promoted to chief of the general staff.

British behaviour in Basra inspired widespread hatred. Officers deceived themselves by talking of their good works, such as repainting schools (which their own forces had damaged). But the occupation forces never achieved the minimum objective of rebuilding Iraq’s domestic security services. The number of British soldiers killed began to rise. Local militias soon had a freer hand than the occupiers. By 2005, IED attacks were common. In 2006 the British made a push to re-establish their authority, but their own soldiers couldn’t move around safely. Akam describes an institution in a state of constant insecurity about its reputation with the Americans, but the US military had long since become disillusioned with British claims to expertise. American generals produced their own counterinsurgency manuals, with the aim of building up Sunni tribes against the Shia militias in classic colonial mode – the ramifications are evident today. They ramped up troop levels with the so-called surge, an option that wasn’t available to the British. By early 2007, the forces in Basra were holed up in a garrison under constant shelling. When Blair left office in June that year, the British army was releasing prisoners to the city militias in exchange for temporary cessations of attacks on its positions. Akam describes all this well, but gives little sense of what any of it was like for Iraqis.

It took about eight weeks to remove British military equipment from central Basra, but the soldiers withdrew from the city in a single night like criminals leaving a burgled house. Their departure had been negotiated in advance with the Shia militias. British forces exercised so little control over the city by September 2007 that to leave without such an arrangement would have been very difficult. The midnight convoy was subjected to just one IED attack, which given the circumstances was counted a success. Basra was left to the militias. Having invaded Iraq’s second city and occupied it for four years, British soldiers ended up sitting in an out-of-town airport while militiamen took pot shots at them with rockets. In the spring of 2008, American forces had to move south to support reconstituted Iraqi army divisions in retaking Basra. The British force was gone from Iraq within a year. In military circles this episode is seen as a total humiliation. Akam calls the Basra debacle ‘the nadir of the post 9/11 wars’, but there is also a sense in which it was a fitting end.

The war​ in Afghanistan began in October 2001 with 76 consecutive days of bombing in which the US air force and navy dropped 17,500 bombs. One of the USAF’s B-2s conducted a 44-hour sortie, the longest air mission in history. Warnings from aid agencies and the UN that the bombing and invasion risked worsening ‘impending mass starvation’ were brushed aside. After the first eleven days of air strikes, US special forces teams were brought in to begin their work with the Northern Alliance, the proxy force employed by the US and the UK to overthrow the Taliban. Kabul had fallen by 13 November and Kandahar by early December. The speed of this apparent victory encouraged the use of similar tactics in Iraq, Libya and Syria. The Afghan warzone was also a test case for armed drones and for the mass use of battlefield assassination. The combination of special forces, local proxies and air power is now the standard American model of war. But as in Iraq, success was an illusion. Twenty years later the war continues, with an estimated death toll of 241,000 and counting, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.

British involvement in Afghanistan began with special forces raids in support of the bombing and as part of the hunt for senior members of al-Qaida. There were also missions of less obvious value: basic reconnaissance work and a raid on an opium factory in Kandahar. Akam focuses on the later deployment to Helmand province. From 2006 the British, Canadian and Australian armies controlled the province as part of the International Security Assistance Force. If the two main forms of colonial war are urban occupation and rural fort-soldiering, Basra exemplified the first and Helmand the second. British officers knew that they had too few troops in Helmand. The armed forces often claim that the civilian state asks them to do too much with too little, but in this case the military leadership had insisted on the deployment. In 2007 the chief of the general staff, General Richard Dannatt, told the British ambassador to Afghanistan that this decision was a result of the army’s fear of further troop cuts. They believed soldiers who had finished their tours in Iraq would be dismissed if the generals didn’t put them to use elsewhere.

Neither the British nor the Americans had much understanding of the civil war into which they had waded. Mike Martin, a former officer commissioned to research British military operations in Helmand (he published his findings in An Intimate War, despite the MoD’s attempts to suppress it), described the British approach to the conflict as ‘so far removed from the Helmandi understanding that Helmandis considered them to be trying to destroy the province through an alliance with the Taliban, rather than their purported aim of reconstruction’. Had there been any realistic strategic aim in Helmand – a doubtful proposition – it would have required considerable diplomacy to pull it off. But the British sent in the third battalion of the parachute regiment: the regiment responsible for Bloody Sunday (and known for employing a soldier who collected human ears during the Falklands War). Akam describes 3 PARA as ‘the most bellicose section of the British army’. In the first few months of 2006, the regiment fired half a million rounds, setting the general tone for subsequent deployments. Officers would refer to colonial-era campaigns in Malaya and Kenya. Medals and citations were handed out to officers who got into needless entanglements and then fought their way out of them. Helmand came to be seen as a place where violence was licensed.

After the US troop surge in 2009, the war in Afghanistan was overseen by American generals who had directed major operations in Iraq. Both Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus considered themselves experts in counterinsurgency – the respectable term for trying to suppress domestic resistance to a military occupation. British soldiers were supposed to fall in line with American thinking and avoid making too many enemies, but they often failed. In September 2011, a patrol from the Royal Marines Corps came across an Afghan man who had been wounded in a helicopter strike. The patrol leader, Alexander Blackman, executed him, admitting unabashedly that he was violating the Geneva Conventions. He didn’t realise that one of his men was wearing a helmet camera. The execution was treated as an outrage even within the army: Blackman was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. Some tried to treat the case as an aberration – the deputy commandant of the marines called it an isolated incident. But Blackman’s immediate commanding officer believed the culture within 42 Commando, the unit to which Blackman belonged, was likely to produce war crimes. He resigned; the company and brigade commanders were promoted. Conservative MPs and the Daily Mail launched a campaign defending Blackman. As a result, his sentence was cut to eight years and then reduced to a conviction for manslaughter. He was released in 2017 and soon appearing as a guest on morning TV.

Akam contends that there was as little accountability within the military hierarchy as there was outside it. Individual soldiers were sometimes disciplined. But generals who oversaw strings of failures were rewarded. None was ever fired. The commander of joint operations during the Basra debacle, Nick Houghton, became chief of the defence staff in 2013 and now sits in the House of Lords. His deputy went on to become head of the army. The US is currently in the middle of what it calls an ‘orderly and responsible withdrawal’ from Afghanistan, which will affect the couple of hundred soldiers the British army has kept in the country since Camp Bastion was overrun in 2014. Under Biden, the partial withdrawal of US troops from Iraq that took place over the past year has already begun to be reversed. In February, Nato announced it was expanding its deployment in Iraq to four thousand troops. It may be possible to make a cleaner break in Afghanistan. But the Afghan security forces Nato claims to have trained are a shell. The invaders are leaving graves behind but precious little else. The civil war will continue.

The​ Ministry of Defence tried to prevent the publication of Akam’s book: the original publisher, Penguin Random House, pulled out before Scribe agreed to publish it. The military would obviously like to avoid a close examination of this unbroken string of catastrophes, but Akam’s book is a gentle account – critical, but not unsympathetic. The establishment reaction to it was unsurprising: Akam is too harsh on brave fighting men, the failures were the fault of politicians, or of too little money or insufficient militarism among the general population. But a pro-military position could be formulated another way: the army was asked to engage in criminal recklessness and we must ensure that doesn’t happen again. The generals don’t say this and nor does Akam. Such criticisms can’t be expressed even in a history that the MoD tried to pulp.

In March this year, the British government published the results of its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. This major national strategy document contains the usual overtones of imperial nostalgia and platitudes about ‘British leadership in the world’, but, even at this distance from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is striking how much of the review is taken up with US priorities. An ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ is mentioned. South Korea is described as ‘a highly significant area of focus’. And the government pledges to ‘work with our international partners to maintain secure global oil supplies, particularly in the Middle East’. Since the mid-2010s, the UK has sought to facilitate US requests by ‘returning’ military forces to bases in places of American interest: in particular the Persian Gulf and Far East. In 2018 a permanent British naval base was opened in Bahrain, with the intention, so it appears, of serving the needs of the American empire more efficiently. There’s also a commitment to increase the UK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons – a decision not discussed in public, and one which has received too little attention.

After the publication of the Integrated Review the MoD released a ‘command paper’ with further details on plans for the armed forces. It outlined some reductions in the numbers of soldiers, tanks and helicopters (the air force is to receive more overpriced, subsonic F-35s), as well as plans for a new special forces Ranger Regiment responsible for ‘training, advising, assisting and accompanying local forces’: an indication that it intends to fight more proxy wars. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, announced that UK armed forces ‘will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become a more present and active force around the world’.

Perhaps the most significant commitment was the deployment of a new aircraft carrier group in ‘the Indo-Pacific’, which would be ‘permanently available to Nato’. One of the carriers set out for the South China Sea at the end of May. British politicians were persuaded to spend £7.6 billion on the new vessels, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, despite having too few planes with which to equip them and only one ageing store ship to supply them. The military leadership also pushed for the Royal Navy to form ‘Littoral Strike Groups’ for international interventions. Baroness Goldie clarified in a written answer to Parliament that later this year British patrol vessels will be stationed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and there will be a frigate in the area by the end of the decade. The reason given for these deployments is ‘projection of power’ – but whose power? In the 1960s, the US secretary of defence Robert McNamara and the secretary of state Dean Rusk urged their British counterparts to retain British military forces in the Far East. The British ministers were reluctant, given that ‘the empire was no longer there to justify it.’ The current government has no such reluctance.

It is one thing to station military forces around the world to maintain your empire, but quite another to do so for someone else’s. It’s not a new observation that those in power in Britain have become more culturally militarist as the UK has been shorn of actual global military influence. It’s harder to explain the persistence of imperial lackeydom after Iraq. Part of the reason is a refusal, in most parts of society, to confront the reality of the post-9/11 wars. An aphakic view of the British military’s role in the world persists. The UK remains a country in which the phrase ‘east of Suez’ is used without irony. A country that claims having soldiers in 46 countries is necessary to keep its citizens safe. A country where professing a willingness to use nuclear weapons is considered a precondition for political office. A country that passes legislation to protect itself from prosecution for torture and war crimes (the new Overseas Operations Bill was criticised by the UN special rapporteur on torture as ‘one of the most corrupt ideas the UK has come up with in modern times’). A country that has an undercover domestic police force to spy on and interfere with anti-war activists. It’s not enough to say that British society has learned nothing from the way its distorted view of itself and of its relationship with the US contributed to the horrors of Iraq. After that debacle the UK was a leading advocate for destroying a state and half-heartedly instituting a new regime in Libya. There is no reason to think it won’t happen again.

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Vol. 43 No. 16 · 12 August 2021

‘Every prime minister since Blair has supported Britain’s involvement’ in the war in Iraq, Tom Stevenson writes (LRB, 1 July). At the time maybe, but not subsequently. In his memoir My Life, Our Times (2017), Gordon Brown writes: ‘We were misled by the Americans and the intelligence services. In retrospect I regret that I did not press as hard as I should have. By not questioning the evidence with sufficient rigour, I let myself and many others down.’

Chris Mullin
Callaly, Northumberland

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