Colonel Blimp, you're still fighting the wrong war.

by Philip Jacobson

The Daily Mail, 24 July 2009

Although Richard North sets out to make the "case for the prosecution" of the British military and the political establishment for comprehensively bungling their conduct during the Iraq War, it is events in Afghanistan that make the book so timely and thought provoking.

The parallels between the two conflicts are inescapable, from the failure to learn from tactical mistakes to the desperate need for more helicopters.

Where North accuses the Ministry of Defence of an Orwellian attempt to spin an ultimately disastrous campaign in Iraq into a resounding triumph, an unspoken question hangs it the air: is history repeating itself in the wilds of Helmand Province?

The launch pad for North's withering assault on the MoD is the emblematic story of the Snatch Land Rovers, lightly armoured vehicles originally developed for riot control in Northern Ireland and pressed into service in the British zone of operations in Southern Iraq with the approval of General Sir Mike Jackson, then head of the army.

Under fierce attack by the well-armed militias, the snatches rapidly acquired the grim reputation as "four-wheeled coffins". North was one of the first military analysts to highlight their extreme vulnerability to the enemy's roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

In North's view, shared by other knowledgeable observers, the initial success of the allied invasion was squandered by the MoD's inability – some would say pig-headed refusal – to grasp the true nature of the Shi'a insurgency that followed and adapt tactics accordingly.

Equally damaging, he argues, was the failure of the procurement system – the unglamorous but crucial business of ensuring that British soldiers had the best weapons and equipment for the kind of war they were being asked to fight.

While the Snatch vehicles were going up in flames and commanders pleaded for more troop-carrying helicopters, billions of pounds were being lavished on high-profile projects designed, in North's words, to fight imaginary wars of the future". The admirals were determined to have their giant new aircraft carriers, the air marshals their Eurofighters; meanwhile the army "was getting palmed off with wholly unsuitable, second-hand equipment".

In stark contrast, when IEDs began killing large numbers of US soldiers in Iraq, the Americans rushed into service hundreds of lumbering armoured troop-carriers specifically designed to withstand roadside bombs.

The result was a swift and substantial reduction in the body count. A US Marine officer who survived a massive blast told me reverently: "We just love those big ugly mother f*****s."

The MoD's tactical fallibility was rooted in the fateful assumption that the undoubted expertise acquired by the Army in Northern Ireland could be applied more or less wholesale to the radically different circumstances of Iraq. North cites the toe-curling meeting at which the senior British officer in Basra was dispensing lofty advice to US commanders on how to defeat the militias at the very moment they were forcing his troops into a humiliating withdrawal from the city.

"It's insufferable, for Christ's sake," raged one of the Americans present. "He comes in and lectures everyone in the room about how to do counter-insurgency. The guys were just rolling their eyebrows [as] the notorious Northern Ireland came up again."

Littered with military acronyms with obscure technical data, North's prose rarely rises above the utilitarian, while the crop of footnotes on practically every page reflects his heavy reliance on published sources (it appears he did not interview any of the senior military and political players, British or American).

He might also have examined more closely whether the strategic, tactical and organisational failures he identifies in Iraq are being perpetrated in Afghanistan.

It is hardly reassuring when an acute shortage of helicopters obliges the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, to borrow and American Black Hawk for a visit to his increasingly hard-pressed "grunts" on the ground.

For years, the default response of the MoD to criticism from civilians, however well-informed, has been to rubbish them as "armchair generals" pontificating from the comfort of the living room.

North will probably get the same treatment but, as he mischievously points out, only a couple of years ago some £2.3 billion was spent on upgrading the MoD headquarters in Whitehall – money that could have paid for two dozen of the troop-carrying Chinook helicopters so desperately needed in Afghanistan today.

And what that show up on the final bill but the purchase at £1,000 each, of more than 3,000 Herman Miller Aeron chairs, advertised as "the most comfortable in the world".

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