Monday 28 June 2010

A modern-day barbarity

A bomb disposal expert was killed in a gunfight with insurgents yesterday, The Guardian tells us, using the MoD as it source.

The solider from 101 Engineer Regiment (EOD), was attached to the joint force explosive ordnance disposal group, part of the counter improvised explosive device (IED) task force. He was "... part of an EOD team that was extracting from an incident when he was killed by small arms fire," said Lieutenant Colonel James Carr-Smith, a spokesman for Task Force Helmand.

"He died seeking to rid Helmand of IEDs such that local Afghans could move freely throughout the province. He will be greatly missed and his actions will not be forgotten. We will remember him," adds Carr-Smith.

But fine words butter no parsnips, as the saying goes. There are occasions when EODs must work out in the open, and this does put them at risk. However, as long as there is vehicle access to the site of a suspected IED, then there is no need whatsoever for a soldier to expose himself to fire.

In the first instance, there is the Husky set, for detecting IEDs and for detonating pressure-pad initiated devices. Mine rollers and armoured bulldozers also have their place. Then there is the Buffalo armoured vehicle, which can be used to investigate suspect devices. There are also tracked robots which can be used for further investigation – these can be controlled from the safety of a Mastiff protected vehicle.

However, in this man's Army, great value is placed on the ability of the EOD to neutralise and then dismantle IEDs, for the forensic evidence that it yields and thus the assistance it gives in tracking and arresting bomb-makers. For that reason, it is held, EOD must expose themselves to danger – for the greater good.

That argument would stand up if the policy led to a reduction in the number of bomb-makers and the number of IEDs placed. In fact, despite four or maybe five EODs being killed (perhaps more), plus an unknown number of soldiers killed while using hand-held metal detectors, IED incidents are at a record level.

Further, there are different and better ways of gaining intelligence to thwart the bomb makers, such as automatic change detection, or even direct UAV observation, tracing bomb-layers back to their bases – plus more subtle techniques.

Two years ago, we were asking how many more times must men be pitted against bombs, when there are machines which can be used in place of flesh and blood. In fact, we have been pointing this out ever since 2005.

Sending men against bombs is the equivalent of the First World War practice of having men in orderly lines walk into the muzzles of machine guns, instead of using tanks. In this modern age, we find it appalling that the military could even consider such barbarity – so why is it acceptable for the modern-day military to do what amounts to the same thing?

We need to forget the fine words – and bring these people back home alive.


They do not compute

If one had to rank British media coverage of the Afghan conflict, my winner would almost certainly be The Independent - not that I agree with much of it, but at least they seem to be trying to offer a coherent picture (in so far as that is possible).

A significant contribution to that picture is a report today which tells us that Gen McChrystal had issued a "devastatingly critical assessment" of the war against a "resilient and growing insurgency" just days before being forced out.

I can't quite go with the paper's interpretation of this – it seems to believe that this assessment contributed to Obama's determination to fire the General, hence the strap-line attached to the piece by Jonathan Owen and Brian Brady, which declares: "President Obama lost patience with Runaway General's failed strategy".

Anyhow, the thrust of the story is of some significance, however you decide to interpret it. Using confidential military documents, we are told, McChrystal had briefed NATO defence ministers earlier this month and warned them not to expect any progress in the next six months. He raised "serious concerns" over levels of security, violence and corruption within the Afghan administration.

His "campaign overview" warned that only a fraction of the areas key to long-term success were "secure", governed with "full authority", or enjoying "sustainable growth". And there was a critical shortage of "essential" military trainers needed to build up Afghan forces – of which only a fraction were classed as "effective".

McChrystal had pointed to an "ineffective or discredited" Afghan government and a failure by Pakistan "to curb insurgent support" as "critical risks" to success. "Waning" political support and a "divergence of coalition expectations and campaign timelines" were among the key challenges faced. Only five areas out of 116 assessed were classed as "secure" – the rest suffering various degrees of insecurity and more than 40 described as "dangerous" or "unsecure".

Just five areas out of 122 were classed as being under the "full authority" of the government – with governance rated as non-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive in 89 of the areas. Seven areas out of 120 rated for development were showing sustainable growth. In 48 areas, growth was either stalled or the population was at risk. Less than a third of the military and only 12 percent of police forces were rated as "effective".

Afghan people "believe that development is too slow" and many "still generally mistrust Afghan police forces". Security was "unsatisfactory" and efforts to build up the Afghan security forces were "at risk", with "capability hampered by shortages in NCOs and officers, corruption and low literacy levels".

The problem with the briefing, apparently, was its candour. The general was judged to be "off message", creating an "uncompromising obstacle" to an "early, face-saving exit" and Obama's plan "to bring troops home in time to give him a shot at a second term."

A senior Whitehall official thus says that McChrystal's departure is a sign of politicians "taking charge of this war", from which we might adduce that there is to be a structured attempt to deceive the public into believing that a victory is being secured in Afghanistan and that we will shortly be able to withdraw troops from the theatre, with honour.

The problem I have with this analysis is that in the recent past – i.e., in Iraq – the military had been only to keen to representing defeat as victory. The indications are that they would do it again with Afghanistan. In that light, what is being said does not make obvious sense. The politicians should not need to worry. When told to depart, the military will pack up its tent, declare victory and go home with the bands playing.

Perversely, though, it seems that McChrystal – he who had been so confident of military victory - had been urging Washington to "start the political track as soon as possible", a process which would require the politicians to take the lead (and the responsibility) in talking to the Taliban and other parties.

In other words, McChrystal could have come to terms with the probability – if not certainty – that we are losing, and wanted to dump the problem on the politicians, which is exactly the reason why I thought he had engineered his own dismissal.

Petraeus, on the other hand, is supposed to be arguing "that we need to get the upper hand militarily and regain the military initiative, and then negotiate from a position of strength". Sources are saying that it would take time to recover from McChrystal's loss, "particularly if Petraeus just ploughs on with trying to get the upper hand militarily".

This could be reflecting another, as yet unexplored possibility that there is a schism within the military, with genuine differences of opinion as to whether the conflict is winnable – and over what timescale.

Such complexities get even murkier – or even more complex, if you prefer – when you read Patrick Cockburn. A seasoned, if not veteran war reporter, Cockburn got it completely wrong in southern Iraq during the British occupation – he was too focused on the US occupation. But he was worth listening to on American actions (although he wasn't exactly an objective observer).

Cockburn would have it that Petraeus is taking command in Afghanistan "to stage-manage a war that the US has decided it cannot win militarily, but from which it cannot withdraw without damaging loss of face."

Now, human nature being what it is, there is never judged so fine and perceptive a commentator as the one who articulates exactly what you personally believe to be the case. And that is so close to my "take" that it is all I can do not to remark on what a fine, perceptive fellow Cockburn has become.

But, if that is what Petraeus is in position to do, what was the real problem with McChrystal? Did he, unlike Petraeus, see that the public was not going to believe the victory bullshit a second time round and thus decide that, if someone was going to get blamed, it wasn't going to be the military? And if McChrystal had decided he couldn't pull it off, what makes Petraeus think he can?

One way or another, it seems, we are no way near getting to the bottom of this affair, even less so with Call me Dave twittering away about having "achieved results", when McChrystal is saying that things are going down the pan.

Then we have Gen Richards saying (apparently spontaneously – and you can believe that if you like) that we should be talking to the Taliban – one of the things, supposedly, for which McChrystal got dumped, with the Pakistanis also getting in on the act (of which more later).

There are things going on here which do not compute – they really do not compute.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

Saturday 26 June 2010

The wages of stupid?

In the continuing drama of the Afghan military adventure, Guy Adams of The Independent argues that McChrystal's minders blundered by underestimating a title with a history of heavyweight journalism. And that, he says, is how Rolling Stone was able to bring down a general.

It takes little textual analysis, however, to work out that Adams is guessing. "It's impossible to know what exactly persuaded McCrystal's press staff to invite Hastings (the author of the Rolling Stone piece) into their inner sanctum," he writes, "where he would be privy to a frat-boy atmosphere and culture of contempt for the White House which would ultimately this week force the General to resign from his job as commander of US forces in Afghanistan."

The thesis here, that McChrystal (and through him his staff) have made a massive blunder, is intriguing, but it would seem to fly in the face of the perceived wisdom. The general and his team have a reputation for intellectual depth, and for a comprehensive grasp of their subject and allied matters.

If they really did not know how the Rolling Stone piece would be seen inside the Beltway, and thus be treated by Obama, then we are looking at a staggering level of incompetence, and an alarming degree of naïvety. Even here, where we have been quick to argue that stupidity is a driving force in the military high command, this takes some believing.

However, not only is it very hard to believe that McChrystal could be that stupid, it is equally hard to believe that his boss David Petraeus knew nothing of what was going on and, if he did, that he chose not to intervene - unless he approved it, even if tacitly.

As an alternative, we could go with Con Coughlin who is asking whether McChrystal is the fall guy for the president's failure. The general lost his job as a result of Obama's lack of input into the Afghan war, he argues.

I think even Adams's thesis is preferable to that, but if this was a blunder by McChrystal, we are faced with a terrifying prospect. In a key military adventure, we have a US system that can appoint an idiot for its theatre commander. We also have a situation where the entire military and political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic can roll over and revere an idiot.

Readers here will know that we were not particularly impressed with McChrystal's military (or political) appreciation of the Afghan situation, and we always thought his "surge" ill-founded. But, since all the big-wigs, not least Liam Fox seemed to think the general was the "dog's bollocks" (the correct military term, I believe), who am I to argue?

Actually, this self-deprecation does not become this site. We do argue – this is what we do. The McChrystal "surge" always was, is and always will be dangerously flawed and ineffective – and we have said so. It is a waste of time, money and lives. And the fact that Fox and his mates seem to think differently says more about them than us.

Interestingly, The Times is telling its readers that a newly-elected Tory MP has declared the "war" to be "mission impossible" – and such is the weight of this pronouncement that it puts three of its journalists' names on the story by-line. There's glory for you.

The MP in question is Rory Stewart, "former soldier and diplomat" and prime candidate for replacing Patrick Mercer as favoured media "rent-a-mouth". And out Rory believes that a "radical rethink" is the only option if the Nato-led surge of 40,000 extra troops fails to achieve results by next July. Jeeze! There's real intellectual analysis for you.

And it gets better. Rory believes that only a few thousand troops — perhaps 1,000 of them British — should remain in Afghanistan after next summer. "You would have a few planes (he means aircaft, not a carpenter's tool) around but you would no longer do counter-insurgency. You would no longer be in the game of trying to hold huge swathes of rural Afghanistan."

One way or another, though, it looks as if we are on our way out. Call me Dave has gone public to say that the "very exciting prospect for bringing our troops home" was within sight as Afghans began to take control of security, but that the coming months would be critical. Then asked if troops would be home before the next election, he said: "Make no mistake about it, we cannot be there for another five years having been there for effectively nine years already."

The idea that the Afghans are beginning to take control of security is just bollocks, without even the dog attached – and that is by no means a military term. Neither is the evidence hard to find. Just last week, local UN officials in Kabul were reporting that insurgent violence had risen sharply over the last three months, with roadside bombings, complex suicide attacks and assassinations soaring over last year's levels.

But if talking bollocks is what Call me Dave thinks is necessary to get the troops home, then perhaps it is a small price to pay. In between then – whenever "then" is – and now, Dave will have to go through the charade of fighting a war, and being terribly sorry when the latest squaddie has his brains spread over the terrain. And he is admitting that it's going to be tough going.

At least, though, it looks as if the Buffaloes have turned up in theatre – eighteen months after they were ordered (picture above). They are far too late and too few in number to make a strategic difference but they will reduce the number of times Dave will have to read out the names of the dead from the despatch box. For that small mercy, at least, we can be thankful.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

Thursday 24 June 2010

A vehicle "incident"

The MoD is reporting the death of four soldiers last night in "a vehicle incident." They were, we are told, part of a team travelling to assist in an incident (another "incident") at a nearby checkpoint in the Nahr-e Saraj area, near Gereshk. This brings the total British military deaths since 2001 to 307.

The Daily Telegraph is reporting that all four men were drowned when their 18 ton Ridgeback plunged into the Nahr-e-Bughra canal.

The "accident" happened at 11pm last night and it is likely, Thomas Harding writes, that the driver was travelling using night vision aids rather than headlights in an area that is under threat of IEDs. The track next to the canal is unmarked and has no crash barriers.

This is the first time soldiers have been killed in the Ridgeback which, as we illustrated recently has proven very resilient against IEDs. However, MRAP "rollovers" have become a significant cause of casualties, coming to a head in July 2008 (pictured) - although other vehicle types, including Pinzgauers, Land Rovers and even Warriors have been involved in this type of accident.

Not least of the problems is the road shoulders rarely meet modern engineering standards and may collapse under the weight of MRAPs, especially when the road is above grade and can fall to lower ground (ditches and canals). Thus, we have long argued that more money should be spent on road construction and improvement, rather than vanity projects such as Ferris Wheels and the like.

We appreciate though that such advanced concepts are difficult for the military, officials and (especially) politicians to take on board, which is why it is much easier to require soldiers to thunder down in the darkness in heavily armoured vehicles, from which escape is difficult, with the occasional risk of death when they tip into canals.

But since the senior ranks of the military, the officials and the politicians are not actually at risk, while platitudes come easy and are dirt cheap, this doesn't really matter. Soldiers, as always, are expendable.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Obama stuffs the military

In what must rate of a stroke of political genius, Obama has seen off the challenge by the US military over Afghanistan and, by firing McChrystal and appointing his boss Gen David Petraeus, has dumped the problem back in their laps and told them to get on with it.

On the basis that there is nothing new under the sun, there must be a precedent for a field commander being fired and his boss being appointed to replace him, but such incidents are few and far between. However, few can have expected that Obama would take this option and, in the brief period while McChrystal's fate was in the balance, you did not see Petraeus's name in the ring.

What we have been seeing is a huge amount of thrashing about, as commentators struggle and largely fail to make sense of recent events, not realising that this was most likely a deliberate ploy by McChrystal to destabilise Obama and dump the blame for a failing campaign in the lap of the president.

As such, it is most unlikely that McChrystal's quite deliberate and studied coup de main was done without the knowledge and acquiescence (if not approval) of his boss.

By appointing Petraeus to take over from his uppity subordinate – effectively a demotion – Obama demonstrates the skills acquired and honed as a street-fighting Chicago politician. He has reasserted control over – as The Guardian puts it – a politicised military, with the generals out of control.

In so doing, he dumps responsibility for success in Afghanistan in the lap of the supposed architect of the campaign, leaving McChrystal isolated and irrelevant. The Army is still very much in the frame and Obama's message about "civilian control" could not have been clearer.

Hero of the Iraqi "surge" and a Bush appointee, Petraeus must now deliver the goods in Afghanistan or go under. His appointment, to a very great extent, insulates the president from the fray. The new chief is in the hot seat, and with him the military. The game has just changed, and taken on a whole new dimension.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

A quote too far?

In the closing stages of the film, A Bridge Too Far, we saw Generals Urqhart and Browning starting to distance themselves from what was then evident as a military disaster, with Browning uttering the immortal words: "I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far."

There seems to me to be something of this with Gen Stanley McChrystal and his interview with Rolling Stone magazine. With the man admitting that everything said was on the record, and the magazine checking back with the General's aides before using the quotes, we have on the face of it an example of a senior soldier committing professional suicide.

Reading the article, however, one finds that McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. "Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan," he says.

But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the US homeland, the war will do little to shut down al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan.

Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. "It's all very cynical, politically," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. "Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there's nothing for us there."

"Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem," says Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan.

"A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we're picking winners and losers" – a process that fuels resentment and hostility among the civilian population. So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.

To break out of this acknowledged "quagmire" we are seeing perhaps a subtle if not devious ploy, on the lines of the "bridge too far" excuse. As did the British military in Iraq, the US military are going to need an alibi and a "scapegoat" – they need to dump the blame on the politicians.

McChrystal has put Obama in an impossible position. With the president's popularity evaporating, if he fires McChrystal – still a popular General – he takes the blame for when the campaign finally falls apart. If he doesn't fire our Stan, in effect he is endorsing (or not denying) the "contemptuous" comments about the National Security Team, which can then be held responsible for the disasters to come. Obama still gets it.

Basically, it's a win-win for the military, and a sign that the military has lost faith in its own ability to prevail in Afghanistan. The end is nigh and McChrystal may be signalling that all that matters now is who takes the blame.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

Tuesday 22 June 2010

We're shocked, shocked!

We saw recently another example of the vulnerability of the coalition supply chain in Afghanistan and now, under the pretext of news, the BBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times and others, tell us that the US military has been giving tens of millions of dollars to Afghan security firms who are channelling the money to warlords.

Truckers carrying supplies to US troops – according to a Congressional report entitled "Warlord, Inc: Extortion and Corruption Along the US Supply Chain in Afghanistan" - allegedly pay the firms to ensure safe passage in dangerous areas of Afghanistan. And what is more, the convoys are attacked if payments are not made.

Well, we are shocked, shocked, I tell you. In fact, we're so shocked that we were writing about this in June 2008 and then in more detail on 3 September 2009, again on 13 September 2009 (based in part on reports from February 2009, with references from the previous year) and then again on 10 December 2009.

Apart from the obvious comment – like "what took you so long?" – the issue here is of some considerable importance. We are six months into McChrystal's so-called "surge" and even before it started, we knew that huge bribes were being paid to the Taliban, effectively enabling them to keep the war going.

It would have been such a good idea to chop off the flow of funds, before we started pouring men and materiel into the "surge", but no ... such logic is clearly quite beyond the military and political geniuses running this war. So, six months in, the Taliban are likely better off, better equipped and richer than they were before the surge started.

And, while the evidence here is focused on US payments, it is equally the case that the UK is making similar payments. Thus, not only are we the taxpayers funding our own troops in the Afghan adventure, we are also helping to fund the Taliban, alongside the Americans.

Despite this, we have Lieutenant-General Nick Parker tell us that the most important ingredient of success (in Afghanistan) is "an aggressive political strategy that can build on the improving security." He adds: "It should draw further strength from improvements in governance and development and a sense of the inevitability of progress."

I might have written in these terms before, but either the general is irredeemably stupid – which he must be if he believes this guff – or he thinks we are stupid if he is expecting us to believe it. But even someone as thick as an Army Lieutenant-General should be able to understand that paying your enemy to fight you is not a recipe for instant peace or military success.

How then can there be "improving security" when he and his over-paid, over-promoted mates can't even sort out the basics? How can any current plans have any credibility whatsoever when this situation has been known about for years and still nothing is done about it?

Short of stupidity, there can only be massive self-delusion here, which brooks no confidence whatsoever in the conduct of the Afghan mission.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

Monday 21 June 2010

Clichés by the coffinload

I was wrong about the blogs to some extent. Craig Murray already has a piece up on the 300 deaths, noting: "We immediately have David Cameron and Liam Fox spewing out the standard propaganda about the occupation of Afghanistan making the world a safer place. This is quite simply a ludicrous proposition, and one to which the security, military and diplomatic establishments do not subscribe."

The BBC refers to this as a "tragic milestone" but what is quite stunning in this intensely political event (and it is a political rather than a military milestone) is the response of Shallow Dave. He is saying that Britain must "keep asking why" its troops are in Afghanistan. That is according to a report in The Times, with the Cleggeron leader leading the tributes to the "sacrifice" made by the 300 British service personnel who have died since operations in Afghanistan began in October 2001.

Says Dave: "It is desperately sad news: another family with such grief and pain and loss. Of course the 300th death is no more or less tragic than the 299 that came before. But it is a moment, I think, for the whole country to reflect on the incredible service and sacrifice and dedication that our Armed Services give on our behalf."

Then Dave tells us: "We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place, and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there."

To that, the man adds: "The truth is that we are there because the Afghans are not yet ready to keep their own country safe and to keep terrorists and terrorist training camps out of their country. That's why we have to be there. But as soon as they are able to take care and take security for their own country, that is when we can leave."

So the clichés are trotted out, carefully honed and polished, kept nicely chilled ready to trot out for such occasions, as meaningless now as they day they were crafted by the 16th PR Battalion of the 31st Right Wing Corps of Spinners – now officially special advisors to the Cleggerons, complete with official salaries and luncheon vouchers.

What is so offensive about all this, of course – apart from the total artificiality of the occasion - is that we have a politician telling us to ask a question: "why are our troops in Afghanistan?" Shallow hasn't quite got the hang of this politics business. We ask the questions, he gives us the answers – except, of course, he doesn't.

Even Con Coughlin thinks "it's not really good enough" for Cameron to say this. "One of the biggest disadvantages that has affected this campaign," he writes, "is the failure of our governing classes to provide clear and effective leadership, and to explain precisely why we have upwards of 10,000 British troops locked in mortal combat with the Taleban."

And, as always, in our desperately cynical age, whenever a politician starts using the word "truth", one learns to check the family silver and the contents of our wallets, certain in the knowledge that the man (or even woman) is up to no good.

The "truth" on this occasion is almost certainly nowhere near what Shallow Dave claims it to be. "We" – i.e., nearly 10,000 very expensive military personnel, several hundred officials and an unknown number of highly-paid contractors – are there because Dave hasn't yet worked out a mechanism for getting them out, and it is probably too early for him to try.

So, for the time being, young men – and the occasional woman – must be slaughtered, to absolutely no effect, to achieve nothing, a process which must continue until such time as it becomes politically convenient for the British contingent to depart. Then it will be up sticks, "job well done, chaps" and the charade of turning defeat into victory starts all over again.

With that the case, though, the very least the political classes could do is to avoid insulting our (collective) intelligence. We really do not need Liam Fox telling us that: "Our armed forces are the best in the world." Even if they were, which is doubtful, what does that mean? Best at what?

He tells us they are "operating daily in the most dangerous and demanding conditions". You don't say! "Some have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure this essential mission succeeds," he says. Nah. Very few who look upon the prospect of their own deaths regard it as a "sacrifice" – human motivations are much more complex than that.

But then we get the money quote: "My thoughts and those of the nation's are with the families and friends of all those servicemen and women who have fallen but our resolve and determination to see the mission through remains steadfast."

No they are not. The thoughts of the nation are largely with the World Cup, with Wimbledon and with making a living – and keeping the shysters from the government and the other nobs off your back.

But it is always remarkable to hear from the politicians and generals, well clear of the front line and the dangers attendant therein, how our "resolve and determination" must remain "steadfast." So, from the rear, as they pocket their generous salaries and expenses, they say: "stand fast". That is so easy when you are not personally at risk.

Meanwhile, three Australian soldiers and one American service member were killed today in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. Including the crash, at least 57 international troops, including 35 Americans, have died so far this month, a rate that could make June among the deadliest for US and other international forces in the nearly nine-year war. So far, the deadliest for the international force was July 2009 when 75 troops, including 44 Americans, were killed.

But hey! As long as the rest remain "steadfast" and act with "resolve and determination" - until the politicians pull the plug that is - everything in the garden is rosy. But one can't help but feel that if these young men and women are to spread their brains over the Afghan terrain, they deserve something better than second-hand clichés.

Comment: Afghanistan thread

It's happened

The 300th soldier has died in Afghanistan.

It is a totally meaningless figure, which includes non-combat deaths – and bears no historical comparison: medevac and surgical procedures are so much better that many who in previous campaigns would have died now survive. Did you know, for instance, that 371 British soldiers died in the "official" Cyprus emergency in 1956?

However, being a "round" number, 300 has a certain magic which means it becomes a media event. I bet the Sundays are seriously pissed off, as they were all waiting – bit like vultures, really, but that's the name of the game – for the single soldier to die and make their day.

Actually, the poor sod was hit by an explosion while on patrol in the Sangin district (Sangin again - the mincer) on 12 June and only died yesterday at the New Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. One should not be too cynical about this but ...

Anyhow, stand by for a certain amount of media comment on the Afghan war, some of it ill-informed, much of it drivel, with some nuggets buried deep in the mass – but very little of interest from the political blogs. Because it's what I do, I'm going to pull together a number of pieces and offer an analysis later today.

In the meantime, The Independent publishes a leading article about Dave's attempt to wrap himself in glory as a war leader. Flags are not the answer, says the paper.

I agree. There is something tawdry and unwholesome about these artificial displays of emotion and ... whatever. They don't ring true. But then, what does these days. More comment to follow.


What is going on?

I really did have no plans to do another piece about Bloody Sunday, wanting to move on to other subjects - which I'll now have to do later. But what pulls me back into the fray is an admission to being perplexed, although perhaps one should not be ... was it going to be any different?

Here, I refer to a significant social phenomenon, where we see the Saville Report embraced by the left wing media, and almost totally ignored by the right. That transcends the subject material and makes for an unresolved issue of wide and continuing importance.

It is that which has got me worked up, because I fully expected a rash of stories in the Sundays, for what by any measure was a big and important event – a £191 million report from a 12-year inquiry on an incident which contributed significantly to the length and intensity of a conflict on UK soil which lasted nearly 40 years.

With 5,000 pages in 10 separate volumes, would someone like to tell me that this is not important, that it should not get an airing in the Sundays - all of them? Yet, while we see stories in The Independent on Sunday and others in The Observer, there is nothing of note in The Sunday Times or The Sunday Telegraph or anything by way of useful analysis in The Mail on Sunday.

One can see the direction from which the left wing papers are coming. They have always tended to be "anti-army", or at least non-militaristic, and have been supportive – or more so – of the Irish campaign groups. If not absolutely true, those are certainly the perceptions, while the Right is pro-military, "patriotic" and broadly Unionist in sympathies.

In partisan terms, therefore, one can see the Left being more enthusiastic about Saville, and that is proving to be the case. But the inability of the Right to see the point of the inquiry, and break out of its narrow partisan boundaries is short-sighted and self-defeating.

What should concern the Right are two things: military effectiveness and the proper workings of the judicial system. And in both these areas, there are lessons to be learnt from Bloody Sunday for, on the one hand, it was a military "cock-up" and, on the other, a failure of the justice system.

These are dealt with in three pieces variously in The Independent and The Observer. The first is by lawyer Michael Mansfield in The Independent on Sunday, who asks: "Is nobody bothered that Widgery got it so wrong?"

Hey! That's a good question – and very pertinent. The concluding paragraph of Saville's overall assessment was:
The firing by soldiers of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.
Yet it wasn't just the events of Bloody Sunday that did this. It was the fact that the British establishment closed ranks – that Lord Widgery and his team during the first Bloody Sunday inquiry in April 1972 compounded the felony and inflamed bitterness for generations to come.

In a Channel 4 television programme entitled Secret History: Bloody Sunday broadcast in 1992, Bishop Daly said: "What really made Bloody Sunday so obscene was the fact that people afterwards, at the highest level of British justice, justified it."

This failure also needs to be acknowledged, says Mansfield. No system of justice is worthy of its professed principles if, as soon as it is under pressure, its independence and judgement evaporates. And, he says, the system of justice must never again allow itself to be subverted.

Then, also in the IOS is a piece headed: "How the killing of an innocent man may have paved the way for Bloody Sunday".

The man was William McGreanery, shot dead by a British soldier on the streets of Londonderry 15 September 1971, with subsequent allegations that he was carrying a weapon, that he was attempting to fire on the security services and even that he was a member of a paramilitary group.

But McGreanery, who was 41 when he died, has finally been exonerated by an official report which shows that he was an innocent, cut down in what police viewed as cold-blooded murder. However, at the time, the government's response sent a signal to soldiers that they "would be protected as far as the prosecution authorities were concerned."

This meant that the British Army was effectively "being told they would be immune from prosecution, and whatever they did they could do with impunity", thus helped to pave the way for the Bogside assault on 30 January 1972 – in effect, giving the green light to soldiers to act with impunity.

This story is expanded upon in The Observer. It tells us that more than 150 killings committed by soldiers during the Troubles were never fully investigated because of "an informal understanding" between the police and the army, under which soldiers who shot civilians were questioned by the Royal Military Police (RMP) rather than police detectives.

This has been highlighted by a Derry-based human rights organisation, the Pat Finucane Centre, and meant, according to the centre's Paul O'Connor, that between 1970 and 1973 soldiers were unlikely to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. During that period they shot dead more than 150 people in the province.

An agreement was made in 1970 between the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the army in Northern Ireland and was not revoked until September 1973 after being found "unsatisfactory". So lax were RMP investigations into killings that they were known as "tea and sandwich inquiries." This failure encouraged a culture of impunity to develop among troops who felt they were above the law, says Paul O'Connor.

So, yet another piece of the jigsaw locks into place, to which is added in the IOS article news of a "unique insight into the mindset of soldiers" on the eve of Bloody Sunday.

This is revealed in an unpublished extract of a book by an officer who served that day. The identity of the author has never been established, but his account was submitted from the Parachute Regiment to the MoD for clearance in the 1970s, only to emerge as new evidence at the Saville inquiry.

It recalls the frustration of dealing with protesters at a march at Dungannon the day before Bloody Sunday: "It was almost as though we were willing them to come out fighting, and bring the whole business down to a level which we could at last understand and appreciate – violence." And the officer tells how morale was high on 30 January:
... after briefing on the promised confrontation – which they were all looking forward to" and "the expectations of 'preparation for battle' kept out the chill of the bright winter morning we had woken up to... This time the 'enemy' had promised us the biggest and best civil rights march... And we would be ready for them – indeed, this was an opportunity we had been waiting for. We, at last, had plans of our own.
The author cites fears that the "plan" was "fraught with danger" of becoming a "GMFU" (grand military fuck-up), and recalls how one officer's wife, on being told of the plans, remarked: "I can just see the headlines – Londonderry's Sharpville."

Also in the same paper is another account - which shows you how seriously the IOS takes the issue. It is a long piece, but the most salient comments comes towards the end, where it describes how the CSM of the 1 Para Support Company - whose men did the killing - broke ranks.

He said he never saw any gunmen, weapons or bombers: "I feel in my own heart a lot of these people were innocent. It was badly handled by everybody." In effect, some of the Paras "lost it". That is what happened on Bloody Sunday.

That now brings us to The Observer which asks: "Were Bloody Sunday soldiers involved in 'Ballymurphy massacre'?" This puts us in the same territory as in my earlier piece with the news that relatives of 11 people killed in Belfast by the army in 1971 are now calling for an inquiry into their deaths

So, what have we got here? On the face of it, we have an Army out of control, imbued with the idea that it is above the law and can kill without penalty, we have that Army actively seeking confrontation in circumstances where civilian deaths could have been foreseen. Then, according to this commentator (or here if that link does not work), the cover-up by the Widgery tribunal amounted to, in effect, retrospective sanctioning by the British government of a massacre.

That thesis is explored here and here and is one of many sober analyses which challenge the perception (and claims) that the Army's counterinsurgency operation in Northern Ireland was in any way a success.

But, to this day, the Army avers that its "great skills" at counter-insurgency were developed and honed in Northern Ireland, a false prospectus which surely cannot be allowed to stand (especially as the Army seems to have difficulties in recalling the lessons it learned). Did it - as some allege - murder and blunder its way through the campaign, just as it seems to have done with all its other poster-child campaigns such as Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus, or can what it says (in whole or part) be taken at face value?

Further, the perception that troops are immune from or above the law seems to survive in other operations, such as the occupation of southern Iraq, and the culture of violence to civilians and cover-up seems to continue to this day. Goodness knows what will emerge from Afghanistan.

These issues, it would seem to me, are not or should not be solely left wing concerns, but should be of interest to the political right. That they seem not to be is the unanswered mystery of this affair. What is going on? Why, even after the elapse of nearly 40 years, is the establishment so keen to bury the lessons (and the debate) instead of learning from them?

Saville Inquiry thread

Sunday 20 June 2010

The greatest failure of them all

"When the IED detonated, I knew immediately what it was. There was a loud, elongated pop, a lot of dust and the vehicle was thrown about six feet into the air," says Lieutenant Colonel Roly Walker, the commanding officer of the Grenadier Guards battle group.

"The vehicle landed in such a way that I thought we were about to roll but we didn't. Nobody was hurt, we were all wearing helmets and body armour at the time but it's a pretty unnerving experience."

Outside, it was a scene of devastation. The blast ripped off the front wheels of the 15-ton Ridgeback, tossing it high off the ground. The anti-rocket bar armour was shredded and the heavily reinforced hull was cracked. But, amazingly, all six soldiers inside the vehicle escaped uninjured.

The colonel and his team were returning from Patrol Base Silab in Helmand, in January, and had decided to take a route through the desert. It was open and flat. "It wasn't really an obvious vulnerable point," says the colonel.

He continues: "I always thought it was a case of 'when' not 'if' we drove over an IED. So I felt a sense of guilty relief, to be honest. We were unhurt after all ... there was a fair amount of nervous laughter. 'Squaddie' humour kicks in and you don't think too deeply about the 'what if'. The memory stays with you and the next time you move through a VP [vulnerable point], you tend to take it a little more gingerly."

Of course, if Walker had been riding in a Viking, like his predecessor Lt-Col Thorneloe, the chances are that he would now be dead.

Yet, according to Army doctrine – which has spawned the Jackal and other absurdities – these soldiers should not have needed a protected vehicle. After all, they had decided to take a route through the desert, where mobility and unpredictability was supposed to be their protection. Unfortunately, it wasn't, but fortunately they were in a Ridgeback, the smaller cousin to the Mastiff, first introduced in 2006.

And that is why you see Ridgebacks (example illustrated above) leading convoys of highly mobile Vikings. If there is a pressure IED, then the Ridgeback will cop it and the crew will most likely survive. Anything else, apart from a Mastiff, and there is a high probability that you are breaking out the body bags.

That is what is precisely happens in another account which records the experience of a sapper going to the aid of Danish soldiers, one of whom has his body "ripped apart after his vehicle hit a roadside bomb." Although not stated, this is actually this incident where, as we record, the soldiers were driving in a Piranha armoured personnel carrier.

What is highly significant here is that both accounts appear in the same edition of a newspaper were Gen Dannatt (ret) is in given pride of place to promote "Armed Forces Day". This is the man who did his best to block the purchase of protected vehicles in 2006, who supported the purchase of the Vector and, in particular, wanted to buy the Piranha for use in Afghanistan by British forces.

In his writing, Dannatt chooses to quote from Kipling's poem "Hurrah! For the Life of a Soldier", penned in 1892 about how hard-done-by is the British soldier characterised by Tommy Atkins. Dannatt tells us the poem has much resonance today but he neglects another Kipling poem which perhaps has greater resonance, specifically to himself.

This is "The Lesson", written over a decade later, after the British failure in the Boer War. And, in neglecting the other poem Dannatt misses the opportunity to bring to our attention the lines: "It was our fault, and our very great fault—and now we must turn it to use. We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse."

But "fault" is the very last word you will find in Dannatt's vocabulary. Not only has he been the blockage, in preventing the Army being properly equipped to deal with the counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is the man who, as CGS during the seminal years of August 2006 – July 2009, presided over the failure of the British campaign in southern Iraq and the successive tactical and strategic failures in Afghanistan.

Crucially, he only realised the importance of the IED and its strategic effects towards the very end of his tenure so, while he emotes lyrically about Tommy Atkins, he skates over the fact that the death rate of British soldiers in Afghanistan is four times higher than that of US soldiers and is twice that of 2006, when they were described as being involved in the fiercest fighting since their involvement in Korea 50 years ago.

No one would accuse US forces of lacking aggression or of being reluctant to engage with the Taliban, but there are three very obvious differences between the US and British forces. One is that the Americans have a much higher proportion of protected vehicles, and have not gone down the route of using high mobility, unprotected vehicles in their search for protection.

The second is that the US forces employ mine clearance vehicles – equipment not available to the British – reducing the need for vulnerable foot patrols and equally vulnerable bomb disposal personnel. And thirdly, far more helicopters are available to the US forces – the lack of which in the British ranks has also been influenced by Dannatt.

One cannot help but feel a certain sadness, therefore, to see an officer who so egregiously let down his own troops now at the forefront of a campaign enjoining the public to support those same troops. And it is a reflection of the media, which has so often failed to identify the failings of the Army and its Generals, that it now gives so much space to the one General who was perhaps the greatest failure of them all.

Nevertheless, this seems very much in tune with the times, where there is rarely any premium on success and failure is so often rewarded. As he pockets his fees and his pension, Mr Dannatt must be mightily glad this is so. In earlier times, he might have been told to fall on his sword.


Saturday 19 June 2010

A jolly good unit

Simon Hoggart in The Guardian today recalls how he had had published in his newspaper six days before "Bloody Sunday", a story headed "The Brutal Soldiery".

In the article, he had made specific allegations about the conduct of the Parachute Regiment and had asserted that some Army units were so fed up with the Paras storming into their areas, firing rubber bullets, beating people up, and undoing months of improved community relations in 10 savage minutes, that they had asked for them not to be sent in again. "Thugs in uniform," one officer had called them.

The article, says Hoggart, caused a great furore, even though he did make it clear – as he was later to do in oral testimony to the inquiry - that the Parachute Regiment was one of enormous skill, enormous courage and enormous resource, but not entirely appropriate in a civilian setting.

Rather than any of the allegations being investigated, though, they were flatly denied. Hoggart and his newspaper "were frozen out for months by the military". He was thought to be in the pocket of the IRA.

From the written evidence submitted to the Saville Inquiry, we can see precisely how the establishment reacted, with Army public relations complaining to Hoggart's boss that even to produce such an article was "unethical and unprofessional conduct."

We can also see that the Army actively considered launching an "attack" on the journalists in the papers Belfast bureau, although it noted that it did not have "enough concrete evidence" against one, who had "covered his tracks very carefully." "However," it went on to say, "Hoggart is professionally vulnerable as a result of his unethical conduct."

Nor were the politicians any better. From the undersecretary of state came the view that there was a "growing feeling" that soldiers were talking too much to the press. HQ Northern Ireland also issued a general warning against any approach from Guardian journalists.

Sadly, one of the observations recorded by Hoggart had been from an Army officer who had told him (of the Paras): "I have seen them arrive on the scene, thump up a few people who might be doing nothing more than shouting and jeering, and roar off again ... They seem to think that they can get away with whatever they like."

It appears though, that the rejection of Hoggart's charges stemmed for a more nuanced position than just a simple, outright refusal to believe them – and anything bad of the Paras. This is hinted at by 1 Para's then adjutant, a certain Captain Mike Jackson – who was to become in 2003 the CGS as General Jackson.

Back in 1972, he dismissed the report as "designed to be divisive", adding: "This is not a realistic picture of the relationship between the Paras and other units in Belfast. We are here to give operational assistance, and we shall continue to do so."

The position is explained more fully in an article by T E Utley published in The Sunday Telegraph on 23 April 1972, nearly two month after Bloody Sunday. He then claimed:
The strategy of the civil rights movement henceforth [that is in context in the autumn 1971] was to keep up a sustained, efficiently directed propaganda campaign, not only against internment, but also against the Army as such. The most vulnerable targets for that campaign were the paratroopers who had been brought into Ulster to act as a reserve force for employment in emergencies that required quick reaction and tough tactics.
On 14 January, two weeks before the shootings, Richard Cox, then defence correspondent for The Daily Telegraph had "alerted his readers to the next phase in this propaganda chain." He had claimed that Irish journalists were seeking to entrap officers of other regiments into admitting that the use of the Paras in Ulster had been disastrously counter-productive.

In effect, therefore, the allegations against the Paras were all part of an IRA propaganda campaign and could safely be ignored. Thus, almost exactly 30 years later, the first soldier to give evidence to the Saville Inquiry was to describe the Paras as a "jolly good" unit.

This was General (then Brigadier) Frank Kitson, in January 1972 the commander of 39 Brigade, of which the 1 Para was part. In his oral evidence, he told the Saville Inquiry:
If some people in Northern Ireland associated 1 Para with a reputation for toughness and brutality, I think they were mistaken. The regiment's reputation in this respect was probably fuelled by its effectiveness in controlling difficult situations. By their resolute action they often prevented situations escalating into violence between the Catholic and Protestant communities which was the one thing above all others that we wished to avoid, because it provided an excuse for gunmen to present themselves as defenders of their local community. I believe that 1 Para's effectiveness in this field contributed greatly to the saving of life.
Hoggart, however, takes "a little satisfaction" in the Saville Inquiry finding that he was right. He was in Belfast on Bloody Sunday and, he writes, "everyone realised instantly what a terrible turning point it would be ... Even the army immediately realised what had happened."

For the IRA, says Hoggart, it provided in an instant all the moral justification they needed to kill as many people as they pleased. Every victim of the Paras, shot while crawling down the streets of Derry, carried dozens more people with him to the grave.

But, if the Army had realised this, there was still the charade of the Widgery Inquiry later in 1972, when the cover-up was cemented into place. And a few months later, the CO of 1 Para, Lt-Col Derek Wilford, a man now criticised by the Saville Inquiry, was awarded an OBE.

The meaning of the signal sent to the Irish by that award is obvious. The Paras were a "jolly good unit", and no amount of killing was going to change that.

Saville Inquiry thread

Friday 18 June 2010

Richards for chief?

"The most important appointment of a generation", writes Con Coughlin on the appointment of a new CDS. And, given the portentous title of the piece, you might have thought that it would get better exposure than being tucked into the print edition after the editorial page.

But such is the competition for space that the more important news story gets poll position. And who are we to argue with such fine editorial judgement? One is simply amazed that Guido or Iain Dale didn't get there first, or that The Boy has not made a statement in the House about a development of such importance.

Back in the trivial world inhabited by the likes of Coughlin, he is saying that the new CDS will be "the most important appointment of a generation" – and he is not wrong, although the choice should be determined by the intentions.

In my view, if this current administration has any real intentions of winning through in Afghanistan (not that it has much chance of so doing), it might be better opting for Gen Richards, the recently appointed CGS. If it wants to manage defeat, then Houghton is probably the better man.

What emerges from Coughlin's piece, though, is what purports to be an insider view of The Boy's recent summit at Chequers, where his newly instituted National Security Council was convened to discuss the war in Afghanistan, the culmination of which was to adopt the Labour government's strategy.

We are told that deep gloom pervaded the proceedings as a succession of speakers explained how Britain was involved in a war that was not only increasingly unpopular with the public, but one that would ultimately end in failure. Even Cameron appeared to subscribe to the view that the sooner he ordered "our boys" to return home the better.

Coughlin, of course, was not there, so he is picking this up second or even third-hand – or maybe he has several sources. However informed, he feels able to tell us that what turned the meeting round was "some blunt speaking" on the part of the military professionals. Their argument was that while the war might be costly, both in terms of the blood and treasure, and present enormous challenges, there are encouraging signs that it is finally moving in the right direction.

This is from a man who himself must be one of the few journalists who still believes the war is still winnable and, thus fortified, he tells us that the alliance now "has a clearly formulated and effective strategy for ending the conflict and rebuilding the country after nearly three decades of strife."

But, where The Boy has earlier seemed equivocal on Afghanistan, Coughlin notes that he appears to have taken the "wise" military counsel to heart, throwing his full support behind Nato's (i.e., Gen McChrystal's) surge strategy, warning that the British public should brace itself for further casualties during this summer's offensive.

You have to do a double-take, though, to check you are not reading a copy of Private Eye when you read Coughlin earnestly telling us that, in its first weeks in office, the Cleggeron administration (he calls it "the government") has discovered first-hand "the importance of being able to draw upon well-informed and expert military advice".

Quite where that advice is coming from it difficult to determine, especially as Gen Richards (of whom Coughlin rather approves) was not present at the meeting. But, "to guarantee this advice remains of the highest calibre" writes Coughlin, it is crucial that Mr Cameron makes the right choice when he comes to appoint a successor to Jock Stirrup.

In principle, one would not disagree with that, and on that basis Coughlin definitely thinks the man in the hot seat should be Richards. The only problem he sees is that the current CGS has a reputation for speaking his mind, a virtue that might not be appreciated by the Cleggerons, who are "anxious to avoid controversy".

That opens the way for Houghton, says Coughlin, a man regarded as a smooth Whitehall operator – a "civil servant in uniform". But, since Britain is entering a crucial stage in this nation's proud military history, one that will demand strong, effective and professional leadership, Coughlin personally hopes that Cameron has "the political courage and good sense" to appoint Richards as the next CDS.

What no one has ascertained so far, though, is whether Richards actually wants the job. Depending on one's view of the future, in the short-to-medium term, the best career option for Richards might be to put as much distance as he can between himself and a widely expected disaster. And, putting it that way, one might argue that anyone mad enough to want to become CDS is clearly totally unsuitable for the post.


Thursday 17 June 2010

The politics of delusion

How much traction this is going to get is difficult to judge. So far, only the BBC seems to have covered it – the so-called Ballymurphy Massacre in August 1971, just short of six months before Bloody Sunday. Then, 11 people - ten men, including a local priest, Father Hugh Mullan, who was shot while giving the last rites to a dying man, and a mother of eight children - were killed, again by soldiers from 1 Para.

Now, on the back of the Saville Report, the relatives are demanding their own inquiry into what they claim is the brutality of the Paras, remarking on the similarities with Bloody Sunday where the British system also "connived in a cover-up."

The events followed the introduction of internment on 9 August 1971, and the details of the affair are admirably set out in a Times archive blog. There it is noted that "the tone of the Army statements shows an extraordinary lack of awareness of the real nature of the struggle they were engaged in."

In a struggle that was about to be launched into a whole new phase and was to drag out for more than two decades before a resolution even began to look feasible, Brigadier Marston Tickell, the Army chief of staff in Northern Ireland, was claiming that the hard core of the IRA had been "virtually defeated".

Looking back at those events, even at the time - as we saw them recorded in our newspapers and on our TV screens – the Army's optimism seemed delusional. But what was less evident was the brutality with which the Army – or some sections of it – was operating.

However, almost immediately after the internment programme had been implemented, reports started to come in of Army mistreatment of prisoners. On 17 August, allegations were published that soldiers had urinated on prisoners, subjected them to electric shocks and threatened to hurl them from helicopters.

What was so significant, though, was that even as detailed allegations of troops' brutality continued to be made, most Army officers were prepared only admit that their soldiers had been "brisk" in their handling of Irish civilians. They largely believed – as did most of us - that many of the allegations being made were so totally out of character with British troops' behaviour as to be "ludicrous".

As it turned out, the allegations were very far from being ludicrous and, as the evidence mounted, they served to poison the image of the British Army in the eyes not only of the Roman Catholic community here and of a large section of the population of the Irish Republic, but also in overseas countries and particularly in the United States. That was not only to do a great deal of damage, but was also directly to prolong the conflict.

Thus are the "Ballymurphy Massacre" relatives currently saying that, had their allegations been taken seriously at the time and acted upon, then maybe Bloody Sunday might never have happened. The corrective action would have been taken, and history would have been changed.

But it is an Irish columnist, Kevin Myers, who puts his finger on the issues, noting that Bloody Sunday, was not unique: it was merely an extravagant example of what the Parachute Regiment was already doing - and would continue to do - in Northern Ireland.

Something like 90 percent of clearly unlawful army killings throughout the Troubles were by the three battalions of the Parachute Regiment. Both Catholic priests who died in the Troubles were shot by the Paras and were, to his mind, murdered.

Other Para killings included shooting dead Patrick Magee, an innocent 20-year-old student teacher on the steps of St Comgall's school on the Falls Road as he left teaching practice. The same day, the Paras shot dead one-eyed Patrick Donaghy, aged 86, one of the oldest victims of the troubles. He was killed as he stood at his window, eight storeys up in Divis Towers.

The real crime, Myers says, was not just the killings that Lord Saville has been investigating in his insanely wasteful enquiry, but the tolerance of the Parachute Regiment's conduct by both the British army and successive British governments. He continues:
That is the real mystery. Because the IRA had no better friend than the Parachute Regiment; wherever the Paras went, IRA recruitment subsequently rose. The price to be paid for their random and reckless brutality was the lives of other soldiers and the many, many more civilians killed by the IRA.
So why wasn't it stopped? Why, asks Myers, was the Parachute Regiment deployed in Northern Ireland and why was its often evil conduct tolerated?

Here, we have the clue in the response of Army officers to accusations of brutality – a belief that they (the accusations) were so totally out of character with British troops' behaviour as to be "ludicrous".

This is the politics of delusion, the determination to believe what you want to believe, a rejection of anything which might contradict the received wisdom and what I call "constructive ignorance", a wilful, culpable refusal to seek out any information which might challenge the preferred narrative.

And this is why, contrary to the genuine expectations of commentators such as Subrosa, there can be no real closure, partial or otherwise. The system has been caught out but there is no real contrition, no acceptance of blame and no real change. Delusion is still a powerful policy driver, pervading every nook and cranny of government.

This is evident in the likes of Iain Dale, who seems to prefer the idea that Bloody Sunday was an aberration, with "merely a small part of the British armed forces" at fault that day, and even Owen Paterson, who has agreed to meet the Ballymurphy campaigners, cannot offer a remedy to the underlying ailment.

Slugger O'Toole believes that the publication of the Saville report heralded a good day for reconciliation, others would castigate Tony Blair even for allowing the Saville Inquiry, calling him "insane" for agreeing to it, and Daniel Finkelstein insists that the soldiers are treated with the same leniency as the IRA, thus not even beginning to understand the issues.

Martin Meenagh thinks the greatest unindicted villain of the piece was Edward Heath. Lurking behind the Paratroopers' action that day is the general fuhrerbefehl he issued, to show the natives who was in charge. Meenagh may not be wrong.

Jim Greenhalf, on the other hand, reminds us that sometime this week, next week, the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan will reach 300. The ultimate political result when we pull out next year, or the year after, will be "job well done", as it was after we left Iraq, which cost us 179 dead soldiers, he says.

And that will be another delusion, to sit alongside the delusion that the British Army is a saintly (and competent) institution that can be relied upon to do the job and do it well.

If nothing else, Saville has challenged that, although the wider lessons have hardly begun to be appreciated. But, if we the public, in general, and the politicians and military in particular, believe that Saville applies only to Bloody Sunday, that will be another delusion.

Saville Inquiry thread

A high level failure

Too quickly it seems, Dannatt is getting his way: the media is moving on from the Saville Report – although the Sundays may return to the issue. But, with over £190 million spent on the damn thing, the very least we should do is get our money's worth from it.

Thus, before we leave the issue for the time being – doubtless to return at some time in the future – I feel impelled to offer a few more observations, not least a suggestion that too many of the current pundits seem to be missing the point, the very point I made in my original piece about 1st Para, a Regiment which has a proud history of "killing people and breaking things".

But, by no means all of the pundits are missing the point. In The Independent there is Robert Fisk, who writes:
We knew the First Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. "Tough" was the word we reporters used if the soldiers were beating up rioters. Brutal was the word we should have used. But sometime towards the end of 1971, I think we all realised that the Parachute Regiment was being prepared for some pretty nasty confrontations. They were the hard men, the reserve battalion at Palace Barracks, Holywood, a boring seaside town on the south side of Belfast Lough, a unit that spent most of its time waiting for trouble.
If that is from one end of the political spectrum, though, we also have Max Hastings, writing in The Daily Mail, who was in Derry on Bloody Sunday. From him we get:
An English reporter friend of mine that day in Derry found himself trapped among demonstrators and rioters. He asked a soldier manning a barricade if he could squeeze past their line to find safety behind the troops. "No, you bastard!", snarled the squaddy. "You stay there and take what's coming to you."

At that stage, mid-afternoon, only CS gas and rubber bullets were being used. But I myself met Paras preparing to conduct the planned "scoop-up" operation to arrest rioters, who were obviously spoiling for action. The Paras are a great military institution, but quite unsuited to peacekeeping. They are a fighting regiment, and that day they expected and wanted to fight.
Hastings, the terribly grand former Daily Telegraph editor, is the man who writes with the authority of "being there", and is therefore treated with great respect. But he nevertheless talks a great deal of tosh, as when he tells us: "The Army, enraged by terrorist killings, was in a savage mood, and still relatively new to the restraints essential for counterinsurgency."

Here the point is that, virtually since the end of World War II, the British Army had been doing little else but counterinsurgency, and no more so than 1 Para. Formed on 15 September 1941, the battalion operated in Haifa during the Palestine Mandate until British troops withdrew in 1948. It was then temporarily disbanded on return to the UK but reconstituted in 1949.

From mid 1951 to 1954, it saw active service in Cyprus, the Canal Zone in Egypt and during counter-terrorist operations against EOKA in Cyprus in 1956. It participated in the Suez landings during the crisis in November, before being back in Cyprus in 1958. Between 1962-3, the battalion served in Bahrain, in early 1964 undertook a UN peace-keeping in Cyprus and in 1965 and 1966 was back in Bahrain. The battalion covered the eventful withdrawal from Aden in 1967 after 127 years of British rule.

The first of its 12 Northern Ireland Op Banner emergency tours began at the end of 1969, two years after it had left Aden – at which time the use of firearms in riot control was standard procedure.

Much is made (not least by The Independent) of the evidence of General Ford, commander, land forces in Northern Ireland (pictured above). He revealed to the inquiry that in 1971 he was "coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary … is to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry young hooligans after clear warnings have been issued".

In other words, wrote Ford, "we would be reverting to the methods of IS [internal security] found successful on many occasions overseas" – precisely the methods 1 Para would have been trained to use in Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus and Aden. Thus, with its reputation, background, experience and training, it would have been entirely predictable that committing 1 Para to the pressure cooker of Londonderry in January 1971 would have produced a violent outcome.

And "pressure cooker" it was. On 8 July 1971 in Derry's Bogside two rioters, Seamus Cusack and Desmond Beattie, had been shot dead by soldiers in disputed circumstances.

The military had claimed the pair were armed, which had been denied by local people. Moderate nationalists including John Hume and Gerry Fitt walked out of the parliament of Northern Ireland in protest. A British Army memorandum stated that as a result of this, the situation "changed overnight". The Provisional IRA's campaign in the city beginning at that time after previously being regarded as "quiescent"

In January 1972, to all intents and purposes, violence is what the Army and the media expected, as indeed did the politicians. Heath apparently told his cabinet committee on Northern Ireland that: "As to Londonderry, a military operation to re-impose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties."

Where the failure came, therefore, was in not realising the political implications of such violent scenes, spread over the pages of the newspapers and on the TV screens. 1 Para would have done much worse in Aden and elsewhere, but not in the full glare of the media.

Journalist Kevin Cullen was later to write (now two years ago): "Over the years, I met dozens of men who joined the IRA because a British soldier harassed or humiliated them or their families." He went on:
Thirty-six years ago this week, the army rounded up hundreds of Catholic men and teenagers, few of whom were actually in the IRA. Far from smashing the IRA, the army's overzealous policy of internment without trial infuriated the entire nationalist community.

And in 1972, when British paratroopers killed 14 unarmed demonstrators in Derry on Bloody Sunday, the IRA was flooded with recruits. Half of the more than 3,500 people killed in the Troubles died in the fury of the five years that followed Bloody Sunday.
From General Michael Rose, we get confirmation of this. On Bloody Sunday, he says, it was absolutely clear that in exchanging fire with the terrorists, the British Army had fallen into the trap laid for them by the IRA, who had set out that day to commit murder and mayhem, caring nothing for the lives of their own republican supporters. Claims Rose:
Indeed, I believe it was their specific aim to get as many people killed as possible. For the deaths would serve as a ruthlessly cynical recruiting tool. As the news of the dead in Londonderry that day spread around the world, the result was much the same as Irish people everywhere rallied to the nationalist cause. In Northern Ireland, in the Irish Republic and in the US, thousands of young men and women joined the IRA.
And all of this puts the focus up the chain of command, into the high level military and political arenas, where – clearly – tactical and strategic errors were made in terms of the conduct of the campaign.

The other day, I wrote about the battle of Dien Bien Phu being lost not in the little valley in Viet-Nam's highland jungles but in the air-conditioned map room of the French commander-in-chief.

By the same token it seems to me, the slaughter of Bloody Sunday happened through the failures of the military brass and the politicians to appreciate the special demands of a counterinsurgency campaign in Northern Ireland. One has to marvel at the political naïvety.

What did the Army really think would happen, with the media camped on the doorstep and TV cameras on permanent standby, if they started shooting rioters and demonstrators? Were they really so stupid or so isolated from the political realities that they did not realise that images of dead bodies plastered all over the TV screens and the newspapers might have an adverse effect on public sentiment?

But, as always, the BPI are in the frame. That much I wrote earlier but, with even greater clarity, the idea of a high level failure stands up. This is where we should be looking to lay the blame. One wonders, therefore, precisely for what Mr Cameron was apologising ... the incompetence of the Army High Command, or the greater and more serious incompetence of the Heath government, which bears the ultimate responsibility.

Saville Inquiry thread