Hugh McManners: Memo to HQ: this is not the way to do the business

'British troops are exposed to unnecessary danger thanks to another Whitehall cock-up'
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The Independent Online

I remember, as a young Army captain in May 1982, during the Falklands War, being berated by the Special Boat Service's squadron sergeant major as we tried to carry out strange orders from Whitehall.

A hundred Argentine soldiers armed with heavy mortars and massive anti-tank guns were to be tricked into surrendering, through persuasion in Spanish using a loudspeaker system, and by firing over their heads. This madcap plan was thanks to the belief of some Ministry of Defence or Foreign Office intelligence official in London that the Argies might give up without fighting.

Our sergeant major stalked up and down in the darkness as we made futile attempts to carry out these orders, shouting in intense anxiety against the howling winds and hammering machine-gun fire: "This gentlemen, is not the way to do business." And now almost 20 years later, a mixed force of Special Boat Service men, plus some US special forces and SAS, find themselves embarrassingly marooned at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, exposed to unnecessary danger thanks to yet another Whitehall cock-up. Some local warlords agree they were consulted, and declare themselves happy for this force to be in Bagram. But now a chorus of other factions is objecting.

The SBS is not getting involved with all this nonsense, but lying low and playing it with characteristic cool. But their position could become very difficult.

Back in Whitehall, those responsible are arguing about who is to blame. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials say the MoD acted precipitously and should not have sent the troops in. But the MoD does not take unilateral decisions to send special forces into war zones. Prime Ministers do that, with FCO and MoD advice – in that order. In such sensitive operations, ministerial roles are very clear. The FCO is responsible for all in-theatre diplomatic activities – particularly if local clearances are needed. This process was not carried out properly.

More significantly, there does not appear to have been much consideration given to what the SBS force should do if local objections arose. Were they given any special rules of engagement to cover their current plight? It would appear not. But was this an unlikely scenario last week? Am I using over much hindsight? I think not.

The SBS's mission was to secure the airfield ready to receive 2 Para and 45 Commando, with 3 Commando Brigade's medical squadron plus the extensive logistical back-up such a force will require. The airfield may need repairs before use by a fleet of Hercules C-130 transporters, and the threat of unmarked minefields requires extensive clearance work before the planned force of more than a thousand troops can operate from there. The SBS will already have set up secure satellite communications links with London and Washington, and broadcast reports of the usability of the airfield's buildings, fuelling facilities and hard-standing areas for other aircraft – Apache tank-killer helicopters and Harriers for example.

But what is all this for? With tens of thousands of Northern Alliance troops milling around, there's no need for any more muscle to fight the Taliban. But as Alliance leaders rightly suspect, two battalions of Britain's elite troops are more than capable of limiting the extent to which armed force can be used among former allies for their own ends. However, attempting "peace enforcement" operations would be foolish, as foreign troops would inevitably become a common enemy – and as the Russians discovered, die in large numbers.

As the squadron sergeant major would agree, this is not the way to do business. It is an enormous and almost criminal wasted opportunity. Britain's peerless experience of counter-terrorism across the globe since 1945 has proved the over-riding need for military campaigns to encompass every action that takes place in the theatre of operations. The problem that transcends even the defeat of the Taliban, is the inexorable onslaught of winter – and the need to get food, medicine, clothing and shelter to many parts of Afghanistan. This is ideal for a military "hearts and minds" campaign.

But the non-governmental organisations want sole rights to the provision of aid. This doesn't just defeat a military "hearts and minds" campaign, but creates more unhappy factions. Lacking the ability to protect themselves, NGOs must make accommodations with warlords to get their aid through. They become politicised, and can even oppose aspects of the military campaign.

I had hoped that the SBS was being sent to Bagram to set up a reception centre with enough troops and equipment to enable humanitarian aid to be delivered as part of the military campaign. With food, warmth and shelter backed up by hard-edged security, frightened people feel less inclined to harbour dangerous men.

hugh@hu-man.demon.co.uk

The author is an ex-paratrooper and special forces officer

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