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Operation Snakebite

Few institutions have suffered more under the Blair and Brown governments than the British army, its reputation tarnished as a direct result of the refusal to send sufficient numbers of troops first to Iraq and more recently to Afghanistan.

The complacency that still bedevils the approach to the Afghan campaign is succinctly described at the start of Stephen Grey’s revealing new book Operation Snakebite.

It is the late summer of 2007 and Brigadier ­Andrew Mackay, the next UK commander in Helmand, is touring Whitehall, talking to those supposedly in the know. Struck by the negative response to his questions, he asks one general if anyone actually wants to succeed.

The general replies that Britain has three options – provide enough troops to do the job properly, muddle through or get out – but that it will inevitably pursue the second, “constant muddling through, making it up as we go along”.

Sadly, Grey’s book only serves to prove his point.

Operation Snakebite is an exceptional piece of reportage, in which Grey uses a single battle, the December 2007 operation to recapture the northern Helmand town of Musa Qala, to show the utter mess that resulted from the decision just to “muddle through”.

In a roller-coaster style reminiscent of those fast-paced US crime dramas where the camera jerks about following every move, we are introduced to people involved at every level of the operation. We see the vacillating, ineffectual Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, telling the British ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, that recapturing Musa Qala is vital to help a top Taliban commander who wants to defect.

And we are spectators at a succession of bloody battles with the Taliban involving British and US troops.

The Americans ignore Brigadier Mackay’s insistence they should not call in airstrikes that might destroy Musa Qala and ­antagonise the local people – a US colonel ­denounces this as “a crazy idea”.

If anyone among this sorry mix of brutal violence and farce is Grey’s protagonist, it is Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson, a British infantryman mentoring Afghan troops. When his Afghans run out of ammunition while surrounded by Taliban, he makes a mad dash under fire to get more. On the eve of the battle he is seen reinforcing the seat in his Vector vehicle with Kevlar plates to rectify a design fault that leaves the commander and driver exceptionally vulnerable to roadside bombs or mines.

Jonno writes an email to his fiancée explaining what she should do if he doesn’t come back, and the scene is set. We already know, and more to the point, somehow, so does he, that Jonno isn’t coming back.

As they advance on Musa Qala, his vehicle hits a mine. The blast amputates his legs, killing him instantly.

Ironically, it is probably a bomb dropped on a Taliban command post on the orders of the dissenting US colonel that ends the insurgents’ resistance, allowing the US, British and Afghan troops to take Musa Qala.

But it is not the only bomb dropped.

A week later, in a nearby village, British soldiers find the decomposing bodies of a number of women and children in a compound destroyed by an allied bomb. And at the end of it all we discover that Karzai’s “top Taliban commander” who started it all isn’t a top commander at all, just a rare Karzai supporter.

On his return to the UK, generals line up to tell Grey what has gone wrong, principally that they have too few troops and that reconstruction designed to win over the local people never happened because the Foreign Office and DfID didn’t bother turning up.

An indignant Foreign Office bureaucrat says it’s “no good complaining the civilians aren’t there with you if they haven’t been involved from the outset”, as if somehow no one bothered telling them Britain was sending troops into Helmand.

As for the government’s failure to send enough troops, Gordon Brown was at it again the other week, telling MPs he was dispatching a paltry 700 more to Afghanistan temporarily to cover the elections. But the repeated pleas from commanders on the ground for an additional 3,500 troops will go unanswered.

Britain won’t be taking part in Barack Obama’s Afghan surge.

It is tempting to blame the politicians for everything, but senior officers cannot escape censure either.

Telling Grey they haven’t got enough men might seem candid but it really isn’t good enough. The lack of troops puts both the operation and their own men in danger, and if they can’t get the politicians to accept that, they should resign.

At one point in Operation Snakebite, a Taliban commander claims to dislike killing British troops. “It is their leaders, the politicians and the generals that I would like in the sights of
my gun,” he says.

By the time you’ve finished reading this book, you will probably think he has a point.

Michael Smith is defence correspondent of the Sunday Times and the author of “Killer Elite” (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

Operation Snakebite
Stephen Grey
Viking, 368pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom