Four years ago, I watched, with other young officers, the invasion of Iraq on TV in the mess. We were sick with envy. Our brother officers were having the most exciting time of their lives, at the center of history, while we, on ceremonial duties in London, marched about in red tunics and bearskin hats.
The invasion, it seemed, was a necessary evil to be redeemed by the creation of a free, democratic Iraq. The WMD issue was a pretext, we all concurred, an honorable white lie to knock an evil dictator off his perch and breathe new hope into the lives of a brutally repressed people.
Our turn soon came, and the ground truth in Basra and Maysan provinces was a shock. The statue-toppling euphoria had been replaced by the horrific chaos of a state in collapse, exacerbated by a rising insurgency and sectarian bloodshed. The truth gradually emerged. The police and army we were training were corrupt and probably loyal to the insurgency. The first supposedly democratic elections for half a century were a façade, dependent on the presence of our Warrior fighting vehicles at polling stations.
Then we realized the issue was not replacing tyranny with democracy, but gaining long-term access to oil. Blair, in bowing to American oil-mad energy hunger, had deployed the British Army on a lie, a much bigger lie than the one about WMDs. Today, the appalling sectarian violence killing hundreds of Iraqi civilians every week is the direct result of our invasion and botched occupation. As Blair prepares to leave office, Iraq is descending into deeper human tragedy, and British troops are still dying.
Those in the forces who, like me, were frustrated and disillusioned after Iraq, took new optimism from British intervention in Afghanistan. It looked like being everything Iraq should have been: reconstructive nation-building to improve the lives of poverty-stricken Afghans.
Sadly, political ill-preparation and haste dropped the military, again, into lethally hot water. Last year, British forces were sent into volatile Helmand, ill-equipped and inadequately supported. Scattered across the north of the province (the size of Wales), small teams occupied “platoon houses” in remote towns.
I was in Sangin where, as in everywhere else, we had no means of starting developmental reconstruction and stood no chance of winning Afghan hearts and minds. To the locals, the presence of British soldiers seemed to presage destruction of their poppy crop and their livelihoods.
Helmand produces 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium crop, the source of 90 per cent of global heroin. And the people there are tribesmen, infamous for their ferocious hostility to foreign interference. The savage backlash rages still; more than 50 British servicemen are dead in this sub-campaign, countless Afghan civilians have been killed, and opium production is at an all-time high.
The Taliban are thriving on this: every Afghan civilian killed by the British artillery round or helicopter gunship has a dozen brothers, cousins, and friends seeking British blood for vengeance. Today, our troops are risking their lives in a pointless conflict, a nightmare scenario of counter-insurgency gone wrong.
There is the mismatch between Blair’s huge military ambition overseas and the scarce resources the forces get to fulfill it. The Army has lost four infantry battalions. Soldiers serving a fourth tour struggle to maintain relationships at home. Half the Navy’s fleet is threatened with mothballing.
When you join the Army, you swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and, by extension, the Prime Minister. We commit ourselves, with unquestioning loyalty, to the State. This is founded on trust in our political masters, and the belief that they are honorable people who will not lie to us, will resource us correctly and deploy us with sound judgment, after thorough strategic planning. This bond is unique, set in stone regardless of party politics. Today, this bond is broken. Catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan and years of resource-starvation have taken their toll; this is Blair’s legacy.
Late last year, the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannat, publicly called for our withdrawal from Iraq. Other senior officers voiced concern. Such public statements, unthinkable before Blair, are a glimpse of the military’s anger and frustration.
Of those officers I sat with in the mess four years ago, many, like me, have left the Army. Those who remain have no trust in the Government. One told me: “We won’t be fooled again.”
Leo Docherty is author of ‘Desert of Death: A Soldier’s Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan‘, published by Faber and Faber.
Published on Sunday, May 6, 2007 by the Independent/UK
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
from Common Dreams