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Home > News > Columnists > Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The need for robust Special Forces

April 25, 2003

A week in the UK last week provided the British perspective of the war in Iraq. While the public mood is high that the war has been won at low cost -- only 31 UK soldiers killed -- and support for it risen from 53 to 56 per cent, Prime Minister Tony Blair is once again in the dock for coalition forces failing to find even a single weapon of WMD.

A parliamentary enquiry is being demanded for being misled over an illegal war. Meanwhile Pentagon is sending a survey group of 1000 experts to scout for WMD and bail out Blair. Just as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks have emerged as rising stars in the Pentagon, there is no similar acclaim in Britain of its political and military leadership of the war.

The British, who love a good fight, realise they are the junior partners in the Anglo Saxon crusade to clean up the Middle East. Their role in the war was peripheral and could have been done by a Polish infantry division. Privately the British are miffed they were assigned no role in the capture of Baghdad. They have also apparently been kept out of the revival of Iraq's oil industry. Although the British 16 Air Assault Brigade secured the southern oilfields of Rumaila, west Kurna, Majnoon and Nehrumar, it was the US Haliburton subsidiary which, on day 14 of the war, had secured the $ 8 billion oil contract and actually reached oil sites.

The southern oilfields account for two thirds of Iraq's 3.5 million barrels a day global production. The Kirkuk oilfields in the north discovered 80 years after Rumaila produce half of the remaining output and the balance comes from the newest finds south east of Baghdad.

The British consider themselves superior in combat to the Americans. They take pride in the British way of fighting and quote the example of Basra. A US Abrams tank shooting on April 9 at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad would never have happened if the British had been there, they say. The official British war diary of that incident notes 'UK forces not involved.' The task given to them by the US-led coalition command was to secure the Al Faw peninsula earliest and prevent interference to the main advance to Baghdad from the south. The UK Expeditionary Force had in turn given tasks to its forces to secure as under:

3 Commando Brigade: Umm Qasr;
7 Armoured Brigade: Basra;
16 Air Assault Brigade: southern oilfields

These missions were accomplished quickly. There was no pressure of any deadline, not even for Basra.

The British war diary records:

March 27: routes in the south cleared;
March 28: British ship Sir Galahad docks at Umm Qasr with humanitarian aid;
March 30: water pipeline laid from Kuwait to Umm Qasr
April 3: Basra 'screened off' preventing Iraqis interfering in US advance to Baghdad. Royal Marines of 42 Commando Battalion played football with a local Basra team and lost 9-3. 
April 6: The attack on Basra commenced from south, west and north. Patchy resistance was reported. 
April 7: UK forces secure strategic positions deep within Basra from which they continued to launch offensive operations. 3 Para patrolled through Basra old town.

There is an increased sense of return to normality across the UK area of operations. Schools and markets are reopening, local hospitals are now treating non regime patients and British forces are increasingly patrolling in berets rather than combat helmets.

The attack on Basra started only after US troops entered Baghdad. The British did not lack aggressive spirit. They fought well and with care. Of the 31 killed, 18 died due to friendly fire and accidents. One soldier was killed when a US A 10 fighter aircraft struck a British armoured personnel carrier called Scorpion. And the one who escaped the attack described the low-flying pilot as a cowboy. One British soldier died in a traffic accident in Kuwait. These are the lowest casualties ever for the British in any war.

The British have good reason to be quietly angry for being left out of the battle of Baghdad. One explanation is that their Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment is not compatible with American IFF -- and hence the difficulty of joint operations. The one startling story doing the rounds in London is that some international arms inspectors scouting for WMD in Iraq have designated targets -- that provided the updated map coordinates of selected targets inside Iraq. But the most embarrassing disclosure remains the British secret dossier on Iraq's WMD which was presented in the UN and huge portions of which were lifted from a British research student's thesis.

Another revelation in London is that there was little independent reporting by journalists. Most were being given briefs by either the MoD or the Prime Minister's Office. Even though they missed out on Baghdad, the jewel in the crown, the British were enjoying the weather.

The Americans also released last week, their unofficial account of how the war was won. It can be encapsulated in two words -- Baghdad First. Speed, flexibility and risk-taking were the operational tenets that enabled the race to Baghdad, unarguably the fastest military advance in recent times. It was commanders out in the front who made snap judgements that were endorsed up the chain of command. The most crucial wars on Day 17, April 5 was when Major General Buford Blount, commander of 3 Infantry Division, ordered the few tanks that had entered Baghdad to stay put. That was the historic decision that led to the fall of Baghdad on April 9.

Op Plan 1003 Victor envisaged two prongs racing to Baghdad. The tank-heavy 3 Infantry Division reinforced by 101 Airborne Division from the west and Marines through the heavily populated river valley. Historically the Marines have come in after amphibious landings and fought close to the shores. The Marines were supporting the main thrust along the Euphrates.
Yet, one more example of spot decision was the release of 82 Airborne division to 5 Corps to clean and contain the rear supply lines of the main advance.

As the hostilities phase has ended, Pentagon has placed the official death toll at 128. Of these 110 are combat related and 18 others attributed to non-hostile action. 495 have been listed as wounded in combat and another 59 injured in accidents. There are still two soldiers missing in action. Washington wants to maintain a long term military relationship with a new government in Iraq and is seeking four military bases -- near Baghdad International airport, near Nasiriya, at a western airstrip and Bashur in the north.

Some immediate reflections are possible in the aftermath of this asymmetric war. In the post-Iraq world order, one will have to choose one's friends and enemies carefully as never before was the adage: there are only permanent interests, no permanent friends, more relevant. The US has proved it is the world's greatest military and economic power, though it is doubtful they have the best fighting soldier.

Technology has been the prime enabler of this war. Removed thousands of miles from the war zone, aircraft carriers and missile cruisers fought a standoff war of shock and awe making victory a certainty. The air war proved a decisive factor. Unsung in how the war was won on the ground is the role of Special Forces. These came from US, UK, Australia and Poland. Their operations will never get to be known. Rumsfeld is the clear winner. Shredded by critics, his plan worked.

The British experience is more staid and conventional. The famous Desert Rats (7 Armoured Brigade) fought the biggest tank battle north of Basra after North Africa in 1943.

For the Indian Army the Iraq war has one key lesson -- the need for more and robust Special Forces. The ongoing studies of Operation Parakram and Operation Iraqi Freedom would have established the urgency of augmenting and employing clandestine forces to raise the cost of Pakistan waging proxy war.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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