Why the marines messed up

It's easier to fight a war in the British tabloids than in the Afghan hills.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘Sham in Bagram’, screamed the UK Mirror on 16 May 2002, reporting that the Royal Marines’ mountain mission in Afghanistan had gone from ‘farce’ to ‘fiasco’ (1).

‘Operation Snipe to flush al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the Afghan mountains ended not with a bang but with a whimper’, accused the Mirror, pointing out that ‘16 gruelling days after leaving Bagram airbase on a search and destroy mission 1000 British troops have not killed or captured a single enemy’ (2).

‘This is a futile campaign’, wrote Madeleine Bunting in the UK Guardian on 20 May 2002, arguing that ‘Afghanistan is in danger of becoming the most embarrassing chapter in the recent history of British military engagements’. As the marines’ Operation Snipe (to finish off al-Qaeda) was followed by Operation Condor (to help Australian troops coming under fire from al-Qaeda), Bunting wrote, ‘Condor look[s] about as farcical as every other operation in Afghanistan has done in the past six months’ (3).

‘British Afghan strategy is in disarray’, ran an Associated Press headline on 20 May 2002, reporting that marine brigadier Roger Lane was being sacked from his Afghan post after ‘unidentified top military officials claimed he had messed up Britain’s military deployment’ (4). ‘Britain’s handling of its forces [is] in confusion’, reported AP, ‘as officials said a general was being replaced, just one day after the government rejected criticisms [of the general’s] mission’ (5).

According to a marine on the ground, ‘We’ve never had this much fucking flak’ (6). From the front pages of the tabloids to the comment pages of the broadsheets, from the populist Channel 5 News to the highbrow Newsnight, the marines have been lambasted for their futile, farcical and failing campaigns in Afghanistan. Even Britain’s allies in the US military have got in on the act, as reported in the UK Guardian: ‘Stars and Stripes, the magazine for American forces and their families, has criticised the Royal Marines for returning “empty-handed” from their search for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters….[claiming] that Britain’s contribution to the campaign was “disappointing”.’ (7)

What went wrong? After all, the marines were supposed to ‘make amends for Gardez and Tora Bora and finish off al-Qaeda forces’ (8), and boasted in early May 2002 that they would ‘finally destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban forces’ (9). As one report asks, ‘What happened to that dream we had – where the Royal Marines would succeed where America had failed, and use their renowned stamina and fearlessness to finally flush al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan?’.

That was the problem – the marines’ talked-up campaign in east Afghanistan was always more ‘a dream’ than a reality. The marines’ deployment was a political consideration, not a well-thought-through military operation – an attempt to boost Britain’s international standing by sending ‘Our Boys’ to fight against the evil of terrorism in east Afghanistan, rather than a clear campaign with clear goals built on clear intelligence. Now the British military is finding out what the Americans have discovered over the past six months: war talk and war reality are two very different things.

Since the marines arrived in east Afghanistan at the end of March 2002, their operations have been shrouded in confusion and contradiction. And since day one, the political rhetoric and media expectations in London have run miles ahead of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, declared the UK Sun on 2 May 2002, as the marines launched Operation Snipe, ‘a dangerous “seek and destroy” assault on al-Qaeda troops in Afghanistan’ (10). According to the now beleaguered Brigadier Lane, he and his troops would finally ‘remove the cancer of al-Qaeda from the very heart of Afghanistan’ (11). ‘Our commandos, aircraft and big guns are there…[to] seek out and destroy all the terrorist infrastructure in this region’, declared Lane (12), with the Sun echoing: ‘The marines’ mission will be to unleash withering firepower to snuff out [the enemy].’ (13)

Others saw it differently – including Major-General Robert Fry, head of the Royal Marines. Surveying east Afghanistan at the end of April 2002, just before Operation Snipe started, Fry believed that the ‘conflict in Afghanistan will be extensively drawn out and never completely won militarily’, saying ‘I’m not sure there will every be a day when victory will be declared’ (14). In stark contrast to the media’s (and Brigadier Lane’s) confidence in the marines ‘precise military might’, Fry said in an interview headlined ‘Military force is not enough to defeat al-Qaeda’: ‘[T]here isn’t just a military solution… We have got to be about creating institutional change in Afghanistan and creating a durable economy as well.’ (15)

When it was announced at the end of March 2002, the marines’ mission, in the words of UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon, sounded crystal clear: to ‘seek and destroy’ enemy forces holed up in east Afghanistan. ‘In we go – Royal Marines to wipe out al-Qaeda, declared the front page of the Sun on 17 March 2002 (16). The Daily Telegraph warned us all to ‘Expect marines to be killed’, reporting that ‘defence chiefs have warned Tony Blair to expect around 80 casualties among the Royal Marine unit being sent to Afghanistan’ (17).

The message was clear: the marines were heading into their ‘biggest battle since the Gulf War’, would engage and destroy a ruthless enemy, and might lose some soldiers in the process.

But a month later, at the end of April 2002 when marines kicked off their ‘seek and destroy’ mission, they came up against a problem: there were no al-Qaeda or Taliban forces for them to seek and destroy. ‘The question on all the marines’ lips was “where are all the al-Qaeda fighters?”’, reported the BBC on 18 April 2002 (18), after the marines had been scouring the Shah-i-Kot mountains for five days without coming across a single living al-Qaeda or Taliban members (or any dead ones, despite the US military’s claims that Operation Anaconda had killed ‘hundreds’ of the enemy in Shah-i-Kot) (19).

Before long, pysched-up marines on the ground, who had been told that this would be the ‘battle of a lifetime’ and the war on terrorism was a ‘noble war to fight’ (20), were getting bored – and flabby. One report at the end of April 2002 claimed that the marines were getting ‘out of shape’ due to the lack of engagement and an inconsistent training regime. ‘It’s disappointing that we haven’t come face-to-face with al-Qaeda. It’s a long way to come without putting our skills to the test’, a marine told BBC News on 18 April 2002 (21). ‘We are here to kill people’, said another soldier, ‘and not doing it is getting kind of tedious’.

According to a news report at the end of April 2002: ‘British military sources have admitted that, faced with an elusive enemy in a huge expanse of rugged and remote terrain, it is hard to find targets that might justify deploying large numbers of the 1700 Royal Marines’ (22). A UK defence source put it more succinctly: ‘We have got a big, highly trained, well-equipped hammer and currently can’t find a decent-sized nail to hit.’ (23) The UK Observer reported on 28 April 2002 that ‘a sense of aimlessness has settled over Bagram airbase’ – capturing the gap between war rhetoric and war reality, between the talked-up aims of destroying al-Qaeda and the actual ‘aimlessness’ on the ground.

After six weeks of (not) fighting in the war on terror, British forces in Afghanistan borrowed a well-worn trick from their American allies – they changed their war aims to suit the new reality. ‘[T]he aims of the British and American military operation in Afghanistan are being subtly redefined in the face of unexpected difficulties’, said one report at the end of April 2002. ‘Senior British officers in Afghanistan and the UK are echoing [America’s] change of emphasis. They now say that denying al-Qaeda and former Taliban elements a chance to rally and recuperate for a spring offensive is as important an objective as destroying them – a significant retreat from the objectives that were originally outlined.’ (24)

This ‘changing of the aims’ has been a recurring feature of the war on terror. The aims have gone from destroying al-Qaeda (circa September 2001) to removing the Taliban and replacing it with a new government (circa October 2001); from catching bin Laden ‘dead or alive’ (September 2001) to stopping him from operating (January 2002) to ‘not caring’ about him anymore (March 2002); from destroying terrorism everywhere in the world (January 2002) to ‘not being interested’ in nation-building in Afghanistan (February 2002) to ‘focusing on nation-building’ in Afghanistan (April 2002); from destroying al-Qaeda from the air (January 2002) to destroying al-Qaeda on the ground (March 2002) to destroying al-Qaeda (or at least wedding parties) from the air again (May 2002); from ‘seeking and destroying’ al-Qaeda (1 – 23 April) to keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan (23 – 30 April) to destroying al-Qaeda’s caves (1 – 10 May 2002) to sacking brigadiers for talking up what the war on terror can achieve (20 May 2002).

Even this sacking/non-sacking/reassignment of Brigadier Lane was shrouded in confusion. On 19 May 2002, BBC News said: ‘Defence secretary Geoff Hoon has “complete confidence” in the Royal Marines’ commander in Afghanistan…Mr Hoon said Brigadier Roger Lane was doing a “tremendous job” and dismissed as “nonsense” reports that the mission had become a mess.’ (25) The following day, on 20 May 2002, the Guardian reported: ‘The Ministry of Defence [has] announced a replacement for the Royal Marines commander in Afghanistan…. Brigadier Jim Dutton will take over command of the 1000 royal marines in 3 Commando Brigade when Brigadier Roger Lane returns from his mission to hunt down remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.’ (26)

And even the marines’ one ‘success’ in Afghanistan turned out to be a failure. On 11 May 2002, the marines found and destroyed a ‘massive al-Qaeda arms dump’ – boasting of how they created the ‘biggest controlled explosion since World War II’, by blowing up ‘four caves full of [enemy] ammunition’ (27). But on 14 May 2002, it was revealed that the arms didn’t belong to al-Qaeda at all, but to an Afghan warlord. ‘Arms blown up by marines were mine’, said a headline in the Daily Telegraph, reporting that ‘thirty lorry loads of supposed terrorist arms destroyed by the Royal Marines in Afghanistan probably belonged to a coalition ally’ (28).

After two months on the ground, the marines seem to have had more run-ins with their American allies than with al-Qaeda or Taliban forces. There was Star and Stripes magazine’s criticism of the marines’ ‘disappointing’ campaign in mid-May 2002. Another report claimed that graffiti written by marines in the toilets at Bagram airbase says, ‘Americans: we’re all out fighting while you guard the toilets – something you’ll get more medals for anyway’ (29). And US General Tommy Franks, head of the US forces in Afghanistan, is said to be furious that he only found out about the marines’ Operation Snipe when he heard it reported on CNN.

These clashes between the US and British forces in Afghanistan reflect the reality gap in the war on terrorism. Bush and Blair talk up their ‘joint initiative’ and their ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ stance against terror. But on the ground – in a war with no clear aims, no intelligence to speak of, and no significant operations for soldiers to fight in – there is little to tie US and British forces together in anything resembling comradeship, and instead they are reduced to bickering over who is to blame for the failures of the war.

The war on terror was never a clear military operation with clear goals. It was always driven by political considerations, launched by America in the wake of 11 September in a desperate attempt to galvanise audiences at home and abroad. From day one, it was a war that didn’t really know who it was fighting against or what it was fighting for – as reflected in the ever-changing war aims. Now, commentators are rushing to condemn, criticise or just feel sorry for the Royal Marines and their failed operations – but what did they expect the marines to do, in such a confused and confusing war?

Nothing better captures the uncertain and degraded nature of the war on terror than this story revealed on 21 May 2002:

‘A [US] marine sentry, staring out into the darkness, had thought he heard a noise. Fearing that a raiding party of al-Qaeda guerrillas was crawling towards his position, he opened fire. Jolted by the burst of noise, neighbouring American bunkers also started shooting. As some marines scuttled to the forward positions, one was hit by a bullet in the leg [and] the wounded man was awarded a Purple Heart…. The next day patrols went to check the perimeter for al-Qaeda casualties. Instead they found a dead dog. Later it appeared that the single American casualty had been hit by a ricochet fired by his own side. There never had been an al-Qaeda raid. The gun battle was started by an Afghan mongrel….’ (30).

As American and European politicians take a proud stand against terrorism and talk about making the world a safer place, their forces on the ground are shooting dogs. In a war like that, what else could the marines do but screw up?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O’Neill

Muddled marines, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-conference: After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West

(1) ‘Sham in Bagram’, Mirror, 16 May 2002

(2) ‘Sham in Bagram’, Mirror, 16 May 2002

(3) This futile campaign, Madeleine Bunting, Guardian, 20 May 2002

(4) British Afghan strategy in disarray, AP, 20 May 2002

(5) British Afghan strategy in disarray, AP, 20 May 2002

(6) ‘War and peace is clash of cultures’, The Times, 21 May 2002

(7) US forces’ paper attacks marines, Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 22 May 2002

(8) Marines prepare to make amends for Gardez and Tora Bora and finish off al-Qaeda forces, Kim Sengupta, Independent, 3 May 2002

(9) ‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, Sun, 2 May 2002

(10) ‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, Sun, 2 May 2002

(11) ‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, Sun, 2 May 2002

(12) ‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, Sun, 2 May 2002

(13) ‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, Sun, 2 May 2002

(14) Military force ‘is not enough to defeat al-Qaeda’, Ben Smalley, Telegraph, 24 April 2002

(15) Military force ‘is not enough to defeat al-Qaeda’, Ben Smalley, Telegraph, 24 April 2002

(16) ‘In we go – Royal Marines to wipe out al-Qaeda’, Sun, 17 March 2002

(17) ‘Expect marines to be killed’, Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2002

(18) Marines dig in for tough mission, Jonathan Charles, BBC News, 18 April 2002

(19) See The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O’Neill

(20) Marines dig in for tough mission, Jonathan Charles, BBC News, 18 April 2002

(21) Marines dig in for tough mission, Jonathan Charles, BBC News, 18 April 2002

(22) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Jason Burke, Observer, 28 April 2002

(23) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Jason Burke, Observer, 28 April 2002

(24) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Jason Burke, Observer, 28 April 2002

(25) Hoon defends Royal Marines’ chief, BBC News, 19 May

(26) Marines commander removed, Guardian, 20 May

(27) Al-Qaeda arms dump destroyed, BBC News, 11 May

(28) ‘Arms blown up by marines were mine’, Daily Telegraph, 14 May 2002

(29) ‘War and peace is clash of cultures’, The Times, 21 May 2002

(30) ‘War and peace is clash of cultures’, The Times, 21 May 2002

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Topics Politics


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