Muddled marines

Will Britain's Royal Marines 'finish off bin Laden' - or just 'cramp his style'?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Marines blitz on bin Laden men’, screamed the UK Sun on 2 May 2002, reporting that Britain’s Royal Marines had launched a ‘dangerous “seek and destroy” assault on al-Qaeda troops in Afghanistan’ (1).

According to one British commander, the marines’ Operation Snipe in Khost, south-east Afghanistan, will ‘remove the cancer of al-Qaeda from the very heart of Afghanistan’ (2).

But a week ago, on 23 April 2002, the head of the Royal Marines warned there would never be a military victory in south-east Afghanistan. Major-general Robert Fry said ‘the conflict in Afghanistan will be extensively drawn out and never completely won militarily’, adding, ‘I’m not sure there will ever be a day when victory will be declared’ (3).

On 2 May 2002, marine brigadier Roger Lane said Operation Snipe was a deadly and precise ‘military affair’. ‘Our commandos, aircraft and big guns are there….[to] seek out and destroy all the terrorist infrastructure in this region’, said Lane (4), with the Sun echoing: ‘The marines’ mission will be to unleash withering firepower to snuff out [the enemy].’ (5)

But earlier, major-general Fry had been adamant that military might and firepower were not enough. ‘Military force is not enough to defeat al-Qaeda’, declared a newspaper headline on 24 April 2002, after Fry said ‘there isn’t just a military solution’ (6). ‘[W]e have also got to be about creating institutional change in Afghanistan and creating a durable economy as well’, said Fry, in case anyone thought the marines were just soldiers who destroy rather than nation-builders who build (7).

Since the marines arrived in east Afghanistan at the end of March 2002, their operations have been shrouded in confusion. The US military asked for the marines’ help after its disastrous Operation Anaconda: the battle of Shah-i-Kot in early March 2002, which US General Tommy Franks claimed was an ‘absolute and unqualified success’ – on the same day the UK Guardian announced that America wanted the marines, because ‘despite months of intensive bombing from the air, and weeks of fighting on the ground, the war [in east Afghanistan] is far from over’ (8).

In the wake of Operation Anaconda (9), many expected the marines to succeed where US forces had failed – to use their tough training, celebrated stamina and military know-how to flush out the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that had alluded Anaconda’s 3250 bombs. ‘Marines prepare to make amends for Gardez and Tora Bora and finish off al-Qaeda forces’, said a headline in the UK Independent on 3 May 2002 (10). But the war on terror’s lack of intelligence and reality on the ground has got in the way.

When it was announced at the end of March 2002, the marines’ mission, in the words of UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon, was 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 (11). ‘Expect marines to be killed’, warned the Daily Telegraph on 24 March 2002, claiming that ‘defence chiefs have warned Tony Blair to expect around 80 casualties among the Royal Marine unit being sent to Afghanistan’ (12).

A month later, the marines came up against a problem: there were no al-Qaeda or Taliban forces for them to ‘wipe out’. ‘The question on all the marines’ lips was “where are all the al-Qaeda fighters?”‘, reported the BBC on 18 April 2002 (13), after the marines had been scouring the Shah-i-Kot mountains for five days without finding a single living al-Qaeda or Taliban member.

Before long, psyched-up marines who had been told this was the ‘operation of a lifetime’ were getting bored. ‘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’, one young marine told the BBC on 18 April 2002 (14). ‘We are here to kill people’, said another soldier, who obviously missed major-general Fry’s nation-building speech, ‘and not doing it is getting kind of tedious’ (15). The UK Observer reported that ‘a sense of aimlessness has settled over Bagram airbase’ (16).

According to one 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’. Or as one defence source put it: ‘We have got a big, highly trained, well-equipped hammer and currently can’t find a decent-sized nail to hit.’ (17) For all the claims that the marines would get the US military out of a hole, this sounds exactly like the American experience in Afghanistan over the past six months: they’ve got the might and the power to destroy al-Qaeda – they just don’t know where al-Qaeda is.

So how did the Royal Marines respond to the creeping realisation that bin Laden and his henchmen were nowhere to be found in east Afghanistan? They borrowed a trick from the Bush administration, and simply 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 on 28 April 2002 (18). In a speech to US troops in Afghanistan on 27 April 2002, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld shifted America’s war aims from getting bin Laden dead or alive to ‘ensuring that Afghanistan can develop economically and politically so the country would not become a haven for terrorists in the future’ (so instead of fighting living terrorists, US forces are fighting future terrorists).

Likewise, British forces changed their war aim in east Afghanistan from ‘destroying al-Qaeda’ to keeping al-Qaeda at bay, as the Observer reported: ‘Senior British officers in Afghanistan and the UK are echoing Rumsfeld’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.’ (19)

Reading the British press over the past month gives a glimpse into the British forces’ ever-shifting aims. From the cocky headlines in late March 2002 about ‘wiping out al-Qaeda’, ‘destroying terror’ and ‘smashing enemy forces’, by mid-April the stated aim had become to ‘stop al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from crossing [from Pakistan into Afghanistan]’ (20).

By 17 April 2002, one report was boasting that allied forces in Afghanistan had managed to ‘cramp the style of the terrorists’ (21), while others were celebrating the destruction of caves – something the US forces have been doing aimlessly since November last year. ‘So far, we’ve had a lot of successes and we’ve certainly blown up a lot of al-Qaeda facilities’, boasted a British colonel on 17 April 2002 (22).

Now, with Operation Snipe, British and US forces have announced a ‘final crackdown’ on al-Qaeda – just what they said during Tora Bora in November 2001, the Zhawar Kili bombings in January 2002, Operation Anaconda in March 2002….

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

When nation-building destroys, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: After 11 September

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

(2) A silent war with no enemy in sight, Guardian, 3 May 2002

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

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

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

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

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

(8) British troops face upbeat Afghan foe, Guardian, 19 March 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

(15) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Observer, 28 April 2002

(16) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Observer, 28 April 2002

(17) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Observer, 28 April 2002

(18) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Observer, 28 April 2002

(19) Troops fight boredom in war on terror, Observer, 28 April 2002

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

(21) Operation Ptmarigan, Daily Telegraph, 17 April 2002

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

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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