Magazine article The Spectator

Who Was in Control?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Was in Control?

Article excerpt

Ask Forgiveness Not Permission:

The True Story of an Operation in Pakistan's Badlands by Howard Leedham Bene Factum, £12.99, pp. 352, ISBN 9781903071670 At the start of 2004 Howard Leedham, a former British special forces officer who had taken up US citizenship, addressed the raw Pashtun recruits he had made into a US-backed militia capable of operating on the Pakistan-Afghan border, surely one of the world's most hostile environments.

He told them about Lawrence of Arabia's famous cross-desert assault on the port of Aqabar: 'We are like Lawrence of Arabia, ' he said.'Now let's find our Aqabar.'

You might think that the US military high command would have identified a target before deploying a military force to attack it. But in the aftermath of 9/11 the normal rules did not apply. In theory, Leedham's airborne militia was created to control the cross-border movement of Taleban drug smugglers. In practice, it didn't work out like that.

As the title of his book suggests, Leedham was distinctly unimpressed by his political masters in the US State Department. When he reached Islamabad, the US diplomats running his programme were at best lukewarm about his plans. Leedham saw the diplomats' caution as motivated by careerism, lassitude and a 'dove-inclined' bureaucratic mindset. No doubt all those factors were at play. But there was another explanation for the diplomats' unease.

As one of them put it, the US helicopters under Leedham's command had not been put in the country to conduct operations for the Pakistan military.

And yet that is exactly what happened.

Whilst Leedham's military prowess was beyond doubt, his understanding of the political environment he was operating in was far less sure-footed. Convinced that Pakistan was full of people determined to kill him, he never moved without a weapon, even taking a pistol to dinner parties.

In fact Islamabad has remained a place where westerners can move around freely and with no difficulties.

Leedham frequently writes about the Taleban and al-Qa'eda as if they are synonymous. In fact, as anyone operating in the tribal areas after 9/11 surely needed to know, they were entirely separate organisations with different structures, funding arrangements, leaders and objectives. The various jihadi militant groups based in Pakistan have political platforms ranging from al-Qa'eda's global jihad to the removal of US forces from Afghanistan, imposing sharia law in Pakistan, killing Shias, killing deviant Sunnis, liberating Kashmir, mounting attacks in India and so on.

The military actions described in this book combine tactical excellence and strategic incoherence. …

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