The British Army’s Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan

A new book looks at the changes the British Army has undergone and roles it has played as an almost volunteer sidekick to the American military in the war on terror.

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In 2003, the year the United States military switched its attention from Afghanistan to lead the invasion of Iraq, Simon Akam joined the British Army. Akam was part of a former program for university-bound young adults that is largely unfamiliar to Americans, known as the Gap Year Commission. It ushered young officers through a brief period of army service via a short course at an officer training academy, and then a number of months with a regular unit.

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Akram was assigned to a cavalry unit in Germany fresh from its return with its tanks from the initial invasion of Iraq. As he ably recalls now, he had joined a service soon to enter a period of defining change. The war in Iraq, he noted in an interview, had “yet to be an enduring commitment. The Helmand tours that would come to define Afghanistan for the British were still two years away. Therefore I experienced the last moment of the post-Cold War British Army, still in large part based in Germany, coming off two decades of success in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Sierra Leone, and acutely conscious of its apparent status as ‘the best little army in the world.'”

Akram later studied literature at the University of Oxford and spent several years abroad, studying Arabic and becoming a journalist. Eventually he turned his attention back to the army he had once served. His research ultimately led to “The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11,” a book that is critical of his former service, the changes it has undergone and roles it has played as an almost volunteer sidekick to the American military in the war on terror.

Akam and I have intermittently corresponded in recent years. Thankfully, he agreed to answer a few questions about his book. His lightly edited responses are below.

In the American military, the British military has long been regarded as a special partner — a faithful and extremely competent ally. That view was at times challenged by the British military’s performance in Afghanistan and Iraq. How do you square these opposing impressions?

The primary reason that Britain went to war in these conflicts was to preserve its relationship with the U.S. However, the British military of two decades ago also defined its identity by not being American. As I summarize in the book, “They are brash; we are reserved. They are casual; we are smart. They have mass; we have skill.”

The British did at that time have more counterinsurgency experience from Northern Ireland. But this little sibling perspective unraveled in Iraq, where British troops occupied Basra.

After an initial honeymoon, security deteriorated. The conflict became politically toxic in Britain, and when the U.S. surged in 2007 London had no appetite to do the same. Instead British commanders arranged a secret deal with Shiite militias, trading prisoner releases for a cessation of attacks on British bases.

This “accommodation” fell apart in March 2008 when Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, abruptly sent troops south. The British commanding general was on vacation in a ski resort and Maliki publicly snubbed his deputy. U.S. and Iraqi troops went into action while the British, until late in the day, stayed at the airport.

The events in Basra cast a long shadow. Later in Kabul a British officer asked Gen. David Petraeus how long it would take the U.S. to forget what happened there. A generation? he asked. Petraeus’s reply was telling. “Slightly longer,” he said.

The U.S. military, for all its scale and resources, did not “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan either. But the conflicts damaged British military standing with its most important ally.

What are the central problems of the British Army’s experience and performance since 2001?

I see four interlinked areas. First, accountability. Almost every senior British military commander who passed through Iraq and Afghanistan was promoted, no matter how badly things went wrong in the field. Meanwhile, in parallel, Britain implemented a novel system of probes for junior malfeasance on the battlefield, from court cases permitted by the creeping reach of European Human Rights law to massive public inquiries. (Some of these investigations were baseless, but in other cases the army did commit atrocities.)

The key point is that Britain allowed a “glut and void” situation to develop, with excess accountability low down and none higher up. That created moral hazard and meant top commanders were incentivized to take bad action over no action.

Second, the army needs to overhaul its attitude to learning lessons. While the institution became adept at taking on board low-level tactical experience, over and over again initiatives that aimed to identify what had gone wrong on a broader remit were either suppressed or kept on a problematically close hold. Throughout the Iraq and Afghan conflicts avoiding senior embarrassment ranked higher than a comprehensive post-operational washup.

Connected to these areas is the continuing role of social class, arguably the British Army’s original sin. I write in detail about class in the book, such as “smart” regiments overwhelmingly officered by graduates of elite private schools showing snobbery toward more proletarian outfits. The current tendency of the top ranks of the army to behave like a club rather than a professional cadre has a class-based element.

The last area is the system of incentives that British soldiers on operations face. The medals system rewarded violence even when such behavior could be counterproductive. Equally, medals and promotions — the other formal incentive structure — dovetailed with the army’s culture of military “cool.” Jointly these forces valorized violence. If the next war is like the Falklands such a culture will work. If it is another messy peace support operation, it will not.

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British soldiers setting off on an operation in Helmand Province, in Afghanistan in July 2009.Credit…Omar Sobhani/Reuters

In your book you revisit the “Andy McNab” affair, and examine some of its effects. This is a fascinating theme, as allegations of exaggeration or fabulism have dogged other former troops’ accounts, including such wildly successful books as “Lone Survivor.” Tell us how Andy McNab influenced the British Army, and of any fallout.

Andy McNab is the pseudonym of a British special forces soldier who led an ill-fated patrol in the first gulf war in 1991. In 1993, he published “Bravo Two Zero,” an account of the patrol which became a huge best seller. McNab produced another volume of memoir, “Immediate Action,” before moving to novels.

I devoured “Immediate Action” when I was 12 or 13. So did many, many others. Given this was the generation that went on to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan — and in some cases were killed or injured there — I wanted to explore two areas of controversy around the McNab books, first, that they were embellished, second, that they were ghostwritten.

In the book, I relate the never-previously-told story of how McNab found his way in London’s publishing world. From documentary records I was able to identify a ghostwriter who could have written the books. (Not to say that the use of a ghost is wrong, and in the interests of balance, McNab’s representatives insist that he “set the seal on every sentence.”)

“Bravo Two Zero” was published as the true story of an SAS patrol in Iraq. In 2000, the former regimental sergeant major of the SAS, who had seen the official videotaped debriefs, said the depictions of firefights were overblown. Subsequently, another former British special forces operator retraced the patrol’s route interviewing Iraqis. In 2002, he claimed to have found evidence of substantial exaggeration by McNab of the amount of fighting and numbers killed in 1991, along with distances covered and weight carried.

McNab insists his book is “a true account of the patrol” — beyond “certain changes made for security reasons” such as call signs, some locations and the names of the surviving members of the patrol. The wider point is that a generation of young Britons could have been inspired — at least in part — to join the army by an account presented as an incredible true story but which is alleged to have a more tendentious relationship with the truth.

Responsibility must sit with the publishing industry as much as with the protagonists. Like Marcus Luttrell, whose “Lone Survivor” also met controversy, McNab was clearly a very brave man who did some incredibly difficult things. It was the London book industry that determined that was not enough, and that the account had to be chamfered. These books are presented as true stories, though, and the people reading them are often young and impressionable. Publishers should do better.

— Chris

C.J. Chivers is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. He received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2017 and is the author of two books, including “The Fighters,” which chronicled the experiences of six American combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghan War Casualty Report: April 2021

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Afghan security officials inspect the scene of a bomb blast that targeted a vehicle of the electricity supply department in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on April 29.Credit…Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA, via Shutterstock

At least 301 pro-government forces and 82 civilians were killed in Afghanistan this month. [Read the casualty report.]

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American soldiers overseeing training of their Afghan counterparts in Helmand Province in 2016.Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

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