A reporter working in Afghanistan, Stephen Grey was embedded with the British Army during Operation Snakebite, the Anglo-American advance to recapture the town of Musa Qala in early December 2007. Ambushed during a diversionary action, Grey was determined to discover the full story of what really happened in the battle for this Taliban stronghold: what were the reasons for launching the mission, just how was the town taken, and what were the results that came from this hard-fought military victory?
In an exhaustive attempt to find real answers, Grey conducted over 200 interviews with the major players, ranging from Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador, and Brigadier Andrew Mackay (in charge of the military side of the operation) down to the troops doing the fighting, both British and American. He also listened to Afghans from all sides, and to Irish diplomat Michael Semple, who seemed to making some progress in informal negotiations with the Taliban until his sudden expulsion from the country by President Hamid Karzai.
Through this process Grey has been able to describe the battle in forensic detail. And as an accomplished journalist he has also written a vivid operational narrative: the advance of 40 Commando and the Household Cavalry to establish the blocking positions along the Musa Qala wadi; the flanking manoeuvre by the 2 Yorks battle group that included the Afghan forces who were supposedly to take control of Musa Qala; and the fight for the town itself by US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne.
But ultimately of most importance in this well-researched and even-handed account are the revelations that lie behind the day-to-day news reports from Afghanistan. A primary objective of the mission was to bring wavering Taliban leaders into the Afghan government’s fold, in particular a Musa Qala resident called Mullah Salaam. While Mullah Salaam did defect, he came to regret the decision such was the failure of the corruption-riddled Afghan government to provide the support it had promised to Musa Qala once the Taliban had been ejected. In a final, farcical twist, it appeared that the coalition forces may have got the ‘wrong’ Mullah Salaam, a tribal elder and not the Taliban leader who was supposedly to bring over his fighters to the government cause.
The Mullah Salaam story is just one of many that reveal the inefficiency and dishonesty of the Afghan regime, all of which undermine the efforts of the Coalition forces. Operation Snakebite also raises the fundamental question: is the West even fighting the right war? The Taliban have shown little interest in matters outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the degree of its relationship with Al-Qaeda remains unclear. Grey is not alone in tending towards the belief that the war in Afghanistan is primarily a power struggle between various Afghan factions, a struggle that has ensnared the forces of the Western powers. They believed they were fighting ‘the war on terror’ but have now found themselves a participant in what is beginning to look like a civil war.
Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: opium cultivation and the international drugs trade. As Grey notes, the well-informed Michael Semple was certain ‘that soldiers’ lives were being put on the line to defend the opium interests of local political chiefs’ and that the operation to secure the Musa Qala valley was primarily to wrest back control of the opium trade from the Taliban and into the hands of the newly restored Afghan government police chief.
Grey’s conclusions – albeit tentatively made – do not make for optimistic reading but we should be grateful that he has not avoided asking the hard questions in what is an outstanding piece of investigative journalism.
Penguin, 384 pages, £9.99 (p/b); Viking, 368 pages, £16.99 (h/b)
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