‘Remember, the faint-hearted never fucked a pig!’ With this ringing exhortation from Brigadier Graeme Lamb, Director of Special Forces (DSF), the SAS were sent into battle as part of the Allied Coalition’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. But after the swift collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the SAS and other British special forces effectively found themselves out of a job, especially as one of their original tasks – the destruction of Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction – had turned out to be nothing more than a political mirage.
Meanwhile, Iraq was fast collapsing into violent chaos. The US Special Forces in Iraq, commanded by the hard-thinking, hard-fighting General Stanley McChrystal, had decided to launch an all-out yet covert war against al-Qaeda and its allies, deploying American resources of firepower and smart technology on such a scale that it became known as ‘industrial counter-terrorism’. But they needed more highly trained foot soldiers, a role perfect for the SAS – whose commanders in Iraq were only too keen to help. After some bitter arguments with a new DSF in Britain, who had fundamental reservations about committing his forces to the American plan, the SAS went into action as Task Force Black.
A BBC defence correspondent who has written extensively on Britain’s special forces, Mark Urban reveals the hitherto secret role of the SAS in this bitter and bloody battle. Central to McCrystal’s strategy was the intensity of the offensive, with multiple attacks going in night-after-night to wear down the enemy’s ability to wage an effective insurgency campaign. Enemy suspects were captured and known targets eliminated. The SAS troopers were supported by a fearsome array of US assets, whether drones and gunships in the air or communications analysts based in America who could track insurgent’s cell-phone calls and their locations – with unfortunate consequences for the user.
There were failures and successes in this war. Among the latter was the rescue of the peace activist Norman Kember and the tracking down of information that led directly to the killing of the Coalition’s number one enemy in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In total it is believed that British special forces had accounted for the killing and capture of 3500 people. By 2009, however, the levels of violence that had made much of Iraq ungovernable had diminished to more manageable proportions, bringing the SAS’s role in Iraq to a close.
Urban has produced another important book on the shadowy world of covert military operations. Where he thinks necessary, he has not been afraid to criticise British policy and operational conduct, both at the top and on the ground. And the undoubtedly thrilling exploits of the SAS and their colleagues have been set within a well-balanced and informative political and military context.
Little, Brown, 318 pages, £17.99 (h/b)
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