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The American Prospect
Divided They Fight:
While President Bush and Prime Minister Blair stand shoulder to shoulder, their forces in Afghanistan can barely see eye to eye.
By Brendan O'Neill
Web Exclusive: 6.27.02
Since the September 11 atrocities in New York and Washington, British and U.S. leaders have trumpeted to the world their "shoulder-to-shoulder" stance against terrorism. President George W. Bush describes British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "a friend to America," and told a press gathering at the White House on September 20 that "one of the first phone calls I got after that terrible day was from the prime minister." "He was reassuring to me," Bush said. "He showed himself to be a true friend, and I appreciate that."
Blair, in turn, has offered Britain's "full solidarity" to the United States. "I give you, on behalf of our country, our solidarity, our sympathy, and our support," Blair said in September. He told the American people, "we stand side by side with you now, without hesitation." Blair has fought off domestic and European critics who accuse him of "getting into bed with Bush," and has sent his Royal Marines to "fight side by side" with U.S. forces in the Afghan war. "We are together on this," Blair has said.
Really? Recent events on the ground in Afghanistan tell a different story. For all British and U.S. leaders' grand pronouncements of solidarity in the face of terrorism, the "true friendship" between Bush and Blair seems to be in short supply -- at least between U.S. forces and Royal Marines in the hills of east Afghanistan. Indeed, while politicians at home talk about standing "shoulder to shoulder," their forces on the ground can barely see eye to eye.
Britain's Royal Marines arrived in east Afghanistan at the end of March, at America's behest. In the wake of Operation Anaconda -- which ended in confusion and uncertainty over how successfully it had "found and destroyed" al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shah-i-Kot mountains, and which cost nine American lives -- U.S. forces wanted British backing to finish off the enemy. But no sooner had Britain's Royal Marines touched down at Bagram airbase in east Afghanistan than the first clash between British and U.S. forces occurred.
General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, insisted in mid-March that Operation Anaconda had been "an unqualified and absolute success," and that the British were only needed to ensure that no enemy forces had been left behind. The Royal Marines saw it differently. According to Royal Marine commanders, Anaconda had been a military and political disaster and it was up to them to make amends. As the UK Guardian reported: "Anaconda, where the USA again relied too heavily on air power, was hailed by US commanders as a success. British military officials called it a cock-up."
This "cock-up" view of Operation Anaconda was reflected in the British press, which was full of excitable reports of "Our Boys" going in to "succeed" where American forces had "failed." As one newspaper claimed on the same day that Franks called Anaconda an "absolute success": "Despite months of intensive bombing from the air, and weeks of fighting on the ground, the war [in east Afghanistan] is far from over." The British media's reporting on Anaconda captured the growing disparity between the U.S. and British camps over the success of the Afghan campaign. Where the U.S. press largely welcomed Anaconda as a step toward the final goal of wiping out al-Qaeda (though some raised queries about its effectiveness), many British journalists were adamant that it had been an all-out failure that only "Our British Boys" could rectify. Royal Marine commanders took a similar view -- and with British forces assuming that their role in east Afghanistan was to mop up "America's mess," British/U.S. relations didn't get off to a good start.
As the war dragged on through April and May without much success (no sign of Osama bin Laden and few fruitful operations to speak of), relations between British and U.S. soldiers deteriorated further. In May, Stars and Stripes, the magazine for American troops and their families, took the unusual step of criticizing the Royal Marines while they were still fighting alongside U.S. soldiers in east Afghanistan. Stars and Stripes told its readers that Britain's contribution to the Afghan campaign had been "disappointing," and criticized the Royal Marines for returning from their missions "empty-handed."
Later in May, one British reporter found that tensions were running high between American and British soldiers at Bagram airbase, describing a "clash of cultures" as the two sides failed to bond. Apparently, UK Marines and U.S. forces had taken to scrawling messages to each other on Bagram airbase's toilet walls. One piece of graffiti by a British soldier said, "Americans: we're all out fighting while you guard the toilets -- something you'll get more medals for anyway." Other "toilet debates" have included mocking the inconclusive nature of Operation Anaconda and taunting the Americans over their alleged fear of fighting hand-to-hand combat on the ground.
But the biggest rift between British and U.S. forces came when the Royal Marines launched Operation Condor -- apparently without telling any U.S. commanders. With Condor, launched in late May, British Marines went to the eastern province of Paktia after Australian forces had allegedly come under fire from al-Qaeda forces. American commanders in Afghanistan didn't even know about Condor until they watched TV that evening. As one report stated: "Relations between Brigadier Roger Lane [British commander in Afghanistan] and the head of the U.S. military were said to be poor after U.S. commander General Tommy Franks allegedly found out about Operation Condor from CNN rather than from Brigadier Lane."
Lane was later removed from his post in Afghanistan, accused of undermining his Royal Marines' morale and trying too hard to "spin" the Afghan war as a success. Others believe that his run-ins with his American counterparts, and his ability to infuriate U.S. commanders, finally ensured his removal from Afghanistan.
So what is going on? The Afghan war is talked up as Britain and America's united stand against the forces of evil, yet on the ground it has been characterized by bitching between British and American soldiers, a lack of communication between supposedly allied forces, and the playing of a blame game over which side has done the least to further the war on terrorism. Where's the solidarity in that?
These clashes between American and British forces in Afghanistan reflect a reality gap. Bush and Blair talk up their "joint initiative" and their "shoulder-to-shoulder" stance and the great battle between good and evil. But on the ground, the real war has been a flat and sometimes disastrous affair. There is little intelligence to speak of, as reflected in the consistent failure to find Osama bin Laden or to work out where he is. Operation after operation has ended indecisively, usually in a minefield of contradictory statements and a series of unanswered questions. And the war aims seem to change on an almost weekly basis, shifting from the capture of bin Laden to the destruction of the Taliban, from destroying al-Qaeda to rebuilding Afghanistan, from eliminating terrorism on the Afghan-Pakistan border to eliminating terrorism everywhere in the world.
The problem is, in a war with no clear aims, little intelligence, and no significant operations for soldiers to fight in, there is little to tie U.S. and British forces together in anything resembling solidarity or comradeship. Instead, they are reduced to squabbling like schoolchildren over who screwed up worse. Politicians might be able to conjure up solidarity on the White House's manicured lawns and in carefully worded statements to the public -- but soldiers need action and direction in order to feel united. They need aims and goals and to physically work together in order to build up trust and wartime friendships. But all of these things have been missing in the Afghan war.
The bickering between British and U.S. forces captures an essential contradiction in the war on terrorism: It looks good on paper and in the love-ins between Bush and Blair -- but the reality has been a lot more ugly, and a lot more complicated.
Copyright © 2002 by The American Prospect,
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