Afghan War

Lions Led By Whitehall Donkeys
The MoD has been so embarrassed by the videos of operations in the northern outposts in Helmand that it has issued a defence information notice banning soldiers from using any type of camera in theatre. The notice, issued by the MoD's Director of Security, is very clear. This isn't about security issues. Oh no! The purpose of the ban is "to mitigate the risks from the capture and publication of images that might cause significant embarrassment to the MoD". That is frankly par for the course for the donkeys at the MoD, Never mind the soldiers. Let's just make sure we don't look stupid. Quite how they hope to manage that is anybody's guess. Fortunately, the guys at the sharp end more than make up for it. Along with the videos, we have obtained a detailed account of their exploits in just one of the northern outposts, Sangin, where eight British soldiers were killed. The account in the paper today (Sunday Times) is just a taster for this extensive account of the Paras' bravery at Sangin. Here's the full story. Hopefully someone will have the good sense to make Sangin a battle honour!

One of the most dramatic incidents was a Taliban attack on paratroopers as they moved along a dried-up river bed towards the government compound in Sangin on July 27. 

Merchants on the edge of the bazaar hurriedly shut up shop, women in blue burqas shepherded children back into houses and suddenly streets that had been busy were deserted. 

McKinley spotted two Taliban gunmen running half-crouched across the roof of a mud-brick building. He shouted out a warning, swung his rifle and fired. The Taliban replied with an onslaught of AK-47 rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades. McKinley and Private Neil Edwards fell to the ground. Despite a shrapnel wound, McKinley insisted on continuing to fight before he and Edwards were evacuated to the main British base at Camp Bastion. 

A Company had arrived back in Sangin just a few hours earlier. The action that day was indicative of the ferocious battles with the Taliban in a series of deployments to the town. 

Their first experience of Sangin came in 24-hour operation on June 13, when troops in a US supply convoy were ambushed on the road leading north between Sangin and Musa Qala and A Company went in under fire to protect them. 

It was here McKinley carried out the first of a number of acts of outstanding bravery that were to win him the MC. He dragged a wounded US soldier behind cover and gave him medical treatment that saved his life, as heavy Taliban machinegun fire poured towards him, tracer bullets flashing red in the black of the night. 

A Company was withdrawn from Sangin the next day but in late June, under pressure from President Hamid Karzai to ensure the Afghan flag flew in the remote district centres of northern Helmand, British commanders sent the paratroopers back in. 

For a week nothing happened, then one night the sky erupted as rocket-propelled grenades, Chinese-made 107mm rockets and AK-47 fire thumped into the Para's’ machinegun posts from houses overlooking the base. 

Paratroopers, some caught wearing only shorts, swiftly put on body armour and responded with heavy machinegun fire that eventually silenced the Taliban. Attacks came repeatedly for the rest of the month. On June 27 2006 two members of the special forces, Captain David Patten, of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, and Sergeant Paul Bartlett, of the Special Boat Service, were killed in the town. 

Four days later a Taliban rocket hit the tower where Corporal Peter Thorpe, a signaller, and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi of the Intelligence Corps, were listening in to Taliban communications, killing them instantly. 

On July 5, the last day of its second stint in Sangin, A Company lost a man. Private Damien Jackson was fatally wounded as he and his platoon tried to secure the helicopter landing site for the arrival of B Company. 

Within hours, B Company came under sustained fire and called in British Apache helicopter gun-ships, US A10 tank-buster aircraft and RAF Harriers. 

A Company returned on July 27 and almost immediately became involved in the action in which McKinley and Edwards were wounded. Three days later Farmer of 1 Platoon led an assault on a Taliban hideout, forcing them to flee. 

On August 10 a Chinook flying in engineers also brought back McKinley who had insisted on returning to the fray, despite recommendations from medics that he take more time to recuperate. 

Meanwhile, the Afghan police, who the Para's had gone in to help, began defecting to the Taliban, passing intelligence from inside the compound. 

On August 12, there was another death at Sangin with Lance-Corporal Sean Tansey of the Life Guards crushed by a Scimitar armoured vehicle. McKinley continued to act like a magnet for the Taliban and with his return the men of 1 Platoon were again in the thick of the action. 

On August 20 came the action in which Corporal Bryan James Budd VC (Post) was killed. His platoon was blowing holes in mud walls in Sangin to give troops options to harry the Taliban. The Para's came under heavy attack and several were wounded. 

As they retreated under fire, nobody realised Budd was missing. He had been shot in the back, the bullet exiting through his stomach, and although he was bleeding to death he had managed to take three Taliban with him. 

The video sequences of Paras in action in Helmand this summer shows the violence of the fighting they faced, often cut off and outnumbered. The film opens with mortars being fired at night and goes on to show bombs exploding on Taliban positions, soldiers firing a missile at the enemy and fighting off attacks from a machine gun nest. Later, a group of Paras are shown from the air using explosives to clear a complex of mud-walled buildings in Sangin. 

Not everything goes according to plan. In one sequence seen through a night sight, a Hercules plane intending to parachute rations to hungry, cut-off soldiers mistakenly drops them into a Taliban-controlled mosque instead.

The sequence of stills gives a flavour of everyday life for Britain's airborne troops at rest and in action on the frontline in Afghanistan. The soldiers are shown out on patrol, sometimes among buildings which are in flames or reduced to rubble. Other photos show them firing mortars and manning machine guns. Another shows soldiers grouped around their maps as they plan another operation. Others pose with sniper rifles and quad bikes. The pictures also show the importance of helicopters in Afghanistan - giant Chinooks bring in supplies and transport troops to isolated outposts while sleeker Apaches provide firepower to support the men on the ground.

The signs of an imminent Taliban attack were all too clear as the British paratroopers moved back along the dried up river bed towards the government compound in Sangin. Merchants on the edge of the bazaar were hurriedly shutting up their shops, women in traditional blue and black burkas nervously shepherding children back into the houses. Suddenly, streets that only a few minutes earlier had been busy were deserted.

Then over to his right, Private Peter McKinley spotted two Taliban gunmen running half-crouched across the roof of a mud-brick building. He shouted out a warning, swung his rifle over and let off a series of shots. All hell broke loose as AK47 Kalashnikov rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades swept in towards the patrol from two more Taliban positions and McKinley and Pte Neil Edwards fell wounded to the ground.

Seeking to regain the initiative, Corporal Bryan Budd led the remainder of his men forward to allow members of the Household Cavalry in a Scimitar light tank and a Spartan armoured reconnaissance vehicle to evacuate Edwards and McKinley. “He pushed forward to drive the enemy back, and personally dispatched some enemy taking cover ‘in the public shitters’ with a couple of grenades and some rifle fire,” said his commander Major Jamie Loden. 

The only thing stopping the evacuation was McKinley’s insistence, despite a shrapnel wound, on taking a continuing part in the action. A Company of 3 Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, had arrived back in Sangin a few hours earlier on what was to be the third of their deployments to the town. The action that day was little more than a foretaste of what was to be an extraordinarily ferocious series of battles with the Taliban that would see Budd win a posthumous Victoria Cross; McKinley the Military Cross; and their platoon commander, Lt Hugo Farmer, a Distinguished Gallantry Cross.

The Company’s first taste of life at Sangin had come in mid-June, a few days after the first British soldier to die in Helmand, Capt Jim Philippson, was killed in an ambush just outside the town while mentoring an Afghan Army unit. On 13 June, a US supply convoy was ambushed on the road leading north between Sangin and Musa Qala and A Company went in under fire to protect them. 

It was here that McKinley carried out the first of a number of acts of outstanding bravery that were to win him the Military Cross, dragging a wounded US soldier behind cover and giving him medical treatment that save his life, while all the time heavy Taliban machine gun fire poured in towards him, the tracer bullets flashing red in the black of the night. The following day, low on food and water, the Paras were relieved by US troops.

Then in late June, under pressure from President Hamid Karzai to ensure the Afghan flag flew in the remote district centres of northern Helmand, British commanders sent A Company back into Sangin to defend the mud-walled government compound. The government representative and his police guard were under constant attack from the Taliban who were threatening to overrun the town. 

Described by one Canadian officer sent to help the Para's as “the Wild West”, Sangin is the centre of the processing of opium in Helmand and was never likely to welcome soldiers whose prime minister had spoken of the necessity of eradicating Afghanistan’s poppy crop. 

A Company staged an air assault, landing by helicopter a mile and a half outside the town and, slightly surprised, made their way without incident to the government compound and evacuated the wounded Afghans. They then set up makeshift fortifications and “sangers” - sandbagged firing positions - made themselves at home as best they could and waited for a week while nothing at all happened.

Then one night, the sky erupted as rocket-propelled grenades, Chinese-made 107mm rockets and AK47 automatic rifle rounds thumped into the Para's’ machine-gun posts from the houses overlooking the British base. Paratroopers, many of whom were wearing only shorts because of the extreme heat, swiftly donned body armour and responded in kind with heavy machine-gun fire that eventually silenced the Taliban. The engagement left the Para's exhausted but for the rest of the month, the Taliban attacks came repeatedly.

On 27 June, two members of the special forces, Captain David Patten, of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, and Sergeant Paul Bartlett, of the SBS, were killed while operating in the town. Four days later, the Taliban attacks on the compound enjoyed their first successes when a Taliban rocket struck the tower where Corporal Peter Thorpe of the Royal Signals and L/Cpl Jabron Hashmi of the Intelligence Corps were listening in to Taliban communications, killing them instantly. 

Within days it was six, as on the last day of that second stint in Sangin, A Company lost one of its own. Private Damien Jackson was fatally wounded as he and his platoon tried to secure the helicopter landing site so RAF Chinooks could ferry in B Company to mount a “RIP”, a relief-in-place. Only six British soldiers had died in action in Helmand and all six had been killed at Sangin. 

B Company had been sidelined for six weeks, and there were many who welcomed the move to Sangin as a relief from the tedium of Camp Bastion , the British Army’s heavily fortified camp out in the Helmand desert. Within hours, they came under sustained Taliban fire. For their entire month-long stay in Sangin, they were constantly under attack from the Taliban, who were determined to oust them from the town. 

The Para's were repeatedly forced to call in attacks from British Apache helicopter gun-ships; US A10 Tankbuster aircraft; and RAF Harriers to try to silence the Taliban. The spate of killings that had marked the end of A Company’s time in Sangin was briefly over, but the “incoming” was unremitting, and there were other problems. 

Conditions in Sangin were far from comfortable, the Para's slept on the floor in mud brick huts that were riddled with large bullet holes. Temperatures during the day soared into the 50s Celsius. With water in short supply, they had to wash in a stream running through the compound. Latrines were oil drums sawn in half that were filled with petrol and burned when full. There were limited supplies of bottled water but they swiftly needed replenishing. 

The Para's were dependent on the RAF to deliver supplies and the C130 Hercules transport aircraft that were due to bring them in kept breaking down. Then one night, an RAF Hercules headed north with their supplies, totally missed the platoon house and dropped them in the centre of the town in a mosque controlled by the Taliban. 

As their supplies ran out, and with the RAF unable to mount a second operation, a flight of US helicopters stepped into the breach flying in low in a scene reminiscent of the famous helicopter assault from Apocalypse Now to bring in some temporary rations. The US helicopters were followed by a Canadian relief convoy, making a mockery of government claims that the British had enough troops and resources of their own. 

The Canadians were astounded by the conditions in which the British paratroopers were living and fighting. “When we arrived in Sangin the locals began throwing rocks and anything they could at us. During the last few hundred metres we began receiving mortar fire.” 

It was too dark for them to leave and eventually they ended up spending four days alongside the Para's fighting off several mortar, rocket and machine-gun attacks a day. “I still can’t believe that the Brits have spent over a month living there under those conditions. It was impressive to watch them. They are unbelievable soldiers.”

A Company came back in on 27 July, with Farmer’s 1 Platoon, and Budd and McKinley in particular, taking the plaudits for that first successful patrol into the town. Three days later they were at it again, another contact while out on patrol. This time it was Farmer who led the assault on the Taliban hideout, forcing them to flee. 

Meanwhile, the Afghan police, who the Para's had gone in to help, had begun defecting to the Taliban. With the enemy getting detailed intelligence from inside the compound, there were repeated Taliban rocket and mortar attacks. 

Engineers from 51 Para Squadron worked hard to build up the fortifications, often under fire and with only second-rate body armour. Often the noise of their equipment meant they didn't even realise they were being shot at. Their efforts in soaring temperatures were so strenuous that they had to be rotated out every two weeks and when the first party returned to Camp Bastion on 10 August, there was general shock at their unkempt, unshaven, skeleton-like appearance. 

The good news was that the Chinook that brought in the fresh engineers also brought back McKinley who had insisted on returning to the fray, despite recommendations from the medics that he take more time to recuperate. Two days later, there was another tragic death at Sangin with L/Cpl Sean Tansey of the Life Guards crushed by Scimitar.

Meanwhile, McKinley continued to act like a magnet for the Taliban and with his return the men of 1 Platoon were once again in the thick of the action. On 17 August, supported by a Scimitar and a Spartan, Farmer and his men mounted an operation to flush out Taliban fighters hiding in a series of maize fields and drainage ditches close to the helicopter landing site.

Spotting two insurgents reporting on their activities on a radio, they arrested them and came under heavy Taliban fire. A series of bitterly contested fire-fights ensued culminating in an ambush on the Taliban which, combined with air and artillery attacks, inflicted such heavy casualties that the remainder of the Taliban were forced to flee.

But only briefly and three days later came the operation in which Budd was tragically killed, albeit not before taking as many Taliban with him as he could. His platoon was mounting an operation to use explosives to clear holes in the mud walls, some of which were as much as eight feet wide, to give the British troops more options to pursue any attacking Taliban. 

They came under heavy attack and several Para's were wounded. As they retreated under fire, no-one realised that Budd was missing. He had been shot in the back, the bullet exiting through his stomach, and though bleeding to death had managed to take three Taliban with him. 

When his body was eventually recovered after an operation that contributed heavily to Farmer’s award of the Distinguished Gallantry Cross, his comrades found him surrounded by the bodies of the three Taliban. Farmer had continued to push forward looking for Budd despite himself suffering a shrapnel wound. 

But they were by no means the only heroes. Loden had been forced to use anyone he could in the battle to recover Budd and the other casualties, including two military policemen who had been flown in to investigate Tansey’s death. “There were many people on that day who will go un-recognized, but simply volunteered immediately to go out as part of the reinforcements regardless of rank or experience,” Loden said.

Budd’s death had a traumatic effect on the battle-hardened Para's. “There has been plenty of tears which is all rather humbling,” Loden said. “I have followed the same line as far as keeping them together, and injecting humour where possible.”

A Company were pulled out of Sangin for the final time on 29 August to be replaced by C Company in a major 36-hour operation that saw both B and C Companies mount an airborne assault into Sangin, while a supply convoy moved in by road. 

There were eight long hours of intensive fighting inside Sangin as B Company provided a defensive shield for the RIP between the other two companies. Air attacks on the main Taliban position were followed by full-scale assaults by the Taliban on two houses in which the British Para's had set up their positions, with one of them completely overrun. Loss of British life was only prevented by an artillery assault that provided the Para's with the cover they needed to get back to their compound. But there were Taliban bodies everywhere. 

C Company remained in place until they were relieved by the Royal Marines five weeks later. By now the Taliban were reluctant to make direct attacks and concentrated on rocket and mortar attacks, one of which killed L/Cpl Luke McCulloch of the Royal Irish Regiment, a week into the deployment. He was the eighth British soldier to die in Sangin. 

Reading these accounts, I feel humbled and stirred by the bravery and sacrifice displayed by these men. But, my most intense sense is one of anger at the criminal incompetence shown by the British government and its cynical betrayal of better men. Why do the British people allow this to happen.

[Mick says: It's a good question and one that I struggle to answer. I think the truth is that most people don't think we should be intervening abroad and so don't think that is where money should be spent. They are as dismayed by the government's willingness to use their troops as you are but if it comes to spending what is after all their money they would prefer it was spent on domestic issues like health, education, countering crime. Fighting in Iraq - definitely not, and because of Iraq they cant see the sense in fighting in Afghanistan either.]

February 12, 2006

Donald Rumsfeld's New Killer Elite
Exclusive extract from Michael Smith's new book Killer Elite: America's Most Secret Special Operations Team, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Donald Rumsfeld was never a man for diplomatic language. On July 1 2002, in the early months of the global war on terror, the American defence secretary sent a two-line memo to Doug Feith, his under-secretary for policy, asking: “How do we organize the department for manhunts? We are obviously not well organized at the present time.” Rumsfeld was sick of being told that US forces could not go after terrorists because of a lack of “actionable intelligence”. His fury was fuelled by a secret inquiry he had commissioned into America’s failure to “take out” Al Qaeda before the attacks of September 11, 2001. It had found that the US joint chiefs of staff were so opposed to special operations missions, such as seizing Osama Bin Laden, that they insisted on failsafe requirements — principally that nobody should be killed. Rumsfeld now gave his special operations teams new orders. They were “to capture terrorists for interrogation or, if necessary, to kill them, not to arrest them in a law enforcement exercise.” He also persuaded President Bush to sign a presidential finding authorising the military “to find, fix and finish” terrorist targets. He had created a Killer Elite.

That special operations force has been compared favourably by one its key architects to America’s highly controversial Phoenix programme, which secretly eradicated about 20,000 people without judicial process during the Vietnam war. This new Phoenix programme is now fully operational and a key element of it is British. Members of the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS) are part of Rumsfeld’s killer elite, working in deadly pursuit of America’s enemies. A UK squadron of SAS and SBS, supported by teams from the new special forces intelligence regiments is currently operating on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border helping the Americans to pursue Bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. A reservist squadron from 23 SAS Regiment is also there. Most members of the public – both here and in the US – are unaware of the extent to which this US-led task force has become Rumsfeld’s Killer Elite. Who controls these British troops? Who sets their goals? Who ensures their activities are legal? And how did this collaboration become so close? To look for the answers one needs to go back more than 40 years.

In the early 1960s an unusual exchange took place across the Atlantic. A Green Beret lieutenant and sergeant, Charlie Beckwith and Dick Meadows, made the journey to Bradbury Lines, the SAS base in Hereford. The visit had lasting effects on them. Meadows even married the daughter of an SAS sergeant major. At the same time, two SAS men were sent to Fort Bragg, the US army special forces headquarters in North Carolina. This also had a lasting effect. A tough young US special forces lieutenant called Jerry King always remembered the SAS sergeant who “taught me to walk”. Both Beckwith and King put the SAS’s lessons to work in the Vietnam war; but it wasn’t until April 1980, when they were colonels — and rivals — that their SAS legacy was fully tested. Each man had a vital role in Eagle Claw, the covert operation to rescue the eight American hostages held by the new Islamic regime in Tehran. King was chief-of-staff to the general in overall charge. Beckwith, who had created Delta, an elite assault force modelled on the SAS, was leading the operation on the ground. He sent Meadows into Tehran on a fake passport to set up safe houses, guides, transport and escape routes. 

When the rescue went spectacularly wrong with the loss of eight men, it was King who was asked to pick up the pieces. His response was to create a unit that like the British special forces, had a much more subtle role than the “direct action” favoured by Delta. The role of King’s new highly secret Intelligence Support Activity —known to insiders simply as the Activity — was not just to attack but to infiltrate, watch and wait, gathering information for future operations. It was completely hidden from view, covering its existence with a series of regularly changing code names like Centra Spike, Royal Cape, and Grey Fox.

For much of the 1980s the American focus of attention was the anti-communist war in Central America, in which Britain took no direct part; but by 1989, the SAS was deeply involved in the undercover American campaign against the cocaine barons in Colombia. The SAS trained the Bloque de Busqueda, a Colombian paramilitary force of brutal killers whose willingness to indulge in torture and deliberate assassinations using intelligence provided by the Activity went far beyond what the US and British soldiers were then allowed to do under laws made in Washington and London. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 that the British special forces found themselves fighting alongside the Americans in war. A daring undercover operation to seize a sample of Iraqi military fibre optic cable from a communications centre near Baghdad — in which 36 SBS men guarded three Activity specialists — temporarily overcame the Pentagon’s suspicion of special operations. Once the war was over, however, those suspicions resurfaced, exacerbated by the death of 18 US forces in Somalia in 1993 in the Black Hawk Down incident, which so traumatized the military chiefs that a virtual block was put on special operations missions for the rest of the century despite the emergence of Bin Laden as an implacable foe. There was a good deal of intelligence on al-Qaeda leader’s whereabouts, largely from signals intelligence provided by the British, who were monitoring his cellphone. But the CIA was no happier than the Pentagon about covert action to capture him.

Even after the attacks of September 11 2001, the American high command tried to use US special operations forces for conventional warfare. Delta was designed to operate in small teams, based on the SAS model: get in quick, do the job, and get out with as little fuss as possible. Delta commanders were furious when, in one of the first ground raids in Afghanistan, they were ordered to attack a Taliban compound as a large scale force, in what they saw as a photo-opportunity for audiences back home. They demanded that the SAS – who had been kept on the sidelines by General Tommy Franks, the allied commander – should be brought in to help. The vain hope was that British special forces commanders might make Franks see sense. Both MI6 and Brigadier Graeme Lamb, then Britain’s Director Special Forces, saw SAS operations in Oman during the 1970s — when they organised local tribesmen to crush an insurgency — as the perfect model for Afghanistan. Eventually, this strategy worked. But throughout the operations inside Afghanistan, both Delta and the SAS repeatedly found themselves used in a role for which they were never intended, carrying out large-scale assaults on enemy positions.

Task Force Sword, comprising more than 2,000 men from Delta, DevGru (the US Navy’s former counter-terror unit SEAL Team Six) and the Activity, augmented by two SAS squadrons, was ordered to pursue high value targets and to cut off al Qaeda troops attempting to flee into Pakistan. 
Bin Laden was located by British signals intelligence experts in a series of caves at Tora Bora in the White Mountains, 25 miles southwest of Jalalabad; but the assault on the caves was badly botched. Allied commanders on the ground wanted a sizeable number of conventional forces deployed to block any attempt by Al Qaeda fighters to flee across the border into Pakistan. But the US generals feared this might produce many more casualties and the risk aversion mentality won the day. Bin Laden himself, who was heard speaking personally to one of his lieutenants in an intercepted message, slipped through the disjointed allied lines into Pakistan in the second week of December. He could have been stopped. A combined force of SAS and SBS commandos tracked him down and was just twenty minutes behind him, but they were pulled off to allow US troops to go in for the kill. It took several hours for the Americans to get there, by which time he had escaped. Out of this mess, however, grew both Rumsfeld’s angry frustration at the lack of “manhunt” capability and the sudden transformation of the frustrated Anglo-American special forces brotherhood into the defence secretary’s killer elite. He put Tom O’Connell, who had been one of Jerry King’s aides at the Activity, in charge as assistant secretary of defence for special operations. Once the shackles were off, there was no holding back. The first sign that Rumsfeld’s team had been ordered to strike in countries with which America had no direct quarrel came on November 2, 2002 in Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral home.

There was little doubt that a Toyota Land Cruiser that could be seen bumping along a rocky desert road on the screens at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, contained Qa’ed Sunyan al-Harethi, Bin Laden’s personal representative in Yemen and one of the top dozen members of Al Qaeda. He was suspected of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in which 18 American sailors had died in October 2000. Harethi’s mobile phone was being tracked by the Activity’s traffic analysts. They had been waiting for the moment when they could remotely programme it to switch itself on, to provide a target for an attack. Bush’s authorisation of assassination meant that the CIA and special operations commanders could kill him the moment they got eyeball on him. Now a pilotless Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles moved into position above him. The Landcruiser and its occupants were reduced to little more than a few pieces of mangled metal and a dark brown scorch mark on the desert road.
British special forces are not thought to have taken part in that operation, but they were well to the fore when it came to cornering the three most wanted men in Iraq: Saddam and his two sons, Uday and Qusay.

From an Iraqi agent inside the Sunni triangle north-west of Baghdad, the Activity received a tip-off that Uday and Qusay were hiding out in the town of Mosul. A 30-man SAS detachment was based in Mosul alongside Delta and Activity operators. British special forces had proven adept at merging into the local population. On the evening of July 21, 2003, a small SAS team was sent in to carry out close target reconnaissance of the three-storey villa. The SAS detachment commander was confident that his team could storm the building and kill the occupants swiftly that night. It was the sort of operation they trained for routinely at their close-quarter battle training facility at Pontrilas, ten miles south of Hereford, and they had a track record of success. But US commanders decided that American soldiers had to be involved if there was a major success against Saddam. Word came up from Baghdad that this operation was to be carried out by Delta. 

The next morning, with the temperature already well above 100 degrees, “shooters” from the Activity and Delta stormed the ground floor, but they were forced back by gunfire. In a spectacularly over-the-top assault on the villa armour-piercing missiles, 18 anti-tank rockets and thousands of bullets were unleashed on those inside. The US troops even fired a surface-to-air missile through a window. Only after four hours of intensive fire did the shooting from inside the house tail off, and the special operations shooters were ordered back in, only to be engaged by automatic rifle fire from an AK47 held by Qusay’s son, who was hiding under a bed at the rear of the house. The 14-year-old was shot dead. Army doctors later found that his father’s and uncle’s internal organs had been battered to the point of disintegration by the shock waves from the barrage of missiles.

Soon afterwards, the SAS and SBS combined with Delta, DevGru, the Activity and the CIA to form Task Force 121, whose sole purpose was to capture or kill America’s main enemies in the region. In Afghanistan, that meant Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. In Iraq, a British special forces officer said, Force 121 had one role alone: “pure and simple to find Number One”. When Saddam was cornered, however, the British found themselves excluded once more. Task Force 121 received so many unsubstantiated sightings of the former dictator that they had taken to referring to him as ‘Elvis’. But by early December 2003, they knew they were right on his tail near Tikrit, his home town. One British member of Force 121 said: “They’ve been so close at times that they have picked up his slippers and they’ve been warm.” 

The British then blotted their copy book with poor security. A Foreign Office official attended a meeting at which it was disclosed on a “Secret Close Hold” basis just how near the task force was to Saddam. That information should not have left the room, but the Foreign Office official telephoned London, setting off a series of phone calls that compromised the operation. A decree came down from on high: the capture of Saddam had to be 100% “made in the US of A”. An SAS team was on standby to provide back-up but they were unable to share the glory when the Americans found “Elvis” down his hole like a rat in a trap. Following this success, the bulk of Task Force 121 moved to Afghanistan to search for Bin Laden. Finding and finishing the al-Qaeda leader remains the most important mission for US special operations forces, who have received a massive 81 per cent boost in funding since 9/11 to do just that.

The extent of the Activity’s success in the war on terror was vividly shown by the decision of the UK’s Directorate of Special Forces to reverse the precedents of a shared history and follow the American lead. In April 2005, it set up its own human intelligence and signals intelligence special forces units, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and 18th (UKSF) Signal Regiment, which now have teams in both Iraq and Afghanistan. When they are engaged in Rumsfeld-generated special ops with Delta and the Activity, British special forces are under American command. They are also in contact with their director at special forces headquarters in Regents Park and the Permanent Joint HQ, which oversees all UK military operations abroad, so they would be stopped from doing anything against UK policy. The CIA runs the Predator and presses the button on the Hellfire missiles — which makes any killing deniable. But if British special forces help to find the terrorists, how culpable are they when those terrorists are “finished” by the CIA, to use Rumsfeld’s chilling term. Both Amnesty International and two successive UN Special Rapporteurs have denounced these attacks as “extra-judicial execution”. It is one thing for the SAS or SBS to shoot a terrorist in a firefight where they themselves are under threat, it is quite another for them to line up targets for the Americans to execute without trial, knowing this is what will happen. Nor are the moral dilemmas going to get easier. In February 2006, the Pentagon announced that US special operations forces were to get their own squadron of killer drones and four submarines, each equipped with 150 Cruise missiles, to help them to “find, fix and finish” the terrorists. Rumsfeld is said to have complained that not enough “finishing” is taking place. 

So where next for the US Defence Secretary’s Killer Elite? Revelations about the countries the Activity has targeted may give a clue. Despite the setback of the 1980 failure to rescue the hostages in Tehran, US special operations forces seem to be forever drawn back to Iran. One of the key languages used by the Activity remains Farsi. The boys from the Activity went back into Iran in 1987, in a clandestine mission to locate possible targets for an attack, and American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed last year that they were back yet again, collecting intelligence on several dozen targets that might need to be attacked, including nuclear facilities— a revelation made all the more pertinent today by the crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme.

The use of special operations forces to prosecute the war on terror is arguably the only way forward, but it will remain controversial, particularly given the willingness of at least one of its key architects to compare it to the Phoenix programme in Vietnam. Lieutenant-General Jerry Boykin, a veteran of the hostage rescue disaster in Iraq who went on to command the Delta team in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down incident, has had a key role in rethinking special operations as Rumsfeld’s deputy under secretary of defence for intelligence. He’s a controversially outspoken figure in America for comments such as “We're a Christian nation and the enemy is a guy named Satan.” Asked in a congressional inquiry about the similarities between Phoenix and special operations in the global war on terror, he said: “I think we’re running that kind of programme. We’re going after these people. Killing or capturing these people is a legitimate mission for the department. I think we’re doing what the Phoenix programme was designed to do, without all of the secrecy.”

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