Monday, 1 June 2009
I make no apologies for recommending a book by my friend and former colleague Stephen Grey. Operation Snakebite: The explosive true story of an Afghan desert siege tells the story of the attempt by British and other forces to liberate the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala in Helmand Province in December 2007. It was to become the biggest operation conducted by the British in Afghanistan for more than a century.
He says the book is “neither an official nor a comprehensive or definitive account of the war in Afghanistan. It is an attempt to look in detail at one small snapshot of a modern counter-insurgency action through the eyes and ears of a few key individuals, both in command and on the front line.”
There is no end to military books on Afghanistan. Journalists, aid workers, former soldiers have all done their best to give a sense of what it is like to be a frontline soldier in this most inhospitable of wars. Most fail miserably, mainly because their writers have very little insight.
Stephen’s book is different. It describes events over just a few days and successfully combines a narrative of what happened and what it was like for the soldiers on the ground with a detailed and fascinating account of the power politics in Kabul and elsewhere that informed these events. He interviewed more than 200 people, from lowly private soldiers up to the chief of the General Staff and including diplomats, spies and everyone in between.
“I soon discovered the real story of the Battle of Musa Qala,” Stephen writes, “and the events leading up to it, had all the dimensions of a thriller – courage, love and betrayal, intrigues at the palace in Kabul, tension between friends, assassination and intelligence blunders and occasionally high farce.”
What also comes across is the picture of a very complex battlefield. In the same terrain, there are NATO soldiers from different countries, including Americans, then American soldiers who are not part of NATO, but are operating independently as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as US Marines, British Royal Marines, special forces units from all of the above, CIA, MI6 and other intelligence operatives, Afghan National Army soldiers and many others.
If you want to know how the war in Afghanistan is being fought today and to understand something of what is meant by asymmetric warfare, I strongly urge you to read this book.