Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Operation Telic: The British Campaign in Iraq 2003-2009 - Tim Ripley

This review has been submitted to the British Army review.

Title: Operation Telic: The British Campaign in Iraq 2003-2009
Author: Tim Ripley
ISBN: 978-0-9929458-0-0
Publisher: Telic-Herrick Publications
Year: 2016
Pages: 470
Photos/ Maps: 35/6

The War in Iraq was not popular nor was it clean. After Afghanistan, it seemed to many that the challenges of asymmetric warfare would be left behind in Iraq; a second rate conventional army led by an unpopular, sociopath would be a relatively easy adversary after the Taliban. The British led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, joined the United States as its primary ally, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was continued influence in the Middle East as well as a key position at the ‘table’. The war was not popular with the British people and PM Blair expended a significant amount of political capital to win over Parliament. What was to be however, a short, sharp engagement and a victory for democracy turned into a six year war of nerves and attrition between the allies and the factional forces of post Saddam Iraq. Op Telic the book, iterates the challenges, successes, shortfalls and frustrations encountered by the UK forces from a political, doctrinal, inter-ally and CIMIC perspective.

That it is able to cover such ground effectively is testament to its brevity and accuracy. The author was able to draw upon the recollections of the key players down to platoon level as well as the primary documentation of the various units engaged in Iraq over the period of the conflict. The author was also able to display the level of complexity associated with warfare of this nature. What is evident is the degree to which government engagement and planning did not appear to extend beyond the military defeat of the Iraqi’s. The US has been correctly criticized for its failure to plan beyond the fighting, but the British government was not clear of this failure either.

It is clear that the West had very little appreciation of what would result once the strongman and his henchmen had been removed and the traditional animosities and hatreds, suppressed for so long, allowed to burst forth. Ripley does an excellent job of tracing the rapid onslaught of internal dissent focussed on the UK forces as well as factional fighting within the Basra region. Caught in a spiral of unanticipated violence, political turmoil at home and divergent priorities amongst the Allied forces, Ripley describes a UK force struggling to deal with retraining, internal shortfalls, pressure to downsize and engaging in public works that it had never trained for. It became obvious very quickly that the lessons learned against the IRA did not have relevance in the Iraqi theatre many assumed they would.

The UK Forces showed considerable capacity for adaption and improvisation as the later years of the conflict illustrated. Nevertheless, Ripley’s book describes a military left, to a significant degree, at odds with its political masters in the UK and with a marked sense of cynicism and resentment amongst its soldiers and airmen. It also describes a society and force out of step with the realities of combat and the dangers associated with them. That the UK forces were brave and dedicated is beyond question, but the appetite for casualties and risk as well as the domestic and media attention paid to the slightest level of collateral damage has changed the nature of warfare for the West.

Ripley has crafted an excellent, balanced account of the British experiences in Iraq. He draws attention to a significant number of issues and challenges that have still not been resolved involving the soldier and their battlefields. His book is key to understanding the complexities of the modern theatre of operations and the issues that influence them. It is critical that training reflect the lessons learned, not the least of which is that the government that you may be fighting to support may be actively working against you. Based upon the conclusions of Ripley’s book, the term 360 degree battlefield may now be applied to not only to the physical fighting space, but also the domestic and international political realm as well as the media and legal spaces. The soldiers of today do not have a benign operating environment as Op Telic aptly shows. 

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