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'Ask Forgiveness Not Permission', by Howard Leedham - review

27 April 2013

9:00 AM

27 April 2013

9:00 AM

Ask Forgiveness Not Permission: The True Story of an Operation in Pakistan’s Badlands Howard Leedham

Bene Factum, pp.352, £12.99

At the start of 2004 Howard Leedham, a former British special forces officer who had taken up US citizenship, addressed the raw Pashtun recruits he had made into a US-backed militia capable of operating on the Pakistan-Afghan border, surely one of the world’s most hostile environments. He told them about Lawrence of Arabia’s famous cross-desert assault on the port of Aqabar: ‘We are like Lawrence of Arabia,’ he said.‘Now let’s find our Aqabar.’

You might think that the US military high command would have identified a target before deploying a military force to attack it. But in the aftermath of 9/11 the normal rules did not apply. In theory, Leedham’s airborne militia was created to control the cross-border movement of Taleban drug smugglers. In practice, it didn’t work out like that.

As the title of his book suggests, Leedham was distinctly unimpressed by his political masters in the US State Department. When he reached Islamabad, the US diplomats running his programme were at best lukewarm about his plans. Leedham saw the diplomats’ caution as motivated by careerism, lassitude and a ‘dove-inclined’ bureaucratic mindset. No doubt all those factors were at play. But there was another explanation for the diplomats’ unease. As one of them put it, the US helicopters under Leedham’s command had not been put in the country to conduct operations for the Pakistan military.

And yet that is exactly what happened. Whilst Leedham’s military prowess was beyond doubt, his understanding of the political environment he was operating in was far less sure-footed. Convinced that Pakistan was full of people determined to kill him, he never moved without a weapon, even taking a pistol to dinner parties. In fact Islamabad has remained a place where westerners can move around freely and with no difficulties.

Leedham frequently writes about the Taleban and al-Qa’eda as if they are synonymous. In fact, as anyone operating in the tribal areas after 9/11 surely needed to know, they were entirely separate organisations with different structures, funding arrangements, leaders and objectives. The various jihadi militant groups based in Pakistan have political platforms ranging from al-Qa’eda’s global jihad to the removal of US forces from Afghanistan, imposing sharia law in Pakistan, killing Shias, killing deviant Sunnis, liberating Kashmir, mounting attacks in India and so on.

The military actions described in this book combine tactical excellence and strategic incoherence. Granted, Leedham’s militia did seize a poppy field. But he also agreed to Pakistani requests to use his militia for hostage releases and, more striking still, to support the Pakistani military campaign against the Baloch nationalist and tribal leader Akbar Bugti.

Once a guest at a Buckingham Palace tea party, Bugti was as close to an openly declared atheist as you will ever find in Pakistan and held religious militants in contempt. While he would have quite happily joined in the fight against the Taleban (whom he viewed as regressive Pashtun interlopers) his first priority was to attack the Pakistan military, which he considered an occupying force in his land. The US had no argument with Bugti and no reason to fight him. Indeed, across the border in Iran, the US has been arming Baloch nationalist rebels in the hope they will fight the government in Tehran.

Other targets described in the book raise similar questions. With considerable bravery and resourcefulness, Leedham and his men mounted an operation to release hostages being held by a certain Jalil Jaffar. You might assume then that Jaffar was a Taleban drug-smuggler or, as the jargon has it, a narco-terrorist. In fact he was the leader of a gang of cut-throats driven by criminality rather than politics or religion. Leedham may well be right to say that the world became a better place without Jaffar, but was the US really spending millions of dollars to conduct such law and order operations on behalf of the Pakistani state?

The Pakistan military initially blocked the creation of Leedham’s militia, presumably due to nervousness that it would be deployed against the Afghan Taleban leadership sheltering in Pakistan. But then the generals in Rawalpindi dropped their demand for immediate and complete operational control. Why? Because they didn’t want to frustrate Washington but perhaps also because they figured they could manage to steer the unit away from the West’s enemies (the Afghan Taleban) and towards Pakistan’s own (Baloch nationalists, criminal gangs and domestic drug-producers). It’s a great example of how sophisticated Pakistani policymakers can be in managing their relationship with Washington.

For all his disdain for the diplomats who were trying to manage him, Leedham has inadvertently made the case for tighter political control of military forces. Of course, you could argue that his militia was politically controlled — but just not by the country that picked up the bill to pay for it.

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