Exclusive: Corporal John Harrison - R.I.P. for Rescuing New York Times Reporter Stephen Farrell
by TIM WILSON
September 14, 2009
Politics and War
Corporal John Harrison, age 29, died earlier this week from wounds sustained during the successful rescue of New York Times (NYT) reporter Stephen Farrell. Cpl. Harrison was a member of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment and was serving with the Special Forces Support Group in Afghanistan. He was part of a team which mounted an operation on Wednesday, September 9th which successfully rescued Mr. Farrell, age 46, who had been captured by Taliban forces four days earlier along with his fellow journalist and local interpreter, Sultan Munadi. Regrettably Mr. Munadi, age 34, also lost his life during the rescue.
I have had the privilege of serving with men such as Cpl. Harrison and can state with absolute certainty that he knew the challenges and risks involved in his service and that he faced them with cheerful determination and complete professionalism. He was a volunteer and patriot who took great pride in his service to Queen and Country, training long and hard to achieve success in the most demanding of roles as a member of Britain’s elite Special Forces. The loss of this dedicated and proud warrior is a blow to us all, especially his family, friends and comrades. His death raises a number of important issues and questions.
While Cpl. Harrison undoubtedly knew of the risks involved in his chosen profession, we should ask if his sacrifice was necessary on this specific occasion. There is something disturbing about the reports that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was personally involved, along with Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, in the decision to send in the rescue mission. What made this mission important enough to require the involvement of senior politicians?
In strategic terms, the recovery of reporters who are paid to take risks should be weighed against the potential costs. The death of Mr. Munadi, compounded by the reported deaths of two locals who are being reported as civilians (despite their proximity to the numerous Taliban known to have been in the area according to Mr. Farrell himself), has resulted in adverse press in Afghanistan. This local anger is being used by those inimical to the NATO presence to undermine the entire security operation, and as such can only be regarded as detrimental to the long- and short-term aims of the US and our allies in the region. This calls into doubt the wisdom of Messrs. Brown and Ainsworth in ordering this specific mission.
At this point one can only speculate on some of the factors in play which would require the involvement of two of Britain’s most senior politicians. Did the NYT exert pressure on Downing Street for extraordinary effort to gain Mr. Farrell’s release? The Prime Ministers of Great Britain have long been welcome in the offices of the NYT whenever they visit the United States. This was true during Tony Blair’s tenure, and has continued with the premiership of the even more socialist Gordon Brown. It is extremely helpful to British politicians to have favorable press coverage during their visits here, and they all go out of their way to court the major US papers, of which the NYT is the most notably friendly to the socialist agendas of the British Labour Party. One consequence of a possible phone call by a senior executive or staff member of the NYT to 10, Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence and office) might have been to put additional pressure on military commanders in Afghanistan to mount a rescue operation. Perhaps Mr. Brown ordered the mission in the hope of gaining some reflected glory from a successful Special Forces operation while also helping American friends.
Was political interference a factor in the loss of life? Did the need for political clearance to act delay or rush the operation? Could similar political micro-management have been involved in the Iranian capture of UK Navy and Marine personnel in 2007 in the Shatt-al-Arab where the local commander failed to use his ship’s armaments to protect his boarding party from small Iranian boats? It seems to have become a trait of modern military operations that satellite communications allow politicians to interfere more than ever before in military matters. Despite the wonders of “instant” communications, delays are inherent in getting political clearances, especially from political leaders who have other priorities. It is entirely possible that the involvement of the British Prime Minister may have imposed delays in tactical decisions in this and other cases with fatal results.
Should there be clearer guidelines in place over what forms acceptable risks to rescue citizens who get themselves into trouble? Should governments even be involved in rescuing those who choose to risk their own lives for reward, or even for fun? Protection of citizens is the primary duty of any government, but when the citizens take unacceptable risks and ignore the advice of such as the UK’s Foreign Office or our State Department not to go, should citizens then forfeit their rights of state protection? Should reporters have special privileges, or accept they are taking risks (for reward) which forfeit their entitlement of state resources to obtain their release? It certainly seems as if some citizens are placing themselves at unacceptable risks against the advice of their government. In which case it seems sensible that they should be given a clear warning that they then proceed at their own risk, forfeiting any right to expect or demand any national effort to rescue them.
Loss of life is an inherent risk in military life, and in our modern volunteer forces, is one which is accepted as part of the job. But any requirement for political clearance for individual tactical decisions, such as a go/no go on a rescue operation, imposes additional risks which most military personnel find unacceptable. They also undermine and reduce the effectiveness of military leaders who become risk averse when they are put under additional and unnecessary extraneous pressure. The political process should end at the decision to commit troops to risk their lives. Having amateurs tell the professionals how, when and where to conduct operations is a mistake learnt long ago, and repeated often throughout history. Apparently it needs to be re-learnt in the UK, once again at the cost of valuable lives.
This is a more complex story than it might appear. Mr. Farrell holds dual citizenship – Irish and British. He works for a US newspaper, the New York Times. And he was working in Afghanistan, where a 42-nation NATO coalition is “assisting” in security operations. The area in which Mr. Farrell was captured was a German Area of Responsibility (AOR).
Afghanistan is a dangerous country, and has been so throughout its history. It is wild, hard terrain of rugged, high mountains with few natural resources. The population of 33 million is spread over a country slightly smaller than Texas, of which only around 12% is useable for agriculture. With an average life expectancy of only 44 years, this brutal land raises hardy people with little regard for human life, especially “foreigners”. It is therefore unsurprising that there has never been a successfully sustained military conquest of this region. However the unprecedented removal of the Taliban regime in 2002 led to the possibility of bringing rule of law to a people the majority of whom do appreciate the efforts made on their behalf to give them the freedom to live their own lives in their own ways, without oppression.
There are numerous lessons to be learned from this sad affair. Mr. Farrell’s account of his capture and release shows a weakness of NATO. He describes in his blog entry how the Taliban appeared to have free rein of the area in which he was held captive. This all took place in the German AOR – the German military are very well trained and capable, but severely limited by national politics. Their lack of scope for conducting aggressive operations is possibly what has allowed the Taliban free rein over the countryside near the capital of their province. Similar restrictions are placed on other national contingents in varying degrees, rendering them less capable than many senior commanders would wish.
My own experience with the German military fits with their doctrinal method of using a fortress mentality of building large, well-defended bases. This in turn makes for sitting targets and does little against terrorists, who face few restrictions in movement outside the immediate vicinity of those bases. Boots on the ground, on patrol and in numerous small camps, such as police stations, were the big lesson of Iraq and a key element of General Petraeus’ successful innovations there. It was also one of the key elements of British success in Northern Ireland during the 1990’s
If NATO allies are not willing to do more than the minimum, should they be there at all? Many of the 42 national contingents are operating under restrictions which severely hamper their effectiveness. Britain, Germany and France are planning a meeting later this year which appears to be looking for excuses to withdraw. What then? Is the US to take over the whole of Afghanistan? What end state are we trying to achieve? How many lives are we willing to lose? Let’s be honest about the likely costs, and the need for more forces, not by creeping increments, but using the full might of the US military to achieve a real, lasting solution. The necessary additional resources (an increase in Army and Marine Corps size to perhaps double or more if necessary) will mean spending more US treasure. But this seems a more important security issue than health care, at least to me. It is also a security measure which President Obama has promised.
Considering Mr. Farrell had previous kidnap experience, having survived a 24 hour capture in Iraq in 2004, he might well be deemed to have stepped over the bounds in this latest escapade. The difference is that this time, when by his own admission he spent too long at the site of the NATO bombing he had come to investigate (and presumably condemn – he implies the likelihood of friendly fire from Cpl. Harrison or his comrades being responsible for Mr. Munadi’s death in his blog article), his folly cost the lives of his knowledgeable, intelligent and enlightened Afghancompanion, possibly two civilians and of a dedicated, skilled and valuable young British military volunteer.
Will Mr. Farrell now spend the rest of his life trying to make up to the families of those who died for their loss on his behalf? He admits staying too long “by the river” – in other words he was captured due to his own stupidity. As a result, people died – not a minor error of judgment, and one for which he has to decide how to atone. It would be fitting if he dedicated the remainder of his days to cherishing and promoting the memory of their lives and the values which they held dear. A monetary payment is inadequate, no matter how generous the NYT may be, and they also bear responsibility for these deaths. One suspects that a man of Mr. Farrell’s mentality will instead resume his passion for finding fault, especially with those who fight selflessly for the freedom of such people as Mr. Farrell.