3 Para

November 19, 2007

British Paras are renowned more for prowess on the battlefield than media savvy. However, that reputation may need to be revised with the publication of 3 Para by Patrick Bishop. This book is an account of 3 Para Battle Group’s tour in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, last year.

Throughout their six months on the ground, the paras were locked in almost non-stop combat with the Taliban. The idea came from the MoD and 3 Para’s commanding officer, Stuart Tootal. Harper Collins, due to family connections to the paras, published. It head-hunted Bishop, author of much-praised World War II battle sagas, to write. While it bears the fluid, engaging hallmarks of Bishop’s style, his usual journalistic expertise and analytical ability are not easily discerned this time. He does his best to balance the tale with caveats, but there are too many military hands on the message to make a critical study.

The battle group is deployed in an environment of such abject strategic confusion that it is a wonder they were not immediately routed. Their mission is given as a take-your-pick mix of civil reconstruction and fighting, with a bit of counter-narcotic intervention for good measure. The chain-of-command is a baffling Gordian Knot of Americans, Canadians, NATO types, Afghan officials and Whitehall. The paras lack the right kit, ammunition and enough helicopters. Clausewitz would have written off any chance of their success by chapter two. While the paratroopers get on with it as paras do, their commanders confound their efforts with a contentious series of decisions that British troops in Afghanistan are still paying for now. Rather than preserve the battle group’s cohesion and confine its efforts to their designated triangular area of responsibility, the unit is split into quarters and deployed piecemeal across northern Helmand in isolated defensive positions. In Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Kajaki, the paras find themselves bogged down in furious defensive battles which continue to the end of their tour. Reconstruction of infrastructure was a non-starter. The paras returned home, leaving areas around their bases smoking, depopulated ruins.

According to the book, the blame for these decisions appears to rest solely on the shoulders of Helmand’s provincial governor, Mohammed Daoud. Britain had chosen him for the position, but President Hamid Karzai removed him for being too intelligent and not nasty enough. Nevertheless, it stretches belief that a middle-ranking Afghan civilian held such influence on the deployment of a British battle group. Perish the thought that our own commanders ever bungled. It’s war all right, but in a version diluted by the MoD.

Reviewer: Anthony Loyd is author of Another Bloody Love  Letter.