By John Helmer, Moscow
Once in a blue moon it is crystal clear – McChrystal clear, for reason shortly to be explained — why Anglo-American warmaking is bound to fail, and why Russian resistance to it – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Chechnya, Georgia, Libya, Syria – is the model the rest of the world should be following. As if dropped from the sky, spilled from the satchel of the Supreme Allied Commander, or hacked from the computers of the NSA and GCHQ, a book of warmaking advice has appeared, saluted by allied commanders as a work of genius in the Clausewitz mould. (That’s as if Germans, living or dead, have the right to teach the methods of aggressive war without earning another round of defeats on the battlefield and in the war crimes tribunal.)
Emile Simpson was in the British Army’s Royal Gurka Rifles from 2006 to 2012 where he was a platoon commander, spoke Nepalese, and served three combat tours in Afghanistan. Over the past two years he was paid to swap his sword for pen, writing a book called War from the Ground Up; this is sponsored by an outfit at Cambridge University called the Centre for Rising Powers, and published by Hurst & Company, a small London publisher which has turned out four books on Russia over 45 years, none too bad.
The Simpson book is now in its second printing, sales egged on by a promo lunch with the Financial Times , and by un-born heroes of the British Empire like Max Hastings, whose review in the same newspaper appeared five weeks after the lunch was swallowed . Hastings recommends Simpson for having discovered that “there can no longer be an absolute definition of victory. Everything is about perceptions, which vary widely among different audiences. It is possible, as in Afghanistan, for the allies to have won countless battles yet still fail in their ultimate purpose because no remotely satisfactory political outcome is achievable.” That’s more Hastings than Simpson. The latter, now an ex-lieutenant, doesn’t dare come to the last conclusion. Jai Gurkha!
Hastings1, former para, former war correspondent, can’t abide war correspondents who were critics under fire of employment, rather than later on in their pensioned armchairs. “The First Casualty (1975), Phillip Knightley’s scornful history of war correspondence, has achieved a wide readership but the book is fundamentally flawed because it lacks understanding of the real issues. All journalism represents an attempt to assemble a jigsaw with many pieces missing, some wilfully hidden by those in positions of power. In war, such problems become far greater because it is impossible to know what is happening in the enemy’s camp on the other side of the hill.”
If that’s what’s wrong with war reporters – Knightley made precisely the same point — what of Simpson, whose 285 pages mention everyone from Pompey to Petraeus, Augustine to Obama, Marshal von Moltke to Colonel Vann, and yet fails to speak to, or quote from a single prisoner debriefing, communication intercept, or captured document from an Afghan soldier, mujahid, or Taliban?
For a work on fighting in Afghanistan, whose models are US practicioners of so-called counter-insurgency such as Conrad Crane, lead author of the US Army’s current manual on counterinsurgency2, Simpson is unusually mild about the Soviet example in Afghanistan which preceded him, even if it doesn’t dawn on Simpson, his British professors of war, or the American generals to take a page out of that experience, not to mention the repeated advice veterans like Yevgeny Primakov or Vladimir Putin regularly repeat, when asked and for free. Simpson’s book costs £25.
Russia remains a bone stuck in the throats of what Simpson calls the “liberal powers”; not even the murderous, genocidal Germans get stuck there because they are, as Sir Michael Howard3 claims, “better than we were.”4
In this ideology, Russia is the only enemy in the world which can never be anything but hostile to the “liberal powers”; from which nothing strategic can ever be learned; victory over which is the only verity on which the military strategems of the West depend. Not even Afghanistan’s Taliban qualifies as comparably satanic as Russia, to borrow a term from a parallel ideology.
Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, is not the genocidal, colonial stratagem Hitler explicitly intended; instead it was, says Simpson, a case of the operational tactic of blitzkrieg turning into “an end in itself”, leaving “the German army massively over-extended on the Eastern Front”. General Patton’s drive into Czechoslovakia in 1945 was a tactic justified by a strategy of preventing Soviet “occupation”, not an instance of American occupation to threaten the Soviet Union from the same place, as the Germans had just done.
As for the post-Soviet Russians, the new Clausewitz thinks they made a mistake in Chechnya applying “conventional force against insurgents [sic]” because they committed “largescale human rights violations” which the “liberal powers” won’t do because they would “compromise their own values”. Perish that thought.
Then there’s what Simpson calls “the Russian-Georgian War in 2009”. The Kremlin launched this one, he claims, with the “aim of forcing the anti-Russian Georgian President Saakashvili from power”. Simpson’s intelligence is a year off – the military action occurred in August of 2008, and according to US State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks, it started with Saakashvili’s attack on Russian Ossetia. Where is Saakashvili now, winner or loser? – Lieut. Simpson omits to say.
He is also quite sure that denial of service computer attacks which were reported as having taken place in Estonia in April 2007 were a case of “state on state attack…Russia’s three-week cyber attack”. There are 28 pages of footnotes to substantiate Simpson’s claims; he’s not footnoted the evidence for a single one of the Russian claims , unless a Guardian headline counts: “Russia accused of unleashing cyberwar to disable Estonia”. Read  for yourself what evidence, reported from NATO headquarters in Brussels, this adds up to.
Simpson is slightly less myopic in conceding that when the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan, it hadn’t lost its war there. But then he doesn’t concede that as the Anglo-American armies, his old unit included, withdraw from Afghanistan, they haven’t lost their war either.
On October 3 of this year, the Russian Embassy in Tripoli was closed and all its staff evacuated across the Tunisian frontier. This followed an armed attack on the building the day before. The Libyan Foreign Minister claimed two protesters had been killed in front of the embassy and several wounded – how and by whom isn’t known — and that he had advised the Russian Ambassador to leave the embassy and spend a night or two in a Tripoli hotel. He denied he had been requested by the Russian Foreign Minister to guarantee the security of the embassy by deploying police and army units at the scene. He also denied refusing to do that. The Libyan Interior Minister reportedly visited the embassy after the attack had begun and after Libyan security forces had been sent to the scene. In effect and in intention, Russia withdrew not only its diplomats, but also its diplomatic recognition from the erstwhile Libyan government. De-recognition is an unusual step.
On October 20, another attack occurred, this time against the empty embassy building.
The Russian interpretation of what has happened was led by the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Alexander Lukashevich. In an initial statement he reported that the first attack on the embassy had followed the killing of a Libyan military officer by his wife, a Russian national named Yekaterina Ustyuzhaninova, who also injured the officer’s mother . The details are far from certain, but appear to have occurred on October 1. Whether Ustyuzhaninova was arrested and in the custody of the Libyan police at the time of the embassy attack; or whether she had taken refuge in the embassy; or whether the embassy attackers believed either one, isn’t clear.
Ustyuzhaninova has subsequently been identified as a national weight-lifting champion (bench press). She is also reported as having taken part in protests against the Anglo-American campaign to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. What that has to do with the circumstances of her alleged attack this month on her husband and mother-in-law, two years since Qaddafi was assassinated, is unknown.
The Russian interpretation is unanimous. The military campaign by the “liberal powers” to change the regime in Libya has failed, ending in the defeat of every purpose the warmakers started with — except for the liquidation of Qaddafi. Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of National Defense Magazine, says “the situation in Libya is completely out of control, after NATO overthrew Gaddafi. In fact, there is no centralized government. And the country’s territory is divided into enclaves run by illegal armed groups. Therefore, in these circumstances, because of the lack of [government] power, any Islamic group can do anything… there is no centralized government. There’s no police, no capable security forces. There’s chaos. This is the result of US intervention in the region. They gave birth to another terrorist enclave where Al-Qaeda acts freely, along with other radical Islamist groups. In the end, it all hit back at the security of the United States.”
Asked why the Russian embassy was attacked, Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Institute of Middle East Studies, replied: “This question does not make sense. And to answer is impossible. For what reason was the US Consulate in Benghazi destroyed [on September 11, 2012] and the US Ambassador [Christopher Stevens] killed, and who benefits? When you are in a country which more or less serves as a state, it is wise to ask such questions. But if the embassy is located in the former state which is Libya today, where power is exercised by a huge number of terrorists, criminals, Islamist groups, then, simply put, [ask] who has more bullets and bayonets? [Libya] is not a country, it is a territory… The situation in the country is uncontrollable. Therefore, there are no accurate data as to why [the Russian Embasssy attack] happened and how.”
Such an outcome for a war by the “liberal powers” doesn’t appear on Simpson’s rangefinder. In the book’s index, he calls it “Libya: Civil War”. In the text he concedes it was “regime change”. As for outcome, Simpson retreats into incomprehensibility. “The idea that we can associate strategic effect by aligning ourselves with the currents of history is an important consideration. For example, what was effectively regime change in Libya, going with the current of the Arab Spring, generated much less opposition than in Iraq”.
As for General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan for part of Simpson’s time on the ground, he is brown-nosed, er, quoted with approval for such items as: the war is “about having a consistent conversation with the Afghan people”; “if it were Chicago we’d need more troops”; and then this: “[McChrystal] attempted to reduce the use of indirect ordnance and air-delivered bombs in the Afghan war, not because they are not effective in military terms; they are. However, their political effect is often more harmful than their military value”. Watch out for “indirect” ordnance, in case it’s indirected at you and if to be effective in military terms it kills you.
Simpson has apparently more trouble with the English than the Nepalese language, repeating words which have special jargon meaning like “shoehorn”, “narrative”, “polarised”, “kaleidoscopic”, and my favourite – “unstable interpretive environments”. These terms lead to a pattern of tautological analysis which keeps camouflaging the obvious and rehashing it for the lower ranks: “We have to understand the conflict in Afghanistan on its own terms”.
Missing is junior Clausewitz’s analysis of what reason in war or in politics there was for Simpson and his royal Gurkha rifles in Helmand province at all. But then comes the conclusion: “to shift the interpretive environment by emphasizing ultimate intentions plays to the West’s strengths because fundamentalism has nothing to offer in the long term”.
The tautology there is that Anglo-American fundamentalism about what the liberal powers are and stand for, is exactly what got them into Afghanistan, and by exposing how little it has to offer the locals, ensured that strength would turn into its opposite, victory into defeat. Put this in the style of Howard and Hastings – the Anglo-American warmakers have proved, not that the German military were better, but that the two warmakers are no better than one another, and their warmaking just as evil.
- “This is the first book by an immensely intelligent and interesting young man from whom much will be heard. Ministers would do well to read Simpson’s fascinating and provocative study…” – from the dust-jacket blurb.
- “This book [Simpson’s] is the most perceptive account of contemporary conflict I have seen” — blurb.
- “Emile Simpson’s War from the Ground Up is a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military…to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and even more important, the members of the [US] National Security Council who guide him” – blurb.
- First prize of one genuine brick from the Berlin Wall and a business-class return airfare on Lufthansa to claim it will be awarded by The Centre for Rising Powers for the best essay on the topic, Why Russians will be forever more evil than Germans. Applicants should submit by February 6, 2014 – opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympics.