As far as paperback novels and heroic British failures go, few can top events in Libya this week. Eight British men – including six SAS soldiers and a James Bond-style MI6 agent, dropped by helicopter in Benghazi under the cover of night, only to be surrounded and captured by local farmers-*****-rebels, according to major news reports.
The eight-man SAS/MI6 team, comprised of six soldiers, a translator and a ‘Foreign Office’ worker were seized by rebels fighters opposed to Gaddafi who feared the British detachment might actually be foreign mercenaries. The British crew were carrying light weapons and wore civilian work clothes which unsurprisingly raised suspicions. During capture, the SAS men made no attempt to open fire, for fears that it might spark a gunfight on the street.
The Guardian reported a senior member of Benghazi’s Revolutionary Council as saying: “They were carrying espionage equipment, reconnaissance equipment, multiple passports and weapons. This is no way to conduct yourself during an uprising”.
LIBYAN REBELS: They appear to come in all shapes and sizes... Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP
To further embarrassment, Libyan State TV later played a tape where a man alleged to be the UK ambassador was heard begging for clemency to a rebel spokesman, claiming that the team went to liaise with rebels on the National Council and wanted to ” keep an eye on the humanitarian situation in Benghazi “.
The British group were eventually released unharmed early this week, but the affair looks like it will become one of those events that will prove very hard to live down.
Yesterday the UK Mirror newspaper revealed that the MI6 agent was carrying a personal letter signed by the British PM David Cameron. The note came to light on Tuesday evening when the rebels rejected an offer by Colonel Gaddafi of talks leading to a handover of power. It is believed that Mr Cameron had wanted his note to go to rebel leaders in order to win them over and help oust Libya’s embattled leader.
DAVID’S OWN THATCHER MOMENT?
Some believe that the British PM was employing a tactic regularly used by the Iron Lady, legendary Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, who similarly would furnish foreign emmissaries with a personal letter in order to soften them up prior to serious negotiations.
Small, successful military interventions overseas may, from time to time, provide a British PM with a boost in the polls at home- and gain substantial political capital. Certainly this was the case with the British military intervention during the late stages of the Civil War in Sierra Leone in 2000. Pundits referred to the conflict as “Blair’s Successful War”, ticking off a major political box for PM Tony Blair at the time. Here of course, is where young ambitious Tory leaders cannot easily escape the legacy Thatcher’s exploits in the Falkland Islands. They are undoubtedly still a source of national pride in the UK.
The early bird catches the worm so they say, and at a time when public perception of the Cameron-Clegg Coalition government has been cloudy at best, the prospect of a low-risk, big-headline outing on the Mediterranean Coast looked to be too much for the PM to ignore. It was to be his very own “Thatcher Moment”. Instead, the PM’s SAS gaffe has left ministers playing the bitter blame-game, between the PM and Defense Secretary Liam Fox, and Foreign Secretary William Hague- who looks to have now volunteered to fall on his sword for the greater good- by saying he personally sanctioned the failed operation.
SAS HISTORY LESSON
Historic war logs will reveal that the Libyan port of Benghazi has a chequered history when it comes to SAS missions, ever since their first attempt to raid the port 1942- in the end, it was two SAS attempts on Benghazi, two heroic failures.
On March 25 1942, SAS founder David Stirling and six men slipped into Benghazi with a bag full of limpet mines and a folding canoe. The goal was to paddle out to Italian warships at anchor in the harbour and then blow them up. The mission was aborted in mid-stream because the canoe would not float. Next…
Two months later Stirling returned for round two in Benghazi. Hoping for better success the second time around, their plan was the same as it had been two months earlier, but this time the SAS had brought along two rubber dinghies. Sadly, troops couldn’t even inflate the dinghies as both had holes in them due to the bumpy ride across the desert in the back of their truck. Next…
PM CAMERON: The military operation that really went south.
THE SPOILS OF WAR
Despite the massive coverage and revolutionary spectacle we are witnessing in Libya, Western leaders appear to have been caught on their back foot, with little or nothing meaningful to say about the current situation in Libya- a situation teetering towards a full-blown civil war. Talks of a ‘NO FLY ZONE’ are premature according to most experts and rightly so. Instituting such a measure would, first and foremost, require Western military powers to all but destroy the country’s main runways, including major airports in Tripoli, along with a number of other cities, followed by carving a NATO airbase out of the desert somewhere in Western Libya. And that’s only the beginning. Complicated at best. Problematic to say the least.
SMALL VICTORIES: Gaddafi, so far, appears to be up at half-time. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP
Yet, there is little doubt that North African affairs still fall under the European post-colonial umbrella, and not America’s, who has her hands more than full in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and at home. Both Britain and France both have significant investments in Libya, and even Italy still wields some trace influence in its former territory. Whether the British operation was sanctioned by the powers that be is of little doubt. Only its execution- or lack of it, laid bare on the world stage, tells us who will not be in pole position when the dust eventually clears in (a post-Gaddafi?) Libya.
For Prime Minister David Cameron, this week’s Libyan learning curve could not be more sharp. He will no doubt be spending a few more late nights reading up on his military history, and will surely be tapping some top brass for a fresh seat in his inner circle. One thing is now certain though- this particular mission will be preserved in folklore, right alongside episodes of Dad’s Army.
By Patrick Henningsen
21st Century Wire
About the author: Patrick Henningsen is a writer, pr/communications consultant and Managing Editor at 21st Century Wire.