Memories of a British Army Captain

A personal view from Tom Hardie-Forsyth, senior adviser capacity building and a former Nato senior committee Chairman.

“A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.” These words were actually written by the Roman historian Tacitus nearly 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, things don’t seem to have changed very much.

As a British Army Captain, arriving in the spring of 1991 in the mountains of Kurdistan, I was greeted by what I can only describe as unimaginable suffering – the mud, the stink, children dying of dysentery, adults almost beyond despair. We had arrived, the British military and others, to try and put a stop to the inhuman manhunt of innocent civilians that had followed the failed uprising of persecuted peoples against Saddam Hussein’s regime and our disgraceful failure to support it; having called for it. Not only did we not support it but we actually gave Saddam the means to continue it by allowing his helicopter gunships to continue to fly ( ‘for internal security purposes’) and kill civilians en masse.

When I arrived, as a trained soldier I expected the sort of destruction on a scale that a short sharp conflict creates; but that isn’t what I saw. What I saw was much, much more, and what I heard was this word that was repeated everywhere by ordinary people in the mountains, terrified out of their lives to return back – “Anfal, Anfal, Anfal”. As I travelled around, I saw village after village (the final count was more than 4,000 villages and communities) that couldn’t have been destroyed in five minutes or even just a year, and when I say destroyed, I mean done so meticulously and with heartless industrial efficiency.

What really summed up the whole experience for me was, that, despite the suffering that people were going through in the mountains, there was complete reluctance, no matter how we tried to convince them it was safe, to come back down; not just reluctance, terror! They actually preferred, to stay and take the risk, even die in these inhospitable mountains, during a period when snow was melting and changing into a fetid quagmire, rather than go back down and face the possibility of the same thing happening to them again.

Frankly it was because they were used, by now, to casual betrayal by us. Casual betrayal. When we eventually did coax them down; rather than go to prepared UNHCR camps and promises of food and so on, they still preferred, and I witnessed this amazing exodus, to go back to their devastated villages, so that we were obliged to follow them and set up mobile teams to support them as best we could. So, why was this? The simple reason was that these people already had an insight that if they went into organised camps and they were disarmed in the usual way, they would again be sitting ducks for Saddam, no matter what we promised them.

Shockingly, they were right.! Because, just as they were coming down off these mountains at the end of spring, in May, having listened at last to our promises of protection, we were at a staff meeting at the military headquarters just outside Zakho being briefed by our American Commander in Charge of Operation Provide Comfort, where it was announced that all allied military forces who were involved in the operation were leaving by June and were going to be replaced by a United Nations Guards Contingent of Iraq – a unit which frankly was barely able to protect itself and in fact did not have any remit to protect anybody, just observe!

Fortunately, for once, this was too much for some of the officials at that meeting to swallow. I’ll say without any exaggeration, there was almost a punch up at the meeting. It was one silence too many for some officials, including this one! I went back to the UK and resigned my commission publicly in protest on the Newsnight programme on BBC, and the newspapers the next day carried the headline, “John Major’s Haven Plan in Tatters”

Now, I am not taking away from what John Major achieved, but what I am saying, however is, that the only reason that the scale of the problem was known was because the media and the cameras were rolling. As soon as they stopped rolling and went away it was going to be business as usual for Saddam. That, as far as he was concerned, this wasn’t a full stop. It might have been a comma, maybe a semi colon, but once we were gone, it would be business and ANFAL as usual. Fortunately, because of the decision – as a result of this protest and others – to mount operation “Poised Hammer”, he wasn’t allowed to do so.

I want to end by mentioning something which may not make me very popular in some places. As far as I’m concerned, there were two distinct phases in ANFAL. The first phase, as we know, was the very carefully organised destruction of villages, infrastructure, agriculture, the shipping of people to the desert, mass killings and so on. That was one aspect, carried out mainly by ground forces. The second phase, most of the gas bombing, VX, mustard and so on, was carried out by fixed wing aircraft. And it was only by having access to these aircraft and other sophisticated weapons that this part of the ANFAL could ever have been carried out.

Why is this important now? Simply this – We now have a government in Baghdad which has still got a long way to go to, in my view, prove their democratic, constitutional and human rights credentials.. And yet, at this very moment, the American government is going to sell them F-16 fighter bombers! Now, looking at what has been happening in Syria for example; what are these fighter bombers for? Are they to protect Iraq against Iran? I don’t think so. Are they to protect Iraq against Turkey, Syria or Jordan?

No! With these bombers, the only short to medium use for them would be to frighten and kill their own civilians when they protest against the government’s present dictatorial tendencies. I am really afraid that an American government, so strapped for cash because of the ‘fiscal cliff’, is prepared to allow us to sleepwalk into another possible mass tragedy. You see, ANFAL isn’t something in the past. It casts its cloud and its shadow now, and it requires us all to exercise constant, unending vigilance.

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