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The British operation in support of the UN in Mali, Op Newcombe, has received relatively limited media attention in the UK. Particularly in contrast to the withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021. However, it generated headlines on 21 October 2021 with the first combat engagement conducted by the British Army since withdrawing from Helmand in 2014.
The incident was narrated in a Twitter thread by the Commanding Officer of the Long Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG), Lieutenant Colonel Will Meddings. A Sun article accompanying the tweet is headlined “British Troops kill “two terrorists” in Mali”. The general narrative is that two terrorists chose to attack our brave soldiers and they were then rightly killed in a gun battle. But if you take a deeper look at the details of the event it doesn’t add up and I argue that the patrol’s actions may have done more harm than good.
The Commanding Officer’s thread’s described the LRRG patrolling in sparsely populated terrain when they spotted two armed men on a motorbike who fled at the sight of the patrol. The men subsequently dismounted and headed into scrubland causing the patrol to dismount to follow. As they were searching, the men opened fire from a very short distance -10m- and the patrol fired back with considerable force killing the two men. The narrative is that the Brits came across two bad guys who attacked them and they got what they deserved.
This was being roundly celebrated on Twitter but I could not join in the congratulations. This article looks at some of the arguments presented in the immediate aftermath of the event. Now you won’t find me disagreeing that if someone shoots at you then you are absolutely in the right to start sending rounds back their way. Louder for those at the back: if someone shoots at you, you are right to shoot back.
How was your weekend?
Yesterday the LRRG arrived into camp after a tough 500km patrol to the far east of #Mali.
During the patrol we came across two armed men who chosen to open fire on us. In the resulting firefight both were killed.
— Will Meddings (@WillJMeddings) October 24, 2021
But events are never just simple inevitabilities occurring independently of decisions made or without their wider context. The narrative here is based on several dangerous assumptions that I wish to examine in more detail.
Assumption one: they must be the enemy
Firstly, the assumption that these men are, if not outright terrorists, “the enemy” who needed to be stopped. From what we know of the account, these two men’s guilt is suspected from the fact that they were armed and riding a motorbike. Their guilt is confirmed when they attempt to run away from the patrol before opening fire. In this particular area of the Sahel, nasty Islamic State terrorists do go about on bikes with guns. But so do all manner of men from the local warlord’s henchmen down to and including those travelling through remote, bandit-ridden country who carry guns for protection. There is currently no other evidence proving these two men were the former as opposed to the latter.
Assumption two: Western perspectives
“But they ran away- clearly a sign of a guilty conscience!”
We need to step away from our Western mindset and we cannot mirror our feelings onto the two dead men. Firstly, you cannot rely on the fact that they knew that this was a UN patrol or are even aware of the UN. Literacy levels are not exactly high in Mali (running at roughly 35%) and plenty of Brits don’t even know what a blue beret means. And even if they did know, UN Peacekeepers are not always the benevolent gentlemen we like to think they are. I can absolutely see why the two men decided that discretion is the better form of valour and elected to drive away and give the patrol a wide berth.
“But the patrol only wanted to talk to them!”
Again, we in the West are used to authorities, who we trust, stopping and asking us questions. If there is a misunderstanding and we are detained we generally trust that the system will treat us well and release us. In places like Mali detention is not so benign. Prison can be arbitrary, in unsanitary conditions, involving neglect if not downright torture sometimes for years. Relatives may be extorted for money before you are released. It is hardly a huge leap of empathy to see that these men may have fled not because they are guilty of belonging to IS but because they simply did not want to end up in some black hole somewhere.
Assumption two: Hostile behaviour
“But they fired on the Brits first!”
Independent of who these men really are, by firing first they became the clear enemy of the patrol. However I would argue they had been needlessly forced into this situation. Clearly these men had not set out to engage the UN patrol that day; they probably had no idea it was coming. They did everything they could to avoid it by trying to hide. It was only when they risked being found, i.e. when the British soldiers were 10m away, that they opened fire. Up until that point, none of the reporting indicates any hostile behaviour towards the patrol.
“But they should have just surrendered!”
Again we assume that these men knew this was an option. They have just been chased by a heavily armed patrol who, for all they know, is only looking for them to kill them. At no point was the patrol able to inform the men that they only wished to talk to them. I have not seen any reports of an interpreter with the patrol asking the men to surrender and, in any case, the initial part of this encounter was clearly conducted at some distance making communicating such a message difficult. As above, assuming that the men knew that surrender was an option they may still have preferred to go down fighting rather than try their chances with detention. Speaking to The Sun the Chief of Staff, Major Hudson, says something interesting:“I am quite surprised that two guys with small arms decided to take on all the British vehicles, but maybe they felt they had no choice”. I suspect that this reading of events may not be far off.
In short, another reading of this story is that two men, who had planned that day to have nothing to do with the LRRG, who were in the process of conducting business in their own country that may possibly have been benign, found themselves chased by a foreign patrol that heavily outnumbered and outgunned them. A patrol which, from their perspective, then proceeded to hunt them down to their hiding place. They fired not because they were necessarily IS members, but because they were in fear of their own lives.
Now you may disagree with this and believe I am being far too soft-hearted (not something I am usually accused of) but the fact is that there is no evidence that refutes this reading of the story, and certainly none available to the patrol at that time, other than the assumption that anyone that runs must be guilty. The assumption should actually be that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise.
What should have happened?
“But what should the LRRG do? Just let the two men go and not chase?!”
Well let us examine what the LRRG is in Mali to do. According to the British Army’s website, they are there to “conduct long-range reconnaissance patrols to gather intelligence to help the UN better understand how to help the people of Mali”. They are to “recce the area of operations, to protect the local population and deter hostile activity”. The LRRG is not there to actively seek out the enemy and engage them. The UN operation, which they support, is primarily there to conduct training and support Malian authorities, as described in its mandate. Offensive activity such as detentions is not referred to, only protection of civilians “under imminent threat of physical violence”.
Now it may be that you disagree with me that these two Malians were innocent until proven guilty, and had a right to go about their business, and were under no obligation to stop and talk to the LRRG. Perhaps you disagree with me that they shouldn’t be treated as IS terrorists without some actual proof, other than their running away and futile last stand. Perhaps you believe that any armed man, even in the badlands of Mali, should be assumed to be IS and be brought in “dead or alive” when encountered by the LRRG.
But I don’t. I believe that even in Mali, even men with guns, should not be presumed to be terrorists and that cornering them engineers a situation where misunderstandings of the other’s intent can only end in an exchange of fire. Tell me, was arresting these men worth the possible loss of a British soldier?
So I put it to you that the LRRG should have let these men go once they had clearly chosen to avoid the patrol. The patrol’s presence was already achieving its mission by recceing and deterring. Proactively chasing these men did not further their defined mission and, as I will discuss next, may well have harmed it.
Longer term consequences
Let us now consider the consequences of this event because if there is one thing we should all agree on is that actions that prejudice the mission should not be undertaken. Military activity is effective when it is bringing pressure to bear on actors that are otherwise unwilling to cooperate peacefully in a political process. However, as we have no clue who these men are, we do not know if their attempted detention and killing has sent a strong signal to IS that their dastardly reign of terror is coming to an end in the area, or if there is now a local warlord whose son has just been killed and who is now devastated and angry about it. Perhaps these men weren’t even important on a local level. Perhaps all that has happened is there is a village mourning the loss of two of their number.
So even if you do not believe that the LRRG did anything wrong, this event still matters. It is possible that the LRRG has now needlessly engineered a situation less conducive to the achievement of their mission. If they had let the men go, the worst case would be that two more petty terrorists would still be on the loose. The best case is they would have avoided the consequences outlined above. Peacekeeping missions only work with the support of the local population and power brokers.
Shades of Helmand?
Exploring the link between early encounters such as these in Helmand, and the subsequent defeat there, would take a whole other article, but you can see why this concern must be at the forefront of our thinking. “Courageous restraint” has been mocked, but what is undeniable is that once the trust of the local people has been lost it is very difficult to get it back.
Lastly, almost as an aside, I am querying something else to do with this episode. The Army has to be careful in its communications not to damage public trust by being economical with the truth. The official Army press release contained a crucially different account of the incident to the Twitter thread. In the official account, there is no mention of the fact the men tried to flee first, and it portrays two men just attacking the patrol whilst it was conducting its normal business. Even my severest critics must surely agree that this is quite an important piece of the story to leave out. In an age where now, more than ever, the Army is under scrutiny for investigations into historical events where initial official reports of a deadly encounter were not shown to be wholly truthful, they might have been better to have been upfront about the circumstances of the engagement from the beginning.
So in short, instead of celebrating we should be troubled by this episode. I am unsure that the LRRG carried out the right actions here, not in that they opened fire which they had every right to do so, but that they chased and cornered these men leading to a possible series of consequences that they do not understand and may well harm their wider mission. I question the assumptions that these men must have without a doubt deserved this fate. I also question that kinetic activity is a sign of mission success, despite the newspaper headlines it generates. And most of all, I cannot shake the feeling that this mission in Mali is inexorably repeating the same mistakes made in Afghanistan nearly two decades ago.