The SAS are men of action, not diplomacy
William Hague's decision to send such soldiers on a peaceful mission was
at best misguided, writes Con Coughlin.
  By Con Coughlin 7:55PM GMT 07 Mar 2011
 Foreign Secretary William Hague delivers his statement to
the House of Commons Photo: PA

In the proud 60-year history of Britain’s elite Special Air Service, surrender is a term unknown to the regimental lexicon. From its earliest days in 1941, wreaking havoc with Rommel’s supply lines in Libya under David Stirling, its inspiring founder, to its more recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan, where it has successfully eviscerated al Qaeda and Taliban terror cells, the SAS has never flinched from placing its soldiers in harm’s way.

This week, the regiment is in the unfamiliar position of licking its wounds over arguably its most humiliating episode: the Government’s utterly incompetent handling of the botched mission to Libya.
SAS soldiers are trained to kill, not negotiate, which is why they are so effective in tackling those who mean to do us harm, whether dissident IRA gunmen or Islamist suicide bombers. Their ethos is best summed up by George Orwell’s comment: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
So why on earth did William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, think it was a good idea to send six SAS soldiers on what was ostensibly a peaceful, fact-finding mission to meet the Libyan leaders of the anti-Gaddafi protests? It is not as though those responsible for liberating large swaths of the country from its ruthless dictator are hard to find. Nor is there any suggestion that they are in any way hostile to the West.
For example, The Daily Telegraph’s correspondents, who crossed the Egyptian border into Libya last week to report from rebel-held territory, have already conducted several interviews with those heading the anti-Gaddafi revolt, who say they welcome Western backing for their efforts. By the same token, the protesters have also made it abundantly clear that they do not want a US-style military intervention of the type that led to Saddam Hussein’s removal in Iraq in 2003. The message is: we are perfectly capable of putting our own house in order, thank you very much.
In essence, the anti-Gaddafi movement needs to be handled with delicacy and tact, particularly when you consider that many Libyans take a dim view of Britain’s history of meddling in their affairs.
It was partly as a result of those early heroics by the SAS in the desert during the Second World War that Britain was able to establish King Idris as Libya’s first post-war monarch. As leader of the Senussi movement that provided the fiercest resistance to his country’s occupation by Italian Fascists in the 1930s, Idris had the advantage of being both pro-British and capable of reuniting the country post-war. Consequently, when Gaddafi’s military coup in 1969 succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy, the Senussian strongholds of Cyrenaica and Benghazi bore the brunt of his repressive measures.
This history is one of the many reasons why those spearheading the rebel campaign are understandably wary of British involvement, and why the last thing they wanted to see was a British special forces helicopter landing on the outskirts of Benghazi in the middle of the night and disgorging a motley collection of MI6 officers and their SAS minders.
There is nothing wrong, per se, with the Government seeking a better understanding of the turbulent forces driving the effort to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime. But why not get our spooks to hop in a taxi in Cairo and head for the border, as hundreds of journalists have done during the past weeks, rather than drawing attention to themselves with a high-profile, and ultimately doomed, arrival into the war zone? As Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, remarked yesterday, all the Government had to do was ring the front door bell. Instead, they chose to come in by climbing over the garden fence.
But then this sums up the naivety that has characterised the British response to the Libyan crisis since it first started to dominate the headlines last month. On one hand, David Cameron seems keen to seize this opportunity to make his mark on the world stage. On the other, he appears to have neither the means nor the expertise to do so.
Thus, when Mr Cameron last week led an international chorus for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya to protect anti-government rebels from attack by Gaddafi’s war-planes, he appeared to overlook the fact that, as a result of the recent savage cuts to the defence budget, Britain no longer has the war-planes to enforce such a step.
The same sort of confusion has affected Mr Hague’s quest to open a diplomatic dialogue with the Libyan rebels. The Foreign Secretary has made much of the joined-up strategic thinking his National Security Council has brought to Whitehall’s crisis management capabilities. If that is the case, then why didn’t someone point out that the rebels might not take kindly to the arrival of a heavily-armed group of SAS soldiers travelling on false passports? As a result, the SAS men quickly found themselves in the invidious position of having to choose between opening fire on their captors, which is what they are trained to do, or meekly surrendering their weapons.
In the interests of diplomacy, they chose the latter course. It will be a long time before they live down the embarrassment their proud regiment has suffered as a consequence.
Comment: I like the quote from Orwell. And the quote from the Libyan protestors: 'we are perfectly capable of putting our own house in order, thank you very much.'
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