Labouchere of Arabia


"He's gone totally native," one British officer at Basra Air Station said of the maverick commander of the Queen's Royal Hussars battlegroup. He's the subject of my first feature for Defense Technology International, where I am the new military editor.Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere commands 500 soldiers in three squadrons scattered across the dry expanse of Maysan province on the Iranian border. His mission: to intercept illegal weapons and foreign fighters slipping across the old minefields and hulk-dotted former battlefields left over from the Iran-Iraq war. As many as 3 million people died here from 1980 to 1988 in what was just the bloodiest chapter of a long bloody history. Maysan is entirely Shi'ite, deeply tribal and hostile to all foreigners -- defined as anyone not from Maysan. That means Sunni insurgents and terrorists don't last long here. On the other hand, British forces aren't terribly welcome either. It didn't help that, until August, British forces in the province operated from a former Ba'ath prison called Abu Naji. The base became a magnet for mortar and rocket fire. After one particularly intense barrage in May, Labouchere decided it was time to rethink his tactics. He found his inspiration in history.labouch.jpgNearly a century ago, British Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence -- a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia -- raced across North Africa the Middle East on horseback, uniting warring tribes in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence combined tactical brilliance with a deep respect and sophisticated understanding of Arabs and Islam. Labouchere does the same. Where elsewhere in Iraq, coalition commanders fret over every violent act perpetrated by one Iraqi on another, often intervening in a way that just escalates tensions, Labouchere accepts a certain amount of bloodshed in his province ... as long as it's in line with traditional ways of resolving conflicts. Observing one recent firefight between tribal fighters and Iraqi cops, Labouchere chose not to step in. By Iraqi standards, he says, it was simply a "conversation".Like Lawrence, Labouchere relies on speed and agility. He travels light in just a dozen vehicles per squadron, mostly trucks and speedy Land Rovers but including a handful of Scimitar light tanks armed with 30-millimeter cannons. At night he bivouacs in depressions or nestled between hills to shield him from prying eyes. By day he sorties to patrol the border, show the flag in remote towns and hold court with Iraqi cops, local army troops and the tribal leaders who are his eyes and ears and his allies in the fight against smugglers and foreign fighters. He and his troops shit in ditches, shave with bottled water and eat foil-packed rations. They sleep under the stars on collapsing cots. They live simply and waste little, all in an effort to stay light and to ween themselves from slow, vulnerable ground convoys.Most resupply is by air. Every couple days a Merlin helicopter arrives with water, food and fresh troops and carries away soldiers in need of rest. For bigger spares and lubes, a Hercules will airdrop a dozen pallets ... or the battlegroup will clear a desert airstrip for a quick landing. For diesel fuel -- the heaviest and most vexing of Labouchere's logistical needs -- he tries to buy tanker services from a trusted local contractor.Staying light means doing without many of the high-tech whizbangs other coalition commanders take for granted. Periodically, Labouchere's superiors send him some fancy new gizmo on a Merlin. More often than not, he sends it right back. A couple weeks ago they sent him a Raven drone and its operators. In a rare act of indulgence, Labouchere let them demonstrate the tiny drone. But when it crashed into his Merlin, putting a dent in the prized $30-million chopper, Labouchere sent the operators packing. Who needs a drone when you spend most the day racing across the desert, scanning the horizon with your own two eyes? Labouchere eschews networked comms and navigation in favor of old-fashioned radios and paper maps, prefers alert troops to radio jammers for avoiding roadside bombs and refuses weapons heavier than a 7.62-millimetere machine gun, If he gets in a pickle, his battlegroup is stacked with forward air controllers and the U.S. Air Force is just 15 minutes away. A low-level flyby has always sufficed to defuse a bad situation.Queen's Royal.jpgAccustomed as I am to heavy, bristling, techy American methods in Iraq, I was shocked and little bit unnerved by Labouchere's "keep it simple" philosophy. But when I saw it working ... when I saw the way locals had warmed to his presence ... when I saw how much ground he covered and how quickly ... I declared his methods "revolutionary". "This is actually quite an old way of doing things," Labouchere countered. I saw his point: overlooking for a moment the vital presence of the sophisticated Merlins, there's no new technology in the battlegroup. We're talking diesel engines, machine guns, radios, maps and canvas cots. What's novel, in the context of this war, is Labouchere's confidence in tradition and basic principles. But he's right. Delicate communications networks can't replace a friendly local populace. Billion-dollar support contracts to firms such as Halliburton don't boost Iraqi confidence in their government and armed forces -- and they certainly don't kill foreign fighters sneaking across the border. Heavy tanks and massive fixed bases just draw fire and sprout huge convoys that also draw fire ... and that require escort, which only leads to more forces operating from fixed bases requiring still more convoys, and so on. An American base housing a thousand troops might generate a dozen small patrols per day. Labouchere does twice as much work with half the force -- and he does it more cheaply and with a proportionally smaller footprint that's far less irritating to Iraqis.But could a force like Labouchere's survive in an urban jungle like Baghdad, where coalition forces have turned to heavier and heavier vehicles for protection against rockets and roadside bombs? "Why couldn't it?" Labouchere asks. He points to another historical lesson, this one from Northern Ireland, where British heavy vehicles just pissed off the natives and provoked a proportional response. If we went light in Baghdad, Labouchere's argument goes, it might help defuse some of the tension. And it would certainly be cheaper.It's a bold proposal, but one with firm grounding in history ... and one getting an early test run on Maysan's sandy wastes.Imagine a Stryker brigade adopting Labouchere's model. Imagine what we could accomplish combining American resources with Labouchere's no-nonsense methods. Now imagine that American commanders had half his guts and smarts.--David AxeUPDATE 11:16 EST: David Axe here. Folks have responded pretty violently to this post, especially to that last sentence. Let me clarify. There are plenty of brave and smart U.S. commanders, especially at the battalion level and below. But it's telling that none have adopted Labouchere's model. Here's why I think that is: Labouchere's methods are risky. His constant worry is that he'll get caught in a firefight against a superior force and get massacred. But that's a risk he's willing to accept in order to operate the way he does, in order to win. Most coalition forces in Iraq are, by Labouchere's estimation, hampered by an obsession with static force protection, a fortress mentality. While it's great to take care of your troops, if taking care of your troops means you handicap your own ability to operate -- thus prolonging the war and, as a result, incurring further casualties on your force -- then something's got to give.UPDATE 11:25 EST: David again. Not to get carried away with the updates, but I gotta respond to one criticism. Folks are saying that the recent takeover of a city in Maysan by a Shi'ite militia proves that Labouchere has failed in his mission. I have addressed that very point here at Defense Tech and in a piece over at World Politics Watch. My basic point: several of the militias in southern Iraq represent law and order, and police do not. So a militia takeover is actually a good thing. I believe Labouchere would concur.

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