Thursday, April 05, 2007

Free, But Humiliated

That's the title of today's editorial in the U.K. Telegraph, which reminds its readers that Britain suffered a humiliation in the hostage crisis with Iran, despite the safe return of those captured sailors and Royal Marines.

First, there is the apparent incompetence of the Royal Navy in providing insufficient protection to lightly armed inflatables, at a time when relations between Iran and the West were particularly volatile following the imposition of UN sanctions.

Second, the seized personnel lost no time in admitting to having trespassed and in apologising for their mistake. The old military practice of giving name, rank and number, and no more, has obviously been abandoned.

Third, the dénouement of this crisis showed Mr Ahmadinejad in the most favourable of lights, whether in "pardoning" the 15, pleading on their behalf with Mr Blair, admonishing this country for separating a mother, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, from her child, or shaking hands and chatting with the newly besuited Servicemen after his press conference.

The Iranian president has rightly been demonised in the West for his call for Israel's destruction and his pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme in defiance of the UN. Yet yesterday he was able to adopt the moral high ground, admonishing the Government while treating graciously those who had been acting on its behalf at the head of the Gulf.

This bodes badly for the West's relations with Teheran over a number of acutely difficult problems during the coming months: its defiance of UN sanctions imposed because of a refusal to halt uranium enrichment; its heightened meddling in Iraq; and its continued support for terrorist movements - Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and elements of Fatah - vowed to Israel's destruction. During the recent crisis, Iran has yielded not a jot on any of these matters. Rather, the approval it has enjoyed on the Islamic "street" for humiliating an old enemy is likely to make it even more intransigent.

Bravo. I haven't found another editorial--on either side of the Atlantic--that so aptly summarizes the potentially disastrous "downside" of this deal, and hints at the military incompetence that helped encourage the hostage-taking.

We've made similar observations about the circumstances that led to the abduction of those British personnel. As we noted earlier this week, British boarding teams along the Shatt al-Arab operated under more restrictive ROE that their American counterparts, making it more difficult for the sailors and Royal Marines to defend themselves.

Making matters worse, someone in the British chain decided to let boarding ops continue, despite the lack of available aircover. A helicopter that had been supporting the mission returned to the HMS Cornwall shortly before Iranian gun boats arrived on the scene. U.S. commanders in the area were reportedly "stunned" at the lack of air support, and the fact that the U.K. personnel surrendered without firing a shot in self-defense. Saying that the Admiralty has a lot of explaining to do would be an understatement.

Equally puzzling, as the Telegraph observes, is the conduct of British personnel while in captivity. The paper notes that the practice of "providing name, rank and serial number and no more has obviously been abandoned."

Having been through SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) schools and field training, I'll be a bit more charitable. As our experiences in Korea and Vietnam, the name/rank/service number approach may not always work. In a captive setting--where the enemy holds all the high cards--everyone has a breaking point, and skill interrogators spare no effort in pushing detainees past that edge. The surprising thing about the British personnel is how quickly they "apologized" for entering Iranian waters, without obvious signs of physical distress or coercion.

However, it would be highly inappropriate to accuse the sailors and Royal Marines of misconduct during their stay in Iran. At this point, we don't know what happened when the TV cameras were turned off. Did the Iranians point a gun at the captives as they composed their "apology" letters? Was sensory deprivation employed? Were torture techniques that aren't readily visible (say, a cattle prod to the genitals) used to extract confessions? Did the guards threaten to rape the female sailor if the others failed to comply? If such coercive measures were used, it places their behavior in a much different light.

Still, there is a stark contrast between yesterday's photos of the Brits preparing to leave Iran and our own POWs departing Hanoi in 1973. Tehran transformed the release announcement into a photo-op, with President Ahmadinejad smiling and shaking hands with the soon-to-be-released prisoners. By comparison, the departure of our prisoners from North Vietnam was an orderly, professionally-executed military event. The captured Americans lined up in squadron formations before boarding buses that carried them to the evacuation aircraft. After being formally dismissed by senior POWs, the U.S. prisoners (mostly Air Force and Navy pilots) filed onto the buses and departed. It was one last act of defiance against an enemy that tried to break their will for so many years.

Obviously, it's difficult to compare the experiences of American POWs in North Vietnam, and the British personnel who were just released by Iran. The Americans endured a much longer stay in captivity, but they also had a slight advantage on their British counterparts, if that's possible. As aviators, most had been trained in SERE techniques; press reports indicate that none of the sailors or Royal Marines had received that type of training. It's another deficiency that the British MoD must clearly explain. Putting untrained personnel in the hands of experienced interrogators and intelligence operatives is an invitation to disaster. We can only wonder what classified information may have been extracted, along with those "apologies."

In fairness, it is true that the North Vietnamese managed to break some of our POWs (despite their training) but those men also displayed an amazing ability to recover, endure and overcome. The POWs who lined up for that flight home in 1973 were not defeated men, and they weren't propaganda tools for their captors. Regrettably, I didn't see any Robbie Risners, John McCains, Bud Days, or John Flynns among the group who were posing with Ahmadinejad on Wednesday, "goodie" bags in hand.

While the Royal Navy must deal with the operational aspects of the capture--and the conduct of its personnel while in custody--the British government should respond to the "other" humiliations of the prisoner deal, as outlined in the Telegraph editorial. Prime Minister Blair and his diplomatic team deserve credit for negotiating release of the captives, but they must also address the price that was paid, particularly in terms of an emboldened Iran. The west's collective response to the hostage crisis was carefully studied by Tehran, and will influence Iran's handling of more important issues, including the nuclear question. In that regard, we may soon learn if Britian paid too high a price for the safe return of its captured personnel.

No comments: