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I don’t criticise Cameron for his handling of failed hostage rescue mission

Posted on 9 March 2012 | 5:03pm

I just did a short interview on Five Live on the fall-out (literally in the case of relations between Britain and Italy) from the failed attempt to rescue two hostages in Nigeria. I was preceded by an Italian politician who was venting her spleen at David Cameron’s failure to consult his Italian opposite number until the operation was already under way, and I found myself in the unusual position of defending the Prime Minister.

As the UK PM, his prime concern would have been the safety of Chris McManus and the safety of the UK troops involved in the rescue operation. That is not to say he will not have cared about Nigerian troops, or Italian hostage Franco Lamolinara, simply that the Brits involved would have been front of mind, he would have seen the hostages as a pair, and in applying careful judgement in relation to Mr McManus, he will thus have discharged his duty in relation toMr Lamolinara too. That may sound harsh, but it’s not.

Had he had time to cover off all the diplomatic bases, including the Italian Prime Minister, I suspect he would have done so. But I would not be surprised if the military were urging the circle of knowledge about this to be kept as tight as possible. My fellow Five Live interviewee, Senator Emma Bonino, said it does not take long to make a phone call. Well, for most phone calls that is true. But it is not always possible immediately to connect with other leaders, and what’s more you can never be sure just how many people are listening in, and what they do – including innocently – with the information they hear.

Had the mission been successful, I doubt there would be the fuss there is, with the Italian president also complaining about what happened or rather, what didn’t happen. But in defence of Mr Cameron, he was probably put in a position where he had to make a difficult decision quickly. He would have been aware of the chances of failure, and of death resulting. That is why no matter what anyone may think of him – and I am not incapable of thinking bad things of him myself – I do not believe for one second he would have acted in anything other than a genuine belief that it was possible to rescue the two men, that there were considerable risks, but they were worth taking.

I remember once leaving Tony Blair in his sitting room, shortly after he had authorised a special forces operation, as I prepared to head home. As I reached the door, I looked back and Tony was sitting there, clearly thinking he was alone now, and he was a picture of loneliness and worry. Ultimately there are some decisions only the PM can take. Yesterday David Cameron had to take one. Things did not turn out as planned. Two hostages are dead. Some Italian politicians are upset.

But I don’t think any the worse of Cameron either for the decision he took, or the failure to tell Mario Monti.

  • Gilliebc

    Good blog post AC.

    I wouldn’t blame Cameron either for this spectaculor failure.  I would blame him for many other things that are within his control.  But not this.  He just gave others the go-ahead.  It’s tough at the top.  No doubt about that.

  • Anonymous

    Alastair, this may be topical and the outcome is certainly tragic, but frankly you should be putting the boot into the government on the NHS.  Maybe tomorrow you will…

  • Anonymous

    Spot on. I remember watching a youtube video of a great interview Alastair did on RTE in Ireland where he mentioned this or a very similar situation with Tony Blair, when he felt for him knowing he was totally alone with a life and death decision.

    I can’t find it on youtube anymore just a couple of (good) short clips though the same channel has the full interview with Tony Blair which is also excellent. Up there with his Andrew Marr interview in my view.

  • Anonymous


    Any decision worth taking is difficult and it cannot always be immediately clear if you are right..

  • Ray Merrall

    To the “If you were held hostage,would you want to be rescued by American Special Forces?” must now be added “Would you want David Cameron in charge?”
    If everything had come off successfully then Cameron would have gathered many laurel wreaths to wear round his polished brow – but it didn’t. And from the information that is slowly starting to drip out, the operation was a total botch up from the start. A waste of SBS skills and training.
    Cameron may have read all Blair’s books, but it is all beginning to look like book learning ain’t the real thing, and Cameron ain’t even a third rate Blair or second rate Brown.

  • Michele

    You are quite properly very generous.

    I hope Cameron will live up to that.

  • Dave Simons

    I think we’re being too quick to defend. I wonder what we’d be saying if Mario Monti had authorised the failed operation without consulting David Cameron? I’m pretty sure I know what the Daily Mail and the Sun would be saying! At this stage the fog of battle might be covering up a major cock-up, so why not wait till a few facts leak out? With the military that usually takes a long while. We don’t even know who killed the hostages, but there’s been enough ‘friendly fire’ in recent years to caution us to suspend judgement. The justification for the operation was the receipt of intelligence that the hostages were in mortal danger. Well they’re out of that danger now and a lot of questions are awaiting answers. Talking about lonely prime ministers agonising about what to do is not going to clarify anything. I’m sure Anthony Eden agonised a bit about Suez in 1956, but that doesn’t absolve him from authorising a major cock-up. Nobody has to be prime minister.

  • Olli Issakainen

    On Nov 4 1979 Iranian militants stormed to the US Embassy in Teheran. They took about 70 Americans as hostages.
    Operation Eagle Claw on April 24 1980 failed to rescue the hostages.
    Eight US servicemen died.
    This contributed to Jimmy Carter to lose re-election in 1980. Ronald Reagan won.
    The hostages were released in 1981 under Reagan.

  • Landsmand

    It’s always interesting to see how folk fail to appreciate that Special Forces aren’t a silver bullet and that their operations, by their very nature, are risky as hell. We’re well served in the UK, our SF are competent and effective and they train incredibly hard to keep their edge. Often their operations go well – and we generally don’t hear about them – occasionally they don’t. This was one of the latter cases. I have no doubt the PM made the decision to go based on the advice he was given and I have equally no doubt he’d make the same decision again. Quite rightly too. Good commentary from AC, balanced and perceptive.

  • Ehtch

    Armed forces have the seven P’s hammered into them – piss poor planning and preparation results in piss poor performance.

    This, extremly heartbreakingly sadly, has it written all over it. Hope we read actual details of the debrief, to judge what went completely wrong.

  • Dave Simons

    ‘It’s always interesting to see how folk fail to appreciate that Special
    Forces aren’t a silver bullet and that their operations, by their very
    nature, are risky as hell.’

    So let’s just sit back and passively accept what we’re told, giving our complete and uncritical support for anything the Special Forces do. Is that what you’re saying? And do you seriously think we wouldn’t have heard of this operation if it had been successful? Or other similar operations? Cameron would have been absolutely wallowing in it and the media would have had a beanfeast! Don’t you remember the storming of the Iranian Embassy in 1981? If the reverse scenario had happened last week – Italians not telling Brits – you would not have been defending Italian forces in the same grovelling, forelock-tugging language, would you?
    I think over the last thirty years – especially since the Belgrano sank – we’ve just about had our bellyful of what a wonderful job our armed forces do. Conscription ended in 1963, but a lot of young people get driven to join the armed forces by the dole queue and media glorification, and it’s tragic when they lose their lives, as those half dozen young men did last week in Afghanistan – fighting for what? Making the UK a target for terrorists, as in 2005? But let’s be honest – others have always joined the armed forces because they like pushing people around, and some of them have probably never entertained a patriotic sentiment in their lives.
    Sorry Landsmand but the UK is still a partial democracy, not yet a military regime, and the armed forces are not above criticism. And, dare I remind you, we pay for them whether we like what they’re doing or not. And it was a big ‘not’ forty years ago on Bloody Sunday, one of the most block-headed, utterly stupid and totally counter-productive deeds which the British Army has performed since World War Two.

  • Landsmand

    I rather think you’re missing my point, which is that Special Forces are just one of the tools the government has at its disposal to deal with this sort of thing, that SF were the right tool for the particular job at hand – and without knowing the details, one can only speculate what the circumstances were – and that using SF is very much a last resort for any government, given the unpredictable and risky nature of the operations these folks perform.

    I’ll leave the rest of your rhetoric alone, if I may. Heard it before, best we agree to differ – although you seem to be arguing with yourself, certainly you seem to be addressing arguments I haven’t made. Incidentally, the Iranian Embassy siege was 1980, not 1981.

  • Landsmand

    At a guess, having to mount an improvised operation at hair-raisingly short notice. Always risky, but let’s bear in mind that it wasn’t actually the SBS who shot the hostages.

  • Ehtch

    Whatever you say, the seven P’s still apply. Unless you get a man inside, or think of doing something when they are transported, raids like this will end in the hostages being assasinated, as night follows day.

    Basic lesson, friend.

  • Ehtch

    also, Landsmand, would be nice to hear if there was any casualties with the assault squad, or maybe it is Heretford/FFL blocked?

    Watch above vid Landsmand, it is an education – that part of it that is.

  • Dave Simons

     Thanks for the correction at the end. I’m interested in your subsequent post where you say, ‘let’s bear in mind that it wasn’t actually the SBS who shot the hostages.’ Now where do you get your information from? How do you know at this early stage that the SBS did not shoot the hostages? Do you want to believe everything Cameron tells you or have you got insider information which has escaped the attention of eye witnesses who talked of a long gun battle with a lot of crossfire? As I said in an earlier post, the truth has yet to leak, so we should suspend judgement.

  • Gilliebc

    I doubt we will ever get the truth Dave. 

  • Ehtch

    Know quite a few welsh rugby players that joined the FFL and disappeared off the face of the Earth, one that was even capped for Wales. Couple of them did resurface, and took back their old identities. But I am not saying who they are. One died, in West Africa, in the late 1990’s. Need to know facts, and all that.

    Great setup is the FFL, would recommend it to all that think it is for them – don’t think twice, just do it.

  • Landsmand

    Frankly, it seems to me that this kind of thing tends to end in tears the moment the order is given to go in on piss-poor int and without a proper close target reconnaissance, never mind a decent plan. I don’t *know* that’s what happened, but it certainly looks that way. As to what the trigger was which led to the decision to go in, who can say. Generally, one would expect it to be a near certainty that the hostages were about to be murdered.

  • Landsmand

    Not clear how the FFL come into the conversation – could you explain?

  • Ehtch

    Best assault force in the World. Well, the less political affected one, you could say. Does that explain it? I might be talking between the lines, but hope you get what I say, especially with our French friends coming to see us this weekend in Cardiff. Sorry if I talk in riddles, I have a habit of doing that.

  • Ehtch

    Yep, agreed. The risk factor has to be calculated, which is the difficult bit. Damned you do something but damned you don’t type of thing.