There is one place in the world where Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is not vilified for his part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a West African country where, less than three years earlier, his government’s intervention helped to end one of the most vicious conflicts in recent history. In Sierra Leone, where he is a hero, the “Blair Doctrine” was a rare case of an overseas military operation not for strategic or commercial interest, but for humanitarian purposes and in the name of an ethical foreign policy. Blair would later write in his autobiography that the episode was one of his proudest moments in office.
A paradox of this claim is that the scope and success of the intervention depended less on deliberate policy and careful planning in Downing Street or Whitehall than on a daring degree of improvisation by the commanding officer on the ground. “Operation Palliser,” which began in May 2000, was led by General Sir David Richards, then a brigadier, later appointed chief of the British general staff and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Without official sanction from London, Richards protected the capital Freetown from rebel attacks and prevented it from falling. In so doing, he made a remarkable unilateral decision to go beyond his mandate in order to save a civilian population from the overwhelming likelihood of an all-out slaughter. The military historian David Ucko, writing in the Journal of Strategic Studies in 2015, calls Richards’s action “A rare success story, but… a poorly understood and little studied case.”
Officially, Palliser started as a reconnaissance mission to evacuate British expatriates. It was signed off by Blair, who had family ties to Sierra Leone—his father, Leo, had taught there at an academy at one point. As a former colonial power, Britain had a vested interest in maintaining political stability in the region. But Richards was also told that, unofficially, he should try to bolster a flagging UN peacekeeping operation (UNAMSIL) against the violent militias that had taken dozens of peacekeepers hostage.
When Richards and his small force of Royal Marines and paratroopers landed on May 6, Freetown was in a state of high alert. The brutal insurgency of the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), the rebel force backed by Liberia, was financed by the diamond fields in Kona and Kenema in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province. The RUF had been fighting a guerrilla war against what remained of the government forces, the Sierra Leone Army (SLA), since 1991; the fighting had killed at least 50,000 people, counting civilians and combatants, and displaced hundreds of thousands.
When local radio reports in early May said RUF soldiers would overrun the government-held capital within a week, panic spread. Thousands of people, carrying children and baskets of clothes, tried to flee by road. At the airport, the last flights were fully booked, with desperate parents begging departing passengers with secured seats to take their children to safety. Brigadier Richards was shocked at the scale of the humanitarian crisis and by the level of suffering.
I reported for The Times of London from several war zones during the 1990s, including the Balkans and Chechnya, but the RUF, led by a former army officer named Foday Sankoh, were among the most cold-blooded killers I had ever encountered. Sankoh, who trained as a soldier in the UK and Nigeria, had launched the attacks on the diamond fields with help from the Liberian leader Charles Taylor in 1991.
The Lomé Peace Accords, signed in July 1999, were meant to end the civil war. But under the peace deal, Sankoh—a man Richards aptly described as “cheerfully evil”—gained control of the diamond mines. This put the ambitious rebel leader in charge of the country’s most important commodity, the very diamonds that paid for the guns and fueled the war.
I arrived in Freetown at the end of April from Conakry, Guinea, just as the RUF were closing in on the capital. The helicopter I flew in on was empty except for a lone humanitarian doctor from MSF, who was shocked that I was going into the country. Anyone who could get away from Freetown at the time was doing so. Once I landed, I learned that the RUF had taken the town of Kambia, about eighty miles away. Walking to my “hotel” in Freetown—the Mamy Yoko, a burnt-out building that had been ravaged in the fighting—that humid rainy afternoon, I was stopped by a local man. He asked if I was a journalist but before I could even answer him, he pushed a VHS tape into my hands and ran away.
When I watched the tape later, in the company of the Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork, we saw a grainy, homemade video of UN soldiers who had been captured by the RUF being tortured in the bush. We had no way of telling whether the video was authentic or not; disturbing as the images were, we were wary of the possibility of being played. The murderous reality of the conflict would soon become all too tragically apparent.
Richards and his men set up camp at Lungi Airport and began doing patrols in the city. It was a dark time: the RUF was abducting children from their villages, getting them high on poyo (homemade palm wine), marijuana and heroin, and training them to kill. I later heard from a Jesuit priest who tried to rehabilitate these child-soldiers that they made excellent killers because, under the age of nine, they had not yet developed a full moral conscience. The warlords exploited their innocence.
The carnage they inflicted was unspeakable. In these raids on villages, according to interviews I did later, pieced together with testimonies from human rights investigators, soldiers forced parents to choose which of their children would be taken as fighters and which would be killed on the spot. Teenagers in gangsta-style baggy pants raped and plundered, taking girls as young as nine as their “bush wives.” Rebel soldiers asked adult villagers whether they wanted “long sleeves” or “short sleeves,” then hacked off their limbs with machetes.
The RUF commanders and other militia warlords, all of them guilty of war crimes, would prepare for battles by cutting the arms of the children and rubbing a powder—a mix sometimes of cocaine and heroin with speed, sometimes of heroin and speed, called “brown brown”—into the wounds to give the child-soldiers a fast high before they went into battle. They gave the same mixes to the amputators and rapists to make them fearless and pitiless. One of the most notorious mutilators was a young woman who’d earned the nom de guerre Queen Cut Hands.
Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch, who lived in the country for years, called it “a campaign of terror” designed to control communities. But the RUF was not alone in perpetrating such atrocities; all sides engaged in war crimes. There were no good guys in Sierra Leone at that time—unless you count the UN peacekeepers, who were too few and demoralized to do anything to prevent the bloodletting.
I wandered through villages that had been burned, trying to get testimonies from traumatized people. I saw so many hacked-off limbs that I began to think I was hallucinating. At an MSF hospital in Freetown, I held a gurgling six-month-old baby who had had one tiny arm chopped off at the elbow. The doctors there worked without electricity and anesthesia and amid puddles of congealing blood.
By mid-May, the British soldiers at Lungi airport came under their first attack by the RUF, though the rebels were soon repulsed. Richards would later explain the dilemma he and his men faced about whether to shoot back when they came under attack from child-soldiers. “You have to choose between indignation and horror,” Richards later told a Yale student.
One drizzly afternoon, on May 8, I followed a group of locals to a demonstration in the center of Freetown near the compound where Sankoh had set up residence. The people were marching for peace but Sankoh’s men began firing into the crowd. People began falling around me, and I took cover in an alleyway with a local teacher named Patrick. Crouched behind a bush, we watched soldiers continue to shoot civilians. Nineteen people died that day.
After the soldiers pulled out, Patrick and I made our way to the house where Sankoh had been staying. Recklessly—not considering whether the building might be booby-trapped—we helped ourselves to documents the RUF leader had left behind. We found small blue notebooks detailing, in a childish scrawl, records of transactions in “blood diamonds.” They documented a trail from Freetown via Antwerp to London’s Hatton Garden and New York’s diamond district. I saw the names of prominent African politicians and UN officials, with whom Sankoh had apparently had dealings.
I brought the documents to Richards, who turned them over to future war crimes prosecutors. He told me I was insane to stay in the country any longer, advice that my editors in London chose to ignore. A few days later, my friend and colleagues Kurt Schork and the photographer Miguel Gil Moreno de Moyo left to try to investigate outside of the city, near Rogbury Junction, to follow up on the videotape I had given them. Miguel and I had breakfast, made a plan to meet later in the day, then parted.
That afternoon, both men were murdered by rebel soldiers. Brigadier Richards helped me and my colleagues evacuate the bodies. I flew first to Paris, and then on to Washington, D.C., to attend Kurt’s funeral. Miguel’s body was shipped back to Spain, to his grieving family.
From their headquarters at Lungi Airport, Richards’s force quickly retook the road that the RUF had earlier cut, and then established a good intelligence network. A few days later, using tips from locals, British soldiers with support from a government commander who went by the name Spider succeeded in capturing Sankoh. It was a significant win—not only boosting the morale of government forces and securing popular support for Richards’s presence, but also opening the way for negotiations to secure the release of the Jordanian UN soldiers being held hostage (all eleven of them were later freed).
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle, though, was Richards’s battlefield diplomacy. On his own cognizance, the brigadier believed he could persuade the rag-tag militias controlled by other warlords to unite to fight against the RUF. Richards knew Sierra Leone well: he’d first been there more than a year earlier at the invitation of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, during the RUF’s “Operation No Living Thing” assault, and had met then with most of the militia leaders. By the time he returned in 2000, the warlords saw Richards not as a foreigner, an imperialist who had come to impose a pax Britannica, but as an equal, a fellow soldier, almost a comrade in arms.
With the airport secure, Richards called for reinforcements: soon, a battalion of British paratroopers arrived from Senegal. But he was acting largely on his own initiative, without permission and instructions from London. He began making forays into the bush to make overtures to the Kamajors, an alliance of tribal groups from the south and east of the country with strong traditions as hunters and warriors; the Kamajors had supported the government of President Kabbah and opposed Sankoh and the RUF.
Richards used his entrée with their leader, Chief Samuel Hinga Norman, a Mende tribesman, to ease his way toward achieving what he later called an “unholy alliance” between the Kamajors, the rump of the Sierra Leonean Army, and another armed group known as the West Side Boys, a splinter faction of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, a group of soldiers that briefly controlled the country in 1998 and were sometimes aligned with the RUF. Many of the West Side Boys, who, influenced by the rapper Tupac Shakur, styled themselves as gang members, were themselves abducted child-soldiers. Meeting them in the bush was extraordinary: they looked like gang members from South Central LA, except that they carried grenade-launchers and Kalashnikovs.
It was, to say the least, an unconventional and risky move for a British army officer to visit “a rather sinister headquarters” and break bread with the West Side Boys’ leader, Johnny Paul Koroma. Richards persuaded Koroma to join his coalition and push the RUF back into the eastern part of the country. At the same time, Richards was negotiating with the captured Sankoh, who was being held in a ship off the coast of Freetown. Leaderless, weakened, and demoralized, the RUF began to retreat.
By September, Operation Palliser was complete. Though he never received official authorization for the project, Richards and his men had—in a matter of weeks—done the crucial groundwork of halting the rebel advances, restoring security to Freetown, and shoring up the Sierra Leone government and its army. A few months later, a major new UN peacekeeping deployment and a ceasefire led to the disarming of rebel groups and a swift end to a war that had lasted nearly eleven years and inflicted enormous human suffering. Eventually, the United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions against Liberia, the RUF’s backers and the real instigators of the war; these were only recently lifted.
As for Richards, he would return to Sierra Leone over the next few years to help train the government army. A small unit of British soldiers was again deployed for a period in 2003, to provide additional security as a special tribunal into the war crimes, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, was set up and arrests were made.
As he walked through Freetown before returning to England, Richards was amused to see posters on the wall that read “Richards for President.” Wherever he went, local women surrounded him, thrusting their babies toward him and weeping in gratitude. The brigadier subsequently received the Distinguished Service Order for his work in Sierra Leone.
What made the operation such a success? Much of the credit can indeed be attributed to the character of the commander.
Richards had been schooled in the most traditional style of British soldiering: a Royal Artillery officer trained on the streets of Belfast during The Troubles. He had been tasked with commanding Tony Blair’s short-notice expeditionary operations, designed to deploy a small force rapidly to analyze and de-escalate a developing conflict. The adaptability of his Sierra Leone command, the nimbleness and readiness of his force, was one key to why the intervention worked.
Richards was also all about field work. I had first met him in the aftermath of violence around a referendum held in East Timor during the territory’s bid to obtain independence from Indonesia in 1999. The Australian-led UN peacekeepers had already landed in the island’s capital, Dili, and were attempting to hold back the pro-Indonesia militias that were intent on a mission to kill, loot, and burn among the villages of civilians who had backed the vote for independence.
The Australians had not fought in a war since Vietnam, and lacked battlefield experience. Some of the soldiers disembarked from their aircraft wearing reflective sunglasses. They appeared clumsy in their dealings with locals. Richards arrived with a small unit of highly disciplined and well-trained Gurkhas, the legendary Nepalese soldiers who serve in the British Army. The Gurkhas took a position on the edge of town in an abandoned building and quietly but effectively worked night patrols to restore order.
Nor would Sierra Leone be the last opportunity for Richards to make use of his talent for field work and battlefield diplomacy. As the NATO commander in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009, he often flew from the capital Kabul to the disputed province of Helmand to sit with Loya jirgas, or councils of elders,initiating community projects and befriending tribal leaders.
Today, Richards is retired and lives in southern England. Peter Penfold, the former British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, later wrote that the successful operation could not have happened without Richards knowledge and commitment: “David Richards knew that with the resources available, he could do much more than just assist an evacuation. He realized he could actively stabilize the situation.”
“Had it gone wrong, I might have been sacked,” Richards told me. “But I had a prime minster and foreign secretary who were committed to doing what they could.” While Richards has always been coy about how, specifically, Blair signaled his authorization to use a free hand in Sierra Leone, it is clear that without the Blair Doctrine, Richards would have been unlikely to achieve peace.
Tony Blair was elected in 1997 on a wave of enthusiasm for his New Labour Party, and his appointment of Robin Cook, a Labour figure who had at one time harbored his own leadership ambitions, as foreign secretary was supposed to mark a distinct shift in Britain’s conduct in international affairs. Cook famously advocated for an “ethical foreign policy,” a phrase that would later be much mocked but at first held some sway. (Though by then no longer foreign secretary, Cook himself resigned from Blair’s cabinet a few days before the Iraq war.)
Having watched the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s—and the failures of intervention—Blair himself became an advocate for humanitarian intervention on principled grounds. In 1999, during the seventy-eight-day NATO-led military operation in Kosovo—a short, sharp war that drove Bosnian Serbs out of Albanian Kosovar territory—he delivered a speech at the Chicago Economic Club. In this “Doctrine of the International Community,” he spoke of the need to balance national interests with “moral purpose” in foreign affairs.
“Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter,” he said. “When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighboring countries, then they can properly be described as ‘threats to international peace and security.’” He went on to identify five principles that mandate legitimate humanitarian intervention. Citing Kosovo as a successful example, Blair examined armed force as “sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.” The second principle was that all diplomatic options must be exhausted. “We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.”
The third principle was to assess the situation, using advance personnel like Richards, to see if there is a military operation that can prudently be undertaken. Fourth, Blair stressed, “Are we prepared for the long term?” His fifth principle involved asking whether there were national interests involved that could taint the legitimacy of an intervention.
According to Blair, troops should remain deployed for as long as was necessary to provide security and resolve the humanitarian crisis. By 2000, the war in Sierra Leone fitted neatly into this pattern. In the Blair Doctrine’s favor, there was also a lingering sense of guilt among the international community for having failed to act to prevent either the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which resulted in the deaths of some 8,000 Bosnian men and boys.
Kofi Annan had led the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations through both catastrophes, and was fatally responsible for pulling the peacekeeping troops out of Rwanda even as Tutsi civilians there begged for their protection. As UN secretary general, Annan later pressed for a “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, endorsed by United Nations member states, but it was always feared that R2P would be used by the West as a fig leaf to bring about regime change. For critics of the initiative, the invocation of R2P to justify Anglo-French-US military action in Libya proved them right—even though a civilian slaughter in Benghazi had almost certainly been imminent.
In the two decades since the bright spot of Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone, the debacles of Western interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan have discredited the idealistic impulse behind the Blair Doctrine. In particular, the failures of the post–September 11, US-led nation-building experiments have discouraged Western politicians and publics alike from backing even more limited humanitarian missions. Does that make the stunning success of Brigadier Richards’s operation simply “the Sierra Leone exception”? Arguably, all those failures broke one or more of the British prime minister’s five principles. The Blair Doctrine is surely worth a second look as a pragmatic and ethical alternative to the disappointments of R2P.