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Afghanistan: military might cannot win alone

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 21 June 2010

As the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan rises to 300, author and former soldier Patrick Hennessey writes for Channel 4 News that the war strategy faces a significant turning point.

British soldiers in Afghanistan (Reuters)

In 2007 I spent seven hot months in Helmand as a platoon commander in 12 Mechanized Brigade at what was, in retrospect, a small turning point in the current conflict.

12 Brigade had more man and firepower than the brigades that had come before us and found themselves effectively under siege, but we were insufficiently manned and resourced to do the intensive and productive counter-insurgency work on which subsequent brigades have been engaged.

The enemy had yet to resort to IEDs as his primary means of inflicting casualties, and our movement was relatively free, if invariably accompanied by an open fight. To use the unfortunately accurate phrase of one officer, we were mostly "mowing the grass".

We handed over to 52 Brigade, who were commanded by then Brigadier Andrew Mackay who, with Stephen Grey last week, outlined for Channel 4 News a 10 Point Plan for the prime minister's agenda on what was to be one of his new government's top priorities: Afghanistan.

It was clear even back in 2007 that Brigadier Mackay's troops had the right focus, and notable that 52 Brigade's great triumph - the recapture of Musa Qala - was achieved with a minimum of violence. The handover between the two brigades was perhaps the moment the British Army in Helmand stopped fighting a scrappy small war and started a complex counter-insurgency campaign.

Slow and painful progress
There is a growing sense, however, that that current campaign is at another turning point.

On the ground, even in those places like Nad-e Ali and Sangin, familiar for all the wrong reasons to a sceptical and wearying home front, real progress is being made - but painfully slowly and at a significant cost.

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As in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, violence seems to be peaking even as the Americans pour tens of thousands of troops into the south for what many think will be a decisive summer.

In the parts of Helmand I revisited at the start of the year, the improvement in security conditions was impressive where troop numbers had increased dramatically. But saturating Afghanistan with troops is neither sustainable nor desirable, and the public is impatient for the time when the Afghan national security forces can stand on their own feet.

There are not yet widespread cries of "Troops out now!", but there is certainly a growing murmur of "Troops out, soon!"

The very first of the "principles of war", learnt by all young officers at Sandhurst and throughout their training, is "selection and maintenance of the aim". The question for many is whether or not in Afghanistan this is increasingly in conflict with another well known military maxim: never reinforce defeat.

The army cannot alone win
British troops and their allies fight stoically to extend the governance of a Karzai regime with virtually no credibility, and despite making rapid progress in the understanding and practice of an increasingly sophisticated form of counter-insurgency, soldiers alone cannot solve problems which are as social and political as they are military.

At a recent "round table discussion" with the head of the army for the magazine Prospect, Rory Stewart (see his Who Knows Who map) – newly elected to the House of Commons, where his valuable expertise will enrich the debate on the matter immeasurably – put exactly that point to General Richards: the army alone can't win both the military and the political fights.

It's not just about what's happening in Helmand, it's about what's happening in Kabul.

I would go further and suggest it's also about what's happening in Whitehall. While engaged in this most difficult of missions, a fresh and no less serious challenge has presented itself at home in the form of the impending Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) - which must be no less than a complete reappraisal of what our armed forces are and what they are for as we contemplate years of financial constraints, compounding an already significantly overdrawn military budget.

Previous similar defence reviews have failed to grasp the opportunity presented and have tended to shy away from big decisions, leading to small cuts across the board which weaken all departments and strengthen none.

The decision to reduce the number of infantry battalions a few years ago put an incredible strain on those soldiers doing the brunt of the work while the army was running medium scale operations simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2006 and 2009, and highlighted how counter-productive so called "salami slicing" cuts can be in the long term.

The Chancellor has encouraged everyone to "think the unthinkable" in confronting Britain's looming deficit, and the military should not be exempt.

General's 10 point plan for Cameron
A number of Mackay and Grey's points in the 10-point plan are all the more "thinkable" in the context of the SDSR and have ramifications beyond current operations.

They argue for a "sustainable strategy" which is, fundamentally, one which we can afford. As General Richards himself has stressed before, a prosperous Britain is a secure Britain. Only the wildest conspiracy theorists would imagine that those within the armed forces would want a gleaming and expensive military at the cost of a bankrupt nation to defend.

Further points suggested for David Cameron to consider apply as much to the SDSR as to the conflict in Afghanistan itself: reform of the British Army and a hastening of its updating away from the "ethos and procedures of the Cold War", and purging a chain of command bloated by "jointery" (the questionable idea that soldiers know how to command ships, airmen tanks and sailors planes) and less effective for it.

We should not fall into the trap of allowing the conflict in Afghanistan to exert too much influence when making the big decisions the SDSR requires. The veterans of the 1982 Falklands conflict know too well the cost of thinking that we won't be fighting certain types of wars in the future.

But neither should we fail to learn valuable lessons from Afghanistan about the shape of organisation proving most effective for the hugely complex challenge that is contemporary expeditionary warfare.

Embracing the junior ranks
As someone who recently left the army as a gobby young captain and whose friends remain gobby and ambitious young subalterns and non-commissioned officers, most encouraging and most interesting was Mackay's call to listen to those at the bottom.

The young companies in isolated patrol bases up the Helmand river are increasingly the experts on counter-insurgency, and to be successful in Afghanistan the lessons they are learning need to be taken on board up the chain of command.

Similarly the lieutenants – second, sub-, or flight - of today will be the generals, admirals and air marshals of whatever armed forces the current SDSR leaves us with. Unburdened by years of particular service loyalty and the politics of climbing the career ladder, they are perhaps better equipped to "think the unthinkable" than the chiefs in Whitehall.

There is a realism and willingness to embrace the unconventional among the junior ranks - no sentimental attachment to particular armoured formations, for example, or pet procurement projects. A far greater proportion of young soldiers have worked alongside the US marine corps than previously, and the recognition of the attractions of that model for a future British armed forces is noticeable lower down the ranks, as is a more persistent questioning of the value of three separate services.

A British soldier in southern Afghanistan

Marines and soldiers fight and die side by side in Helmand, supported by the Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps as much as by the RAF. Heroic medics from all three services save their lives in the back of the emergency responder Chinooks. It is clear to those on the ground that there is crossover and areas in which effectiveness is being hampered by those protecting "their patch".

Learning lessons
In response to Rory Stewart's brilliant but pessimistic The Irresistible Illusion in last year's London Review of Books, the American journalist Robert D Kaplan recently published an equally impressive article in The Atlantic Monthly outlining how a small and determined band of highly professional special forces soldiers, led encouragingly by General Stanley McChrystal (who is currently in charge in Afghanistan), turned the situation round in Iraq in 2007 against all expectations.

Among the lessons they learned was to flatten hierarchies, to decentralise and to push responsibility down until, in McChrystal's own words "you're uncomfortable".

Military organisations are perhaps more resistant to change than most, and such progressive dynamism does not come easily. But it was a crucial factor in moving the conflict in Iraq forward and, as Mackay and Grey proposed, is likely to be similarly crucial to success in Afghanistan.

I'd go one step further and suggest it should be considered crucial to an effective and comprehensive SDSR to ensure that in 20 years time we have forces capable of maintaining the humbling high-standards that the current crop are setting.

Former soldier Patrick Hennessey is the author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars

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