In defence questions in the House of Commons yesterday, David Laws, the MP for Yeovil, asked what action was being taken to deal with the shortage of helicopter lift capability.
Surprisingly, the defence minister Adam Ingram responded that, "there is not the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes." He then continued: "We have looked into this. Commanders are not asking for more helicopters."
Clearly, that was not the answer expected as Ingram noted: "The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical…" adding, "but we have to listen to what is required on the ground."
If it is indeed true that commanders "on the ground" are not asking for more helicopter lift capability (in Iraq and Afghanistan) then we have a serious problem … with incompetent commanders. They should be sacked and replaced with better officers, who understand the role of helicopters in modern warfare.
It would have been better, however, if the question had been addressed in terms of overall helicopter capability as it is not just the transport fleet which is inadequate. We are especially deficient in light attack / reconnaissance helicopters, with only six Lynx to cover the whole of the British zone in Iraq.
It is that inadequacy as much as anything which has contributed to the humiliating inability of the Army to deal with the mortar and rocket threat on its headquarters in Basra, which has led to the decision yesterday to withdraw civilian staff from the Basra Palace complex.
And humiliating it is – an enormous blow to British prestige. What possible confidence can the population of southern Iraq have in the ability of the British Army to protect them when it cannot even protect its own headquarters from attack?
To do so, as we pointed out yesterday is not impossible nor even difficult. It just needs the application of resources. In particular, as Viscount Brookeborough observed in the defence debate in June, you need helicopters:
If there are heli hours, eagle patrolling reduces the risk immediately. If helis are at risk, the use of helis in pairs enhances safety yet again. One helicopter operates while the other one watches. Two helis in the air can virtually freeze terrorist movement in a 2 kilometre-square area.To maintain two helicopters in the air at all times, however, needs about sixteen machines, and twice as many pilots, which is nearly three times more patrol helicopters than we have in the whole of Iraq. Such is the measure of the lack of resource available to our troops.
But, instead of doing something about it, such as buying "cheap and cheerful" off-the-shelf helicopters, with a range of good options available, including this MD Explorer (illustrated left), the MoD is going for jam tomorrow, with deliveries of the hideously expensive "Future Lynx", scheduled for some time after 2011. Even then, the load could be reduced by using UAVs but, as with the helicopters, we are opting for "jam tomorrow".
Here, it was particularly significant that the Americans use the Shadow UAV, a system which is turning out to be particularly successful and remarkably cheap. Each unit comprises four advanced air vehicles, two ground control stations, associated components and support equipment, which can maintain continuous coverage for 12 hours, at a price of approximately $10 million.
Why the Shadow is so interesting is because it is directly equivalent to the British Phoenix system which, as we recalled recently has so far cost £345 million and, having been introduced in 1998 with a supposedly minimum 15-year in-service life, has never functioned effectively and has been withdrawn from service.
Instead of making up the shortfall now – perhaps buying into Shadow - the government is embarking on a replacemment programme, committing another £317 million to build 99 Israeli-designed Elbit Systems WK-450s, known as the Watchkeeper, the total contract running to £700 million. Yet the system is not due to come into service until 2010 while the need is today, with the British Army currently unable to protect its own headquarters.
We have actually noted before what we have called this "defeatist attitude", calling in aid the incident on 3 October when a British soldier was killed and another seriously injured after three mortar shells landed inside the Shaat al-Arab Hotel base in Basra.
For sure we cannot protect every soldier against every incident but the insurgents ability to harass our forces seemingly at will is making a mockery of our presence in Iraq. That we are not able to deal with it is not an accident or unavoidable. It is serial incompetence - the result of many poor decisions, right up to this very day, which must be remedied. Instead of grandiose plans for new helicopters and UAVs in the future, we need the capability now.
Continued failure should not be tolerated.
Sometimes you have a piece of information which is highly relevant to a particular subject but it doesn't "click" and you don’t put two and two together.
But ever since this morning, reading about the evacuation of civilian workers from the British consulate in Basra, the mind has been working overtime – and it has come up with this.
The link is to an undated extract from the Defence Management Journal extolling the virtues of an interesting piece of kit which has been in Iraq since 2004 – the Mamba counter battery radar (pictured left). What is particularly interesting though is the gushing tone of the extract:
It may be brand spanking new but already the Royal Artillery's futuristic Mamba radar system has saved the lives of countless British troops based at Camp Abu Naji, Iraq. The system, which is mounted on a Alvis Hagglunds BV206 tracked vehicle, can detect virtually any airborne missile launched within a 20km radius and provide an early warning of exactly where and when it will impact.As we now know, of course, Camp Abu Naji was abandoned in August 2006 for precisely the reason that it was so often targeted by mortar attacks, viz Lt. Col. David Labouchere speaking to the Washington Post :
This is good news for the battle-weary soldiers of Abu Naji, near Al Amarah, who have been mortared on an almost daily basis. Sitting in the cool, air-conditioned cab of his Mamba, Sgt Patrick Murray, K Battery, 5 Regiment RA, heaped praise on the vehicle. He said: "Make no mistake this is the future of warfare. Not only can we give our men on the ground a warning of incoming fire but the Mamba will also tell us exactly where the missile or round was fired from and where it will land. In normal circumstances that would allow us to strike back at the enemy firing party almost immediately. But because of the risk of civilian casualties in Iraq we have to pass on the map coordinates to a patrol who will deal with the attackers."
Almost every night for months, rockets and mortar rounds had pounded Abu Naji, the outpost where British forces made their home outside Amarah, Maysan's provincial capital. In the base's last five months of use, 281 rockets or mortar rounds hit Abu Naji, Labouchere said. Young soldiers would slip out of base at night to try to find the attackers. They would return in the morning as frustrated as when they left, he said. "The boys felt they were powerless," Labouchere said. So the British forces packed up. The night before they left, mortars gave Abu Naji a farewell pounding.Interestingly, there is no mention here of the Mamba equipment yet, by all accounts, it was technically highly successful. So what went wrong?
Well, the pictures above illustrate the problem – mortar equipment is both lightweight and highly portable. Terrorists can arrive in a van on a vacant lot, set up their mortar, fire off four or five bombs and then pack up their kit and drive away, all within the space of minutes, long gone before any ground patrol could reach them.
However, with the help of radar location, hit-and-run mortar teams can be can be beaten, as graphically documented by Michael Yon. But to do so requires the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), helicopters and fast response ground units. The technology makes it possible so it is a question of resources.
There is the problem. As we know, our government simply has not provided the resources. So, with only five Lynx helicopters in the whole theatre, no UAVs and no suitable patrol vehicles, there is simply nothing that can be done except suffer the hits or run away.
But, to read the MoD hype, you could easily gain the impression that everything in the garden was rosy – until we get news like we did this morning. Then we know that it is all taurus excretus.
So cried King Arthur's knights on meeting the deadly killer rabbit, immortalised by the Monty Python team in the eponymous 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But, with the news this morning that civilian employees are to be evacuated from the British consulate in Basra, this now seems to be official British foreign policy.
About 200 civilian workers are based at the Basra Palace complex and the Foreign Office says the move is "in response to increased threats from mortar and rocket attacks". However, the site is also the HQ for the Army's 7th Brigade and, as the photographic composite shows, it is eminently defensible. That the Army has been unable to prevent nuisance attacks on its own headquarters says a great deal for its lack of grip on the city.
Furthermore, the fact that staff are now being evacuated has, according to The Times, military chiefs "concerned" that this will encourage the insurgents to think that they are winning the battle to push British forces out of the southern city.
But, if the military are now complaining, they started the rot with their retreat from Al Amarah in August, allowing the militias to strip Camp Abu Naji within hours of it being abandoned by the military. Since then, the British battle group has been playing with its toys in the desert while the militias have been running riot in the city, torching police stations and cars.
Then, on the back of the weekend’s news that British troops have been confined to barracks (and here) because of the inability to deal with the suicide bomb threat in Afghanistan, we now read in the Times that the withdrawal from Musa Qala this month as part of a deal with Afghan tribal elders is simply allowing the Taleban to return.
Day on day we hear and read news of how the authorities in Britain are retreating before the tide of "multiculturalism", allowing ethnic – primarily Muslim - groups to challenge our way of life, but we hear less of what seems to be a similar retreat by the British overseas. Yet the two are inter-related. Our inability to stand up to the insurgents abroad sends a strong, clear message to the ethnic communities in the UK that the British are spineless and, when challenged, have but one policy… to run away!
What sort of signal does that send the rest of the world, to say nothing of our European Union "partners"?
In developing our series of posts under the general heading of "Give war a chance", we need to offer some specifics in terms of how our government should prosecute the war against terror.
As we know, the main effort of this "war" is focused on the two shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which are classified as "counterinsurgencies" rather than conventional wars. The aim, therefore, in theory at least, is to defeat the insurgencies in each country, the word "insurgency" being defined as "an organised rebellion aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict."
But therein – as always – lies a huge problem. How do we define defeat or, turning that around, how do we define victory? In a conventional war, this is easy. We simply take the surrender from the government or representatives of the opposing forces, on the back of a cease fire. But there is no such seminal moment in an insurgency. We know when we have lost it – the government dissolves or collapses. But at what point is it won?
Here, there seems to be some general agreement to a level that might possibly approach a consensus. The answer is simply, we don't know and the best overall expression I can find is here:
In the global war on terrorism, conclusive victory in the classic sense is probably unattainable. This sentiment was rarely expressed outright, but was implicit in the frequent use of such terms as "war of unlimited duration" and "war of uncertain outcome." The sentiment was also present in the view of those who regarded the best attainable result as a gradual rapproachement between the haves and have nots of the world. Here, economic integration and equality, with a consequent dissipation of alienation and mutual hostility, offered the best chance of ultimately nudging the two camps to a peaceful modus vivendi.Ergo, in the pursuit of a counterinsurgency, we have to commit to as long as it takes. But, if success cannot be clearly defined in positive terms, it can in a negative way, as a very simple injunction: "don't lose".
Arguably, in order to win, we simply must avoid losing. And, in order to avoid that, we can follow the instruction given by the harassed mum to a sibling: "find out what Johnny is doing and tell him to stop it". Find out what we must do to lose, and stop doing it.
Clearly, the one way we can guarantee to lose is to sustain a level of deaths in our armed forces above that which the public will tolerate. That, inevitably, cannot be precisely defined but it can be said that the tolerance for unnecessary deaths will be – or must be assumed to be – very low indeed. Hence, one can set out an unbreakable principle: minimise "unnecessary" deaths.
In Iraq and potentially in Afghanistan, the biggest killer is the roadside bomb and/or the suicide bomb, both targeted against vehicle-borne troops. Therefore, dealing with these should be a very high priority, requiring both passive and active defences.
Passive defences, one might expect, should be easiest to define, in terms of armoured vehicles that are capable of protecting their occupants: there is a group of so-called "mine protected vehicles" which have been shown to be especially suitable which include the Australian-built Bushmaster, the German Dingo II, the Canadian-built RG-31, and now the RG-33, and the US-built Cougar (and Mastiff). That the MoD and the British military are quite evidently reluctant to adopt these vehicles has to be one of the great puzzles of our time but, it should go without saying that their use should be maximised.
The better defence, however, is to avoid ground transport in high risk areas, wherever possible and tactically desirable. As much movement as possible should be by air, using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
As to active defences, coincidentally this weekend, there have been two good articles, one syndicated and the other in the Washington Post, extolling the virtues of going out hunting for IEDs. The first article is actually headed, "Engineers ensure freedom of movement", which demonstrates their value.
Unlike the British, who are changing their tactics to avoid contact – which includes skulking in barracks or or playing at being David Stirling out in the desert, the US forces are mounting an active campaign to seek out the bombs and thus reclaim the streets and their own mobility. Simply to retreat from the threat is not the answer – it concedes victory to the insurgents.
What is evident here is the variety of vehicles being used by the US (see above), with a combination of RG-31s, on "point", the Buffaloes to investigate possible IEDs and the Cougars to follow up with the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officers to dispose of the bombs. The British Army has absolutely no equivalents and is reliant on the same combination of Land Rovers and unarmoured trucks that it uses for everything else. This has to be unacceptable and must be addressed.
Defence, though, is only half the battle, and even then there are many other issues which need to be considered. We will deal with those in later posts. But it is also necessary to bring the battle to the enemy, something which the British Army has been very poor at doing, especially in Iraq. This we will deal with in our next post.
Not only the Telegraph but also the Mail on Sunday, The Independent and The Sunday Times all pick up on the story of idle troops at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
The Sunday Times has "British troops hide from bombers" and the Independent runs "Troops 'locked down' by suicide bombers", while the Mail on Sunday has a particularly strident headline: "Camp Do-Nothing". Its photographs tell the tale, some of which we have reproduced below, demonstrating how tough it is out at the front - something us "armchair soldiers" could never really appreciate before.
What is interesting about these pieces is that they all tell the same story - with at least four newspapers carrying it. Yet four newspaper editors did not suddenly and independently come up with the idea of looking at the conditions at Camp Bastion, and their journalists did not all come up entirely independently with exactly the same story. At the very least, there is some collusion and there may well be a "guiding mind". In that case, who is doing the spinning, and why?
Whatever the reasoning behind the spin, it clearly has MoD approval as all of the papers seem to quote Lieutenant-Colonel Andy Price and they all mention the recent death from a suicide bomb of Marine Gary Wright (pictured right), although none specifically point out the vulnerability of the "Snatch" Land Rover in which he was riding.
And neither do any of the newspapers mention an ealier incident - this one in Kabul in early September. This was also another suicide bomber, in this instance driving a Toyota Hilux truck, but it was also another instance of a highly vulnerable "Snatch" Land Rover being targeted.
Now, purely on journalistic grounds, you would have thought that there was a story here, especially if a contrast was then made with the fate of a Canadian RG-31 which had recently been attacked by a suicide bomber, the crew having escaped without injury, the vehicle itself having limped home under its own power, needing only relatively minor repairs.
Add to this the recent experience of the crew of another Canadian RG-31 escaping injury after a mine explosion, and the similar fate of a German crew riding a Dingo mine protected vehicle and you have a superb story of British government incompetence.
Neither Canadian nor German (nor any other) troops have been confined to base because of a bomb threat yet here we are with all those tough Marines having to act like big girls' blouses and stay at home with mummy all because their patrol vehicles are crap.
But rather than engaging their brains, we get the MSM hunting as a pack, all following each other down the same line, holding each others' hands for comfort. Thus does the Mail on Sunday, like the Sunday Telegraph give the Marines' "Vikings" a puff, not stopping for one moment to look beyond the MoD spin and do their own background research.
Nor even do they get their facts right, the MoS citing the top speed as 60 mph, when it is in fact 60 kph (approximately 40 mph, and then only for relatively short periods), and the price as £80,000 when it is in fact $1,000,000 (as opposed to the £1m cited by the Telegraph).
Most significantly, the Viking is an amphibious vehicle, designed in Sweden primarily for amphibious operations and for their ability to move through swampy terrain, as well as snow. At twice the price of either a Bushmaster or RG-31, to use (and wear out) these highly specialised vehicles in a landlocked desert is little short of stupidity.
Luckily for our government and military, however, while this commodity is available in copious quantities, the MSM seems to be totally blind to it.
Weighing into the debate about British Army equipment today comes Booker again, in his column, with a piece headed: "Our troops will patrol in 'coffins on wheels'".
This is about the continuing scandal of the Pinzgauer, named after an Austrian pony and, by one of our forum members, "my little Pinzy". For all the use it is to our troops, it could just as well be a little girl's toy.
Anyhow, at the heart of the disaster gathering round Britain's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, writes Booker, is the fact that our Government has in each case sent in an inadequate number of troops, hopelessly ill-equipped to do the job which faced them, Nothing has more cruelly brought this home than the still rising number of soldiers who died because the Ministry of Defence failed to provide them with patrol vehicles properly protected against mines and roadside bombs.
Last week, he tells us, Dutch troops in Afghanistan were supplied with the first of 25 mine-protected Australian Bushmasters, costing £271,000 each. This means that every other NATO contingent, American, Canadian, German, French and Dutch, now has mine-protected vehicles, but not the British, who are still expected to patrol in wholly unsuitable "Snatch" Land Rovers, such as the one destroyed by a suicide bomber in Helmand ten days ago in which a British Marine died, with a second seriously injured.
The MoD says it will soon be equipping our troops with Pinzgauer Vectors. These are known as "coffins on wheels" because they are in some respects even more vulnerable than the Land Rovers; not least because the driver is sitting right over the wheels when a mine strikes, and because the nature of their armour is such as to confine the effects of a blast inside the vehicle, probably killing all inside. Yet each Vector costs £487,000, nearly twice as much as the much-better protected Bushmasters. In other words, we are spending a great deal more money to give our men even less protection.
When our Armed Forces minister Adam Ingram was asked on 18 October by Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock what "risk assessments" had been carried out on the Vector, he refused to answer, merely giving the condescending reply "we do not comment on the details of our vehicles' protection levels". The Tory spokesman Gerald Howarth, on the other hand, is so reluctant to recognise the failings of the Pinzgauer that he is even pictured in an advertisement for them on the makers' website.
With a sense of frustration that we can only share, Booker concludes with the question, "why is this national scandal not on the front pages of every newspaper in the land?" Certainly, it isn't on the front page of his own paper, but that does report separately a story of how hundreds of marines are "penned into base by suicide bomb threat".
This is an entirely preditable response to a development which, it is claimed, marks a shift in Taliban tactics but, as we recently pointed out, was itself entirely predictable.
Nevertheless, we are told that military commanders ordered the "lock down" after receiving intelligence that many bombers plan to attack British troops in two towns in northern Helmand. One senior officer said that some of its fighters were now prepared to turn themselves into "human claymore mines" in a renewed attempt to drive the British from the province.
The two British bases being targeted are in Lashkar Gah, where 300 members of the Royal Marines are based, and the strategic town of Gereshk, on one of the main routes through Helmand, which is being guarded by 60 marines from 42 Commando. Limited patrols around Lashka Gar resumed yesterday only on the specific orders of the base commander, but high risk areas were avoided as was the centre of town.
So desperate are the Marines to strengthen their defences against suicide bombs, they are also deploying their BvS10 "Viking" all terrain vehicles, which were only delivered this year.
At a cost of cost £1 million each - nearly four times the price of the RG-31 or Bushmasters - they are being sold to the Telegraph's gullible Sean Rayment as giving "far greater protection than the infamous 'Snatch' Land Rover," even though the ballistic protection offered is about the same and the vehicle is rated to protect against pathetically meagre 0.5kg charge anti-personnel mines, compared with the 14kg protection offered by both the RG-31 and the Bushmasters.
Once again, therefore, Rayment - a specialist defence correspondent - misses the story and lets the MoD off the hook, while "my little Pinzy" toys pour off the production lines, unremarked by our skilled and diligent hacks.
"And even if Iraq, by some miracle, is able to sort itself out, the ability of the Western alliance, or what remains of it, to confront global security threats has been seriously, if not irretrievably, damaged."
That is the opinion of Con Coughlin, bien pensant defence correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and self-acclaimed author of the book, American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror. And he is wrong.
Coughlin's real thesis, however, is highlighted by the headline, How the neo-cons lost the war, to be found in a puff in the Saturday newspaper.
A somewhat tendentious assertion, it is nevertheless shared by many of the chattering classes who hold that if only Bush and Blair had listened to the wisdom respectively of the State Department and Foreign Office, the situation in Iraq would by now be well on the way to normality and stability.
Instead, the crass, uncouth and naïve Bush, with the support of his poodle Blair, went for the wholly unrealistic dream of trying to establish Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. He give the "neocons" of the Pentagon their head, disbanded the Iraqi Army, fired the Baathists, cleared out the Sunnis and started afresh, trying to rebuild civil society on the basis of full participation of the majority Shi'ites.
Needless to say, the result was an unholy alliance between the displaced, secular Baathists and the dispossessed Sunnis, together with a ragbag of crooks, opportunists, foreign adventurers and religious fanatics, who have fuelled an insurgency of unprecedented ferocity which is fast drifting into civil war.
But, whatever one's "take" on the root causes of the insurgency might be – and whether it was preventable - the fact is that it is there, it is happening and it must be dealt with. And, unless one is going to counsel that the US, the British and the rest of the coalition should turn tail and run, it is not lost. Thus, the insurgency must be addressed actively by coalition forces, with a view to defeating it.
This is not a question, as Coughlin puts it, of Iraq being able to "sort itself out" and we should not be looking for "some miracle". Nor should we accept the dicta of the bien pensants who grandly declare that there is no military solution to an insurgency, that the military can only "hold the line" while the politicians do their work.
Instead – as an antidote to the flood of negativity, despair and defeatism – we should be looking to dealing with that insurgency first and foremost at precisely the level they say is impossible, the military level, addressing it as a technical, military problem.
That the military solution has so far (but only so far) failed is because – we would argue - the full range of technology, weapons and tactics has yet to be deployed. Should a properly equipped military, using effective tactics and technology, be allowed to take on an enemy which is by no means all-powerful or even particularly astute or effective, the outcome could be very different and very positive.
Over the next few weeks – starting today – therefore, we are going to be producing a series of linked pieces, arguing the case for war – an effective and seriously prosecuted war against the Iraqi insurgency as the only way to achieve a lasting peace without massive loss of life. In the final analysis, war, fought properly and effectively, is the most humane way of sorting out the immediate problems of Iraq and it should be given a chance.
As we did with the "Qanagate" exercise, we have opened a file - this one - with an associated forum thread, which we will then build on over term until we have a complete report, which we will then publish as a single entity. By this means, we hope to re-shape the debate and bring some sanity to an issue which has too long been dominated by the nay-sayers, the weak, the ignorant and the defeatist. But, in order to win, we must first decide that the war is winnable.
The winning has just started.
Stryker photograph courtesy of David Earney.
Having spent so much time and effort condemning the MSM for its lack of attention to defence issues, a casual reader might have thought that the new-found interest displayed by some newspapers would be welcome. But not a bit of it.
Detailed, factual coverage of defence issues is always welcome and more so would intelligent commentary. But, when the coverage is highly selective and the commentary fatuous and misguided, one really does wonder what is being achieved.
In the category of "factual coverage" comes a piece in The Daily Telegraph today, recording the launch of an investigation into claims that dozens of civilians were killed in Nato bombing raids on suspected Taleban positions this week in southern Afghanistan.
The indications are that the death toll could be the largest among civilians in a single incident since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan officials are cited as stating that the believed up to 60 Taliban and 85 civilians died in the bombing. Nato officials have confirmed at least 12 civilian deaths following "rolling clashes" between joint Nato and Afghan forces and groups of Taliban fighters in Punjwai district, which lies 10 miles south-west of Kandahar city.
The piece is worthy enough but the paper then spirals into the stratosphere with an ill-considered leader headed: "Afghan setback". To the ill-informed, it might actually look plausible, starting as it does with a series of apparently factual assertions:
Operations in Kandahar this summer led Nato to believe that it had broken the back of the Taliban in the province. There were claims of between 500 and 1,000 guerrillas having been killed, raising hopes that the way was open to winning over the local population through reconstruction. That success makes all the more galling the deaths of a shocking number of civilians in bombing raids during the night of Tuesday/Wednesday. They are a severe psychological blow to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan.Indeed, the Nato line is that the operations in Kandahar were a success, but other commentators think otherwise, with apparently good reason. There is no similarly good reason, therefore, why the Telegraph should slavishly follow the Nato line.
But then the newspaper follows a line of its own, picking up a reference to the use of "precision strikes" against insurgents. It argues that "such accuracy" is impossible when the enemy blends so easily into the civilian population. Mortars, artillery and aircraft are blunt instruments that inevitably cause collateral damage. The paper then argues that heavy reliance on these weapons "stems from lack of Isaf manpower", from which it concludes:
Isaf's front line against a resurgent Taliban is being held by too few troops from too few countries. That paucity makes tragedies such as this week's civilian deaths more likely. Thus, previous advances are annulled in a trice.That these tragedies undo the good work done is made with force by The Times as well, and with some considerable force – as one might expect – by Aljazeera but it is only the Telegraph which uses the situation to argue for more troops.
On this blog we are not going to argue that more troops are not necessary but the point we have made is that the issue is far more complex than is allowed for than the simplistic bleating for more "boots on the ground" in which the Telegraph indulges. As we argued over the weekend, more soldiers in theatre without the requisite equipment and structures, and the appropriate tactics, could simply provide the Taleban with more targets and thereby increase the pressure for Nato's withdrawal.
Such an argument is not overly complicated and we are not the only ones to make to make it, so it cannot be said that it is entirely without merit. But it does seems beyond the intellectual capability of the likes of the Telegraph, and indeed the politicians – especially the Conservative front bench, which seems totally devoid of ideas of how our forces should be structured and equipped.
It is actually almost too easy tilting at the Conservatives for their inadequacies and their inability to define the issues. But, while we complain about a lack of clarity and absurd decisions, what also must be picked up is the media's tendency to act as a propaganda organ for the MoD.
For the second time of late, we are seeing an account of the British Army operations in Maysan province, most recently by BBC's Newsnight and now by The Telegraph, which offers an uncritical account of what may in fact be an extraordinary example of displacement activity.
It is all very well the boys and girls pounding through the desert emulating latter-day David Stirlings in their cut-down Land Rovers, and trying out their cross-country driving skills (illustrated) – so avoiding insurgent attacks – but when this is at the price of deserting al Amarah and leaving it to the tender mercies of the militias, one might think that a grown-up newspaper would question the use of resources.
Once again though, if we start to confront the issues, it is evident that the British Army simply does not have the equipment to do the job. Thus it is safer for it to play with its toys in the desert than to do a real job, equally safe in the knowledge that the media (much less the politicians) are not going to give it a hard time.
And, if the media cannot cope with such a simple level of criticism, you just know that, when it comes to looking at the forthcoming Defence Committee FRES inquiry, they will be totally out of their depth.
You can follow the ins and outs of the Turkish accession negotiations for all you are worth but, as we have remarked several times on this blog, the real bellwether is the military. If you want to know where sentiment lies, watch what the military does.
And the military have just spoken. Against the heady days last year when the "colleagues" were looking to a quick sale for the Eurofighter, Turkey's Air Force has just selected the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), now called the Lightning II. They are expected to commit around $10 billion to buy about 100 new-generation fighter aircraft.
The Air Force, as the user, is not the sole authority for a final decision, but its position is dominant and backed by the powerful General Staff. "Although this decision is not official yet, we can say that Turkey's JSF move is almost final, after the Air Force has clarified its position," said one defence analyst in Ankara.
As a sop to the Europeans, there was a possibility of going for a mixed buy of the JSF and the Eurofighter, but the Air Force, whose fighter fleet is exclusively of US design and which follows a strong American tradition, has opted for an the all-JSF solution.
And the Europeans can put their Eurofighters where the sun doesn't shine.
Spring of 2007 will be a bloodbath in Afghanistan for NATO forces. Our British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, and other allies will be slaughtered in Afghanistan if they dare step off base in the southern provinces, and nobody is screaming at the tops of their media-lungs about the impending disaster. I would not be surprised to see a Nato base overrun in Afghanistan in 2007 with all the soldiers killed or captured. And when it happens, how many will claim they had no idea it was so bad and blame the media for failing to raise the alarm? Here it is: WARNING! Troops in Afghanistan are facing slaughter in 2007!If that was a piece in isolation or from a different person, it could be ignored. But it is from Michael Yon, and it meshes with the piece over the weekend that had Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge warning that British forces risk defeat in Afghanistan.
This, we thought, might be overwrought - but we cannot be sure. But, while we cannot rule out a major push by the Taliban, as Yon argues could happen, we do know that the effect of air power on concentrations of fighters can be decisive. Should a Nato base be seriously under threat, it is almost certain that the full weight of air assets would be mobilised and disaster would surely be averted.
What seems to be of more concern, however, is that very different messages are coming out of the theatre. From The Telegraph today, for instance, we get a highly downbeat report of how America's ambassador to Afghanistan is expressing deep unease over the British ceasefire with the Taliban and subsequent withdrawal from the town of Musa Qala in north Helmand.
The source of unease is Ronald Neumann, who is saying that there is "a lot of nervousness" about who the truce was made with, who the arrangement was made with, and whether it will hold – and not a little concern about whether the area will become a sanctuary governed by the Taliban. "If you have an area that is under the Afghan government flag but is not under the actual authority of the Afghan government then you are losing in a very big way," says Neumann.
But what is also of concern is Nato's supreme commander Gen James Jones. He – also according to The Telegraph – is saying that the mission to subdue the insurgency was at a turning point. He is predicting that insurgents will not continue to confront coalition troops in pitched battles but turn instead to the car bomb tactics that had proved so devastating in Iraq. His view is: "Militarily we will not be defeated … Their strategy is that we suffer a loss as a result of 1,000 IEDs [roadside bombs]."
That ties up with another report which suggests that Taliban militias have taken control over key border areas of Pakistan, where they are effectively running the civil administration. With the withdrawal of the Pakistani Army under the so-called "Waziristan accord", a power vacuum has been filled by mullahs and their long-haired, bearded, AK47-toting militants.
Then, from David Loyn, writing in The Independent, we get an account of how the Taliban army is highly active and visible in Helmand province, clearly in control over a wide region - the same Taliban that Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of British forces in the region, said were "practically defeated".
Loyn claims that they are "confident and well-armed, all with AK-47s, and many of them carry rocket-propelled grenade launchers." Their communications equipment and vehicles are new and they have a constant supply of fresh men from the madrassas, the religious schools in Pakistan. And the "Waziristan accord" has made it even easier for the Taliban to manoeuvre.
Furthermore, Loyn has it that the Taliban commander predicts that suicide bombing would be employed far more intensively in the future. "There are thousands waiting at the border," he says. "We are trying to stop them because they would cause chaos if they all came at once."
What is also clear, Loyn asserts, is that the Taliban are now far more numerous than previously believed. Thousands of young men now see them as a resistance force against international troops who have had five years and are not seen to have delivered results.
Meanwhile, he writes, the scale of institutionalised corruption practised by the Afghan National Army is shocking. They demand money at gunpoint from every driver on the main roads in the south. It was to stop just this kind of casual theft that the Taliban was formed in the first place in 1994. For the first time since then, the Taliban are now being paid again to sort out the problem.
So, what do we have here?
Putting it all together as we so often do, it seems that the Taliban is far more numerous, better equipped and organised than is being suggested officially; Nato forces – specifically the British – have been forced to give ground; and cohorts of suicide bombers are waiting in the wings, ready to unleash a reign of terror.
All-in-all, things are no better than when we wrote in September about this issue while, in many respects, things look significantly worse.
Yet… are these just words? Do they have any meaning? If they do, and the situation is anywhere near as dangerous as it appears to be, then our troops are in very grave danger. One can begin to see why Dannatt is so keen to pull troops out of Iraq in order to beef up the forces in Afghanistan.
And, if we are actually in danger of losing – or taking such serious casualties that we are tempted to pull out – has anyone really thought through the global implications? Has anyone even thought how it would affect the morale of people back home, and the behaviour of domestic Muslim communities?
Methinks that, if there is a panic button, someone should be pressing it.
News of the moment is that the Ministry of Defence is banning ITN – Britain's biggest commercial news broadcaster – from frontline access to the nation's forces.
This is picked up by The Times and others, retailing an account of how the government "has withdrawn co-operation from ITV News in warzones after accusing it of inaccurate and intrusive reports about the fate of wounded soldiers."
The MoD's director of news, James Clark, has accused ITN of a "hatchet-job", with reporting that relies on "cheap shots all over the place, no context, no reasonable explanation. Like the Daily Star in moving pictures."
The tenor of the reporting is by no means unsympathetic to the MoD and the news of the action has even travelled over the pond to Michelle Malkin, who has her own (very good) reasons for distrusting media coverage of defence issues.
Any indignation, or sympathy for the MoD however, should be tempered with the knowledge that, when it comes to accountability, this ministry is the pits. It is not only one of the most secretive of government departments but is also quick to rely on the "security card" when it wishes to avoid scrutiny of its actions.
What is intensely frustrating though is that, while this story is quick to attract media attention, attempts by MPs to drag vital information out of the ministry are almost completely ignored.
The latest in this line is Mike Hancock, Lib-Dem MP for Portsmouth South, who has been trying to get to the bottom of the Pinzgauer issue with a Parliamentary Question to the minister asking:
…what risk assessment has been made of the ability of Pinzgauer Vector armoured vehicles to give adequate protection to the driver in the event of running over (a) a mine and (b) an improvised explosive device, with particular reference to the cone of destruction; and if he will make a statement.In response, an MoD which, apparently in support of its troops, is so quick to squawk about the misbehaviour of the media, suddenly becomes rather reticent. The minister, Adam Ingram, replies:
To safeguard our own and allied troops, we do not comment on the detail of our vehicles' protection levels. However, the need to provide enhanced protection against the threats currently faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, including mines and improvised explosive devices, was a factor in the decision to procure rapidly a suite of protected patrol vehicles, including an additional 106 Pinzgauer Vector vehicles, which would give commanders a range of options dependent on the operational circumstances.If ever there was a non-answer, that is it. And, if we had a halfway effective media, this would now be a serious issue, not least as we now learn that the Dutch have become the latest of the forces in Afghanistan to acquire mine protected vehicles. Only this week, the first of their $31.7 million purchase of 25 Australian Bushmaster armoured patrol vehicles became operational (pictured). Until recently, they had been borrowing five RG-31 Nyala patrol vehicles from the Canadians.
We now have a situation where German forces in Afghanistan are equipped with Dingo II mine protected vehicles, the French are being equipped with up-armoured VBLs, the Canadians and the US forces have RG-31s and the Dutch have Bushmasters.
Soon, uniquely, the British will have the only major contingent in Afghanistan which is not equipped with mine protected vehicles. Instead, troops are about to be supplied with Pinzgauer Vectors which, in some important respects, actually give less protection than "Snatch" Land Rovers – the vulnerability of which is only too evident.
Of course, this is far too complicated for the British media, which would rather see troops die than get its hands soiled with a little bit of technical detail. Instead, the hacks will wait until after the event, for a quick, cheap story when the bodies are being shipped back to the UK.
For once, though, we actually see an ordinary back-bench MP doing his job, and doing it well, which puts the self-serving preening of the media rather in perspective. This is an industry which gets excited about the fate of soldiers once they are wounded but is careless of whether they live or die in the first place - a rather odd sense of values.
At first sight, it seems slightly odd that the Europhile Observer is the only newspaper to publicise a debate held by the "Eurosceptic" Open Europe, held last Tuesday at which Lord Inge held forth about Afghanistan.
Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge was Chief of the Defence Staff until 1997 and more recently on the Butler Committee which examined the use of intelligence during the Iraq War. And he has, we are told, "broken ranks" to launch an attack on the current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, warning that British forces risk defeat in Afghanistan.
The Observer claims that this is "one of the strongest interventions in the conduct of the War on Terror", with Inge also charging a lack of any “clear strategy” guiding British operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is, the paper also claims, the first criticism of operations by a former head of the British army.
It reflects, we are told by the Observer, the growing dismay among senior military officers and civil servants involved in defence and foreign affairs, that in the critical areas of Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain lacked clear foreign and defence policies separate from the US.
Inge is cited as declaring: "I don't believe we have a clear strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I sense we've lost the ability to think strategically. Deep down inside me, I worry that the British army could risk operational failure if we're not careful in Afghanistan. We need to recognise the test that I think they could face there."
Inge is said to have claimed that Whitehall, "had surrendered its ability to think strategically" and that despite the immense pressures on the army, defence received neither the research nor funding it required. "I sense that Whitehall has lost the knack of putting together inter-departmental thinking about strategy. It talks about how we're going to do in Afghanistan, it doesn't really talk about strategy," he says.
There is no way that Inge could be described as a "bluff old soldier" speaking his mind, or even a "soldier's soldier" in the manner of General Sir Richard Dannatt. He is the epitome of a defence establishment figure and, therefore, his intervention in the debate is of some significance.
His views make an interesting contrast with those of Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Canadian Dominion Institute, who complains that the war in Afghanistan is being misunderstood.
Politicians and pundits opposed to the war, he says, are fixating on the idea that Afghanistan is the "Son of Iraq." They argue that Nato, like the US Army in Iraq, is incapable of defeating a counter-insurgency that has popular support and unlimited opium dollars. Ipso facto, "we should bring our troops home and redeploy the military where it is urgently needed, as peacekeepers in Darfur."
Albeit writing from a Canadian perspective, Griffiths makes points that have equal relevance to the British situation: Afghanistan isn't Iraq, he writes, and we draw this parallel at our peril. Most of Afghanistan is prospering and at peace. The south, where the fighting is taking place, is made up of a single ethnic and religious group, Sunni Pashtuns. There is simply no structural reason for Afghanistan to spiral into the kind of intractable sectarian violence that is fast derailing the US occupation of Iraq.
In this context, the goal – which is often misrepresented as "political and humanitarian" - can be defined more clearly as "no more and no less than" providing the Karzai government with a vestige of political oversight over the country's perennially rebellious south. Creating a more democratic and tolerant Afghan nation is the work of generations.
Griffiths offers a refreshing degree of clarity which is often lacking from the debate. Furthermore, his idea of a rationale for Nato's presence does seem to make sense. As we learn more about this issue, it becomes clearer that the southern provinces have always created a problem for the central government. Hence, the mere presence of Nato troops – extending the writ of the central government - perforce, is an achievement in itself.
It would, therefore, be helpful if our own government expressed our national objectives in Afghanistan rather more clearly than they have done to date. That way, we could ourselves understand whether those objectives were being achieved and whether the likes of Lord Inge are right to sound the alarm.
In that sense, Inge's admonishment's seems a little overwrought. Even at their most stretched, British troops are unlikely to be defeated militarily by the Taleban, and there also seems to be a better understanding that this is not a black-and-white issue - with questions being asked about the true nature of the enemy, and some re-thinking about how to defeat him.
There are also some indications from an interesting piece in the Mail on Sunday that HMG has not entirely lost its touch. The newspaper tells the tale of a "secret slush fund" of more than £1 million sent to Afghanistan to bribe local warlords being destroyed when the Special Forces aircraft carrying it burst into flames as it came in to land.
It appears that the cash - all in brand new American notes - was packed into two four-wheel-drive vehicles being carried on the RAF Hercules C-130 last May. However, as the aircraft approached the landing strip outside the town of Lashkar Gar, one engine erupted in flames and the blaze spread quickly – or so the official story goes
Anyhow, the pilot managed to touch down and all those on board - including the new British ambassador in Afghanistan, Stephen Evans, and a group of SAS troops – managed to escape with just seconds to spare. But it was too late to extinguish the inferno, and the Hercules was largely destroyed - along with the vehicles and cash. The Army had to be called in to finish the job, with the spectacular results pictured.
What this indicates though is that the time-honoured strategy of bribing tribesmen into loyalty is alive and active. But, for this to have a lasting effect, it is clear than British and other Nato troops must be kept in-place for the long-haul. The problem, as we see it, therefore, is the "home front", in that the low tolerance of casualties – in the broader context of the unpopularity of Blair's military adventures - could force a premature withdrawal before anything worthwhile has been achieved.
If the trigger thus becomes an unacceptable level of casualties, it would seem that the Nato forces can succeed – in the short-term at least – just by maintaining a presence and keeping casualties down to a (politically) tolerable level. And that points not necessarily to a need for more troops, but better equipment and support of those that are there. More troops, deployed on the same basis as currently, simply means more targets, more opportunities and more deaths – increasing pressure for withdrawal.
Viewed in that way, the idea of a small, well-protected force, increasingly working with the local population over the long term (with troops in place for 20 years or more) is far more attractive than the idea of committing larger numbers to an all-out war. One wonders, therefore, whether Dannatt and now Inge, are sending the right messages or whether, in this case, more – as in troops – actually equals less.
After the withdrawal of British troops from al Amarah in late August and the humiliating sacking of their former base at Abu Naji, the situation has now deteriorated to such an extent that – according to BBC News – British troops are on stand-by to return.
This follows what has been described as "one of the boldest acts of defiance yet" by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose Mahdi Army supporters today seized control of the city.
It appears that fighting broke out on Thursday after the head of police intelligence in the surrounding province, a member of the rival Shi'ite Badr Brigade militia, was killed by a roadside bomb, prompting his family to kidnap the teenage brother of the local head of the Mahdi Army.
According to local reports, the Mahdi Army retaliated this morning, storming three main police stations and planting explosives that flattened the buildings. At least 15 people, including five militiamen, one policeman and two bystanders, have been killed.
Through the day, about 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikovs and RPG launchers have been patrolling city streets in commandeered police vehicles. Others have set up roadblocks on routes into the city and loudspeaker trucks have been circulating, telling residents to stay indoors.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has dispatched an emergency security delegation that included the Minister of State for Security Affairs and top officials from the Interior and Defence ministries. About 700 Iraqi troops have been sent to the city to deal with the violence, and a 500-strong British Army battle group has been put on standby. Major Charlie Burbridge, based in Basra, confirmed that British forces were already providing air surveillance.
This could present a major setback for the British disengagement plan, as the idea that Iraqi security forces are capable of controlling Amarah is looking very shaky. If General Sir Richard Dannatt is relying on release of troops from the Iraqi theatre to make up numbers in Afghanistan, he could be in for a long wait.
UPDATE: Later reports indicate that the militiamen have withdrawn from the streets, following arrival of Iraqi soldiers and mediators. A temporary truce has been negotiated with an al-Sadr envoy. Maj. Burbridge claims that 600 Iraqi army soldiers have retaken control of the city. "They've applied a solution and at the moment it's holding," he said. "At the moment, it's tense but calm."