Tuesday 24 February 2009

The ring of truth

December last, we started seeing a disturbing increase in the number of casualty reports – at a time when, traditionally, the campaign season should have been winding down.

Only later, in typical MoD style – well after the event – did we learn that there had been a major operation in progress, codenamed Sond Chara – Red Dagger.

Needless to say, according to Commander Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Gordon Messenger Royal Marines:

This was a very successful operation that demonstrated the ability of the Task Force to surprise, overmatch, manoeuvre and influence over a huge area. Whilst our efforts have made a significant contribution to the overall Nad E'Ali security plan, it has not been without sacrifice, and we will forever remember the contribution of those who died.
Such is the low stock of the MoD publicity machine – and the public pronouncements of the Army - that one would fully expect the operation to be described as a "success", even if it had been a catastrophic failure. And here there would be good reason to have one's suspicions, not least because the operation was in an area or northern Helmand, called Nad Ali, which was supposed to have been pacified.

Thus is was of more than some interest that we saw yesterday an article in the Western Morning News by correspondent Lyn Barton, embedded with British forces in Afghanistan.

In a piece headed, "We're a laughing stock," she retails how "disillusioned" Royal Marine Commandos serving on the front line have claimed high profile military gains are being squandered through lack of manpower. They are questioning the point of the conflict and have slated "antiquated equipment" they claim makes Britain a laughing stock.

The Commandos are commenting about Operation Red Dagger, which was designed to push the Taliban lines back in their stronghold of Nad Ali, one which we have already noted has been claimed a "success", but – we are told - the area is in danger of being gradually conceded. Having been pushed out, the enemy is already starting to move back in.

One Marine from 42 Commando declares: "We are just marking time and losing blokes," adding that, "All we can do is hold ground. We can clear an area of Taliban, put in Afghan police checkpoints but when we go the Taliban come back and it slowly goes back to what it was before." The fighting now is "as bad as before Operation Red Dagger."

Another Marine agrees, saying that, "Red Dagger achieved its aim, it was successful," but "It's just that we cannot dominate the ground as we should do because we do not have enough guys."

Although these comments are echoed by many in 42 Commando, Lt Col Doug Chalmers says they fail to take account of the bigger picture. The operation was used to create a triangle of control in a region insurgents were keen to maintain. He said the operation had pushed back enemy lines, but the area is crucial to the Taliban and they wanted it back. There was no question, he claims, of it being ceded.

Chalmers thus argues that Red Dagger was, "an overmatch and the enemy faded away. They have come back and they are testing us. There is no doubt about it."

One hesitates to point out that experienced guerrillas usually do precisely that … straight out of the "Little Red Book": when the enemy advances, we retreat. This goes on to say: "The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue…" Perhaps Chalmers ought to read it some time. It looks as if the Taleban have.

Nevertheless, we are confidently informed that the operation blocked a north-south transit route for the enemy and dealt a blow to their finances by cutting off from large swathes of valuable poppy crops. "That is why they are putting more men into the fight," says Chalmers.

We already looked at the claim about the effect on the Taleban's finances and find it distinctly less than credible. Thaqt rather puts the rest of Chalmers's claims in the same context. "I wouldn't risk lives if I didn't think we are achieving anything," he says.

Putting that into context, we also get the Commandos criticising the continuing use of the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers. "Equipment is broken down. One day it took four hours to get out on patrol because of repairs," said one man. "The Snatch Land Rovers are from the 60s and 70s. You show it to the Yanks and they are laughing at us."

However, Major Reggie Turner, Officer in Charge of J Company 42 Royal Marine Commandos, says they were an extremely useful tool used during routine patrols. "Around a built-up area we use it for basic mobility. It is all we have got so it is what we use," he says.

Turner adds that their versatility and manoeuvrability provides crucial "situational awareness" which would be lost in bigger vehicles. "Sometimes your best protection is situational awareness," he claims. Shades of Mandy Rice-Davies here.

Interestingly, Thomas Harding picks up the story, also noting that, with limited numbers of British journalists allowed onto the front line in Afghanistan the reports contrast with recent Ministry of Defence press releases announcing successes against the Taliban.

Indeed they do, and one is surprised that Lyn Barton's report ever saw the light of day. The MoD have many ways of visiting their displeasure on embedded journalists and are, by this means, tightly controlling the output from Afghanistan, relying on the simple premise that, without Army facilities, journalists can get no stories at all.

Many have to make the agonising decision of whether to go along with the military, in order to get some information out of theatre, in the knowledge that, if they are too candid, their access is completely cut off.

The big problem is that, for all we know, the military may be doing a superb job in Afghanistan and everything may be going swimmingly. But given the control freakery exercised by the MoD, and its well proven tendency to gloss over the nasty bit, it would be a fool that took the Ministry at its word.

Even with the best will in the world, they are wont to make a common mistake – that of using activity as a measure of success, and of imposing their own interpretations on outcomes, which do not necessarily accord with those of the enemy who, in guerrilla warfare, tend to have the initiative.

Earlier, we suggested that neither this government nor the MoD can be trusted to tell the truth. And nor, we added, can the media be relied upon to ferret it out. That many not be the case with Lyn Barton, whose report has the ring of truth. If it comes closer to what, in any case, will be a confused picture, then we have problems.

In this, there is only one certainty. If we do, we will hear it last from the MoD, who will still be tellling of its "successes" long after the Taleban have taken over Kabul.