Thursday, 8 July 2010

You can't say it's a victory

The British withdrawal from Sangin was formally announced yesterday by defence secretary Liam Fox to parliament. The date set for their departure is October. In the meantime, the theatre reserve battalion from Cyprus is to be deployed in the district, responsibility for which is to be handed to US forces.

This is the first major contribution by the Cleggeron administration to the conflict in Afghanistan, and one which is being interpreted as a major turning point which Kim Sengupta, writing in The Indpendent thinks makes it now America's war.

In some quarters, this move is being regarded as a defeat. The view of Col Richard Kemp, writing for Channel 4 News is that the Taliban would certainly attempt to present it as a defeat. Parallels are being drawn with our humiliating withdrawal from Basra, although the Americans reject the comparison.

Perhaps it has more in common with the retreat from al Aamarah, where an ill-equipped Army abandoned a city torn by tribal strife, not fully understanding the dynamics in which they had become involved. Certainly, Richard Norton-Taylor, in The Guardian, remarks that British intelligence had been unable to get a grip on the tribal structure in the area, making it hard to cut deals with the key players and therefore protect UK forces.

This is unsurprising as the tribal mix is unusually complex even for Afghanistan, and further complicated by the presence of the Alakozai tribe and the long-standing feud with Ishaqzai, plus the ever-present Kuchi, who remain a poorly recognised but important component of the insurgency.

Predictably, Richard Dannatt, in his new role as all-purpose media renta-mouth, is also on the case. And it says something of the media that they should continue to lionise a retired commander who has probably contributed more to our tactical if not strategic defeat in Afghanistan than any other man.

By his wilful failure to recognise and deal with the IED threat in a timely fashion, by his sloth in ensuring that sufficient of the right type of UAVs and other surveillance assets were made available in theatre - to say nothing of the helicopters - and particularly by his early misreading of the tactical situation and his espousal of FRES as a suitable weapons system, he ensured that our troops were ill-prepared to counter the threats to which they were exposed.

Nevertheless, the former CGS argues in The Daily Telegraph that since the USMC, now in considerable strength, has assumed operational responsibility for northern Helmand, it makes no sense to have a lone British battlegroup in the middle of the US area. Redeployment is an entirely logical move.

Despite this, he says, some will present the change as the Americans bailing out the Brits and some will choose to see it as the start of a wider British withdrawal.

He too sees the Taliban attempting to claim the move as a tactical victory. And, rather forgetting that he is no longer in the Army, where he can order people around, he states: "Those views cannot be suppressed in a liberal democracy such as ours, but they should not be allowed to gain credibility or traction. It is more important that the move be seen for the sensible development of the campaign that it is."

Whatever Dannatt might declare, there is a sense of defeat. With a multi-national force where contingents from different countries are used to operating side-by-side, there is no overwhelming reason why the British Army cannot work within a US zone. But it has clearly reached a limit to how many men it can feed into the mincer of Sangin, which it has long failed to understand and has had no idea how to deal with it.

Of course, there are those in addition to Dannatt who will seek to defend British performance, especially those who have had the dubious benefit of "being there". But – as we have pointed out here, such campaigns are not won or lost on the ground, but in the offices and minds of strategic commanders and their advisors. And it has long been evident that they have lost the plot.

Patrick Cockburn, in The Independent, argues that British troops were never geared up to make a lasting difference. There were never quite enough British troops to gain permanent control of Sangin, and the Taliban obviously sensed the vulnerability of British troops spread too thinly. Roadside bombs, he writes, could inflict a toll which was difficult to justify in terms of bringing an end to the war.

He is not the only one to argue that we never had enough troops, but we disagree. In just one one example (and there were many more), we showed that the lack of imagination and ponderous tactics led to excessive demands for manpower. Much could have been done, more effectively, with far less.

And nor can anyone assert that we are being wise after the event. We have been nothing if not consistent in our criticism of the lacklustre tactics, the inadequate equipment and the limited strategic vision. You cannot defeat an insurgency in a land of a thousand walls.

Nevertheless, this is not a strategic defeat in the mould of Iraq, where British forces scuttled out of the field of fire, leaving unprepared and ill-equipped indigenous security forces to face the insurgency. This time, the US forces have learnt their lesson.

While even now the British are still talking up their expertise in counterinsurgency, based on their Northern Ireland experience, they are regarded as unreliable, their experience irrelevant (not that they are actually implementing the lessons). They have thus insisted on an orderly hand-over rather than allow a moonlight flit and are now - as always - to do the heavy lifting.

Nor is the military getting any support from the population. Ben Farmer in The Daily Telegraph interviews Haji Akhatar Mohammad, from Bostan Zoi village near Sangin.

He says: "The British had been there for a long time. They were not helpful and there was no good result from them. They didn't understand the people and there was too much fighting." Now, adds the 45-year-old elder, "People are happy the British are moving."

Neither does The Guardian offer any comfort. Sangin's residents, it says, have criticised the planned withdrawal, complaining that four years of fighting have failed to bring peace or development. "The British have failed," says Haji Fazlul Haq, a former town governor. "They could not bring security to the town and that is why they are handing it to the Americans."

This " blunt assessment" says the paper, was shared by other residents who expressed greater confidence in US forces due to take control in November. "The Americans fight harder. I think the Taliban will be afraid of this change of command," said Haji Abdul Wahab, acting director of the peace commission of Helmand, a government body that promotes reconciliation.

Despite this, our military have learned something from Iraq: minor embarrassments like failure can easily be dealt with by removing the word "defeat" from the military vocabulary. They simply substitute words like "redeployment", "reorganisation", "force realignment" or "a sensible redistribution of manpower". This latter phrasing was how 13th Century Fox justified it, having learnt well the art of spin from the Labour government that previously he was so quick to deride

The establishment line, being touted by the BBC is that "the changes being unveiled will improve the effectiveness of the overall military effort." They won't, of course – not without a significant change in strategy and tactics. The US tactics are probably marginally better, but still not good enough and their strategic appreciation is probably as lamentable as that of their British counterparts.

The only significant difference, therefore, is that the US forces are better able to weather the running attrition. With more men in theatre, the number of body bags is not (yet) quite so critical.

That aside, however much British politicians and the military care to dress it up, even Con Coughlin admits it still doesn't look good. The mockery has already started and, if they do manage to avoid the taint of defeat, the military sure as hell cannot claim that this has been a victory.