Sunday, 16 December 2007

How we got it wrong

Predictably, the heavyweight Sundays have devoted considerable space to the hand over today of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces, making the formal acknowledgement of our retreat from Basra and the failure of our military adventure there.

That it is a failure is itself disputed but anyone reading the constant flow of reports coming out of Basra can reach no other conclusion. Not least, there is the testimony from the incredibly brave Marie Colvin, the first unembedded reporter to visit Basra for two years, writing today in The Sunday Times.

Her report – and many others – can leave us in no doubt that we have walked away from providing security in the southern Iraqi province, leaving ill-prepared and largely inadequate Iraqi security forces – themselves riddled with militias – to deal with a situation which Colvin describes as "a new terror".

Where the water gets muddied though – and invites a defensive reaction from the military – is that the failure cannot be attributed to the actions of the soldiers in the field. By common accord, they acted bravely, professionally and did all that could have been expected of them, and much more. The failure, therefore, was at the strategic level – which created a situation which was beyond the means of the Army to deal with.

In and amongst the reports today, it is the Sunday Times defence correspondent, Mick Smith, who attempts to explore the reasons for the failure. He put it down to the "failure to provide enough troops", pointing to the "classic error" of allowing political pressure at home to shape operations.

However, to give him due credit, Smith does not confine his criticism to the politicians. Using an unnamed "senior officer" who served in Iraq in 2003, he tells us, "At the top end our own chiefs failed to press home the need for more troops to remain in southern Iraq after the battle".

Undoubtedly, Smith and his military source are right – or, at least, partially so. Even with all the technology in the world, counter-insurgency comes down to "boots on the ground" – men with rifles and light weapons mixing it with the insurgents, taking the war to the enemy and dominating the ground.

That said, it is the contention of this blog that more troops alone would not have made any difference and, in the grander scheme of things, might have made matters worse. More troops, with more presence on the ground would, without other changes, simply have provided more targets and more casualties. And, in the casualty averse climate of the time, greater losses would have intensified the pressure for troops withdrawals.

On the other hand, with judicious changes, we would argue that the military could have dominated the ground and, in their dealings with the insurgents, could have improved their productivity (or "effects" as it is known in the military jargon) to the extent that the actual need for troops would have been less than is imagined.

Understanding why this should be is not easy and it is therefore no surprise that the media have not addressed the issues and that even the Army got it wrong. Not only that, the Army is still getting it wrong to this day.

To develop this theme, though, we must turn not to the past and Iraq but to recent events in that other theatre – Afghanistan – and a singular event in the run-up to the operation to retake Musa Qala. That event was the death of Sergeant Lee "Jono" Johnson (and the injury of two other soldiers) from a mine explosion – of which we get one crucial detail only today in The Sunday Times.

That detail – the importance of which was entirely missed by the journalist who reported on the event – was that "Jonno and three others were travelling in a Vector, a new six-wheeled armoured vehicle" (pictured - lead vehicle).

Now, this has to be examined at several different levels, the first of which is simply that, had Sergeant Johnson been riding in a properly protected vehicle, he would almost certainly still be alive. Furthermore this is the third Vector fatality that we know about, the others being Major Alexis Roberts and the other a soldier from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment.

That, by any measure, its three wholly avoidable deaths and a number of injuries, the latter unknown. The MoD does not publish any details of incidents where only injuries – however serious – are caused, but we have had a number of reports where soldiers have lost their legs while riding in these "coffins on wheels".

The first of the broader points to emerge from this, though, is that the Pinzgauer Vector was the Army choice of "protected" patrol vehicle. There was no political intervention here. The Army was allowed to make its own choice as to the vehicle it wanted and this is what it came up with. The officers and officials involved, and the experts who advised them, got it wrong.

From this emerges an even broader point, which relates not only to Afghanistan but Iraq, and must be closely argued as it brings in other considerations.

The Vector debacle actually signifies the wider failure of the Army to understand the effects of, and take the necessary precautions against what turned out to be one the insurgents' weapons of choice – the IED. Thus, in Iraq, where the Vector was not deployed, troops were being equipped with the "Snatch" Land Rover (pictured), an equally ill-protected vehicle.

The effect of this, in terms of the number of casualties, is well recorded, but there was also another important effect – the restriction on tactical mobility. Commanders on the ground regarded vehicle patrols as an essential part of their armoury, to which effect they has basically three options – the Snatch, the Warrior and the Challenger Main Battle Tank. Clearly, the workhorse was the Snatch but, once – as appears to be the case – the insurgents started targeting this vehicle – it changed the tactical dimensions.

One of the responses was to provide Warrior escorts for the Snatches, tying up equipment and manpower simply to get the patrols to the area where they could carry out their tasks. Then, as the attacks intensified and casualties mounted, the vehicles were withdrawn altogether, limiting the options of commanders and severely restricting their ability to commit forces where needed.

In other words, through the lack of an effective protected vehicle, the Army found it need more men to do the same job (routine patrols) and, in addition, was less able to dominate the ground as the mobility of its patrols was hindered.

This, as one would expect, had knock-on effects. One of the main purposes of sending out patrols was to deter and, where possible, interdict the indirect fire attacks on the Army's bases, no more so than in al Amarah where the volume of fire eventually led to the camp at Abu Naji being abandoned. In other words, by using IEDs against vulnerable vehicles, the insurgents scored an easy tactical victory in their own campaign of harassing Army bases – a tactic which was to spread to Basra as the bases there also came under fire.

However, it was not only the lack of suitable vehicles which limited the Army responses. As we pointed out many times, there was also a lack of UAVs to maintain persistent surveillance and a similar lack of helicopters to launch quick response teams to act against indirect fire attacks. Nor was there persistent air cover or even armed UAVs which could have been used in its absence.

In effect, therefore, the Army was lacking the essential equipment which could have allowed it to take the war to the enemy.

These issues, of course, we have rehearsed many times on this blog, yet in terms of a wider recognition of the military's failings we are not much further forward than we were when we started pointing them out.

For sure, the Army has at last begun to recognise the value of properly protected vehicles – with the introduction of the Mastiff into theatre, and the promise of 4x4 protected vehicles, to be called the Ridgeback – but it was political intervention that forced this issue rather than any Damascene conversion on the part of the Army. Only now is it being admitted, grudgingly, how much of a lifesaver the Mastiffs really are.

But there is still no recognition of the need for persistent air cover (rather than the "visiting fireman" provision currently available through short-endurance fast-jets) or any understanding of the tactical role of light helicopters, so effectively honed in the "fire force" concept devised by the Rhodesians.

Overall though, the other central failing in the Army is its total inability to understand that, in the campaigns in which it is involved, the main currency is the bodies of dead soldiers. Not only have we three soldiers killed quite unnecessarily in Vectors, but there is a continual haemorrhage of casualties in WIMIK Land Rovers and other lightly protected vehicles. Add all these up and the number of avoidable (and thus unnecessary) deaths probably exceed fifty – a very substantial proportion of the total.

So far, the media have not picked up on the Vector – with the exception of Booker – in the way that they were eventually led to take note of the death toll from the "Snatch" Land Rover, but, as the Taliban are progressively defeated in open combat, they are expected to resort increasingly to asymmetric tactics (as indeed they have been), including the wider use of IEDs.

With 170 or so Vectors on the Army inventory (less those which have been destroyed), there are still plenty of opportunities for the Taliban to strike and, if the casualties start mounting once again, the Army will be forced into withdrawing them, leaving a gaping hole in its capabilities.

To that extent, the Army seems incapable of learning all the lessons that it should. And when it does react, it often does so too slowly, without acknowledging its original errors or taking measures to resolve the problems of its own making. And if this seems harsh, the criticism can nevertheless be justified. Looking at the picture of the Vector shown above, we see this highly vulnerable vehicle leading a convoy, which includes a WIMIK and several Vikings. Yet, it was the British Army's own experience in Bosnia and elsewhere that led it to the conclusion that routes must be checked by mine-protected vehicles (a process known as "proving") before unprotected traffic is allowed through.

It was that very experience which led the Canadians to purchase their Nyala vehicles, shown here doing exactly what they had learned from the British, leading a convoy of less protected Merecedes G-wagons. Thus, the very lesson learned by our own Army, it ignores.

It is those failures, in the final analysis, that explains how we got it wrong in Iraq, and how we are continuing to get it wrong in Afghanistan.