Sunday, 22 February 2009

The wages of neglect

One gets exceedingly weary of the hole-in-the-corner way the MoD is "playing" the war in Afghanistan. Its strategy is to keep us largely uninformed as to what is really going on, while devoting its resources to a steady trickle of propaganda which serves to obscure rather than reveal the truth.

It played exactly the same game in Iraq, feeding us with glowing "puffs" about the "derring do" of "Our Boys", and happy little "touchy-feely" pieces about how our caring-sharing troops were engaging with those nice Iraqis and how things were getting better all the time – when the whole campaign was going down the pan.

We saw the propaganda technique in full swing last week when, out of the blue, we get a graphic account of an operation in the Upper Sangin Valley "which has struck severely at the narcotics industry in Helmand".

"Waves of helicopter-borne troops caught the Taliban by surprise," we were told, "in a meticulously planned assault which helps finance the Taliban's insurgency." And then we got the political pay-off from defence secretary John Hutton, who happily twitters:

Our dedicated and professional forces have once again taken the fight to the enemy. Their bravery, coupled with the size and sophistication of our firepower, has cleared the enemy from large areas of Helmand bringing security and governance to more of the province. The seizure of £50 million worth of narcotics will starve the Taliban of crucial funding preventing the proliferation of drugs and terror on the UK's streets.
It is funny how military operations are always "meticulously planned", and no doubt this one was – like all the rest, although one suspects the MoD would not be publicising it otherwise. They leave those to their Boards of Inquiry and then keep schtum about the results.

Putting this operation in perspective, the local value of the Afghani heroin trade is in the order of £3 billion (as export income). By the time the drugs get on the streets at their destinations, they are worth ten times that – and sometimes more. Hutton's £50 million is in fact worth about £5 million as export value in the form of heroin. As crude opium in situ it is probably worth one tenth of that – about £500,000. That is not even chump change compared with the total value of production.

Even then, the figure is meaningless. The "industry" in Afghanistan is vastly over-producing. It is thus keeping back considerable stocks in reserve, to keep the price buoyant. It will simply replace this amount from stock and won't even miss it. That is one of the more sinister activities of the Taleban, they way they are manipulating the market. Thus, the loss of this small quantity of drugs will have no impact on the overall income and cause very little more than a minor, local inconvenience. It will certainly have no effect on the amount of heroin reaching the UK.

Without in any way downplaying what our troops achieved – they put their lives on the line for this operation - this is typical MoD spin. They talk up every "success" while never giving us the overall picture.

We saw them doing exactly the same in Iraq, talking up weapons cache seizures, which were minuscule compared to what was actually in circulation. On the other hand, they kept very quiet about major losses of equipment and wounded soldiers when, for instance, supply convoys got bounced - which was happening very frequently indeed.

The very great danger in hyping this up is that the MoD actually begins to believe its own propaganda, and starts to think it is achieving anything substantive. That again harps back to Iraq, when the Army mounted a huge programme of raids to capture weapons and bomb-making materials. When it paraded the seized material, one definitely got the sense that the MoD believed it was achieving something. But the raids made absolutely no difference to the rate of bombing and attacks.

Yet, when the US Army and Iraqis closed down the bomb-making factories in al Amarah and Maysan province, within a month, combat engineers doing mine clearance noted a sharp fall off in the number of bombs being laid. The MoD was deceiving itself that its activities were having any effect at all.

What we don't get is any sense of a balance sheet – what we are gaining in overall terms, and what it is costing us. For sure, we know that troops are killed – we know that because the MoD is obliged to tell us when a soldier dies, but it does not tell us of the injured.

What little information we get is statistically meaningless, because we can't relate to anything. The most detail we get is in "puffs" about heroic recoveries of British soldiers, who defy all the odds to overcome their injuries. This is in no way to denigrate these admirable people. It is to attack the MoD for the way it exploits their efforts as a tool of propaganda, giving a one-sided view without the bigger picture.

A little of that emerges in The Sunday Times today which publishes an article headed: "MoD hides rising injury toll of Taliban bombs". There, we are told that more than 100 British soldiers have suffered amputations and other debilitating injuries in the past year in Afghanistan, "according to previously suppressed Ministry of Defence (MoD) figures that reveal the true toll of the Taliban's roadside bombing campaign."

The number of troops losing limbs or eyes, suffering serious burns or permanent brain damage has increased dramatically since August 2007 when the Taliban intensified their efforts. During the past 18 months, 37 of the 71 British troops killed are known to have been the victims of roadside bombs or mines, but the number of troops disabled in the attacks has never been fully disclosed.

Figures now obtained by The Sunday Times show that 37 soldiers suffered "life-changing injuries" between April 2006, when they first deployed to southern Afghanistan, and the end of that year. There were 55 such injuries during the whole of 2007. Last year the figures more than doubled to 114 and there have been 12 cases this year.

Yet this is only one glimpse of the downside. We still don't get any details of how these troops were injured, under what circumstances, and whether – of crucial importance – they could be prevented.

One tantalising piece of information is that, while the MoD has bought better armoured vehicles in an attempt to counter the Taliban offensive, insurgents using such large amounts of explosives there is a limit on the protection afforded even by new Mastiff armoured vehicles. There have, we are told, been cases of soldiers in Mastiffs who were protected from a blast but who lost their legs below the knee as a result of the shock wave inside the vehicle.

We also learn that such is the scarcity of helicopters – which would provide a safer mode of transportation - that last week a British operation against the drug barons financing the Taliban had to use aircraft provided by the US marines. That, incidentally, is a detail curiously missing from the MoD "puff" on the operation.

Campaigners, says The Sunday Times claim the MoD is deliberately keeping the human cost of the war out of the public eye. All the MoD will admit is that 23 soldiers underwent amputations between December 2007 and November 2008, but said is was "unable to provide a breakdown of other serious injuries."

If that is what it is saying, that is a barefaced lie. The most comprehensive details of all injuries in theatre are kept, on a single computer database in Selly Oak, with complete details of all incidents. They are instantly accessible and can provide breakdowns of all the details needed.

Since the MoD is so sparse with its information, perforce, the only real way of measuring progress on the battlefield has been the death rate. This detail has traditionally been used by military historians and, of late, it has been the main metric (sometimes the only metric) on which the media rely. It there is a high number of deaths, the media get interested. If there is a period without casualties, the media goes to sleep.

The problem is that even this metric is now becoming heavily distorted. We saw recently a report in The Daily Telegraph on the extraordinary measures taken to airlift a dozen wounded servicemen out of Helmand province "in the largest and most complex medical evacuation since the conflict in Afghanistan began".

From that piece, we also learn that more than 20 troops a week are being evacuated by air from Camp Bastion and that the number of aeromedical evacuations has more than tripled since the first British forces entered Helmand in 2006 with 800 troops flown home in the past year.

Last year, we also saw a piece which reported that British battlefield casualties had been almost halved by radical new changes implemented by medics, bringing down the death rate on the front line in Afghanistan from almost a quarter dying from their wounds to one in eight.

The massive improvement in survival rates has been put down to "miracle bandages", a new tourniquet and the use of trauma consultants on board evacuation helicopters.

Significantly, the use of large Chinook and Merlin helicopters carrying an anaesthetist or emergency medical consultant plus four medics are the key factor. With most journeys in Helmand involving a two-hour round trip, the doctors can effectively set up a trauma station in the back of the helicopter keeping the patient alive until they reach the field hospital in Camp Bastion.

All this is being done for admirable reasons, and it is far too cynical even to suggest that the enormous effort made to prevent troops dying suits the MoD rather well. The fact is though, that with fewer troops being killed – when even quite recently they would have died – the war in Afghanistan is getting far less scrutiny than it might otherwise have done.

With 58 troops having died this year and last, and a ratio one death in eight applying when previously it would have been one in four, we might have seen 132 deaths but for the changes. Those extra 74 deaths would have brought the total from the current 126 to exactly 200.

These are, of course, rough calculations, but the point is made. With there having been 178 deaths in Iraq, a recorded death toll well in excess of that in Afghanistan would have drastically altered the media dynamics. There would have been far more reporting, much more comment, considerably more criticism and a great deal more political intervention.

What has escaped comment from those who have recently reported on the efforts made to keep injured troops alive is the apparently disproportionate effort being expended. From our extremely limited fleet of Merlins and Chinooks, no expense is spared when it comes to using them as flying trauma stations, but that leaves us even shorter of helicopters for operations, so we have to borrow from the Americans or send troops out in less safe forms of transportation.

Not for the first time do we observe that it would be gratifying if the MoD – as well as the media and politicians – devoted as much energy and resources to keeping troops alive and uninjured as they did to treating them and trying to keep them alive after they have been wounded.

That they could do more is indicated by a piece from Thomas Harding last week, in which he records an interview with Canada's defence minister who tells us that British forces in Afghanistan could "learn lessons" on how to properly equip troops on the front line.

This is an issue we have covered many times on this blog, noting how the Canadians are far more advanced in their force protection techniques, using equipment that we are only now thinking of buying, while still having considerable capability gaps.

With the death rate being contained by "artificial" means rather than by improved fighting equipment and tactics, the fear is that these words will fall on deaf ears. It has been difficult enough getting the MoD to focus on force protection and without constant pressure, there is great danger that we will see backsliding and a renewal of the complacency which has blighted the whole campaign.

As important, with the statistics being skewed – even if for the best of reasons – we are no longer getting any measure of what is going on, beyond the propaganda "puffs" from the MoD. Deprived of signals, we can only speculate, with suspicion that it is far worse than is painted and deteriorating rapidly.

Neither this government nor the MoD can be trusted to tell the truth, and nor can the media be relied upon to ferret it out. We can, under these circumstances, only fear the worst. We are now, in many senses, paying the wages of neglect.