Thursday 30 April 2009

A tarnished asset

One of the complexities of the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is the variegated nature of the enemy. Although we are used to the portmanteau term "Taleban", military sources speak of "tier 1", "tier 2" and so on, to describe the various levels of commitment.

On top of that, there are the tribal factions, the drug lords, foreign fighters and the rest, all making for a bewildering kaleidoscope of opponents that confuses the strategic picture no end.

So it is with the real enemy in Whitehall – the MoD. Seen by outsiders as a monolithic entity, its warring tribes boast exactly the same kaleidoscopic variety as the armed insurgents on the plains and hills of Afghanistan, with their own agendas, loyalties and alliances.

Some clue as to where any particular faction stands at any one time can be gained from their ambassadors, the individual defence correspondents for the media. Most – but not all – of them have allied themselves with one or other factions, acting as unofficial spokesmen for their respective groups.

Such a clue comes from The Times, with Michael Evans reporting under the headline, "Military loses battle over Afghanistan troop boost", retailing how: "Gordon Brown has rejected the advice of both his Defence Secretary and military chiefs by refusing to send 2,000 more troops to Afghanistan to boost the permanent British presence in Helmand province to more than 10,000."

The use of the word "battle" is highly revealing, as it indicates the reality of that invisible war being waged in Whitehall, and in the messes, clubs, offices and boardrooms of the defence contractors (many of them employing former defence chiefs), all of them pushing their own agendas, leaking to their particular media allies when they do not get their way.

Hence it is highly revealing that the piece does come from Michael Evans, a loyal supporter of one of the military wings of the MoD, who tells the story from the perspective of his "clients", in terms of pleas from commanders for more "boots on the ground" having been rejected by the prime minister, who has "sided with the Treasury and has ruled that the total force must remain at the present level of 8,300."

The inferences you are invited to make are transparently obvious – the brave, sturdy soldiers are once again being balked by a cash-strapped Gordon Brown who, conspiring with his the "bean counters" in the Treasury, are depriving "Our Boys" of the resources deemed essential to win the war against Johnny Taleban.

As we have already pointed out on the forum, however, things really are not as simple as that. Things never are that simple.

The military, as currently constituted, is a deeply dysfunctional organisation, not least evidenced by its state of denial over its performance in Iraq. It is also one which – as CDS Jock Stirrup admitted in January - was "smug and complacent" about prosecuting counter-insurgency warfare, relying too much on its experiences in Northern Ireland – the lessons of which it did not even apply properly.

It is also a military which, as Stirrup also admitted, has yet to complete a "fundamental reappraisal" of Britain's counter-insurgency training and structures and which, as we have seen recently, seems unable to foster a "spirit of informed debate" when it comes to reviewing its own performance.

Furthermore, despite some reputed high-fliers and intellectual heavyweights in the middle ranks, this is a military that has been unable to come up with a coherent strategy for the prosecution of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, is (still) making a complete mess of its equipment procurement and is unable to mesh with US doctrines.

On top of that, it has shown itself to have been comprehensively caught out in its dealings with the Taleban, and despite its operational budget having increased from £1.5bn in 2007-08 to £2.6bn in 2008-09, it has been unable to demonstrate any proportionate increase in effectiveness.

Confronted with its own inadequacies, it has therefore - in the time-honoured fashion of bureaucracies since the dawn of time - raised a cry for "more resources" as the answer to all ills, not least because when they are not delivered the fault (and blame) can be transferred. It then "briefs" heavily to its friends in the media, to ensure its version of events lodges in the public consciousness, thus establishing its alibi for when things go "belly-up".

On the other side of the road from the MoD, however, the situation is seen somewhat differently. While Evans avers that Gordon Brown has had a "change of mind, under Treasury pressure" about sending more troops, as long as the military could not come up with a credible strategy, encompassing the effective use of additional troops, there was never going to be any permanent uplift in numbers.

We are told that John Hutton, the defence secretary, put his full weight behind the military chiefs' recommendation to send long-term reinforcements, but this is not surprising. There was always a fear that Hutton would "go native" and be captured by the MoD – and this has proved to be the case. Rather than a controller or director of the military caucus, he has become an apologist for it.

Evans also tries to imply that the US will be discommoded but his choice of phrasing is, once again, revealing. "The decision will also bitterly disappoint the Americans," he writes, "who had been led to believe that a mini-surge of British troops was due to be announced." In other words, this is a speculative assertion.

In fact, while no one disputes the undoubted bravery and elan of the British military, and their competence at executing rehearsed tactical drills, at political and higher military level in the US, there is indifference to their intentions. After the debacle in Iraq and the "deal" at Musa Qala (and elsewhere) there is no longer any trust in the strategic judgement of the British military – and nor are their ill-equipped and ponderous formations of any great value.

While the "Toms" churn up the desert in their "boy racer" Jackals, the US Command have long since decided that their own troops will do the "heavy lifting", while continuing to supply much of the heli-lift, close air support and intel assets. British help to fill in the gaps and deal with the natives is appreciated but no longer essential.

For General Sir Richard Dannatt, though, Evans has it that this "will be a bitter blow". But it is he that has presided over the diminished reputation of the Army of which he is so proud. He needs to look to his own lack of strategic leadership, and his failures to grasp the nettle of turning the Army into an effective counter-insurgency force.

As for the Army generally (and the military as a whole to a lesser extent), it needs to come to terms with quite how much its reputation has been diminished and how much goodwill it has lost – and is losing through the inept handing of the "information war" which is so much part of any counter-insurgency campaign.

The worst is, the longer and deeper the military remains in its current state of denial, blaming anyone and any thing but itself for its own shortcomings, the worse it will get. Already, the MoD publicity effort is a parody of itself. The way it is going, the rest of the military will follow, to become a tarnished asset and a shadow of its former glory.


The risk of failure

By linking the final stage of our ignominious retreat from Iraq with a memorial service, honouring the British troops who were killed (but not the others under British command), the military and government both thereby achieve the effect of blunting criticism of the war.

Any such criticism, especially of the military, can easily be dismissed as heartless or insensitive, given that so many have put themselves in harm's way and many have paid the ultimate price.

Given also that this current government is in a terminal stage of decay, it is thus easier to focus attention on the political failures – of which there were many – staying any criticisms of the military, for fear of offending the sensibilities of those who knew or were related to the fallen.

There is also a strong political element here as well. The manifest failures in Iraq serve as a useful stick to beat the current government and to enjoin the military as partners in a collective failure dilutes the attack on the politicians. It is thus tactically advantageous the position the military as innocent "victims" of political machinations, rather than clinically to apportion blame where it lies.

The fact is though, however much it is spun, the counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq was a British failure and the responsibility for that failure lies both with the politicians and the military.

Where exactly that dividing line lies has yet to be determined and it will be many years and take much study and argument before all the issues have been rehearsed and the final resolution reached – if ever. I have made an attempt at an analysis in my book, Ministry of Defeat, due out in June.

In it, I readily acknowledge that, as a second draft of history, it will have flaws, but it is an honest and so far the only attempt to chart the complete history of the British occupation of Iraq.

Of the coverage in the media today, the Evening Standard best cuts through the cant, with a comment piece headed "Our inglorious retreat from Iraq", noting that, even allowing for the professionalism of British forces, innumerable acts of courage on the part of individuals and high aspirations from their commanders, the reputation of the Army has been diminished, not enhanced, in southern Iraq.

This supports a piece by Andrew Gilligan under the title: "The lessons of Basra are: do something properly or not at all". In this piece, however his focus is on the events of Basra, and thus lacks the historical context of the campaign as a whole, where the seeds of defeat were not sown in Iraq's second city but earlier in al Amarah.

Thus does Gilligan aver that Basra was a historic humiliation for the British Army a shaming contrast to the behaviour of the Americans, who also suffered reverses in their sector of Iraq but reinforced, fought back strongly and eventually prevailed.

In this blinkered fashion, he then argues "It wasn't the Army's fault: our soldiers are no cowards. It was the politicians in London who gave up, not the frustrated troops on the ground. Where there is, however, fault on the military side is in their current attempts, publicly at least, to deny the reality of the operation that ended today."

Gilligan is wrong in one sense. It was the Army's fault – in part at least. Although the politicians seen the framework for defeat, the situation up to mid-2006, with inspired leadership and more intelligence and flexibility than was shown, was recoverable.

But where Gilligan is right is in pinpointing the attempts of the military to spin the operation as a success. That denies the opportunity of conducting a frank, open and searching post mortem and thus limits the ability of the military to learn the lessons from its own mistakes – some of which it is currently repeating in Afghanistan.

Acknowledging failure, as Aaron Wildavsky once wrote, allows for the concept of "useful" failure. Citing the engineer Henry Petrovski in his support, in the context of civil engineering disasters, he noted:

...the lessons learned from (those) disasters can do more to advance engineering knowledge than all the successful structures in the world. Indeed, failures appear to be inevitable in the wake of prolonged success, which encourages lower margins of safety. Failure in turn leads to greater margins of safety and, hence, new periods of success.
What applies to engineering applies to the military, as it does all other walks of life. The absence of information on failure leads, in the long run, to increased risk of failure. The risk of failure in the future is too high for us not to acknowledge and learn from the failures of our past.


Wednesday 29 April 2009

On another planet?

In Helmand province, readers will recall, we are told by the Operations Officer for 3 Commando Brigade (Major):

Currently we have secured the five major population centres in Helmand and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have exploited this security to deliver tangible, effective and sustainable reconstruction and development. During our tour, you could count the number of security incidents in these areas on the fingers of your hands.
The record shows that 3 Commando Brigade took over in Helmand from 16 Air Assault Brigade on 8 October 2008 and completed its 6-month tour on Friday, 10 April 2009, when it handed over to 19 Light Brigade.

Having already dealt with the Major's assertions in relation to Now Zad, we return to his extraordinary claim about the number of "security incidents", with a look at one of the five major population centres in Helmand, Lashkah Gah. This just happens to be the provincial capital and the location of the headquarters of British forces in Helmand.

With 3 Commando Brigade having taken up residence on 8 October, we find from the official record that, on 11 October 2008, at approximately 7:30 pm, "International Security Assistance Force forces took action to interdict a combined attack planned by enemy forces against an Afghan national security force compound in Lashkar Gah."

We are informed that insurgents were seen gathering on the outskirts of the town, prior to launching a mortar attack. Afghani and ISAF forces sought to counter this attack, supported by an air strike in which multiple enemy forces were killed.

Brig-Gen Richard Blanchette, ISAF spokesman, then stated: "If the insurgents planned a spectacular attack prior to the winter, this was a spectacular failure."

Task Force Helmand spokesman Royal Marine Lt-Col. Woody Page said, "This was a deliberate and planned operation that continues, conducted by ISAF and ANSF forces to defeat terrorist activities in the region of Lashkar Gah. We remain fully committed to supporting the government and people of Afghanistan in their aim to defeat these terrorists."

The Times was then to observe on 13 October that the attack on Lashkar Gah had been the first time that the Taleban had attempted to push inside the well-defended provincial capital. The operation had indeed been an attempted "spectacular", a Taleban tactic culled from the insurgents in Iraq and aimed as much at psychological impact as military success.

We then get limited information on air activity, such as on 11 October when F/A-18Cs performed shows of force to deter enemy activities in the vicinity of the capital, on 12 October when coalition aircraft are in the air conducting shows of force, also to deter enemy activities, and again on 13 October

On 14 October, we then hear from the New York Times that ISAF and Afghani forces had repulsed a fresh Taleban attack the day before, killing at least 18 insurgents.

A Nato spokesmen said the attack, "the second in four days on that city, underscored the growing abilities of the Taliban, who have increased the tempo of their attacks as the seventh anniversary of their ouster from power in Kabul approaches."

Interestingly, Nato officials also say that the two attacks at Lashkar Gah showed how the Taliban had grown into a far more formidable force than in the early years of the conflict. "They now have an ability," we are told, "to mass fighters in large groups, sometimes in the hundreds, with an array of small and heavy weapons, and they can co-ordinate attacks more effectively, often involving simultaneous thrusts from different directions."

That day, there is also more air activity, again with coalition aircraft performing shows of force and, the next day we hear from the Boston Globe that a US National Guard soldier has been killed by an IED after his military convoy was attacked near Lashkar Gah.

By 16 October , there is still air activity, with a coalition aircraft dropping a GBU-12 onto enemy fighters firing upon friendly forces with small arms fire, "in the vicinity of Lashkar Gah" and, on 17 October, The Guardian reports: "Insurgents kept up their assault Thursday on Lashkar Gah. They fired a rocket that landed on a street lined with shops, killing a civilian and wounding five others."

The attack, says the paper, followed two other assaults this week on the security checkpoints that ring the city. More than 80 militants were killed and three police were wounded. The attacks on the city, the capital of the world's largest opium producing region, appears to signal the Taliban's intention to disrupt a major government centre.

On 18 October 18, we get indirect news from the Pakistani Daily Times that fighting is continuing and on 20 October we are told that a US Air Force MQ-9A Reaper dropped a GBU-12 onto insurgents who were using small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades against coalition forces. A US Air Force B-1B Lancer dropped GBU-38s in the same area.

It is then only on 21 October, after what has effectively been ten days of continuous fighting, that the Afghan National Army declares victory in defending Lashkar Gah from "an attempted Taliban takeover".

Not until 4 November, however, do we learn from the Canadian press of the scale of the fighting and how close the battle had been.

Viewed from the Canadian perspective, from this source, we learn that a small group of Canadian soldiers had "finally returned to their base in Afghanistan after playing key roles in some of the heaviest fighting this fall."

Details, the narrative went, are now starting to emerge about the part about 30 Canadians played in the battle for Lashkar Gah. "(The fighting) was quite intense," said Maj. Steve Nolan, who commanded one of the mentorship teams working with a kandak, or battalion, of Afghan National Army soldiers.

Hundreds of Taleban fighters were involved, attacking the city on three sides. Nolan's team and their kandak, normally based in Kandahar province, were mobilised and arrived in the embattled city on 13 October as insurgents were attacking police outposts around the city. "We pulled into Lashkar Gah in the dark and it turned into a combat mission right away," said Nolan. "As we were moving in, there was tracer fire moving over our convoy."

On 17 October, the Canadian-mentored kandak was ordered to clear a swath of territory five kilometres wide and 10 kilometres long into the nearby village of Aynak - a maze of eight-metre deep canals, three-metre high cornfields, vineyards and narrow lanes lined by tall mud walls. "There is no more complex terrain anywhere in the world," Nolan said.

Backed up by attack helicopters, the Canadian and Afghan soldiers advanced into repeated ambushes, coming under machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Shots would be exchanged, then the Taliban would fall back to their next position. "It's an all-day affair. There was always fire, or you always knew (every) 50 metres, that's where the next little contact would be."

After sweeping the corridor into Aynak free of Taliban, the kandak and the Canadians took part in a massive assault involving more than 1,400 Afghans, as well as mentor teams from Britain and the US. That assault, on 21 October, cleared a similar corridor into another nearby village called Nawa. On 22 October, Gen Zazai declared the Taleban had been successfully driven back from Lashkar Gah.

Although barely reported in the British media at the time, The Daily Telegraph later observed that, "British commanders were surprised that the Taliban had managed to gather such a large force for a single attack."

On 26 October, though, The Times had been on the case, reporting that US military chiefs are to send up to 9,000 troops to Helmand next year, potentially sidelining the UK’s 5,000-strong force in the southern Afghanistan province.

The move, wrote defence correspondent Mick Smith, "comes amid US frustration that the British have insufficient soldiers and helicopters to maintain security and reconstruct Helmand, with the Taliban acting freely in large tracts of the province." British sources said the revelation that the bulk of the troops were to be sent to Helmand made it doubtful the British could stay in charge.

The failure of the British effort in Helmand, Smith added, "was highlighted two weeks ago when Taliban fighters marched on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and attacked the governor's house just yards from the UK base." The base is actually over a mile away, but the point was made. Even in a supposedly secure area, the British had failed to keep out the Taleban.

All this notwithstanding, given that, only two weeks into its deployment, 3 Commando Brigade had spent ten days fighting continuously in its own headquarters town, one can only assume that our Operations Officer for 3 Commando Brigade (Major) took this to be just one security incident. Either that or, as we suspect, he was on a different planet – or in a different country.

That could indeed be the case because, even after 22 October, with over five month to run, there were many, many more incidents. We will have a look at some of these in another post.


The escape from kiddies korner

So it is done. "What we are trying to do is combine the measures, militarily and civilian," says Gordon Brown in today's statement, something which gets close to joined-up government, even if it is many thousands of miles away.

With Nick Clegg reminding the House that, "Public support for the conflict is under strain", the statement trailed the publication of the document "UK policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan: the way forward", setting out the clearest statement yet of where we stand in this troubled corner of the world.

A mere 32-pages including the covers, the relatively modest length belies its depth. Its main claim to fame is to offer a seam-free approach to a unified policy which encompasses both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Looking for clues as to a change of direction, however, what stands out is the remarkably candid appraisal of the current status. Thus states the document:

The security situation in Afghanistan remains serious, particularly in the south and east. Insurgents are unable to defeat international forces directly, or Afghan forces where they have international support.

But the insurgents' switch to asymmetric attacks (against which international and Afghan forces can only provide the population with a certain degree of protection); their access to havens across the border in Pakistan; and the combination of poverty, lack of good governance, weak rule of law, lack of progress on reconciliation and social and economic development, and perception of widespread corruption, mean that the insurgency has not been delivered a decisive blow.

The local population therefore lacks sufficient confidence actively to back the legitimate government against the insurgency. Without an improvement in security, particularly in the south and east, sustainable progress in Afghanistan will remain difficult; and what progress there has been so far will be put at risk – as will wider regional stability, and our own national security.
But, while what few headlines we have so far seen concentrate on the temporary boost in troop levels – with 700 more to be deployed to provide security during the forthcoming presidential elections - of much more long-term importance is this little nugget buried in the strategy:

We will support the Afghan government by investing in stronger markets that will promote an entrepreneurial business culture. To assist the vast majority of Afghans who live in rural areas, we will increase our support to agriculture and rural development, including transport to market, and support for access to international markets for agricultural exports.

In particular, Helmand province, with its abundant natural resources, has the potential to be a centre of agricultural production and growth for Afghanistan. To help realise this potential, we will invest £68m over the next four years in agriculture, rural enterprise development and infrastructure.

Current projects include: a major road-building programme linking Lashkar Gah to Garmsir, Nad-e-Ali and Gereshk; the refurbishment of the Gereshk hydropower plant (as part of a wider programme to double electricity production in 2009-10); and agri-business infrastructure in Lashkar Gah (funded by the US).
This might by some be considered as coming under the category "too little, too late" but, given that these developments will be almost completely ignored by our kiddies korner media (to say nothing of the increasingly trivial korner of the political blogosphere), it is remarkable that there has been any progress here at all. Crucially, we then see this:

We will also continue to support the Afghan government to deliver basic services, such as health and education, by providing direct support to pay the salaries of teachers and other key workers. In parallel, we will build the government's capacity to collect taxes so that, over the longer term, it can begin to reduce its reliance on international support.
The first sentence is interesting. For too long, there has been money spent on rapid impact projects, building schools for the photo-opportunities they afford, only for them to remain unused or not fully exploited because the communities cannot afford to pay teachers and central government is unable to come up with the cash.

As to the last sentence, this is possibly the most important issue of all. As long as Karzai gains most of his income from international aid, his greatest concern will be keeping his foreign paymasters on-side. The welfare of his people is of secondary concern. Thus, if Afghanistan is to develop, there must be a transition from external dependence, building up a strong tax base so that the central government becomes dependent on its own population.

There is much to be said for the premise "no taxation without representation" but less is heard of the very obvious requirement that, for there to be representative government, there must be taxation. When people are taxed by government, they tend to take an interest in politics. Where there is no tax, there is no nation.

Such issues are, in fact, those which are the focus of policy-makers behind the scenes. They are grown-up issues upon which resolution will depend on whether the visible military adventure is successful. That is where the work lies, and where we must see progress, and it where our attention should be focused. Boring though it is, one crucial metric of success is how many Afghanis fill in a tax return.

That we see a strategy document addressing this is very much a start. That we are seeing recognised the vital role of agricultural development, and the road-building programme is also an improvement. We are further on than we were, and that is something.

That leaves the strategy document to make a statement of the "bleedin' obvious". The challenges facing Afghanistan and Pakistan are substantial and complex, it says. "They require a multi-stranded approach, covering security, building more effective and accountable governance, and promoting development in an often insecure environment."

Pace Nick Clegg and his observation that, "Public support for the conflict is under strain", what is also required is a better understanding by our own public of the issues involved, the priorities and the nature of progress.

On this we cannot expect any guidance from our kiddies korner media, or from our gifted MoD. But, for the grown-ups, the strategy document is directly accessible. The beauty of the internet is that we no longer have to rely on spoon-feeding from the media. We can read things for ourselves and make up our own minds. If we do not, we only have ourselves to blame.


A new strategy in the wings

Afghanistan is not Iraq – and Gordon Brown is not Tony Blair. There was undoubtedly a concerted attempt to keep the Iraqi insurgency out of the news in the run-up to the elections, first in 2004 and then again in 2005 – a classic example of news management – but, despite our charges to the contrary, that does not appear to be the case with Afghanistan.

At a time when the whole issue of the Afghani conflict - and the spill-over into Pakistan – is especially sensitive (or would be if the kiddies korner media could lift its horizons above the prattle), the prime minister is today to make a statement on what is termed the AF/PAK strategy.

This will come after the entertainment break – aka PMQs, which will occupy the commentariat no end – following which the strategy document, produced by the Cabinet Officer rather than the MoD, will be published. On financial grounds alone, it will be of some importance. The cost of UK military operations in Afghanistan increased from £750m in 2006-07, to £1.5bn in 2007-08, and to £2.6bn in 2008-09. At the same time, development and stabilisation spending increased from £154m in 2006-07, to £166m in 2007-08, and to £207m in 2008-09.

In times of financial stringency, when public expenditure cuts are inevitable, it becomes even more important to determine whether our money is being well spent. With the massive escalation of costs in the military adventure – for what appears to be very little result – we need to know why annual spending has gone up from £1.5bn to £2.6bn in the space of one year.

We will follow the statement after PMQs and then post a detailed analysis as soon as we can, but this leaves questions hanging as to the conduct of the public information campaign so far. If we are getting open disclosure and discussion at the top level, but nothing coming up from the bottom, that seems to point to a blockage somewhere in between.

Here, the finger points to the MoD, where its anally retentive news management policy seems to be soaring to new heights (if that is the correct expression).

One can nevertheless understand the MoD's reticence to open the books. Used to demanding – and getting – a blank cheque to fund its unique brand of incompetence, fuelled by a breathtaking arrogance that has to be experienced to be believed, it must come as a rude shock that anyone has had the temerity to produce so bold a thing as a strategy – much less publish it so that the great unwashed can read it. We await the statement with interest.

(The pic shows an Afghan-Pakistan border post ... rather appropriate, we thought.)


Tuesday 28 April 2009

Kiddies Korner 1

In the train wreck that constitutes the British media, the story of the day from Afghanistan is how "girlie girl" L/Cpl Amy Thomas, 20, serving with Royal Marine Commandos in Afghanistan's "Helmand province hellhole", loosed off a burst of shots with her SA80 rifle "after being flown into a notorious hotspot with comrades."

Although this must be of some antiquity – the Royal Marines have already returned home – this is recounted in loving detail by The Sun, under the by-line of super-hack John Kay, no less, billed proudly as an "exclusive".

This is investigative reporting at its best, brought to us hot off the MoD's "feel-good files", The Sun's reward for being good boys, getting the nod and the wink from the MoD before their rivals get a taste of the story. But so good is a "girlie with a gun" story that it was not long before The Daily Mail got in on the act, followed by The Daily Telegraph. They have both cribbed the story from The Sun in what passes for serious journalism these days - the motto being "where the Sun leads, we follow".

Meanwhile, back in the real war – entirely unreported by the kiddies korner media - we have another report of the Taleban deploying an anti-aircraft gun in the Lashkar Gah area. This is the third such incident, the first two reported last week when they were taken out by A-10s and a precision air-strike.

This time, the gun was a ZPU-2 (the twin-barrelled version of the guns previously reported). It was being towed by a tractor and was taken out by a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, which fired Hellfire missiles. Both the tractor and the gun were destroyed. Later, a US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber flew several shows of force and expended flares to prevent an enemy force from assembling for attack near "a coalition forward base."

That is a British base and Lashkar Gah is in the heart of the so-called "security triangle" where, according to the MoD troll infesting the Booker column comments, ISAF has been "able to deliver sufficient security to enable the delivery of reconstruction and development aid by civilian agencies."

These incidents, however, only happened on Sunday. Yesterday, we saw a similar story, when US Navy Hornets and Super Hornets employed GBU-12s and strafes to hit enemy gunmen shooting from fighting positions in compounds and a tree line.

These strikes, we are told, caused the enemy personnel to stop firing on coalition personnel. An additional F/A-18E performed a show of force over an enemy compound during the engagement to suppress enemy fire.

Not only was this happening right at the heart of the supposedly ISAF-controlled territory, that day some 80 close-air-support missions were flown in support of ISAF and Afghan security forces, reconstruction activities and route patrols. That is currently about twice the rate strike missions are being flown compared with last year and, if such activity is a useful metric of enemy activity, then clearly the operational tempo is increasing.

Nothing of this, of course, is allowed to trouble the minds of the "kiddies korner" media. Readers will recall that, even as the last two anti-aircraft guns were being taken out, we were being regaled with the derring-do of Colour Sergeant Michael Saunders, Platoon Quartermaster Sergeant for the Combat Infantry Signals Platoon.

He had been writing his war stories from the safety of his signals cabin in Camp Tombstone and had become "the talk of his local town" after he had started sending regular letters back to his local pub describing daily life on the "front line".

Entertaining though such stories are, the inability of the British media to offer anything approaching hard news is turning the fourth estate into a parody of itself. Next topic on the agenda, dare we predict, is The Sun reporting how one of our "Brave Boys" farted in the showers in Camp Bastion – another "exclusive" by the fearless Tom Newton Dunn – while the Chinese News Agency reports the real news.


Monday 27 April 2009

Peace in our time

In response to Booker's piece on Afghanistan yesterday, a number of commentators disagreed with his "take" on the situation. One, who called himself "Praetorian" even went so far as to argue that the situation in Helmand was largely under control.

According to this anonymous source, the US did not retake Now Zad. It was handed over peacefully by the Estonians to the US so that the Estonians could be redeployed to the Nad-e Ali district (this actually happened in Nov 08). Thus, does he claim that, while the situation that Christopher Booker describes was true two years ago:

Currently we have secured the five major population centres in Helmand and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have exploited this security to deliver tangible, effective and sustainable reconstruction and development. During our tour you could count the number of security incidents in these areas on the fingers of your hands. During Dec 08 we mounted a major operation (Op Sond Chara) that secured 270 km square of fertile land and 100,000 people. We established patrol bases and have delivered sufficient security to enable Voter Registration, Focused District Development for the Afghan National Police and Governor-led Poppy Eradication, all without major incident. In short, the columnist is out-of-date and ill-informed.
Going back to look as those two years of peace so admirably described, there are just one or two incidents which might cast a little doubt on the glowing picture painted. Actually, there are slightly more than one or two.

Focusing exclusively on Now Zad, on 14 March 2007 RAF GR-7 Harriers were dropping Enhanced Paveway II laser-guided bombs on an enemy firing position and a building used as an additional firing position near Now Zad.

The next day, on 15 March 2007, one of two separate F-15Es of the US Air Force dropped a GBU-12 on enemies on a hilltop near Now Zad. The enemies were using the hilltop to direct mortar fire at coalition forces. One of the F-15Es then dropped a GBU-12 on the hilltop mortar position.

Then, on 16 March 2007, the F-15E Eagles were back, assigned to support coalition forces taking fire from and returning artillery fire to an enemy location near Now Zad. The F-15s made three passes over the target area, expending multiple GBU-12s, GBU-38s and 20 mm cannon rounds on enemy firing positions.

Only days later, on 19 March 2007, F/A-18s conducted aerial reconnaissance for a suspected mortar position near Now Zad. The F/A-18 pilots reported spotting multiple individuals on a ridge.

On 27 March 2007, it was the RAF's turn, as Harriers dropped Advance Paveway II munitions on a building and compound where insurgents were firing upon coalition forces near Now Zad.

The following month, on 12 April 2007, F-15Es provided overwatch of a village being used as a meeting location for local elders. And, at the coalition ground force commander's direction, the pilots also provided overwatch for a coalition convoy vehicle disabled by a mine in the same area.

The next day, on 13 April 2007, US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles received notice that coalition forces were taking mortar and small arms fire while trying to make their way to the district center of Now Zad. A Joint Terminal Attack Controller passed coordinates for a building used as an enemy fighting position and the F-15Es dropped a GBU-38 on the target. The JTAC confirmed the building was destroyed. Another GBU-38 was dropped successfully on a second target at the request of the coalition ground commander.

The F-15Es were then assigned to make strafing passes into a wooded area that was a known enemy firing position and where enemy forces were attempting to manoeuvre around coalition forces. After the jets strafed the wooded area, anti-aircraft artillery was heard. By then, coalition forces had made their way safely to the district centre.

On 4 May 2007, US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs provided reconnaissance of enemy firing positions and suspicious activity near Now Zad. A week later, on 13 May 2007, US Navy F-18F Super Hornets dropped multiple GBU-12s on enemies in the area including a sniper and an insurgent cave. The JTAC confirmed the bombs hit their targets. F-18s also dropped a GBU-12 on insurgents moving toward a disabled vehicle. Then, a US Air Force MQ-1 Predator fired a Hellfire missile at enemy targets fleeing from the attack by the F-18.

Things seem to have quietened down a little for it was not until 6 July 2007 that A-10s were in action, performing shows of force with flares over Now Zad. Then, on 15 July 2007, RAF Harrier GR-7s searched compounds and monitored suspicious vehicles.

The 17 July 2007 saw F-15Es provide successful shows of force to deter enemy activity and the 23 July 2007 had a RAF Harrier GR-9A also provide a show of force in what was termed "the Now Zad battle".

The big stuff came in on 24 July 2007, when a B-1 Lancer (pictured above) dropped GBU-38s on an enemy mortar team in Now Zad. Two days later, on 26 July 2007, another RAF Harrier GR-7 conducted a successful show of force with flares.

Three days later, on 29 July 2007, F-15Es were back in action dropping GBU-38s on a mortar firing position in Now Zad. The weapons hit their intended target. The aircrews also provided a show of force to deter any more enemy activity in the area.

Two days later, on 31 July 2007, the big stuff was back in town when a US Air Force B-1B Lancer destroyed a mortar position and hit enemies on along a ridgeline with GBU-31s in Now Zad. An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle also provided a show of force with flares over an enemy mortar position for friendly forces in the area.

It was A10s which delivered the goods on 5 August 2007 when thet destroyed an enemy mortar position with a general purpose 500-pound bomb. Four days later, on 9 August 2007, F-15E Strike Eagles were in the sky, dropping GBU-38s on a compound and a tree line.

The 11 August 2007 had an F-15E providing a show of force with flares to deter a potential second attack by the enemy while the 23 August 2007 saw a B-1 provide shows of presence and air effects over coalition routes near Now Zad.

On 25 August 2007, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs destroyed a mortar firing position and a building in Now Zad with a general-purpose 500 pound bomb and a GBU-12. The pilots also fired cannon rounds at the mortar position.

All we got on 6 September 2007 though were F-15Es performing a successful show of force with flares over Now Zad, a display that was repeated on 9 September 2007 when another F-15E performed a show of force with flares, this time to deter mortar fire on ground forces. An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs also performed shows of force over vehicles to deter movement toward friendly forces.

An elapse of two days brought us to 11 September 2007 when defending coalition forces under enemy fire near Now Zad had the assistance of a US Air Force B-1B Lancer, which destroyed an enemy mortar position, a compound and caves with GBU-31s. The aircrew also successfully targeted another enemy position with a GBU-38.

On 14 September 2007, all it took was a show of force from F-15E Strike Eagles to deter anti-coalition activity but, 18 September 2007, slightly more aggressive action be A-10s was required, when they targeted enemies with cannon rounds. The JTAC confirmed the weapons hit the target. One of the pilots also conducted a show of force with flares to deter further enemy activity.

The A10s were back on 21 September 2007 when they performed a show of force to deter enemy activity but, 29 September 2007 an RAF Harrier GR-7 did the honours with its own show of force.

On 8 November 2007, Navy F/A-18C Hornets were in action, strafing enemy positions with cannon rounds and adding GBU-12s to the mayhem. During the same mission, F/A-18Cs aided in the engagement by dropping GBU-12s and firing cannon rounds against enemy combatants who were engaging coalition convoys moving through Now Zad.

An RAF Harrier showed up the next day, on 9 November 2007 and engaged an enemy position with Enhanced. Paveway II munitions. Coalition forces were taking fire from the enemy held position. During the same mission, GR-7 performed shows of force to deter enemy activities in the vicinity of Now Zad.

Five days passed when, on 14 November 2007, a show of force with flares was performed by an F/A-18C to deter enemy actions. The following week, on 22 November 2007 had a B-1B performing a show of force. That must have been impressive to watch. At an air show, you pay for that sort of thing and the Taleban were getting it free.

The 5 December 2007 saw a major intervention in support of the action in Musa Qala, when Afghan and coalition soldiers pushed back Taliban insurgents from Now Zad.

The combined force was conducting a reconnaissance patrol in Now Zad when Taliban insurgents attempted to ambush the patrol from established fighting positions. The enemy fired on the Afghan forces using small arms, rockets and mortars. The forces immediately returned small-arms and machine-gun fire, putting the enemy on the defensive.

The enemy moved to secondary positions in an attempt to flank friendly forces as the battle escalated. Afghan forces identified the new enemy fighting positions and engaged with small arms, machine guns and precision air strikes. The insurgents attempted to hide among the civilian population by moving into homes.

The Afghan civilians prevented the enemy fighters from using the compounds and their inhabitants as human shields. The enemy fighters retreated and the Afghan forces continued to clear the village to ensure no insurgents remained.

Air power was back in action on 31 December 2007 when an Air Force B-1B Lancer targeted an enemy bunker with a GBU-31 and GBU-38s. And, to celebrate the New Year, on 1 January 2008, a French Mirage-2000 engaged an enemy target with a GBU-12. The next day, 2 January 2008, had a show of force performed by a another Mirage-2000 and the 9 January 2008 had US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles engaged enemy personnel by dropping a GBU-38 in Now Zad. The F-15s also fired cannon rounds against the targets.

All we got from a Harrier GR-7 on 21 January 2008 was a show of force but on 30 January 2008 a US Air Force B-1B Lancer made up for it by dropping a GBU-38 in order to destroy an enemy mortar position in Now Zad. Just over a week later, on 8 February 2008, a B-1B Lancer was back, dropping GBU-38s and GBU-31s in order to eliminate multiple enemy combatants.

Ten days later, on 18 February 2008, a French Mirage-2000 performed a show of force and 27 February 2008 another Mirage 2000 conducted a show of force.

To ring the changes, on 3 March 2008 a US Air Force B-1B Lancer and an A-10 Thunderbolt IIs dropped GBU-12s, 31s, and 38s in order to destroy enemy combatants and enemy firing positions. Two days later, on 5 March 2008 a Lancer then dropped a GBU-38s in order to destroy enemy combatants in a bunker.

The 19 March 2008 had another Lancer in action, this time dropping a GBU-31 in order to destroy enemy combatants in a compound engaging friendly forces with mortar fire. That held the line until 5 April 2008 when shows of force were needed from French Air Force Mirage-2000s over enemy positions.

The French were back on 13 April 2008 with their Mirage-2000s again performing shows of force. But, on 16 April 2008, F-15s dropped GBU-38s in order to destroy an enemy structure housing enemy combatants and a sniper engaging friendly forces.

On 18 April 2008, a French Mirage-2000 gave another free air show, repeated on 21 April 2008 for those that missed it. To pick up the latecomers, the Mirage was back on 22 April 2008 and the 23 April 2008, again with shows of force.

To give the Taleban a change of scene, on 27 April 2008 F-15Es conducted the shows of force but, on 12 May 2008, the Mirage was back yet again, followed on 29 May 2008 by RAF GR-7 Harriers. No one could say that the Taleban were not getting value for money.

The 6 June 2008 saw F-15Es dropping GBU-12s to destroy enemy combatants and 7 June 2008 had an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle drop a GB-38 onto enemy combatants. Then, on 15 June 2008 a B-1B Lancer dropped a GBU-31 to destroy an enemy compound.

An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle did the honours on 17 June 2008, dropping a GBU-12 onto enemy combatants, leaving A–10s to follow up on 28 June 2008 with shows of force.

The 3 July 2008 brought a bit of novelty when a US Air Force MQ-9A Reaper dropped a GBU-12 onto a building containing enemy combatants. The US Navy then joined in on 8 July 2008 with its F/A18E Super Hornet and F/A18C Hornets, dropping GBU-38s onto enemy combatants and an enemy compound.

They were only the warm-up act. The next day, 9 July 2008, a Navy F/A18C Hornet fired cannon rounds onto enemy combatants. The 14 July 2008 saw the return of a B-1B which dropped GBU-31 and 38s onto an enemy compound and enemy forces. This was followed on 21 July 2008 by a Predator MQ-1B which fired a Hellfire missile and dropped GBU-12s onto an enemy compound. Additionally, a US Air Force B-1B Lancer dropped GBU-38s and 31s onto an enemy compound and enemy combatants.

The 28 July 2008 had an RAF GR-7 Harrier doing some serious stuff, dropping EPII munitions onto enemy forces engaging friendly forces in the vicinity of Now Zad, followed by US Air Force B-1B Lancers on 4 August 2008, which dropped a GBU-31 and 38s onto the enemy.

Three days were allowed to elapse before, on 7 August 2008, a Royal Air Force GR-7 Harrier dropped Enhance Paveway II munitions onto enemy forces preparing to ambush coalition forces. That seemed to have kept the Taleban at bay for a while for it was not until 18 September 2008 in this peaceful environment that a coalition aircraft dropped Enhanced Paveway II munitions and a 540-pound free falling bomb onto anti-Afghan forces engaging friendly forces.

The 25 September 2008 then had an F-16A dropping GBU-12s onto insurgents in a compound using rocket propelled grenade and small arms fire. A Navy F/A 18C Hornet backed up, dropping a GBU-31 onto insurgents outside the compound trying to place an improvised explosive device in the same are. The next day, on 26 September 2008, only needed coalition aircraft performing a show of force to deter enemy activities.

It was only three days later, however, on 29 September 2008, that F/A-18Cs were needed to drop a GBU-12 and GBU-38 onto improvised explosive device emplacers in the vicinity of Now Zad. This seems to have given a month's respite for it was not until 26 October 2008 that a US Air Force B-1B Lancer was called to drop GBU-31s and GBU-38s onto a building where enemy fighters were firing RPGs against coalition force.

The next day though, on 27 October 2008, coalition aircraft had to drop GBU-12s onto a tree line where enemy fighters were firing mortars and rockets against coalition forces.

About this time, British and Estonian forces were preparing to leave the base at Now Zad, allowing the US Marines to occupy this peaceful area. Thus, on 1 November 2008, to entertain the about-to-depart troops, a Hornet conducted a show of force to deter enemy activities and provide armed aerial overwatch for a coalition convoy.

Another air show was provided on 11 November 2008, when coalition aircraft conducted shows of force to deter enemy activities and yet another on 20 November 2008 when a Navy F/A-18A performed shows of force and provided armed aerial overwatch for a coalition convoy conducting counter-improvised explosive device operations.

With the Brits and the Estionian forces "redeployed", on 3 December 2008 the 8th US Marine Regiment and the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force could get down to some serious gardening and other useful activities, entertained that day by a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet conducting a spirited show of force to deter the enemy from walking on the newly-sown grass.

So peaceful had the "handover" been, however, that the Brits had left all their kit behind – as one does. But so balmy and soothing was the desert air that the US forces, with nothing else to do with their time, decided to greet the British convoy which came out to reclaim the luggage.

Clearly, so enjoyable was the experience that the Marines and sailors with I Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force decided to make the affair a grand event, turning out in force between 7-12 December 2007, even in grand military style giving their excursions the name "Operation Backstop".

With the British and Estonian combined forces having "retrograded from the Now Zad area in order to redistribute forces in a realignment of battle spaces", kindly allowing the Marines of 3/8 the honour of to "filling the battle space in Now Zad", the British despatched a convoy of more than 30 large vehicles to collect their kit. The US Marine security Company I allowed the British free, uninterrupted passage, supporting the British with "force protection through its lethal firepower and manoeuverability".

Along the route from Camp Barber to Now Zad lie a number of choke points and well-known enemy positions. The Marines' objective was aggressively to confront insurgents along the route before the British convoy passed through. Fully equipped with sniper teams, explosive ordnance disposal teams and engineers, the Marines pushed their way through.

"In order to let the [British] convoy pass through safely, we [Marines] decided to take a route where we would most likely meet enemy activity and neutralize it," said Capt. Mike Hoffman, the commanding officer of Co. I. It is hard to believe this was at all necessary in the context of such a peaceful handover having taken place earlier.

Nevertheless, once the British had reclaimed their kit, it was back to the free air shows, with a US Navy F/A-18A Hornet on 20 December 2008 performing shows of force to deter enemy activities. With a break for Christmas, on 27 December 2008, coalition aircraft entertained bored troops with shows of force to deter anti-Afghan activities and to provide armed aerial overwatch for coalition convoys traveling along a known enemy route.

We were reminded that this was not only a Navy and Air Force show, as US Marine Cobra attack helicopters were also in daily action. In late November, after eight intense months of daily combat operations, 2/7 was replaced by 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced).

Still, though, US Air Force B-1B Lancers were helping with the gardening, one on 3 February 2009 destroying an anti-Afghan bunker near Now Zad with a GBU-31. Enemy personnel in the bunker, rather unsportingly, were firing on coalition ground forces.

Another Lancer was reported doing an encore on 22 February 2009, although the similarity of the narrative suggests double-reporting. You simply cannot get the staff these days. But, on 27 February 2009, coalition aircraft carried out shows of force "to provide an additional level of presence to enhance security for coalition operations".

Enhancing security even more, on 4 March 2009, F/A-18Cs hit anti-Afghan forces hiding behind the walls of a residential compound with several 20mm cannon strafing passes. Enemy personnel had been using the compound to fire mortars, RPGs and automatic weapons at coalition troops until the jets engaged, neutralizing the enemy firing positions.

On 6 March 2009, after completing an important logistics mission, a group of Marines braved insurgent attacks while transiting through what was described as "one of the most challenging regions of southern Afghanistan".

The second platoon of Motor Transportation Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 3, overcame insurgent attacks while returning to Camp Barber from FOB Now Zad. While returning from a three-day combat logistics patrol, the platoon received multiple rounds of insurgent mortar fire and located two improvised explosive devices.

Having arrived in November 2008, Combat Logistics Battalion 3 were celebrating their work in Now Zad forward operating base, They had been carrying out work, ranging from constructing buildings to building bunkers, at a pace described as "fast and furious." The biggest thanks they received, though, was after installing shower units and providing the Marines there with the opportunity to take a hot shower.

By 13 March 2009, Air Force and coalition aircraft were thus reduced to flying overwatch performed shows of force during several convoy operations, only breaking the monotony of perpetual hot showers by launching a precision air strike on 16 March 2009 to take out the sought-after insurgent, Jamaluddin Hanifi, together with Maulawi Mohammed Saddiq and two associates.

On 19 March 2009, it was back to boring old shows of force, with Navy Super Hornets doing the honours, which seem to have succeeded in deterring enemy forces from taking action "while coalition ground troops achieved their objectives".

However, on 22 March 2009, a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet provided slightly more entertaining fare, striking a compound with a makeshift enemy bunker inside, knocking in the roof of the bunker and destroying the fighting position. Enemy personnel in the bunker had been pouring automatic fire towards coalition soldiers from that location. They obviously had not been told how peaceful it had become.

Then came 3 April 2009 when the Marines did not re-take Now Zad. Thus, using a US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber to destroy an anti-Afghan forces staging area and several enemy positions in the area around Now Zad using GBU-31s and 38s must have been a complete waste of time. And, despite reports to the contrary, enemy forces clearly had not targeted coalition units using heavy machine guns and automatic weapons prior to the bomber's arrival.

Nor can it have been the case that the US Marines enjoyed US Navy F/A-18C Hornet fighter-attack aircraft, an Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber, Marine AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, the Army's tactical missile system and the Marines' high mobility artillery rocket system setting conditions for the operation by employing precision munitions on key insurgent targets.

Despite these non-events, however, we note that to finish off two years of "tangible, effective and sustainable reconstruction and development", on 8 April 2009 a US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber used GBU-31s to destroy several buildings near Now Zad which were being used as enemy fighting positions, with enemy gunmen firing from inside the structures at coalition soldiers.

It is such a comfort to know that this was completed "without major incident".


Sunday 26 April 2009

A question of prestige

Anybody who thinks that the dearth of hard news on British activity in Afghanistan is an accident knows nothing of the ways of the MoD. As we have already indicated, there is a quite deliberate policy emanating from Whitehall aimed at obscuring the strategic position.

The clamp-down on information very much mirrors that which was imposed in Iraq, and for many of the same reasons. Not least, we have the euro-elections coming up and, after those, the general election. Mr Brown's Labour Party does not want the Afghani War to be an election issue – it is a certain vote-loser. Thus, the less said about the way the war is being prosecuted the better.

The deafening silence, however, has at least been picked up by Booker in his column today, building on the work of this blog.

Thus Booker is able to bring to a wider audience a reminder that one of the best kept secrets of our recent politics, thanks to the news management of the Ministry of Defence, was how our occupation of southern Iraq turned into one of the greatest humiliations in the history of the British Army. But, bringing us up to date, Booker tells us, history is being repeated as the MoD is managing to hide the fact that something remarkably similar is happening in Afghanistan.

The essence of the case is that while, in March 2006, our forces were deployed to take responsibility for the southern province of Helmand, again and again they have taken some town from the Taleban and then been forced to abandon it. Each time, American troops have then had to be called in to retake it, with or without British assistance.

So far, there are three examples. Firstly, in December 2007, the US provided the bulk of the troops and assets needed to retake Musa Qala. Then, in April 2008, the US Marines retook Garmsir, after UK forces had spectacularly failed in their attempt. Finally, this month the Marines retook the town of Now Zad.

Now, although nominally, UK forces still retain the military lead in Helmand, without any formal announcement, it seems that the US forces under General David Petraeus, architect of the famous Iraq "surge", have taken over responsibility for much of the province. Clearly, from the amount of activity, the US is calling the shots and the UK is taking a secondary role.

At one level, it could be argued that this did not matter – and even that it was to be welcomed. With both the costs of the war and the scale of the fighting clearly escalating, US forces taking on a greater burden relieve the Treasury of some of the costs and also reduces our casualties.

The problem, however, is that a reduced presence carries its own costs, in terms of reduced prestige, authority and influence, demoting the UK to the status of an increasingly junior partner in the task of rebuilding Afghanistan, forced to follow the strategic direction set by the Americans, with very little say in the conduct and timing of operations.

In some ways, though, ceding the lead to the US is also to be welcomed, as the British have shown neither strategic competence nor any flair for addressing the complex problem of countering the Afghani insurgency, and neither is the government – with the complicity of the media – prepared to entertain an open debate about the tactics required or even the broad strategy.

In contrast with the steady drone of MoD-inspired "feel good" pieces in the British media, however, we are beginning to see the beginnings of a debate in the US media, one particularly interesting report appearing in Washington Times this week.

This report makes all the right points, specifically the role of road-building, maintenance and security, with the appalling state of one road illustrated in the piece (shown above).

These are issues we know that Gen Petraeus has taken to heart, while the British seem only reluctantly to be following in his wake, too little as always and too late. Thus, if there is any chance of the coalition ever breaking free of Afghanistan, leaving a stable nation behind them, it rests more with the Americans, to which extent the less "leadership" we get from the British the better.

That said, the penalty arising from our reduced prestige – while not immediately measurable – is bound to have an effect. Despite attempts to pretend otherwise, the reputation of the British military took a severe drubbing over Iraq, and a similar failure in Afghanistan reinforces the reality that Britain is drifting inexorably to the status of a third-rate power of very little consequence.

Yet, it is our reputation for being able to "punch above our weight" that has given us our status in the world, with which has come diplomatic and trading opportunities which have undoubtedly translated into real wealth. Britain the third-rate power is likely to have a much harder time of it.

Even though the British public and the media may be entirely indifferent to this prospect, there is also another element. The underlying understanding behind our deployment in Afghanistan is that British forces would, to a very great extent, be autonomous – not merely auxiliaries to the US military.

If, as appears to be the case, that is the current status of our forces, they are in Afghanistan under false pretences. That, incidentally, is also likely to be one of the reasons why the government is so reluctant to tell us the truth. One suspects though that the most important and profound reason for the silence is the reason that governments are always silent – to conceal their own incompetence.

That this current government is incompetent in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, should hardly come as a shock but, as elsewhere, it should not be allowed to conceal that incompetence under a veil of silence. If the government is selling us out, yet still having to bear the burden of the enormous cost of the war, the only reward being dead and injured soldiers and a progressive loss of prestige, this is something about which we should be told.


Wednesday 22 April 2009

A pig with lipstick

More details of the Jackal 2 are emerging, not least with a report from the BBC which outlines some of the changes and an entry on the MoD website. And we have now obtained a photograph of the prototype (above – with the MoD offering below).

From the various sources, we learn that the engine, transmission and suspension are basically the same, but the chassis has been upgraded to allow the vehicle to carry a greater load and give it greater strength.

This, as we surmised, has permitted the installation of additional armour. The main changes here are the fitting of a number of blast plates on the floor of the vehicle, underneath the gunner's position. The two seats also have steel protection surrounding the underside and back.

The new vehicle can now also carry four soldiers, one more than the Jackal 1 and the armoured door locks back into the open position, allowing troops travel while looking out of the door.

The rear of the vehicle has also been redesigned, allowing fuel or water cans to be carried on the outside of the vehicle, enabling troops to store their Bergens (backpacks), extra ammunition, or other equipment.

With the additional armour, crew survivability will undoubtedly be enhanced and, without question, the vehicle offers better capability and protection than the Land Rover Wimik, which it replaces - not the Snatch Land Rover, as so many journalists insist on stating.

That said, this is still a poor design and bolting on additional armour simply makes it a poor design with additional armour. A pig with lipstick is still a pig.

However, while this vehicle in many ways symbolises the lack of coherence in British military vehicle design and procurement, the problems go far deeper than that, reflecting the underlying confusion in strategic aims and tactical doctrines (or the lack of them).

Starting at the top, the very existence of this vehicle is a testament to that confusion. At one, we have a vehicle that is a special forces raider, a weapons platform and a scout/reconnaissance vehicle. It is also used as a convoy escort and performs the assault role that would in past conflicts have been fulfilled by light tank or armoured car.

Therein lies the heart of the problem. What started as a high mobility truck was adapted for the very specific requirements of the special forces and, in the absence of any suitable replacement for the Land Rover Wimik – which in itself was a stopgap, much misused for a variety of roles – was then pressed into service, thus perpetuating the original confusion.

Basically, if the Army needs an armoured car (which indeed it does, being virtually the only modern army without such equipment) then it should procure a suitable design. If it also needs a scout car – which is altogether a different animal – then it should also obtain one, and if it wants convoy escorts then something very different is also required. The fatuous attempt to provide what amounts to a multi-role vehicle, that ends up being all things to all men, is fundamentally flawed.

Turning specifically to the fabled off-road performance of this "beast", this - when the Jackal was first introduced - was cited as its main advantage. Thus we were told:

Although incorporating a fully-integrated protection system and reinforced armour plating, Jackal's main defences are its mobility and agility. This makes Jackal perfectly suited to the operational terrain of southern Afghanistan, where speed and manoeuvrability are essential.
As it turns out, the "mobility and agility" have proved dangerously insufficient so the Army now finds itself in the classic position of having to ask for more armour to be bolted on to overcome the inherent defects of the vehicle and the underlying concept.

This puts it in an unenviable position. Having relied on a flawed concept for protection, it has ended up with a vehicle which is optimised for off-road performance, to which it now has to add protection. This contrasts totally with the US concept which has been to procure a vehicle optimised for crew protection and then to improve its off-road mobility.

Thus, we have the US awarding a contract to Force Protection, to upgrade the 1,500-strong Cougar fleet with the retro-fitting of independent suspension at a cost of $122 million.

What we could well see as a result is a convergence between the two design concepts. As the Jackal acquires greater weight in an attempt to improve protection, its off-road performance will be degraded (as indeed has been the case) while the Cougar fleet with its enhanced suspension is able to match that degraded performance, while offering far better protection.

Therein lies the fatal (quite literally) flaw in the British approach. As we are reminded on our forum and elsewhere, mine and blast protection, to be effective, must be designed in, ab initio. It cannot be bolted on.

The route the British are taking, therefore, is to end up with a vehicle with only moderate off-road performance and poor protection, for the price of a vehicle with superb protection and no significant difference in off-road performance.

What makes this worse, however, is the complete inability of the MoD and the Army to admit their own mistakes. Having started down the wrong path, they follows in the classic mould of poor generalship of reinforcing failure, bolting on more armour to a poor design, in the vain hope that this will somehow overcome the inherent defects.

Then, as always, they devotes huge amounts of time and effort to their propaganda machine in an attempt to convince themselves and others that they have made the right choice. With the one exception of Ann Winterton, they will succeed with the MPs and the BBC report already shows that we need expect no criticisms from the media.

But the final outcome is that they are compounding the original errors in also purchasing the Coyote (pictured above). If actually fielded in the configuration shown, this will transcend the normal incompetence we have come to expect from the MoD and the Army. Without even the bolt-on protection of the Jackal, sending troops out in this will be nothing short of murder.


Jackal two

First it was a truck, then they added guns and it became a Supacat M-WMIK. Then they bolted on some armour, so it became a truck, with guns with bolt-on armour. And lo! It became the Jackal.

Now, after the loss of at least eighteen of these trucks-with-guns-with-armour, and four dead, we have the life and the resurrection, with the emergence of the enhanced Jackal or the Jackal 2.

Although not specified officially (and there have been no photographs released), the vehicle has been further armoured, adding more to its weight, so that we now have a truck-with-guns-with-armour with more bolt-on armour. That is the way the British Army works.

Some 110 Jackal 2s have now been ordered, with more than 70 Coyote Tactical Support Vehicles, a six-wheel version of the same thing, set up to carry cargo in support of the Jackal detachments.

For these miracles of military engineering, the MoD is to pay £74 million of our money, split between Supacat, which will provide the design and programme management, and Babcock Marine which will make the things. That averages out at just over £400,000 per machine.

Needless to say, the beneficiaries of this largesse are gushing about their good fortune. Nick Ames, the managing director of Supacat, is saying: "This alliance will help to ensure that our armed forces receive the best possible equipment within the shortest possible timescale. More importantly, it will both enhance their operational effectiveness and their protection."

Quentin Davies, the minister of state for defence equipment and support, who could have announced the order to parliament during Monday's defence debate, obviously did not think this venerable institution was important enough. He thus announced it at the British Army's Long Valley testing ground.

"These impressive vehicles will give our troops increased protection on frontline operations," he purrs. "We are showing our commitment to provide our service personnel with the very best equipment we possibly can."

Thus does the BBC report, "this deal protects jobs and troops." Meanwhile, Gary Wakefield, recently injured in Afghanistan from a mine or IED, tells his local newspaper, "The amount of injuries coming back is unbelievable." There is, of course, no connection.


Tuesday 21 April 2009

And the big news is?

The surreal disengagement of the MoD and our media continues with the latest round of non-reporting on Afghanistan. The event of the moment – from US sources – is a disturbing development, where the Taleban has fielded two heavy anti-aircraft weapons capable of taking out a Chinook or other British helicopter.

Both were Soviet-made ZPU-1s (pictured), loaded and ready for use, mounted on the back of pick-up trucks. They were located in the Nad Ali district, close to Lashkar Gah, where British troops are stationed.

Fortunately – in an encouraging testament to the ground work done by coalition forces - the villagers spotted the first gun and reported it to the authorities. Shortly thereafter, it was given the undivided attention of a brace of US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. According to the dry, descriptive prose of the official bulletin, the aircraft "engaged" the enemy truck, using their 30mm Avenger cannons "to destroy the truck and the machine gun."

Less than 12 hours later, villagers reported that the Taleban in Nad Ali had obtained another ZPU-1, which they had been firing in the vicinity of the local bazaar. Coalition forces used a precision strike successfully to destroy this gun as well.

Although the ZPU-1 is 70s-era equipment and obsolete, with a 14.5mm calibre, it is a potent anti-aircraft weapon and could have made short work of any helicopter it hit. The rapid intervention of the US Air Force, said a coalition forces spokesman, "without a doubt saved the lives of Afghan and coalition forces".

Nor were these the only interventions. Yesterday saw a continuation of the high level of air activity with 76 missions flown, including in Lashkar Gah itself where a US Navy F/A-18C Hornet flew a show of force and expended flares to deter enemy suicide bombers after a source had warned coalition forces of enemy preparations.

However, such tedious, low-grade stuff cannot even begin to compare with the MoD's "take" on the top news story. From this source, we learn that a British soldier deployed to Afghanistan has become the talk of his local town after he started sending regular letters back to his local pub describing daily life on the "front line".

This, incidentally, is Colour Sergeant Michael Saunders, Platoon Quartermaster Sergeant for the Combat Infantry Signals Platoon, who spends most of his time in a signals cabin in Camp Tombstone. With the story happily retailed by the BBC, it really is good to know that the powers that be have such a good grasp of what is really important and are keeping us so well-informed.