Tuesday 7 April 2009

A crisis of indifference

There is too much happening in this damn world for any one individual even to be able to start giving a coherent picture. That makes our masthead statement rather forlorn, where we offer to "discuss issues related to the UK's position in Europe and the world".

Inevitably, therefore, choices have to be made and, with limited resources, we can do only so much. Thus when things are being covered elsewhere, we tend to leave them, unless we have something to say which we feel adds value. Instead, we often try to focus on issue we believe important which are not getting the coverage they should.

For that reason, we return again to the subject of Afghanistan. It is not the only important issue in the world or the UK, and it is not the most important. But it is fair to say that, relative to its actual importance – both internationally and domestically – the coverage of the issues is dangerously slight. In our own limited way, therefore, we feel the need to redress the balance.

Of particular concern is one issue pointed out on our forum, in relation to yesterday's Dispatches programme, and the comments by our soon to be Chief of the General Staff, Gen David Richards about our ability to admit our mistakes and learn from them.

Asked by Stephen Grey why Americans speak so candidly about things that go wrong, but in Britain "every operation... seems to be a success", Richards suggests that the Americans "have the confidence and resources, to correct the errors that they identify." In the British camp, however, Richards admits that he is "not certain we always feel that we're going to, so we tend to plug on and hope that we'll find a way through our problems."

This, from such a senior military officer is a startling admission which, with the other responses from Stirrup and Dannatt, suggest that there are institutional failings within the military which far transcend the individual errors that we have seen and reported.

One of the major problems here, though, is the contemporary media and political narrative, which positions the military as the "heroes", with the gallant generals – Dannatt in particular – standing up for "Our Boys" against the venal and incompetent politicians, who are also charged with "lacking military experience".

In the general context of personality politics, therefore, we have a scenario where every failing or shortcoming – real or perceived – is laid at the door of the politicians, and most often at the figurehead, prime minister Blair and now Gordon Brown.

We would not even begin to suggest that either and both of these did not bear a very great responsibility for the disasters we are experiencing. However, this one-dimensional narrative enables the Service Chiefs to float serenely above the fray. They can thus make blunder after blunder, in the certain knowledge that their political masters will take the flak, leaving them free to repeat the same mistakes or invent new ones – completely unchallenged.

One slight sign that perception is changing comes from, of all people, Con Couglin in his blog, not that you would not guess this from the title of the piece, which proclaims "Government incompetence is destroying the British Army's reputation." The sting is in the tail though, where Coughlin writes:

It's not just that we don't have enough "force enablers" - armoured vehicles and helicopters, the government has also failed to provide sufficient force levels to adequately secure the southern Afghan province. As a consequence the Americans - as happened in Iraq - are now having to send their own troops to help bail us out. As a result the proud reputation of our military for delivering results on the battlefield lies in tatters. All those responsible for this appalling state of affairs, whether in the government or the military, should hang their heads in shame.
It is that phrase, "whether in the government or the military" which is the key point. As many of the mistakes have been made in the military as in the government. And many that have been made by the government have not been corrected by the military or – as important – have not been disputed.

On the other hand, some of the things which the politicians have done have been in the teeth of military opposition, and have been the right things – the MRAP/protected vehicle programme being one of them. We keep having to say – and in the context of the Dispatches programme, this is all the more relevant – that the purchase of the Vector was a military decision. The procurement of the Mastiff was a political decision. And there is no doubt now as to which one was right.

Interestingly, exactly the same dynamics are happening across the Atlantic. In the US, it was Robert Gates's decision to kick-start the MRAP programme which rescued the Iraqi campaign and that was also a political decision, in the face of prevarication by the military, which had been sitting on the programme for ten years

This comes over in an important budget speech made by Gates, which we will review in detail later, but it is briefly reported in The Washington Post today, with the headline, "Gates proposal reveals his alienation from procurement system." In calling yesterday for "a dramatic change in the way we acquire military equipment," the report says:

… Gates showed his slow but palpable alienation from the so-called iron triangle of defense contractors, lawmakers and military service executives that has long promoted building the best weapons systems, no matter what the price. In the future, he said, weapons should be engineered to counter "the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries," not what a potential adversary might create with "unlimited time and resources."
Here in this country, we have the same issues and many more. But, as we remarked in our earlier piece, they are not being discussed.

This is the bigger problem. In days gone by, systemic weaknesses in our military, a procession of failures and the prospect of an even bigger failure as we lose the war in Afghanistan, would have been news. These would have been matters of concern, the subject of debate, issues to be resolved. Instead, there is near silence and a complete absence of debate. People – and especially the political claque – do not want to know.

What we have here is a crisis of indifference. And a nation that no longer cares deserves to lose – as indeed we have done before.