Sunday 31 May 2009

Not that important

Two more soldiers have been killed, probably in a Jackal, bringing the number eight who have lost their lives in this machine. Two more have died in Vikings, one in an incident on 14 May and the other on the 22nd.

Compare and contrast with the Mastiff (pictured above) after a mine or IED strike in Afghanistan. From the damage – not least to the bar armour on the sides - it looks to have been a very significant explosion. Whether there were any injuries, we do not know, but there were no deaths. Despite multiple strikes, not one soldier has ever been killed in a Mastiff.

What also comes over very clearly from the video grab – taken from a short film on the 2 Scots Mastiff Company – is the "v-shaped" hull profile. It is this that provides the degree of protection which has enabled the occupants of the vehicle to survive – a design attribute which cannot be "bolted on" after the event.

Other techniques can also be used. One is "distance" – maximising the distance between the expected location of the blast and the crew compartment. This can be achieved by putting the engine in front of the cab – the so-called "engine forward" design – and by ensuring the vehicle has high ground clearance. This latter attribute is, in any event, a feature of off-road vehicles.

The use of energy absorbing materials is also valuable – and not necessarily high-tech. The Rhodesians found that by half-filling tyres with water absorbed much of the blast from a mine strike, improving survivability. At the other end of the scale are deformable materials which, in the process of being deformed by a blast, absorb energy and thus reduce the force transmitted to the hull of the vehicle.

This technique is often combined with the use of "sacrificial" parts – like wheels and mudguards – which are so designed as to allow them to be blown off by the force of a blast, so absorbing energy.

Both the Jackal (right) and the Viking (below left), however, lack the "v-shaped" hull profile and although they are armoured, without this design feature, there is a limit to what armour can do. Up to a point, heavy armour can provide a degree of protection but, unless it is shaped to deflect blast, the weight requirement will end up being so formidable that the vehicle so equipped will not be able to function.

In each case, other protection features are absent as well, especially with the Jackal which has a "cab forward" design, making the driver and his front passenger particularly vulnerable to IEDs and mines which explode under the front wheels.

That these vehicles should be so vulnerable – by design – is an indictment of the MoD and its military "customers". In a theatre where the IED and mine are the weapons of choice for the insurgents, it is – to say the very least – unwise to field vehicles which cannot protect their crews from these basic weapons.

Basic principles, developed in the 60s by the British Army and industry, since developed and refined by the Rhodesians, the South Africans, Israelis and Americans, have been virtually ignored by the very people who pioneered them, with the inevitable result that troops have died and are dying unnecessarily.

But, if the MoD and military have been slow to embrace this – with successive defence secretaries failing to force the pace – theirs is not the ultimate responsibility for our troops being furnished with inadequate equipment. As we never tire of saying, the buck ultimately stops with Parliament as it – constitutionally – is the body charged with scrutinising the government and holding it to account.

To be fair, it is not just this Parliament which is at fault. The first mine-protected vehicles were taken on charge in 1966 and, when they were finally paid off, they do not appear to have been replaced. Then and subsequently, no one seems to have asked why not.

When in 1992 or thereabouts, the Army again found the need to purchase mine protected vehicles, the event seems to have gone unrecorded outside the military. And when again, those vehicles were paid off in 2003, and replaced by small numbers of different vehicles, again no one seems to have remarked on the event.

Yet, when the need for mine/blast protected vehicles is so evident, and the US is undergoing a programme of identifying the next generation, light high-mobility mine protected vehicles, there is very little evidence that Parliament as an institution is taking the matter seriously.

For sure, Ann Winterton has raised the matter again and again and again and again. But no other MP seems to have embraced the issue, the opposition front benches have remained largely silent and the Defence Committee has been worse than useless. And one MP endlessly "banging on" is not enough. MPs must "hunt as a pack" if they are to achieve anything. Without more support, this issue is going nowhere.

Now, at the end of this Parliament – some time next year, one assumes – Ann will be retiring. Almost certainly, we will have a new administration, drawn from the very MPs who have not yet stirred themselves on this issue. That does not auger well for the future. Whether the demoralised and much depleted numbers of Labour MPs will be able to mount an effective attack looks very unlikely.

On that basis, the prognosis for the future looks very poor – depressingly so. With the one consistent champion of properly designed vehicles departing the field, there does not look to be a replacement. Even if there was, one would not be enough. Parliament will be the weaker for the loss of its champion and it is a poor reflection on the institution that, when all is said and done, MPs do not really regard the unnecessary deaths of soldiers as that important.


Saturday 30 May 2009

Ministry of Defeat - a review

Click the pics to expand to readable size.

Thursday 28 May 2009

A failure of supervision

As the publication of the book draws near - now scheduled for next Thursday, the same day as the euro-elections - we are beginning the largely thankless task of getting media attention for the launch. To that effect, the first of many press releases have hit the street, couched in terms that may interest the media.

Our first is entitled "Failure of supervision by MPs 'caused deaths of soldiers'". It makes the case - which we have so often made before - that Parliament, and especially the Defence Committee, owes a special duty of care to members of the Armed Forces, to which effect we rightly (in our view) hold MPs responsible for some of our soldiers' deaths - where they could have intervened to save them.

Such a charge is the mirror-image of the "expenses" scandal, where the argument is that, while MPs have been enriching themselves at the taxpayers' expense, soldiers have been dying becuase they have not done their jobs properly. It is difficult sometimes to make a link between the comfortable, well-appointed committee rooms in Westminister and the arid deserts of Helmand, but link there is. This is what we are telling the media:

Failures by a powerful MPs' watchdog committee killed at least five soldiers with many more being badly injured, claims Richard North, author of a hard hitting book on the Iraq war entitled Ministry of Defeat.

The five soldiers included Sergeant Lee "Jonno" Johnson who was killed in December 2007 when his vehicle was hit by a mine, and Major Alexis Roberts of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who had mentored Prince William during his time training at Sandhurst military academy.

They and the others were killed in a dangerously vulnerable "protected patrol vehicle" called the Pinzgauer Vector which should never have been ordered, says North. Yet in 2006 the vehicle order was "welcomed" by MPs in the Defence Committee, chaired by James Arbuthnot, who has since been criticised for claiming expenses for "swimming pool maintenance".(1)

Although MPs were been diligent in claiming their tax-free expenses, when it came to watching over the safety of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, they did not pick up fatal flaws in the machines, which offered no protection to mines and roadside bombs, claims North.

The Ministry of Defence first ordered Vectors on June 2006 at a cost of cost £437,000 each, to replace the the Snatch Land Rovers* costing £60,000, in which 37 soldiers have been killed. But so poor was their design that it was incapable of protecting drivers and passengers from more than hand grenades, yet they were being earmarked for Afghanistan where 7.5 kg anti-tank mines were common.(2)

Even when David Gould, deputy chief executive of the Defence Procurement Agency, sitting alongside the then defence secretary Des Browne, warned the committee on 11 July 2006 that they would "actually provide not a great deal more in terms of protection than Snatch", MPs failed to respond.

The choice of the vehicle was not examined again until December last year, but committee chairman James Arbuthnot – himself a former defence minister – only asked a question about its ability to operate on rough terrain. He did not query the deaths and injuries.

Only in April of this year did Arbuthnot finally question defence secretary John Hutton about the safety of the machine, when he was told that the Vector had been the "least successful" of the armoured vehicles purchased by the MoD and that "Mistakes were probably made". On 1 May, three years after the vehicles had been ordered, the MoD officially announced that they were to be withdrawn because they were "too vulnerable" to roadside bombs. Military vehicles often have a service life of 20-30 years.

Bizarrely, the Vectors are being replaced by "uparmoured" Snatch Land Rovers, the very vehicles they were intended to replace. The MoD has spent nearly £50 million on purchasing Vectors so far, and has been forced to spend another £5 million on upgrading the Land Rovers to take their place.

Says Dr North, had the MoD deliberately sought out a design to maximise deaths and injuries, the Army, in selecting the Vector, could not have made a better choice. If Mr Arbuthnot perhaps had been more concerned about soldiers' lives than his swimming pool maintenance, five soldiers might now be alive and many more would not have been injured. He says the design defects were obvious before the vehicles were even bought.(3)

Other MPs warned about the dangers – including the retiring MP Ann Winterton in April 2007, before the vehicles had been deployed, in a debate attended by Mr Arbuthnot and other defence committee members – but the warnings were ignored. (4)

Conservative leader David Cameron has called for reforms to the select committee system, including banning former ministers from being chairmen.


Notes for editors.

1. Defence Committee Report on Defence Procurement 2006, 28 November 2006.

2. The manufacturer's specification cites protection from "two NATO L2A2 hand grenades detonating simultaneously only 150mm below the floor pan" – 350g of high explosive. This vehicle was to be deployed into one of the heaviest mined countries in the world, up against Russian anti-tank mines housing 7.5 Kg of high explosive.

3. The Vector has a "cab forward" layout, with the driver and the front seat passenger sat over the wheel arches. If a mine detonated under a wheel, either the driver or the passenger would be directly in the so-called "cone of destruction", exposed to the full force of the blast. The Snatch has an "engine forward" layout and there is some distance between the front wheels and the occupants of the cab, allowing, as some have, soldiers to escape the full force of a mine and survive.

4. During his tenure as defence procurement minister, James Arbuthnot was responsible for giving the go-ahead to the Phoenix UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) for the Army. With an original planned in-service date of 1989 and despite having even then failed to perform, production was approved in the summer of 1996.

Unable to cope with the heat of Iraqi summers, it was withdrawn from operation service in May 2006, leaving the Army without a vital capability. Phoenix was formally retired in March 2008 - at an overall cost of £345 million - after less than seven years of operational service. Mr Arbuthnot was also the minister who ordered the ill-fated HC2 Chinook helicopters at an original cost of £259 million and have since cost £422 million for eight aircraft which have yet to fly.

Other projects for which Mr Arbuthnot was responsible - in whole of part - were the Nimrod MR4 project, the Future Large Aircraft (Airbus A400M) which has now been seriously delayed, and he masterminded the privatisation of Armed Forces married quarters.
Perhaps it is unfair to single out one man - but there again, if this is not done, where does the buck actually stop?


Thursday 21 May 2009

Gardening tips

Keeping us fully up-to-date with events, the MoD website is offering a piece on a "healing garden" winning a medal a Chelsea Flower Show.

If that is not to your taste, you can read how 2 Rifles' Sangin base gets a new healthcare centre. Then, hot news on the MoD Afghanistan blog is a heart warming story about how ISAF has provided "humanitarian aid to flood victims".

All these pieces come under the generic heading of "UK military operations" but if you actually want details of military operations, you have to go to the US official website. There we find that "intense fighting between troops and militants has unfolded over the past few days", the location being in Marjah, 12 miles south west of Lashkar Gah.

This appears to be of sufficient significance for it to merit a report by CNN News and it even gets a mention by the UPI press agency, it relying on the CNN report.

These sources indicate that US forces are doing the fighting, with the intelligence that more US troops were moving into the area, with the caution that "civilians should get out of the way".

To simple, ill-informed souls like ourselves, who were labouring under the impression that Lashkar Gah District was a British area of operation - with 42 Commando recently having recently completed Operation Aabi Toorah in Marjah - the heavy US involvement comes as something of a surprise.

However, the US involvement no doubt explains why neither the MoD nor the British media are bothered about reporting the fighting. But we should perhaps have picked this up earlier, except that such detail comes via the USMC - which we did not expect to be the primary source on operations in the British area. But there it is, in a bulletin dated 8 May, detailing the deployment of what are expected to be 8,000 US troops in Helmand by the end of May.

Interestingly, this will herald other changes, as rules of engagement "have been adjusted fairly recently" to allow soldiers to destroy poppy crops. This marks a clear change from British policy, where hitherto crops have been left standing and the harvesting unhindered.

According to ISAF, "recent successful operations against the insurgents in the area have prompted a build-up of militant forces and a spike in militant activity" with "significant" quantities of narcotics having been seized. There was, ISAF maintains, a "clear link" in Marjah "between the narcotics trade, corruption and the financing of the insurgency." The narcotics trade helps pay for weapons, bombs, and suicide bombers.

According to one report, at least 25 Taleban fighters have been killed, while three days ago, an air strike led to an all too common tragedy. Eight civilians, allegedly being used as human shields, were killed after a bomb was dropped on a Taleban position to help "ISAF troops" extract from heavy fire.

The airpower summary for the day reports Air Force A-10s and an F-15E Strike Eagle conducted strafing passes and releasing a GBU-12 in an undisclosed location. During the fight, we are told, ANA forces called off an A-10 strafing attack due to concerns that enemy personnel were hiding amongst local civilian women in an apparent attempt to provoke aircraft to harm them. The aircraft instead performed a show of force to disperse the enemy.

Near Sangin, we are also informed, where troops are blessed with their new healthcare centre, an RAF GR-9 Harrier dropped a Paveway guided bomb in the centre of a compound from which anti-Afghan gunmen were pouring fire on friendly ground troops. Harrier also performed a show of force to allow a friendly unit to withdraw from the confrontation. That "healthcare" may well be needed.

More and more, however, it seems that US forces are taking over the fighting, lending support to the claim that ISAF now stands for "I Saw Americans Fighting". But there is no truth to the claim that, as regards the British, it now means "I Slunk Away Frightened".

As US operations begin to dominate the fighting in Helmand, however, what little news we were getting in the British media – and via the MoD – seems to have dried up, hence the MoD news from Chelsea Flower Show. What the Americans make of that is anyone's guess but, so irrelevant now is the MoD to information provision that it might as well devote its site to gardening tips.


Tuesday 19 May 2009

A most abject failure

Today, there is considerable celebration amongst a small, badly neglected group of people at the Appeal Court ruling handed down on Monday. This has determined that soldiers on operations overseas retain their protection under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards the right to life.

The result of the ruling, as The Times records (and others here and here), is that families of British troops killed in war zones may be able to sue the government for a breach of human rights.

That "badly neglected group" who are so pleased with this ruling comprises the relatives – including the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and even grandparents – of soldiers killed in action, almost all of whom feel let down by the system and deserted by the very people who are supposed to be there to help them.

Amongst them is Sue Smith, mother of Pte Philip Hewett who was killed with two others in a Snatch Land Rover in al Amarah on 16 July 2005, the circumstances of which we have recorded in several posts (such as this one, plus this).

Sue – like many others - has since spent many years battling to seek justice for her son and has a court case pending, suing the MoD for negligence, a case which was awaiting the outcome of this judgement. The way is not clear yet, as permission has been given to take the case to the House of Lords - granted on condition that the Secretary of State for Defence pays the legal costs whether the plaintiffs win or lose. But this is a significant step forward.

Sue's point – which I heartily endorse – is that the Army, for local political reasons, knowingly and with "malice of forethought" sent men out in highly vulnerable Snatches, fully aware that these vehicles provided no protection whatsoever against the weapons that were being deployed against them, in circumstances where there was an extremely high risk that they would be attacked and killed.

This goes way beyond the normal risks of war where commanders at all levels failed in their most basic duties to protect the lives of the troops under their command, when simple, basic precautions and adequate equipment could have protected them.

As with the original decision handed down in April 2008 by Mr Justice Collins sitting at the High Court in London, there will probably be talking heads bemoaning this judgement, arguing that the Courts have no place in the battlefield. Already, some senior commanders are complaining that they will lose control over their own men, as tactical decisions – and orders – are questioned on "health and safety" grounds.

In principle, it is hard not to disagree with these sentiments but the upshot is that the Army and the MoD have largely brought it on themselves. Had they responded intelligently – and decently – to the very real and well-founded concerns of relatives, instead of "dead batting" them and then relying on their presumed exemption from human rights law, none of this would have happened. Not one of the relatives wanted to go to law, but the attitude of the authorities left them with no choice.

In that context, we see a very measured and sensible response in The Daily Telegraph.

But there is another player here, which also failed the relatives – and the men and women who died, and will die. That is Parliament. There will be few, I vouch, who will make the connection with this case, but the fact is that Parliament has a responsibility here.

Uniquely, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are bound by law to put their lives at risk and occasionally forfeit them, in serving the interests of the state. In so doing the state – as represented by the government – has a duty of care, moral if not legal. But the primary body charged with scrutinising the government and bringing it to account is Parliament. Given that service personnel are unable to speak openly on their own account, Parliament thus has that special duty to look after their interests.

Unfortunately, almost without exception, where bereaved relatives have gone to their constituency MPs for aid and some succour, they have found them to be useless. For sure, they get the ritual expressions of sympathy and promises of help, but nothing ever materialises.

At another level, never has the defence committee specifically looked at the issue of mine protected vehicles, or force protection in general and, in respect of many of the substandard vehicles used or bought by the Army, the committee has actually welcomed uncritically their introduction.

Then, at the higher political level, there has been an infuriating and utterly irresponsible tendency of the opposition to use equipment deficiencies as a stick with which to beat the government, scoring political points rather than seeking to resolve problems.

To understand why this is so objectionable, one has to get past the Janet and John view of politics – the one that has the secretary of state in total control, making all the decisions and taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong.

Many former ministers will attest to how little power they actually have in office and often how difficult it is to impose even minor changes in their departments. This is especially so with the Ministry of Defence, where there are powerful vested interests, in the civil service, in the military and in the defence contractor lobby. It is rare that ministers can take on the combined weight of their own departments and win, if there is embedded an outright refusal to change. That is real life.

Here, one of the greatest allies a minister has is Parliament – both his own MPs and, especially, the opposition. While his department might seek to frustrate his wishes, when there is a strong sentiment from parliament that things should change, the hand of the minister is immeasurably strengthened. If, however, the MPs insist on turning criticism into party, partisan scoring points, that is of no help at all.

For sure, politicians are there to score points off each other, but in terms of defence – where the lives of service personnel at risk – the duty of MPs as parliamentarians should transcend party interest. Their duty to those at risk comes first. That is why, indeed, we maintain the title of "Her Majesty's loyal opposition".

In all respects, Parliament – at an individual level, with a very few honourable exceptions - has failed to step up to the plate. At an institutional level it has completely failed. This is an abject failure.

So, for want of Parliament doing its job, relatives today are rejoicing that a court of law has done it for them. In the end, we hope justice will be done, but the fact that it will have to come from the courts rather than Parliament is another – and very serious – indictment of that failing and increasingly useless institution.


Monday 18 May 2009

Too much aggression

Although we have recently seen six British soldiers being killed in a period of seven days, little attention has been paid to what, on the face of it, could be rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

However, with the controversy over MPs' expenses in full spate, it was only The Independent which offered any serious analysis, suggesting in its Saturday edition that people in this country were bound to ask: "what are we trying to achieve there? Can it be done? And is it worth it?"

Actually, few people seemed to be asking that. If ever there was a "forgotten war", it is the campaign in Afghanistan, where – as was the case with Iraq – most of the publicity is confined to reports of soldiers being killed. Nevertheless, The Independent concluded that the campaign was "a worthwhile mission", although it expressed some reservations about taking the fight to the Taliban too aggressively, putting civilian lives at risk.

This was a reference to the frequent use of air strikes, with the paper suggesting that the war, "needs to be pursued with steadiness and a better understanding of how the Taleban operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan." It added: "It has to be hoped, after eight years, that the international forces now have that understanding. If they do not by now, they never will."

One can see the point – causing civilian casualties is counter-productive. But, when it comes to "aggression", it would be nice to think that, if the paper had any sway with the other side, perhaps it could prevail on the Taleban not to take the fight to the coalition forces "too aggressively".

Such a stance would have been welcome last Tuesday (12 May) when eleven Taleban suicide bombers attacked government buildings in the eastern city of Khost, on the border with Pakistan.

The assault began around 10 a.m. when a suicide bomber in a burqa attacked the governor's compound in the city. That blast was followed soon after by a suicide car bomb explosion. Then a team of six suicide bombers tried to attack the nearby police headquarters, but were rebuffed by security forces, including US forces who had been attending a nearby meeting.

The bombers then entered the neighbouring municipality building where three bombers detonated their explosives, while other Taleban took 20 city employees hostage. US and Afghan forces later stormed the building, freed 20 hostages and killed three insurgents. Khost residents were forced to hide from booming explosions and running street clashes that lasted until 5 pm. At least eleven Taleban and nine others - including police and civilians – died.

That same day, in the Aftabachi school in Kapisa province, north east of Kabul, less aggression would also have been appreciated. Only a few dozen of about 570 female students had attended their school, after an apparent attack with poison gas had sickened more than 80 girls. This was the third apparent poisoning at a girls school in about two weeks, attributed to the Taleban attempting to prevent female education.

Furthermore, this is by no means the only area where education is under stress. A report from Lashkar Gah district has the Helmand provincial minister of education complaining that outlying schools are "a target of extreme Islamism", making easy targets for Taleban who are blamed for the closing of 75 of the 228 schools in the district.

The authorities, therefore, are struggling to deal with an influx of 3,000 students who have "transferred" to the city schools, due to the murder of teachers and students and the burning of eight schools in the last year. Teachers are having to cope with makeshift tents because the existing schools are not big enough to take the additional pupils.

The provincial capital is one of the "security bubbles" maintained by coalition and Afghan security forces, but this situation indicates that the outlying districts are far from secure.

Nor indeed is the city of Lashkah Gah free from threat. After the attempted take-over in October, the Taleban were trying again last Thursday, aiming – it seems – to replicate the mayhem they had caused in Khost.

But, in what must count as a success for the security forces, the authorities were warned of about 30 Taleban assembling outside the city and were able to call in air strikes to forestall the attack. The AFP news agency records that 22 Taleban were killed, six of them known commanders. One assumes that The Independent will not be too upset about this aggression.

This was the same day that Marine Jason Mackie was killed in the area, while travelling in a Viking. We have no information as to whether the incidents were connected. However, we are told that US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles conducted strafing near Lashkar Gah on that day. The strike took place "during a firefight in which a friendly military vehicle was destroyed" and, we are also informed that the jets carried out shows of force as an unheeded deterrent prior to engaging enemy forces.

In fact, "air" had been quite busy that week in the Lashkar Gah area. On 12 May, a coalition aircraft flew shows of force over Lashkar Gah after Taleban fighters shot at a friendly convoy. The firefight ended once the aircraft arrived. Later in the day, a UK Royal Air Force GR-9 Harrier performed a show of force over a compound where enemy personnel were firing at Afghan security forces, suppressing their fire.

On the next day, more coalition aircraft performed shows of force over enemy positions to suppress enemy fire. The jets intervened after gunmen began shooting at Afghan and coalition soldiers from a compound and a tree line. An additional coalition aircraft stayed in the area to provide additional cover for friendly ground forces.

Then, the day after the abortive attack on the city, a UK Royal Air Force GR-9 Harrier conducted a show of force to put a stop to an enemy ambush. Enemy personnel had opened fire on a friendly unit with rifles and rocket propelled grenades. Later on, a B-1B Lancer flew a show of force to disperse a group of anti-Afghan forces personnel massing for attack.

That was the Friday and while this "aggression" was undoubtedly successful, airpower was not able to save Khost from another attack. On that day, Xinhua reports, the Taleban fired four missiles into the city, killing three civilians and wounding six others. One missile landed in Mosque, near a NATO military base.

Later though, in what The Independent might consider rather too aggressive, US-led forces killed five armed Taleban in the nearby Gorbaz, as they were carrying weapons on camels.

On the Saturday, however, a US Air Force B-1B Lancer carried out a show of force which ended an attack near Lashkar Gah. Taleban were firing at Afghan national police personnel and quickly fled the area when the bomber arrived.

Yesterday, it was reported that the Taleban attacked a police post and killed six officers in southern Helmand. Also, in neighbouring Zabul province, an Afghan army soldier was killed by an IED and three others were wounded. Elsewhere in the country, five police officers were killed when the Taleban attacked police in Nimroz province of south western Afghanistan. Over 2,000 Afghan police officers have been killed in 2007 and 2008.

Clearly, there is too much aggression here. If only all sides would listen to The Independent, the problem would be sorted in no time.


Saturday 16 May 2009

Vikings in trouble

It is left to Michael Evans in The Times today to offer the most comprehensive commentary of the death of Marine Jason Mackie, killed while travelling in a Viking.

Under the heading, "Marine is blown up in vulnerable vehicle that is going to be withdrawn", Evans notes that the MoD has ordered the Viking to be withdrawn next year because "it has proved to be too vulnerable to attack by the Taleban."

The soldier was the third member of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group, which drives and operates the Vikings, to be killed in Helmand province in the past 12 months, all of which makes the earlier claims of the MoD look rather sinister.

In January 2007, while the vehicle was on its first operational tour, it published a "puff" extolling the virtues of the machine, using RM Sergeant Major Simon Williams to tell us:

It's a phenomenal piece of hardware, the most manoeuvrable vehicle in existence. Nothing matches it. We've been here three months and would've lost considerably more blokes without it. British soldiers are coming home to their sons and daughters without missing limbs and most importantly alive, thanks to the Viking.
But, writes Evans, the Viking, which was introduced into service in Afghanistan only three years ago, was found to be insufficently armoured under the driver's seat. The vehicle is used to ferry troops across dangerous terrain in Helmand.

Last year, he tells us, the MoD admitted that the Viking was not robust enough to withstand the increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs and announced that it planned to buy a new vehicle, the Warthog, but it will not be ready for operations until next year.

And there the matter will undoubtedly rest, as the media once again does not address the basic failures of the MoD/Army to select the right vehicles for the job. As with the Vector, they are allowing the Army to get away with the canard that changing circumstances, as "in increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs" are responsible for the problems, when the fault lies in selecting a vehicle that was not sufficiently protected in the first place.

This myth has been assiduously cultivated by the MoD which consistently refers to the "evolving threat", one which in May 2007 had Michael Evans reporting that "the underside of armoured vehicles deployed in Helmand has proven to be highly susceptible to mines buried by the Taleban."

So it was that the MoD was preparing to add extra armour to key vehicles, especially the "relatively new" Viking. At that time, five had been destroyed by mines.

In January of this year, the first of six modified Vikings, with added armour, were set to arrive in Helmand, by which time the vehcicles had "suffered dozens of crippling attacks" that had claimed at least five British lives. With the death of Marine Mackie, we thus see yet another avoidable and therefore unnecessary death, bringing the Viking toll to at least six.

Even back in January though it had been recognised that the "bolt-on armour" option was not going to work, and already 100 more heavily armoured Warthog vehicles were on order. Nevertheless, these are not mine or blast resistant, suggesting that more deaths are to come.

US Army Command Sgt-Maj David Puig is remarkably frank about the advice he gives to troops about to be deployed. "We don't hide the truth from them," he says. "We tell them if you are going to be killed or injured in Afghanistan, it is probably going to be by an IED."

With US forces predicting an upsurge of 50 percent in the number of IEDs placed this year, to 5,700 - up from 3,800 last year, and with IEDs and suicide bombs having killed 172 coalition forces last year – and far more Afghanis – British troops are in for a rough time. They could do without the continued inability of the Army to provide them with suitably protected vehicles.


The fearless Dunn rides again

It used to be said that Sun journalists were the most skilled in what used to be called "Fleet Street". Their skill was in writing one hundred words of accessible prose what took broadsheet writers several thousand to do, while getting accurately to the heart of the story. Then the paper employed Tom Newton Dunn as defence "editor".

He, like many of the hacks today, writes up a story puffing the latest pronouncements of General Sir Richard Dannatt, missing the point completely, and thus reinforcing the paper's unenviable "comic strip" reputation, as it reduces defence matters to the status of a soap opera.

Thus does the fearless Dunn parade his superficiality under the heading: "Army chief: Spend more on Our Boys", telling us that the "outspoken" Army head last night accused the MoD of squandering precious billions on outdated equipment."

This was Dannatt preaching to a sycophantic audience at Chatham House, finally catching up with a reality largely of his own making, arguing that "Britain was still gearing up for a Cold War-style conflict against other powerful nations". But, he said, troops were far more likely over the next 30 years to find themselves fighting terror groups like al-Qaeda.

In the deathless prose of the fearless Dunn, this is translated as "Sir Richard" – there's grovelling for you – warning that "Our Boys in Afghanistan would suffer — or even fail — unless more cash was channelled towards their urgent needs."

The perspicacious Dunn then wisely informs is that this "landmark speech" was last night interpreted as a thinly-veiled attack on PM Gordon Brown's decision this week to buy 40 new Typhoon fighter jets at £60 million each. "And the hugely-popular general's comments will provoke more in-fighting between the RAF and Royal Navy over Britain's dwindling military budget."

What of course we do not get from Dunn – and, to be fair, from any other hack either – is that when it comes to "squandering precious billions", Dannatt has been right there in the thick of it, presiding over the waste of hundreds of millions on dangerously inadequate vehicles, not least the Vector, the Tellar and, to come, the Husky.

This is the man who also blocked the Army from obtaining cheap but entirely adequate helicopters for Iraq and Afghanistan in order to safeguard one of his fantasy projects, the Future Lynx, a helicopter that will cost 2-3 times a more than a suitable equivalent. It will not be available until 2014 – and not in service until 2016.

This is also the man who delayed the response to the catastrophic failure of the Phoenix UAV, leaving the Army devoid of a vital surveillance capability, preferring to wait for the advanced "Watchkeeper" project instead of insisting on buying perfectly capable UAVs off-the-shelf when they were most needed.

Most of all though, this is the man who in mid-2007, when US defence secretary Robert Gates was declaring the MRAP programme as his "highest priority" was declaring that £16 billion FRES programme was his "highest equipment priority". By July 2007, Dannatt was insisting that FRES should acquire a completely unrealistic in-service date of 2012 which, he said, was "non-negotiable", thus blocking the wholesale provision of more suitable, mine protected equipment.

Yet this was also the man who, having decided on one specific armoured vehicle to fulfil his dream, presided over an active conspiracy to block the provision of an equivalent vehicle, available off-the-shelf, the only one which could have met his 2012 deadline and which, within his own terms, could have given the Army the capability which he claimed was so desperately needed.

Now, having been largely responsible for the impoverishment of the Army, Dannatt has the nerve to insist that: "Much of our planned investment in defence is of questionable relevance to the challenges we face now and in the future. The balance of our investments remain heavily skewed towards industrial warfare. Many of these look simply irrelevant."

He also says, with not even a blush, "We must not take the commitment of today's Tommies for granted. We have an obligation to understand their needs and provide them with tools and training, not squander scarce resources," then concluding that, "We are in an era of persistent conflict. Iraq and Afghanistan are not aberrations, they are signposts to the future."

As to the latter assertions, Dannatt is, of course, playing catch-up – these very points were articulated by Robert Gates over a year ago. More specifically, Dannatt is bending to the wind, having spent most of his three-year tenure as Chief of the General Staff preaching the doctrine of the "balanced force", the very antithesis of what he is now embracing.

Nevertheless, such nuances, are beyond the likes of Dunn, Not having reported the Gates speech - The Sun doesn't do US defence politics - not having the first idea what FRES is, and certainly never having reported it intelligently, and having evaded any scrutiny of Dannatt's dire tenure over the equipment programme, Dunn is content to indulge in gushing hero-worship of a man who has perhaps done more damage to the Army than Mike "macho" Jackson.

Unfortunately, Dunn is not entirely alone in allowing Dannatt a free hand, with Thomas Harding The Daily Telegraph also offering an uncritical account of Dannatt's attempt to join the real world.

But here, in a much more measured account, Harding does allow something that Dunn, champion of "Our Boys" could never permit. He writes that Dannatt admits that Britain's performance in Iraq had led to its military reputation and credibility being "called into question" by America." Thus we also hear, via Harding, Dannatt telling us that, "Taking steps to restore this credibility will be pivotal – and Afghanistan provides an opportunity – key to doing so will be an honest self-appraisal of our performance in Iraq."

This is the man who, in December 2008, dismissed criticisms of the operation, telling us that "We have been quite clear about what we had to do and we have done it and we are going to leave in the early part of next year because the job is done". Now, at last, we are hearing a call from that same Dannatt, this time for "an honest self-appraisal of our performance in Iraq" – exactly the call made in my book Ministry of Defeat. Where we lead, Dannatt follows.

Whether the Army can rise to that challenge, or is even capable of carrying it out - with the accent on "honest" - remains to be seen. But that the outgoing CGS should at last ask for it is a step forward. One wonders though, whether his performance will be included in such an appraisal. If it is, though, you can be sure that the fearless Dunn will not report it.


Thursday 14 May 2009

Is this the best you can do?

At last, elements of the Vector story are emerging, drowned in the torrent of stories on MPs' expenses, even though we are seeing the waste of £100 million – roughly the sum paid to all 648 MPs in a year – the unnecessary deaths of at least five men and many more very badly injured.

The proximate cause for the publicity is a National Audit Office report, which has remarked that the vehicle has "limited under-belly armour to counter the evolving IED and mine threat in Afghanistan" and as a result "confidence in the use of the vehicle was low among commanders, both those in theatre and those who have recently returned."

This being an NAO report, the parliamentary end is Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee. It is thus to him that Deborah Haynes, writing for The Times, goes for a "cut and paste" comment. And what says the mighty Edward Leigh? It is a "woeful state of affairs" when confidence is lost in a new vehicle like the Vector so quickly, he tells us.

It is a "woeful state of affairs"? Is that really the best this man can do – a senior MP costing us £150,000 a year, and change? Is that all he can say about a procurement scandal that has cost us so dear?

But Haynes, not content with just Leigh, also fills her space with a renta-quote from Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary. He tells us that the NAO's findings confirmed "the gross mismanagement that has characterised Labour's decade of neglect of the Armed Forces".

Extruded verbal material then follows as Fox utters his all-purpose quote: "Due to a lack of strategic planning by this Government, our armed forces now have to play catch up by procuring equipment through [urgent operational requirements], instead of through a coherent procurement strategy. This leads to shortages of key equipment for training and use on operations. This is unacceptable and could cost British lives in the long run."

Yet it is this sort of low-grade rant that brings politics into disrepute. Apart from anything else, the UOR system is widely cited as one of the successes of the procurement systems. It is a rapid means by which the interminable bureaucracy of the MoD has been short-circuited and urgently equipment has been brought into service.

As to the Vector, as we know, this is not a reflection of any lack of strategy – it was purchased by the Army in direct fulfilment of its then current strategy. As even The Times now reports, the vehicle was bought to replace the Snatch Land Rover. The NAO report, however, makes this clearer, stating: "Vector was procured as a lightweight patrol vehicle for Afghanistan, to address the mobility, payload and capacity constraints of Snatch II, while improving on the armour protection."

That this could be taken at all seriously is belied by the fact that in 2006 the Defence Select Committee made several examinations of the Vector procurement, not least here. On one occasion, a member noted of the Vector that "there is a very welcome announcement that the MoD is to buy these vehicles to replace Snatch Land Rovers". Yet, on on 11 July 2006, alongside Des Browne, then secretary of state for defence, David Gould, deputy chief executive of the Defence Procurement Agency said:

We have the Vector programme, which the Secretary of State referred to, which will actually provide not a great deal more in terms of protection than Snatch but much more mobility and load carrying, so very, very suitable for the kind of terrain we meet in Afghanistan.
This, we reported the next day, after already having noted that the vehicle was dangerously vulnerable. Not then nor later did the Defence Committee ever question the safety of the Vector, even though it was quite obviously less safe than the vehicle it was replacing.

This is now confirmed by an article in Defence Management and another in The Financial Times which tells us that, after the weakness of the Vector was noted, the MoD spent £5 million up-armouring the Snatch Land Rover to produce the Vixen, to fill the capacity gap left by withdrawing the Vector.

We thus have the extraordinary situation where the MoD has spent £100 million on replacing a vehicle that was acknowledged to be unsafe – the Snatch Land Rover – only then to find that its replacement was even less safe, then to spend £5 million replacing it with the vehicle which it was intended to replace. And all the while, the Defence Committee failed to understand what was going on, despite having been given evidence of its weakness, well before the vehicle went into service.

On this basis, we can certainly turn to the MoD and complain about its suspect judgement but the long stop is Parliament in the form of the Defence Committee – and it failed to do its job.

Moreover, Fox himself does not come out of this at all well. Despite Ann Winterton raising the issue several times in Parliament, initially, Gerald Howarth, a member of Fox's defence team, supported the vehicle and when, finally, Howarth acknowledged it was too dangerous for use in Afghanistan, neither he nor Fox did anything about it.

Thus, while Fox so casually lays the blame – all blame – at the feet of government, he too shares the blame, with his parliamentary colleagues. They all had the opportunities and power to bring the MoD to book, and failed to do so. In our constitution, the buck stops with Parliament. In this case – and in so many – the institution failed to do its job.

And this really is the nub of the issue, which takes us beyond the child-like tendency to load all our ills on "government". Parliament must accept responsibility for its own mistakes and then it must improve its performance. Otherwise, there is no point in having it at all – at any price.


Another MoD blunder

Announced yesterday on the MoD website, the first batch of Panther Command and Liaison Vehicles has been delivered to troops in Afghanistan, "complete with the latest battle-ready upgrades."

Behind the bland covering story, however, lies a tale of utter incompetence, deception and bad faith which, even by MoD standards, almost beggars description.

Not least, this vehicle was actually selected after a "rigorous" competition, which had started in 2001, with the "preferred bidder" being announced in July 2003, for a contract value "worth over £200 million".

That alone is remarkable as it has now taken almost the same length of time to bring the vehicle into service as World War II actually lasted, missing out entirely on a complete war – the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

Yet, in the July 2003 announcement, it was hailed as the solution to the Army's requirement for enhanced speed, reliability, flexibility and protection for a wide range of users in combat or peacekeeping operations. It was also to, "provide support for the RAF Regiment". Specifically, though, it was to "play a key role in the Joint Rapid Reaction Forces by providing versatile, airtransportable vehicles, which will be among the first deployed in a crisis and will spearhead the way for troops in combat or peacekeeping operations."

What was also remarkable – although not apparent at the time – was the extraordinary lengths to which the government went to conceal its origin. The competition winner was announced as Alvis-Vickers and the vehicle was actually described as the "Alvis Vickers Limited Multirole Light Vehicle", and the government continually sought to give the impression that it was being manufactured in the UK.

In fact, the Panther was an untried Italian design called the LMV (Light Multi-role Vehicle), developed as a private venture by the military division of Iveco, based in Bolzano, Northern Italy which, by late 2002, had funded only ten prototype vehicles. Yet, even though the vehicle was to be wholly built in Italy, and then only fitted with British Army requirements in the UK, the contract was described as "a good result for the United Kingdom AFV industry."

The actual order came on 6 November 2003 when defence minister Adam Ingram announced a contract worth £166 million (including VAT) with Alvis Vickers Ltd, "for the manufacture of the future command and liaison vehicle (FCLV)".

By then, ongoing work on armoured fighting vehicle rationalisation had led to a review of the initial requirement for vehicles. The number to be procured was "revised" – i.e., reduced - ending up at 401 for the price of £166 million, equating to £413,000 each, with an option for 400 more. The RAF Regiment was not to receive vehicles from the initial fleet.

The third remarkable issue was that, at this time, the British-occupied southern Iraq was hurtling towards an insurgency and here was a vehicle which would "offer protection against small arms, blast and anti-personnel mines," ostensibly exactly the type which would be invaluable in dealing with Iraqi insurgents.

However, this was not to be. Described by the minister in July 2003 as a replacement for "a mixed fleet of ageing vehicles which were acquired as a stopgap following the withdrawal of the Ferret Scout Car" the Panther was to perform the command and liaison role, taking over from FV430 series vehicles, Saxons, Land Rovers and combat vehicle reconnaissance (tracked) fleets.

As such, the MoD did not have its eye on the emerging insurgency in Iraq. The Panther was to "play a key role in the Joint Rapid Reaction Forces" for the Nato and EU rapid reaction forces, and was never intended for counter-insurgency work. Thus, the ministry was quite content with an in-service date of 2006. That timetable fitted nicely with the plans for the expeditionary force, which was not due to become operational until 2010. As for Iraq, a month before the order had been signed, second-hand Snatch Land Rovers had been despatched.

The tragedy here was that, when the selection competition had started in June 2001, the Panther – aka the Iveco LMV – had not even been on the shortlist. As we recorded in a series of posts written in 2005 (here and here), the contenders were the RG-31, the RG-32M, the Alvis Scarab and the French-built ACMAT "Ranger", otherwise known as the VLRB.

It was not until after the shortlist had closed, in September 2001, that the MoD, in breach of its own rules, introduced the Panther into the competition, clearly motivated by an ambition – never openly admitted – to purchase a standard design for the European Rapid Reaction Force. And having placed the vehicle in what was now a rigged competition, the MoD went on to select it. And, as we subsequently found out, the MoD "desk officer" behind the programme went on to work as a consultant for Iveco.

Until the Panther had been submitted, the favourite had been the RG-31. Larger and far better protected, these would have cost £289,000 each, i.e., £124,000 less than the Panther. Alternatively, the nearest (and better) equivalent was the RG-32M which, at £152,000 per vehicle as opposed to £413,000 for the Panther, would have cost the MoD £60.78 million for 410 vehicles, as against the £166 million it has paid for the Italian job.

Either of these vehicles would have required modifications to suit the command and liaison role, as indeed did the Iveco machine but, unlike the Iveco, these were already in production and available at short notice.

When, in early 2005 it was obvious that the Snatch Land Rover was not up to the job in Iraq, we would have had a new fleet of protected vehicles already coming into service. It would have taken very little to modify them for theatre use and deploy them to Iraq. Thus, but for Blair's European agenda, protected vehicles could have been available from mid-2005. Lives could have been saved and, possibly, the outcome of the campaign could have been very different.

The ironic thing is that this is exactly what is now happening with the Panther. Fitting it out as a command and liaison vehicle has been problematical, not least because of the extremely limited internal space, with the Bowman command radio reducing the seating to three and overloading the air conditioning system. Thus, the vehicle has been stripped out to restore it to a four seat specification and, with theatre adaptations, is now to be used as a patrol vehicle, with some command capability.

Thus, while not originally intended for them, one of the first units to be equipped in Afghanistan is the RAF Regiment. Other vehicles are to go to the Close Support Logistics Regiment. These choices are interesting. With its high centre of gravity, made higher with the fitting of a remote weapon station (RWS) and other equipment, the Panther has been reported as extremely prone to rollovers. From this aspect, the roles chosen are probably the least demanding.

However, the weapon chosen to mount on the RWS is the 7.62mm GPMG, rather than the .50 cal, undoubtedly influenced by the weight of the latter, which would make driving the Panther even more perilous. This means that, compared with the Wimik or Jackal, the Panther is under-armed, the installation being officially described as a "self-defence weapon". That effectively limits the Panther's use, ruling it out for aggressive patrols or as a weapons platform.

Despite all that, the Panther is clearly better-protected than many vehicles that have gone before, and is an improvement on the Snatch, the Wimik and the Vector (but not the RG-31 or 32M). With the Spanish and Italians using them in Afghanistan, there is now good evidence that they are saving lives.

Even this will be at a cost though – if only financial. Rather than employing deflection as the main protective measure against mines and IEDs, Iveco have used modern automotive "crumple zone" technology to absorb blast energy, sacrificing components to keep the crew safe in their protected cell.

This means that the vehicle is heavily damaged by mine and IED strikes, and is often a write-off after an attack. By contrast, the RG-31 and similar – with their deflection technology - often need only minor repairs (above right) and can be returned quickly back to service.

Thus, we have yet another example of the MoD procurement ethos: spend more for less and get it later, with operating costs that are considerably higher. In that this purchase was as much motivated by the European agenda as innate MoD incompetence, we also have a classic example of how the combination of EU politics and procurement inefficiency can made a bad situation even worse.

The only consolation is that the option for the extra 400 vehicles is not to be taken up. But when the Taleban have destroyed the existing stock, we can look forward to next episode of MoD blundering, for which – in truth – they really do not need European assistance.


Tuesday 12 May 2009

All change at the top

The Guardian, or more specifically, Robert Fox sees it as "echoes of Vietnam". The summary sacking of General David McKiernan as the American commander in Afghanistan after only 11 months, he writes, "is a sure sign that things are not going well there."

Fox links to Simon Tisdall, who points out that there are questions surrounding the decision. Some would say, he avers, that it is a sign of panic in Washington about the impasse now developing in America's longest war since Vietnam.

Robert Gates, undoubtedly advised by Gen Petraeus, makes it clear that it is time for "fresh thinking" and "fresh eyes" on Afghanistan, also announcing his proposed replacement – nominated as Lt-Gen Stanley McChrystal, with Lt-Gen David Rodriguez as his deputy. Writes Fox:

The message is clearly that the mix of tactics and weaponry used so far hasn't worked. In seven and a half years the Taleban have grown in strength and now have more than a toehold in the key provinces across the south of Afghanistan. There are now serious worries that it may not be possible to hold full, free and fair elections for the presidency on 20 August. The propagandists of the Taliban and al-Qaida know how damaging this is to the US message of bringing security and governance to the region.
We then get cited, "unidentified Pentagon officials and fellow officers" who say that McKiernan was too conventional in his thinking. He is also criticised for having tried (and failed) to force out Karzai, and that as Nato commander he was too chummy with the mostly flaky European allies. Thus, this week's developments mark another stage in the "re-Americanisation" of the Afghan war.

McKiernan's proposed replacement, Lt.-Gen. McChrystal, is a soldier steeped in U S special operations. He began his career as commander of an A-team detachment with the 7th Special Forces Group in 1980. During the first Gulf War (1990-91) he deployed to Saudi Arabia as an army special operations action officer. Later he was in command of an Army Ranger battalion in 1996-97 and a Ranger regiment from 97-99. From September, 2003 through August, 2008, he led the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees special ops units, including counterterrorism units such as the Army's Delta Force.

However, Maj-Gen Jim Molan, the Australian army officer who worked under US General George Casey in the Iraq war, cautions against putting too much emphasis on the special forces background. What's important, he says, is that McChrystal will reflect in detail Petraeus's thinking.

That must indeed be a factor in this unheralded decision, and it must be pertinent that, while McKiernan is an armour specialist and thus a "big army" man, McChrystal is more attuned to the small unit tactics and unconventional warfare which characterise counterinsurgency campaigns.

Herschel Smith of Captains Journal does not buy the idea of McKiernan being "old school" but he does see the change as striking a "strategic statement" in Afghanistan. McKiernan wanted a heavier footprint, just as did Obama during his campaign for presidency. He continually requested more troops but, with no increase over the 68,000 troops on offer, another strategy must be employed.

Precisely what that is or might be, Smith reminds us is difficult to tell with certainty. The administration is not letting on, and the metrics of progress have been declared "classified".

Smith, however, points to a debate among counterinsurgency experts as to where to deploy the additional resources on their way. The choice is between urban population centres or the countryside and, for the moment it looks like "security bubble" time in the urban centres.

This was the mistake made by the Russians during their campaign, where they became prisoners of their own armour and city boundaries until their logistical difficulties and constant drain of casualties took enough of a toll for them to withdraw in defeat.

Somehow, though, one cannot imagine that either Petraeus or McChrystal would make that mistake, or that Gates would stand idly by and let them do it. But, other than acknowledging that a "strategic statement" has been made, it is difficult to add much more and note that, as does Smith, only time will tell whether they succeed or fail.


Monday 11 May 2009

Different realities – 5

Penetrating the closed – and frequently inept – minds of the MoD publicity team is a task best not attempted by the faint-hearted. But, to judge from their output on Afghanistan, no lessons have been learned from Iraq and the same dire publicity model is still in place.

The latest example of this is seen on the MoD website, where we get classic tale of derring-do from "Our Boys" in a style that would put snake-oil salesmen to shame.

That is not in any way to denigrate our troops, or to question their dedication – merely the treatment of their activities by the MoD publicity machine. For, what the very stupid people in this department do not seem to be able to understand is the a constant diet of gushingly-phrased "good news", in the absence of context and without any reference to the things that did not go so well, is not information but propaganda.

And so you might say that it is not the job of the MoD website to put the whole picture. It's job – certainly in the view of the team – is to put out a positive message, countering the negativity of the media. What they seem to forget is that this site is financed by the taxpayer. PR is fine for private sector corporates, but the duty of a tax-funded site is to provide public information, not "spin".

In this case, the "positive message" covers the week-long Operation Zafar, conducted recently by the Mercian Regiment and elements of the Afghan National Army, to push the Taliban out of several villages in the area of Basharan, close to Lashkar Gah. This seems a logical extension of Operation Sond Chara which began in mid-December last year, aimed at cleaning the Nad-e Ali district.

That operation itself, planned at short notice after the attempted take-over of Lashkar Gah by the Taleban in the October (described by the MoD as "recent attacks") was publicised without any real explanation of the broader strategic context. That is again the case with Operation Zafar. It "plops" out as a stand-alone operation, with no indication that it is part of an overall plan – if indeed it is.

But then, this is not about informing the reader. The message we are supposed to take from this piece is immediately evident from the framing, which heavily emphasises the role of the ANA (and the ANP), complete with a glowing testimonial from Mercian CO, Lt-Col Simon Banton. He tells us that, " … the Warriors of the Afghan Army proved to be seasoned fighters and fought hard to provide security in this part of their own country."

Later from Lt-Col Banton, we also get: "This operation was another example of the progress being made by the Afghanistan National Army. They proved to be flexible, committed and brave. On more than one occasion it was touch and go as the enemy fought hard but the Afghan Warriors did not retreat."

All this may be true, but it also has the hallmarks of an I/O (Information Operation), the nature of which was revealed by author Stephen Grey, where the coalition PR machine sought to convey that the operation to recover Musa Qala had been ANA-led, even to the extent of hiding coalition men and vehicles for the photographs of Afghan forces raising the flag in the town after it had been stormed by US and British forces.

A very similar PR strategy was adopted during the Iraqi occupation, with the spin machine taking every opportunity to talk up the capabilities of the Iraqi Army, even when it was evident – and later proved – that the formations being hyped were seriously deficient and incapable of independent operations. The ulterior motive, of course, was to pave the way for the withdrawal of British troops, predicated on the legend that the insurgency there was an "Iraqi problem", which needed an Iraqi solution.

Such a view of this current operation may be overly cynical and even wholly distorted, but candid views are hard to find. However, we do occasionally get some clues, and the video (above) tells you a great deal more. The MoD has its reality, but it does not necessarily belong to this planet.


Different realities – 4

If the worst predictions of the military come true, I wrote on the forum yesterday, Afghanistan during the summer is going to be a bloodbath. Right on cue, therefore, comes The Sunday Telegraph offering the headline, "Helmand commanders prepare for a summer of violence as four dead soldiers named".

However, not only do you have to reach page 14 to read this news – with pages 1-9 (and the editorial page) taken up with the MPs' expenses controversy, that is almost all you get – just two short paragraphs, with the rest of the long piece taken up with eulogies on the four dead soldiers. The latter should, of course, be published but the scant space allowed to the headline issue hardly does it justice.

The trouble with this lack of coverage and the military trying to "hold the line", deluding itself that it is making progress - suppressing adverse publicity - the public is not prepared for the flood of bad new that could emerge. The political impact of this, therefore, could be more intense than if there had been a steady flow of news, with a more grown-up strategic appreciation.

Quite what the effect will be is anyone's guess, but I would hazard that we will see a marked upsurge in anti-war sentiment which will build over term. By the time the Tories get in, I suspect the nation (and the Tories) will be disposed to call for a staged withdrawal of British forces. To that extent, the media (by its absence) could have played a very significant part in events. While it prattles on about MPs' expenses, we lose the war in Afghanistan.

A very good indicator of how precarious the situation has become was the "October offensive" of the Taleban in Lashkar Gah. As the detail filters through, we are beginning to appreciate that it was a very close-run thing ... almost in the "Tet Offensive" league.

The British soldiers killed on 7 May was also something of a wake-up call, not least the suicide bombing in Gereshk, just south of Lashkar Gar, where two soldiers were killed.

As worrying, in Gereshk yesterday, there was another suicide bombing, reported by the AP news agency and by others, with variously nine killed and up to 20 wounded.

What marked this out was that it was again targeted at security forces, in this case an Afghan police convoy, with four policemen and one soldier among the dead. The style of attack was also worrying. Two bombers were involved. The first was on a motorbike. He detonated his explosives near a taxi stand and police checkpoint in the town. When police and army units responded to the scene, a second suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosives, causing a majority of the casualties.

There is no indication that there were any ISAF casualties and, without UK deaths, it is unlikely that this incident will get much of an airing in the British media. Afghan deaths rarely seem to count, unless they can be attributed to US forces.

But, over the last few days, a very significant number of Afghani nationals have been murdered, not least yesterday when a group of workers were on their way to a construction site near the border with Pakistan. Their vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb in Haskamina district of eastern Nangarhar province, killing seven workers and their driver. They were building outposts for border police forces in the district.

A separate roadside bomb is also reported to have struck a vehicle carrying road construction workers in the southern Zabul province, this one killing three workers. In the same area on Saturday, three Afghan soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb while in Helmand, two Afghan army soldiers were wounded, once more by a roadside bomb. There is a possibility of a trend emerging here.

Wearily, one looks at the "bigger picture" to see little significant change in the 2008 opium crop in the southern provinces and, such changes as there were, reflect higher wheat prices, leading to a slight downturn expected in the 2009 opium crop.

But, as Tehran Times reminds us, while Afghanistan produced only 185 tons of opium under the Taleban, following the US invasion, drug production surged to 3,400 tons and by 2007, opium trade reached all-time high of 8,200 tons.

That it is retreating from that record level is a function of market over-supply, with huge surplusses being produced, the whereabouts of which remains a mystery.

Someone paying attention to the "bigger picture" (or part of it) is Patrick Cockburn. Most recently, he has commented again on the situation in Bala Baluk - where, like us, he is relying on second-hand information. Still calling the US bombing an "atrocity", he comes to the conclusion that the truth "will be slow to emerge".

A few days before that, he was writing a general piece, again in The Independent, headed, "Where the Taliban roam". Winner of this year's Orwell Prize for journalism, he finds a nation fractured by war, bled dry by corruption and governed by fear, painting a very downbeat picture.

You have to be careful with Cockburn. He is the classic wennai, as in, "When I was in …". Strong on descriptive detail, he makes the mistake of presenting the sum total of what he experiences, what he is told from limited, self-selected sources, and what he believes – with a patina of research - as representing the one and only reality. Sometimes, he may get it right, but his approach in southern Iraq during the British occupation led him and his readers up the garden path, getting the narrative spectacularly wrong.

Nevertheless, Cockburn's general thesis is largely supported by the Long War Journal which tells us – citing a Canadian source that the Taleban claim control of more than 70 percent of Afghanistan's rural areas and to have established shadow governments in 31 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Of the rest, they own the night one hundred percent.

We also find another earlier piece from the Star Ledger, by Stephen Palmer, who points out how much ordinary Afghans are suffering from the fighting. There was a 39 percent increase in civilian deaths last year, about 55 percent of the 2,118 atrributable to the Taleban and 39 percent arising from operations conducted by the military, including Afghan forces. Residents are dreading the arrival of more foreign troops, expecting more violence in their wake.

The Taleban's ability to freely roam the countryside has allowed them to continue staging attacks and keep international and Afghan security forces in pursuit rather than expanding their areas of control, writes Palmer. As a result, provincial officials in Lashkar Gah worry about losing support in the face of growing Taleban influence.

The only light note comes from the Mail on Sunday which retails a vingnette concerning David Cameron.

He was involved in "an amusing incident" during a recent visit to British troops under siege at their Lashkagar base. When a senior officer said, "We had better go inside, Mr Cameron, it's getting hot here," Dave could not move fast enough, saying, "Yes, I can hear gunfire, too." The officer replied bashfully: "No sir, I meant the sun is getting hot - the shooting is miles away."

The shooting is even further away now, but it seems to be getting louder. The trouble is, no one seems to be listening.

Pic: Afghans divide a received food stuff item after distribution to displaced families of Helmand province in Kandahar, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, 10 May 2009. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)


Saturday 9 May 2009

The fog of war

If the United States acceded to president Hamid Karzai's demands, then military intervention in Afghanistan would come to an abrupt halt. That surely would be the effect of halting US air strikes in his country, which Karzia is currently demanding, in the wake of the reported civilian deaths last Monday after the bombing of villages in the Bala Baluk district of Farah province.

Without air support, there can be no prospect of US or any coalition forces – which rely on US air power – prevailing over the Taleban or even being prepared to risk their troops in the field.

Yet Karzai is apparently serious, having made his demand in an interview with CNN in Washington, after Farah province deputy governor Yunus Rasooli had told Reuters that residents of two villages hit had produced lists with the names of 147 people killed.

The issue of civilian casualties is a source of great friction between the Afghan government and the US, and Karzai told CNN's "Situation Room" that, at the beginning of the seven-year-old war that ousted the Taleban, Afghans had tolerated air strikes. But mounting civilian deaths had eroded that understanding. "We cannot justify in any manner, for whatever number of Taliban or for whatever number of significantly important terrorists, the accidental or otherwise loss of civilians," he said.

Following this, a joint US-Afghan investigation has now conceded that an unspecified number of civilians did die in the bombing. But the initial findings, released yesterday, appear to blame the Taleban for using "human shields."

Here, the US is at something of a disadvantage. When the team of investigators visited the villages, they saw two mass graves and one burial site with seven individual graves. However, they were unable to determine which of the casualties were Taleban and which were noncombatants. All those killed had been buried, and exhumation would be unacceptable. Thus, it will never be possible to determine an accurate body count, the numbers of Taleban and villagers killed, or the precise cause(s) of death.

What is missing from the latest reports though is any repetition of the suggestion that the Taleban may have murdered some of the villagers in order to claim a US bombing "atrocity", although that accusation may re-emerge at a later date.

If it turns out, though, that the parties agree on an inadvertant killing from US bombs, arising because the civilians were used as human shields, this in itself will be of little assistance to the US authorities, strugging to contain the growing tension over so-called colateral damage.

Furthermore, given the political sensitivities, the possibility that this might have occurred raises important questions, not least because – if we take the US military at its word – this type of incident should not happen.

That much comes from USAF Col Eric J Holdaway. During a recent teleconference, the proceedings of which were in part published by the Washington Post, he emphasised the awareness of the problem, noting the US was confronting "… enemies that not only hide amongst the population but also will open fire on our ground forces from amongst the population."

To reduce the possibility of killing innocent bystanders, Holdaway says, full-motion video from UAV platforms like Shadow and Predator and Warrior Alpha is used to reduce "the element of the unknown", such as "is there likely to be someone in that building … that is a noncombatant, or not?" The prefence is to get the enemy out in the open, where risks to civilians can be avoided.

Before any strike, Holdaway tells us, a collateral-damage analysis is performed "based on where the target is, what is near it and the destructive potential of the weapon that we're planning to employ." However, he concedes that it does not always work that way, when the counter-tactic of human shields is employed. "You'd almost call it Taliban air defense," he says.

When the United States is initiating the attack, he claims, "we can afford to be patient. And if we lose an opportunity, we can be patient ... keep working on the target and eventually get another opportunity."

But, he admits, when the strike is in response to American troops calling for help while under fire from a building, "unfortunately, in more than one situation ... in the aftermath, we find that there were noncombatants in there with the insurgents." Nevertheless, he does also claim that, "Some form of positive ID" is needed before missiles are fired or bombs are dropped.

Control of strikes is undertaken from comprehensive ground facilities such as the Combined Air Operations Centre pictured above – this one used in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But, most instances, the final clearance on releasing ordnance is made by the ground-based Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC), the man on the spot who is able to confirm the nature of the target and that weapons delivery will conform with rules of engagement.

Here, one wonders whether the man on the ground, whether the JTAC or his immediate commander, is always the best person to make the decision, bearing in mind that they may be in the thick of the action, stressed, emotionally charged, and with limited visual perspective.

Revisting the piece we wrote last month, and especially the forum discussion, the thought occurs as to whether there should be an additional layer of control, slightly – but not completely – detached from the fray, perhaps in the form of a command aircraft, such as J-STARS, or even the old-style Forward Air Controller, operating from a light aircraft orbiting the battlespace.

There are obvious disadvantages to such an arrangement and, with the presidential elections coming up, Karzai may be indulging in electoral politics. He will no doubt be induced to step back from his demand, making further controls less needed. Nevertheless, there will come a limit to the tolerance of repeated civilian deaths, while the Taleban will continue to exploit the propaganda opportunites afforded by such incidents – with the aid of some sections of the Western media.

In the past, these could be blamed on the "fog of war". Now, there are systems which could be used to penetrate that fog. Given the dire political - to say nothing of the humanitarian - consequences of an ill-judged decision, they must be used.