Friday 1 May 2009

They still don't get it

It is quite amusing in a macabre sort of way to see the so-called "political" media and blogs dive for cover when there is a real political issue on the agenda.

And whatever the finer details, the final retreat of the British from Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan are intensely political issues which cast their shadow into the future, defining and shaping our defence and foreign policies and indeed our perception of ourselves as a nation.

The sheer complexity of the issues, however, defy easy analysis. Furthermore, the paucity of information make attempts at analysis and comment prone to error and misunderstanding, while following through the threads of discussion and argument require brutally hard work.

All of which might explain in part why so many take the easy option and either ignore the issues or rely on "drive-by" comment little better informed than "man-in-pub" gossip.

Heavily into that category is the pathetically tivial analysis of the Iraqi campaign by David Blair in The Daily Telegraph. This is put into perspective by just one comment on the online edition. It reads:

As a former regular officer, I am fed up with all these pieces of so-called reportage which are permeated by talk of the Forces' "quiet pride". Sickening stuff. This article is very short on statistics - and offers not even a perspective on the situation from a few locals which might answer the headline's question. The whole Iraq episode was shameful - politically and strategically, even if individual soldiers did their duty as (still!) expected.
This, in respect of Iraq is very much the line we take. Individual soldiers did do their duty and too many paid the ultimate price for what indeed were "shameful" military and political failures. At least, though, The Times is reporting defence secretary John Hutton declaring that there would need to be a "proper investigation" into the failings of the mission.

It is this which is exercising David Cameron and other opposition politicians, with Cameron calling for an immediate inquiry similar to that carried out by Lord Franks following the Falklands War in 1982. "After years of foot dragging," he says, "I believe it is the time for the Government to announce a proper Franks-style inquiry. Instead of starting in many months' time, it should start right now."

The problem is, however, that this is likely to rake over old ground as The Telegraph suggests that an inquiry is expected "to examine the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion, including information on weapons of mass destruction, and should look at why British forces were poorly equipped and under-resourced."

Con Coughlin picks up on this on his blog, arguing that Cameron should forget the Iraq inquiry and concentrate on Afghanistan.

"I would love," writes Coughlin, "to see David Cameron show the same enthusiasm for discussing our critical mission to Afghanistan as he does with his repeated calls for an inquiry into the invasion of Iraq." Given that we have already had two inquiries into the build-up to the war - Hutton and Butler – he cannot see what new material would be provided by a third.

What really worries me, he adds, is that while the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition is happy to provoke debate about events that happened six years ago, he is less forthcoming about the current parlous state of our military.

Coughlin, as so often, is both right and wrong. He is right that there is little to be gained by once again rehashing the events that led up to the Iraqi war. But there is everything to be gained from an inquiry which is focused specifically on the conduct of the post-invasion occupation and counter-insurgency campaign which started formally in 1 May 2003 and ended yesterday.

Not least, many "lessons learned" from such an inquiry would be directly applicable to the current military adventure in Afghanistan, where the same mistakes are being made that we saw in Iraq.

However, what is concerning Coughlin is his view that Gordon Brown has "seriously undermined the effectiveness of our military commitment to Afghanistan" by refusing to authorise the deployment of the extra troops our commanders require to fulfil the mission. This, he says, is a golden opportunity for Mr Cameron and his defence team to drive another nail into the coffin of this increasingly discredited government.

And yet, he asks rhetorically, what have we heard from the Opposition on Afghanistan, an issue that is infinitely more important and perilous than Iraq? The answer is: "Next to nothing."

Perversely, there is a response from the Conservative opposition but it comes not from David Cameron or, as you might expect, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox. Instead, in The Independent we see former shadow home secretary and now back-bencher David Davis. He writes under the heading: "Brown's policy in Afghanistan is never going to work".

It would have helped Mr Davis's scribing if he had shown any knowledge of what "Brown's policy" actually was. In the absence of any such knowledge, so fatuous and superficial are his comments, including the obligatory reference to "Vietnam", that they need not detain us.

What is worrying Coughlin though is his perception that "Brown's half measures will put our soldiers' lives at further risk". Falling for exactly the same military/MoD "spin" that afflicted Michael Evans yesterday, in a long piece in the print edition, repeated online, thus tells us that "Peace in Afghanistan will be even longer in coming if the Army is not at full strength."

As usual when dealing with a Gordon Brown policy initiative, we are told, the devil is in the detail. Couglin then ignores that detail – and the background to it – and writes that "by far the most alarming feature is the humiliating rebuff he has delivered to our Armed Forces." By denying the request by senior officers for an extra 2,000 troops, Mr Brown is seriously jeopardising the chances of achieving the success he craves.

This extra manpower, we are informed, would make the world of difference to commanders on the ground, giving them the resources not only to capture territory, but to hold it. All too often, important gains have been made, only to be surrendered because of a shortage of troops.

"Put simply, the more troops we have, the more able we are to dominate the space in Helmand and keep the Taleban at bay," says a senior Army officer. "Without the extra troops, we simply won't have the resources to impose our presence on Helmand in the way we would like."

Strangely, it is Michael Evans who – doubtless unwittingly – in his own piece today gives us the clue as to why more troops are not the answer. There we see evidence of the same ponderous "garrison mentality" referred to on the Rand Report on the Rhodesian counter-insurgency, which we reviewed in March.

This was also brought up by Ann Winterton in the recent procurement debate, where she pointed out that, while convention dictates a ratio of 10:1 for security forces needed to combat insurgents, the Rhodesians succeeded with a ratio of 1:1 and a minuscule budget. Thus did she remind us:

The Rhodesian security forces functioned under severe financial constraints that limited their access to late model, sophisticated high tech weapons and to large quantities of material. The Rhodesians’ ability to overcome these constraints by embracing innovative strategies and tactics, including novel techniques in road security, tracking and reconnaissance, small unit tactics, special operations, and intelligence gathering, suggests that the successful prosecution of counter insurgency need not entail huge expenditure.
However, neither the military nor the journos seem to be able to drag themselves out of the "more resources" mindset, the latest to join the refrain being the Financial Times, which offers its own story of the Army's woe, with the legend: "UK block on Afghan surge riles army chiefs."

The paper cites a "senior defence figure" who gets the boot in, telling us: "People are pretty angry about the decision around here … We're not in a situation where generals are thinking of resigning. But the outcome announced by Number 10 this week has come as something of a surprise to people."

It should not have surprised anyone who knew what was going on. We flagged up the doubts here and here and the Financial Times itself points to on of the reasons why this "surge" was never going to happen. Some Whitehall officials, the paper says, argue that the UK operation in Afghanistan is well resourced. They note that the operation will cost a projected £3bn in 2009-10, while the cost of UK operations in southern Iraq never rose above £1.5bn.

Despite this, it seems the editorial writer cannot read his own paper, offering a leader headed: "War on the cheap." The point, of course, is that not only is the campaign in Afghanistan not cheap, the military have yet to be able to demonstrate whether they are getting (or could get) any useful effects from the flood of cash pouring into theatre.

But, as the hacks pile in, with Robert Fox of The Guardian adding his penn'orth, there is not a single one of them with an original thought.

Still, the basic flaw in the strategic thinking survives unchallenged, typified in a Reuteurs report, which has an interview with Brigadier David Hook in Helmand. Warning that a "Bloody summer" looms, he tells us that insurgent attacks in the first three months of this year were 73 percent higher than the same period a year ago.

But, with the influx of US troops, he talks of international forces being able to provide a "degree" of security to over 90 percent of the population in the south, up from 60 percent. "That is the pivot point," he says. "That is the point where we will have created the humanitarian space to allow the agencies to come in behind and do the reconstruction and development."

There is it in all its glory – this totally artificial distinction between "security" and "reconstruction and development", with the latter conditional on the former. As long as there is this continued failure to understand the very point that is addressed in "Brown's policy", there is going to be no progress at all in Afghanistan.

They didn't get it in Iraq, and they don't get it now. Watch the video (and enjoy the little girlie struggling).