Thursday 9 July 2009

An unwinnable war?

The Daily Mail has deployed its heavy weapon on the Afghan front today, rolling out Max Hastings to tell us, "Why Lance-Corporal Elson and our other 175 soldiers killed in an unwinnable war deserve better from this country."

L/Cpl Elson is the last but one, of seven, soldiers to be killed in Afghanistan within a week – killed by an IED. At least Hastings cuts though the cant, remarking that it is hard to find much heroic about being blown up by a mine, the fate of so many soldiers in Helmand.

IEDs, he writes, impact significantly upon morale. Most men cheerfully take their chances in firefights, where superior skills and equipment usually enable them to prevail. But it is a wretched business, to march or ride daily through the Afghan countryside, knowing that at any moment one might be blown to eternity without the smallest chance of averting fate.

Unfortunately, Hastings then repeats the corrosive manta which is so beloved of the MoD and much of the military, telling is that "No armoured vehicle is proof against mines containing up to 500lb of explosive, such as the Taliban now employ." He is actually wrong there, which is why we've put up that famous picture of the destroyed Cougar again. That is reputed to have taken a hit from a 300lb charge – and the crew walked away with very light injuries.

That is not, of course, 500lb, but the weight comparison is misleading, as the really big bombs the Taleban are using are made from agricultural fertiliser – helpfully provided by the Western aid agencies. As such, they have only about a third of the explosive force of TNT and other military explosives – of the type that hit the Cougar. Not always, but even the big bombs are survivable.

As much to the point, although some big bombs are used, they are still the exception – they are difficult to get to site, very difficult to bury and expose the emplacers to a much higher risk of detection. More typical is this example recounted by a "Gateshead soldier" Corporal Dan Henderson.

He was on a routine patrol in Helmand Province when he noticed a suspicious bump in a road frequently used by food and medical supply vehicles. And after inspecting the mound, a 20-kilo roadside bomb was discovered – "the kind which has claimed the lives of scores of our troops."

With no time to spare, Cpl Henderson and his unit sealed off the area, close to the town of Musa Qala, before calling in bomb disposal experts to destroy the device. "It was 20 kilos of homemade explosive – the sort of thing that could do some serious damage," said Henderson. "Even a heavily-armed vehicle could still be knocked a few feet in the air."

He then added: "An unarmed vehicle wouldn't stand a chance. A British convoy was due to move across the route that it happened to be on. The Taliban obviously had their own information."

Even at that level, a Viking would be ripped apart if the bomb was detonated in the right place, but a Mastiff, a Ridgeback – or any other vehicle designed on the same principles – would shrug it off. There may, nevertheless, be bombs that will defeat these protected vehicles, although none have killed anyone in a Mastiff yet.

But to argue that we should not use protected vehicles because "bigger bombs" can defeat them is akin to arguing that soldiers should not wear bullet-proof body armour because it will not defeat RPGs. Similarly, we can dispense with tanks and go to war on bicycles because even the heaviest tank can be knocked out by an anti-tank missile.

To my mind, these are the sort of issues we should be discussing – how to bring protected mobility into theatre so as to restore freedom of movement to the battlefield, not only for mounted operations but also for foot patrols.

Here, we see a link to a BBC TV report from Ian Pannell, describing how the Taleban use multiple IEDs to slow down the advance of British troops, who have to use hand-held nine detectors to clear the way before they can move into positions. This gives time for the Taleban to assemble their forces to mount an attack.

Yet, in their Bush War, the Rhodesians had the Pookie mine detection vehicle (illustrated above) – small enough and light enough to lead the way down tracks, to clear the way for advancing troops. Surely, thirty years on, it is not beyond the capability of our procurement geniuses in the MoD to come up with something similar?

The trouble is – as with the Clegg – we do not get that sort of debate. Clegg, for instance, talks about wanting more troops for the "take and hold" (aka "shake 'n' bake") strategy, without any discussion of the possibility that this might be fundamentally flawed, and can never work.

So it is with Hastings. There is a long whinge in which – in passing – he refers to Major Patrick Little, and cites his comment that, "All is not well in the British Army." But he does not develop the theme. Instead, he withdraws to his comfort zone by declaring that, "There is still supreme professionalism in the British Army, together with a cheerful willingness to accept the risks of a soldier's calling."

There is a growing climate of unrest and anger that they [the troops] are called upon to fight a costly war with inadequate resources, no Afghan gratitude and cynical indifference from the British Government, then declares the Hasting, deciding that "this Labour Government sent the British Army to fight and die in Afghanistan, and bears an absolute responsibility."

For all that, Hasting is "not one of those who favours quitting immediately." Afghanistan's collapse into anarchy could have a grave effect on Pakistan, he says. But, he avers, "the security situation is deteriorating, and those in charge are muddling. We must do Afghanistan differently or admit defeat and come home."

Yea ... alright Mr Hasting. We must do it differently. But how would you do it? Come to think of it Mr Clegg, how would you do it - apart from more European co-operation?