Wednesday 30 September 2009

Time is not on our side

It was at the end of August, or so we are led to believe, that president Obama received McChrystal's Afghan assessment report yet only yesterday has the White House started in earnest its strategy review. This is being done at senior official level, taking in video conference discussions with McChrystal in Kabul, and the debate is joined today by Obama, alongside vice president Joe Biden and secretary Gates.

Reading the runes, Obama seemed to be moving towards favouring the counter-terrorism strategy when he spoke yesterday of "dismantling, disrupting, destroying the al Qaeda network" as the mission, without mentioning the Taleban.

Emerging as an influential voice in the debate is failed presidential candidate John Kerry, now Senate foreign relations committee chairman. Not only was he at the White House last week, meeting with the vice president, he has been given the opportunity to express his views in the Wall Street Journal, in an authored opinion piece headed somewhat contentiously: "Testing Afghanistan Assumptions".

Referring to the McChrystal report, Kerry declares: "Now, we in Congress have our own assignment: to test all of the underlying assumptions in Afghanistan and make sure they are the right ones before embarking on a new strategy." Never more was it clear that the McChrystal "strategy" is not a done deal, and there is to be much political bloodshed before a resolution is reached.

As might be expected, Kerry rehearses the issues, with particular reference to the "deeply flawed presidential election last month", then noting that the debate so far has focused on absolute numbers - how many U.S. and allied troops are required, how many Afghan soldiers and police do we need to train, how many more billions must we pour into that impoverished country?

But, says Kerry, all the numbers are meaningless if the goal is ambiguous or the strategy is wrong. Before we send more of our young men and women to this war, we need a fuller debate about what constitutes success in Afghanistan. We need a clearer understanding of what constitutes the right strategy to get us there. Ultimately, we need to understand, as Gen Colin Powell was fond of asking, "What's the exit strategy?" Or as Gen David Petraeus asked of Iraq, "How does it end?"

Behind all this though, is the ghost of Vietnam, and Kerry brings it to the fore. One of the lessons from Vietnam, he says, is that we should not commit troops to the battlefield without a clear understanding of what we expect them to accomplish, how long it will take, and how we maintain the consent of the American people. Otherwise, we risk bringing our troops home from a mission unachieved or poorly conceived.

Hinting then at what will be the Democrat line, Kerry goes on to note that the McChrystal assessment "offers no timetable or exit strategy, beyond warning that the next 12 months are critical." He does not offer an alternative, but the marker is there. If McChrystal gets what he wants, or part of it, there will most likely be strings. It would be unsurprising if this was not precisely what Kerry is hinting at – an exit strategy and a fixed timetable. For the moment though, it is "wait and see". The Senator wants Obama to be given time and space to "test every assumption and examine every option."

The longer he leaves it, though, the greater the cost to Obama. Opinion is hardening and the different factions are shaping up for the fight of the century, which will make the insurgency in Afghanistan look like a walk in the park.

On the one hand, he appears to have the support of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general, who met Obama yesterday (pictured). ''The first thing is not numbers,'' says Ramussen, ''I agree with President Obama in his approach: strategy first, then resources,'' he said.

One the other hand, the Republicans are scenting blood. Another failed presidential bidder, Senator John McCain, is backing McChrystal, declaring that "time is running short." He argues for the president to approve the call for additional troops. If Obama fails to do so, it would "put the United States in much greater danger." "Time is not on our side," McCain emphasises, "so we need a decision pretty quickly."

One can see a political strategy emerging here. McCain says he thinks the drawn-out debate over the Afghan war policy in the United States "may be perceived by some of our allies in Europe and Pakistan and that region as a bit of weakness." Obama is being positioned to come across as weak and indecisive. Whatever decision he comes up with, if he leaves it too long, that will be the impression which gains traction.


Warts and all

"Warthog tank unveiled in bid to cut Afghanistan deaths", proclaimed The Independent, only quickly to change the headline to: "Meet the Warthog: the latest weapon in war".

The change, presumably, was to spare the blushes of correspondent Kim Sengupta, who may have wished to distance himself from the charge that he is yet another of those journalists who does not know the difference between a tank and an armoured personnel carrier.

To be fair to Sengupta, he does not actually use the term "tank" in his piece, which introduces us to a "military vehicle" which is shortly to join the British Army inventory, destined to "play a crucial part in the desperate attempts to combat the roadside bombs ... ". It is "aimed at giving better protection for troops and turning the tide of an increasingly ferocious insurgency."

The 19-ton vehicle replaces the Vectors and the Vikings, two of the Army's failed attempts at bringing mobility to the "battlefield", the latter having been the vehicle in which Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe was killed. This vehicle, of which the Warthog (pictured) is a heavier version, was designed as an amphibious assault vehicle for the Royal Marines, its overall weight limited by the need for it to be able to float and to be carried by a Chinook helicopter.

Some 50 Vikings were fielded to Helmand and it is understood that 27 have been written off by mine or IED explosions, killing at least nine soldiers and injuring many more. A total of 115 Warthogs will be produced for the MoD by Singapore-based Technologies Kinetics, at a cost of £150m, and the type is expected to be deployed in Helmand by next summer.

Sengupta tells us that defence officials "insist" that thorough evaluation of how the losses occurred has helped design the Warthog. It will thus be "one of the safest vehicles sent to the conflict" – or so we are told. It is better armoured than the Viking, and has been equipped with state-of-the-art counter measures against IEDs and mines.

Despite the claims, it lacks the classic v-shaped hull which is necessary to deflect blast from buried devices, and the cab is too far forward to distance the crew from pressure-initiated devices which detonate when the vehicle drives over them. Lacking these crucial safeguards, the Army therefore is relying on brute mass of armour, which will have limited effect.

As such, the vehicle represents a continuation of the Army philosophy of specifying high-mobility vehicles and then bolting-on protection to a design optimised for off-road performance rather than protection. This is in marked contrast to the US philosophy, which majors on protection and then seeks to enhance mobility.

The Warthogs have the capacity to take still more armour, which they will probably need when the Taleban start using even bigger IEDS to take them out – a tactic which will probably be successful, despite it having failed with the better-designed Mastiffs.

Each weight increment, however, reduces mobility. Eventually, we could see convergence as the decreased mobility of the over-weight "high mobility" vehicles matches the enhanced mobility of modified protected vehicles. That was certainly the case with the Vectors – in fact, more so as the weight of the extra armour on this vehicle caused bearing failures and wheel losses, providing stasis rather than mobility.

Perhaps the bigger problem though is the intellectual stasis. The high-mobility doctrine is the Army's answer to an insecure road network, frequently seeded with IEDs and mines. The ability to travel off-road enables soldiers to by-pass the roads and take to open country, where the unpredictability of the routing minimises the risks.

However, the broader Army strategy is progressively to move from independent combat operations to training and mentoring the Afghan National Army, which means that joint operations will become the norm. The ANA, though, are equipped largely with unarmoured Ford Rangers pick-ups (pictured) and International trucks, with limited off road performance.

British Army detachments will be faced either with sharing the risks, negating the advantages of their more capable vehicles, or driving off-road while their ANA charges are tied to the road network. If Afghan soldiers take higher casualties as a result, morale is likely to suffer.

Arguably, therefore, the British policy of securing protection and tactical mobility by equipping with high-performance off-road vehicles is self-defeating. It shifts emphasis away from developing and then securing the road network, leaving the Afghans – military and civilians – disadvantaged and at higher risk than the troops who, according to the McChrystal doctrine, are there to protect them.

This is very much an issue with McChrystal, who argues that the focus on force protection can work against the counterinsurgency ethos. The problem is that high casualty rates also work against implementing a successful counterinsurgency if they generate political pressure for withdrawal.

One alternative is to pump more resources into route engineering, to minimise opportunities for IED emplacers, to increase surveillance and interdiction, and to improve technical measures for detection and safe detonation of devices, with a higher proportion of route clearance vehicles. Such a focus would have the advantage of making routes safer for all users, not just the military.

The Army, though, is just catching up with the idea of better protected vehicles, years late, responding to rather than anticipating Taleban tactics. It is perhaps too much to ask that it should be capable of widening its thought processes to encompass more than one idea at a time. Off-road mobility, therefore, is the policy we are stuck with – warts and all.


Monday 28 September 2009

Behind the curve

Those interested in the Afghan issue are doubtless aware of the recent McChrystal assessment report, and most will have either read the redacted copy or, at the very least, read one or more of the numerous media reviews of it.

Those who have done neither could, if they so wished, read the speech delivered today by Liam Fox to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

With the working title, "Beyond the Smoke: Making Progress in Afghanistan", its substantive parts are unashamedly lifted from the McChrystal assessment report, comprising an evaluation of "three areas in the current struggle in Afghanistan". These are the role of the Afghan population in the war, capacity building of the Afghan Security Forces and the need to improve governance across Afghanistan.

Fox even admits the source, stating that they have been identified as priorities by the General, then somewhat rashly declaring that they form the basis of future strategy in Afghanistan.

Whether McChrystal was defining a strategy or simply a new (as applied to Afghanistan) tactical approach is moot, but the strategy comprises in essence the implementation of the "Integrated civil-military campaign plan", which goes well beyond the three areas enumerated by Fox.

Crucially though, Fox seems to have fallen into the trap (one of many) of assuming that the McChrystal assessment is a done deal. He is behind the curve, seemingly unaware that president Obama has not acted on it and, instead, has commissioned his own strategic review. Whether McChrystal's recommendations will become policy, therefore, remains a matter of speculation. They certainly cannot be taken as read.

The "game changer", of course, was the Afghan presidential election. It is recognised that any successful counterinsurgency requires a stable and legitimate political partner in the host country and, whether Karzai manages to cling on to power or not, there is general agreement that he will be weakened and that his administration will lack legitimacy.

On that basis, there are serious doubts as to whether the classic counterinsurgency strategy, advocated by McChrysal, can actually work. It was that which led Obama to commission his new review, from which an entirely different strategy might emerge.

Apparently completely oblivious to this development, Fox – in his only substantive reference to the election - states that it is "crucial" that it "must be seen to be credible and reflect the wishes of the Afghan people." This is wishful thinking beyond peradventure.

Thus, we are left with what amounts to a slavish adherence to the McChrystal creed, with not one scintilla of critical exploration. Fox's only concern is to ensure that the "strategy" is properly resourced. That much is picked up by The Times, which provocatively headlines: "Tories would send 2,500 more troops to Afghanistan, says Liam Fox".

The paper then reports that the shadow defence secretary had "indicated" that a Conservative government would increase British troop numbers in Afghanistan by up to 2,500 and deliver more helicopters, armoured vehicles and "other key battlefield enablers".

In what could have been an opportunity to set out a new direction for what is evidently a failing campaign, Fox has therefore sold the pass. Like so many before him, he pays lip-service to the received wisdom that the campaign cannot be resolved by a "military victory", but he then defines success as securing security – which of course he seeks to achieve by military means.

No one, it seems, can see the logical absurdity in this approach – least of all Fox. A military solution is not possible ... therefore we must seek a military solution. "The reconstruction will follow," says Fox. "The factors of prosperity, individual freedoms, and free markets ... may someday come to Afghanistan. We should do all we can to help this to happen but it will not happen overnight," he adds.

It does not dawn on him, the simple precept that the order might be reversed. Focus on economic reconstruction, build prosperity, and protect a people who then have a stake in their society and something to lose. Security will follow. In the final analysis, security comes not from the barrel of a gun – it comes from the will of the people. But then, that is probably too difficult for Fox to understand.


Descent into madness

Doug Beattie is back in print, this time with another book to sell. So, for a change, he offers a narrative of almost unremitting negativity, under the heading: "The descent of Britain's Afghan campaign into a Vietnam-style madness".

Doubtless, it is a good book – the last one was – but this is the same Doug Beattie who recently was telling us why we must hang in there and finish the job in Afghanistan. Reading his current account though – and indeed the first book – you cannot fail to come away with a sense of the utter futility of the campaign, to say nothing of strongly signalled presentiments of failure.

In assessing his call to finish the job, we called for strategy, not blind faith. Now, with the emergence of General McChrystal's assessment report, strategy is firmly on the agenda – in the US media, at least – turning a little-known solider into an instant hero, with earnest hagiographies in the likes of Newsweek.

Only gradually did it emerge that McChrystal was not so much offering a new strategy as a continuation of a strategy agreed in March by the incoming president Obama. That event was reinforced with 21,000 extra troops drafted in to take territory from the Taleban, the first of three phases labelled with the deceptively simple title of "take, hold and build".

Taking, though was the easier bit. To hold that territory requires a two-tier approach – providing coalition troops while expanding and training up the Afghan National Army which would eventually take over. That would require still more troops, even though Obama signalled as early as July that he "wasn't inclined" to send more combat troops to Afghanistan.

That may well have precipitated the "leak" of the assessment report to the Washington Post and the coordinated publicity campaign which was clearly aimed at bouncing Obama into agreeing to raise manpower levels, even though no formal request had then been made for extra troops.

Now, however, we learn that McChrystal has placed a formal bid with his Defense Department, in the upper range of expectations, at 40,000. The call is being backed by Britain's top general in Afghanistan – Lt-Gen Jim Dutton - in the hope that the British government will follow suit and send some more of its own.

Dutton tells The Times that victory was a matter of "straightforward force ratios". "If you want to achieve long-term stability, and therefore a lack of terrorism potential in an area, you need to be doing more than simply patrolling the skies," he says. "The ultimate answer to this problem is a stable democratic state of Afghanistan in which their own forces are capable of maintaining the rule of law and security."

Already, it has emerged that Obama was having second thoughts about precisely this "counterinsurgency" strategy and was considering an alternative "counter-terrorism" strategy, the so-called "whack-a-mole approach", achieved mainly by patrolling the skies with armed UAVs.

Next, though, we find out that Obama's March strategy review, which culminated in putting McChrystal into position, wasn't a strategy review after all. The decision to send 21,000 more troops, thought to be directed at implementing the strategy, was "made hurriedly within weeks of coming into office to stanch the tactical erosion on the ground and provide security during Afghan elections."

Through the good offices of vice-president Joseph Biden, we are now having the strategy review that we did not have in March. McChrystal's request for more troops will not even be put to the president until the review is completed, and the world marks time until a decision is made. Unsurprisingly, US defence secretary, Robert Gates, has now revealed that the review could take several more weeks.

On the other hand, examination of McChrystal's not-a-strategy shows it to be remarkably similar to Petraeus's "surge" template, which achieved some success in Iraq, although under very different conditions. Not least, in Iraq, the national army came of age and – albeit with considerable help – proved capable of taking the load. As regards the Afghan National Army, even the staid Jamestown Foundation has its doubts, while Captain's Journal has no doubts at all. The Afghan army is "horrible".

Perhaps conscious that relying on the Afghan army is not a quick-fix solution, secretary Gates has dismissed calls for a timetable for withdrawal. "The notion of timelines and exit strategies and so on would all be a strategic mistake," he says.

All these developments have left the UK rather out in the cold. UK commentators have tried to engage in the debate, but they are reporting rather than participating. There is no political traction here and the real debate is across the pond. By and large, therefore, our media confines itself to the only things it can do well, emoting, reporting on bickering generals and bitching about equipment shortfalls. Intelligent debate has become a rarity - nothing new there.

Thus, while Beattie writes of, "The descent of Britain's Afghan campaign into a Vietnam-style madness", the situation can be summed up more succinctly as simply a descent into madness. The Vietnam parallel is not necessary. Casualties will continue to mount, more attempts
will be made to sort out the election results – while Ban Ki-moon complains about "the level of uncertainty" - and the Taleban carries on causing havoc.

And madness will prevail.


Sunday 27 September 2009

Garbled in transmission?

It is always unwise to take any official statement at face value – but the same might be said of any statement by the media. Healthy scepticism should be the default mode. So what does one believe when the media charges the government with misconduct, and the government flatly denies the charge?

That is the conundrum presented by a piece in The Sunday Times today. Written by a reputable journalist, Stephen Grey, under the headline: "No 10 asked army to delay Afghan attack until after Gordon Brown's visit", it makes a very serious charge.

Specifically, Grey alleges that during the recapture of the Musa Qala in December 2007, General Andrew Mackay – commanding the operation - "was furious to be asked by Downing Street if he could delay the operation and spare potential embarrassment to Brown." Mackay refused.

The scenario is plausible enough, and the background is set out in Grey's book, Operation Snakebite.

If the operation had been successful – as was anticipated – Brown could have been accused of "political opportunism", attempting to bask in reflected glory. If the operation failed, or there had been a high number of civilian casualties (the greater fear), this could have proved embarrassing for Brown when he met president Karzai.

As to the accusation that No 10 sought to interfere, this is indeed flatly denied. A Downing Street spokesman states: "The suggestion that Downing Street asked for a delay, or indeed any change, to military plans in Afghanistan before the Prime Minister visited at the end of 2007 is utterly untrue."

So, who do we believe? Well, in his book, Grey publishes details of a meeting of "generals and civil servants" at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall on 4 December 2007, when the attempt to interfere with the operation was supposedly made. With it due to start in three days time, he refers to an "official" (no more detail is given) asking: "Does it have to be so soon? Can't it all be delayed?"

There then appears to be a general discussion about the political implications of the coincidence of the operation with the prime minister's visit. Addressing the meeting via an intercom was General Nick Houghton, based at Joint Operations HQ in west London. He, according to Grey, was asked to "check back" with theatre and "see if there could be any slippage." But, Grey adds, "few expected anything to change".

From this narrative, several points emerge. Firstly, the "official" initially asking whether there could be a delay was not identified. Secondly, there was no mention of No 10 – in this or any other context. Third, there seems to have been a general discussion on the proposition, from which it can be inferred that a consensus was reached. Fourth, this "consensus" was translated into a request that Houghton "check back", couched in terms of "see if". This implies that this was an exploratory question – a query - and by no means a demand.

Finally, and crucially, Houghton was not at the meeting. He was communicating via the intercom from another location. He then – or perhaps even someone delegated by him - communicated with "theatre", although Grey does not specifically assert that anyone talked to or communicated directly with MacKay.

MacKay, of course, was in Afghanistan (as indeed was Grey at the time). If he was contacted directly or indirectly by Houghton or someone deputed to do so, how did MacKay know that the query came from No 10? This is not specified, all in the context of Grey himself making no mention of No 10.

Herein lies perhaps the crux. Most people are familiar with the joke of First World War vintage, recalling a message saying: "send reinforcements, we're going to advance." Garbled in transmission, it comes out as: "send three and fourpence (old money), we're going to a dance". A similar dynamic might be at play.

Deconstructing the key parts of the narrative, we have in London an unidentified official, a general discussion and a somewhat ambiguous "request" which could be construed as asking for information on options. What precisely was conveyed to MacKay in Afghanistan, by whom and in what circumstances, is not specified.

At the receiving end, however, it is quite possible – perhaps aided by ambiguous wording or even some embellishments – that MacKay believed he was being asked to delay the operation and the source of the request was No 10. But a belief does not make it so. MacKay could have been misled, or simply misunderstood what was being asked of him.

As to the meeting in Whitehall, it is quite possible that the issues discussed reflected concerns that political fall-out would reflect badly on the officials, and they would be blamed for not taking measures to mitigate potential problems.

Rather than being directed by No 10, therefore – and Grey makes no accusation as to Gordon Brown being aware of what went on - the officials could simply have been covering their own backs. What we know of the narrative is entirely compatible with officials seeking to establish that options had been considered, and for good reasons had been discarded.

In the event, Grey in his book does not record MacKay's (or anyone else's) response to any query. That the operation went ahead as planned is testament to the fact that the response to the Whitehall query was "no". In fact, Houghton need not have referred it to MacKay - he had the authority to say "no" then and there.

If he did refer what amounted to a "request for information" back to theatre, it would have been as a matter of "form", in full expectation that the answer would be "no". If MacKay, against all expectations, had said "yes", most likely Houghton would have told him to stop being a bloody fool and get on with it.

On that basis, although Grey asserts that MacKay was "furious to be asked by Downing Street if he could delay the operation", we have no context. And whatever message MacKay did receive, Grey relies on his recall, some time after the operation had finished.

Interestingly, nothing Grey asserts in relation to MacKay's actions and reaction is in quotes. The narrative is unsupported by direct (or any) evidence. Rather, it is based on hearsay and ex post facto recollections, relying heavily on a particular interpretation of what could be an ambiguous request, delivered via a fragmented communication system.

Yet there can be no disputing the seriousness of the charge made by The Sunday Times - that attempts were made to interfere with a military operation for political purposes. That is serious, a breach of the long-standing constitutional principle that politicians do not interfere with the conduct of military operations.

On the other hand, the newspaper seems to offer very slender grounds on which such a serious accusation is made. For one of such gravity, more would be expected. Without more evidence, healthy scepticism should apply.


Saturday 26 September 2009

The narrative prevails

The "shock resignation" Maj-Gen Andrew MacKay has triggered intense speculation as to the reasons for his departure, with the media deciding that the main factor was his disillusionment over the Afghan strategy – or variations on that theme.

Elevating the speculation into certainty is The Daily Mail which has the general's resignation highlighting "the growing rift between military leaders and the Government over the conduct of the campaign", while The Daily Telegraph casts any doubt aside with the headline: "Afghanistan general quits over disillusionment with government strategy".

Certainly, MacKay – the "hero" of the re-taking of Musa Qala in December 2007 - is a known critic of certain aspects of the conduct of the campaign, but it is well over a year since he was in theatre.

Since then, he has been awarded the CBE for his services in the campaign and in June was promoted to Major General and General Officer Commanding of the Army's 2nd Division (Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland). That he accepted both award and promotion, and took on a new post, is not a sign of a dissident, burning with indignation at the way the Afghan campaign is being fought.

For another "agenda", however, one does not have to look very far – no further in fact than The Times, which cites Clive Fairweather, a former CO of the King's Own Scottish Borderers and a close friend of MacKay.

One reason he gives is that the Army is in the process of rationalising the command structure and, in the not too distant future, MacKay's post is to disappear. With rumours of another job in the offing, at the age of 52, Mackay is making the break now, rather than wait until the market is flooded with a surge of redundant generals, with whom he would have to compete.

This rationalisation is part of the Future Army Structure (Next Steps), announced by General Dannatt in early 2008 and, with General Richards now in post, it is probable that the "new broom" is determined to "sweep clean".

Recognising the reality that the Division is no longer the building block of modern armies, and that the effective operational unit has become the Brigade, Richards will be seeking to disband the current Divisional structure, clearing out much of the dead wood in the process.

Earlier this month, it is "understood" that MacKay had a meeting with Richards, following which he was given "formal leave to retire". With The Scotsman reporting that MacKay is said to be "dissatisfied" with plans to restructure the Army, it requires no great leap of imagination to conclude that it was made clear to MacKay that he had no long-term future in the Army, making his public announcement a mere formality. Furthermore, as the restructuring proceeds, we can expect more high-level resignations.

Doubtless, there is considerable unease in the Army about where the Afghan campaign is going, but in this case, speculation that this was the reason – or even the main reason – for MacKay's precipitate departure seems less than well-founded.

However, since it fits the narrative, the media has run with the Afghan dimension, and played down other possibilities. Says The Daily Express, "He [MacKay] is the most senior in a growing line of officers to quit over conduct of the war," leaving Liam Fox to declare: "His anger is the tip of the iceberg. People cannot trust Labour to give our troops all they need."

The "narrative" is everything. Truth is not an issue.


Friday 25 September 2009

The naming of names

Michael Yon is back with an excoriating condemnation of the MoD publicity machine in Helmand, lifting the lid on a little-discussed but vitally important aspect of the conduct of the war there.

Speaking with a defence correspondent this morning about it, he could not conceal his delight that Yon had done the deed, with a long account of the behaviour of one particular officer running "Media Ops" in Camp Bastion.

Yon states the behaviour of this officer has been "particularly problematic" – but fights shy of naming him, "so as not to tar and feather someone for his entire life when he still has a chance to change his behaviour".

Others, who have had the misfortune to suffer his ministrations are less optimistic – or charitable, and have no difficulty in recognising Major Ric Cole (pictured) as the man who, single-handedly, seems intent on destroying the reputation of the British Army.

Yon readily acknowledges that many soldiers in the British Media Ops are true professionals who strive constantly to improve at their tasks and work very well with correspondents. Their professionalism and understanding of the larger mission - ultimate victory - provide an invaluable service to the war effort. But, he says, there are a few who should not be in uniform and it takes only one roach leg to spoil a perfect soup. And that "roach" is Major Ric Cole.

Yon recounts how the Major and he were driving in Camp Bastion around midday when it was very hot. A British soldier ran by wearing a rucksack. He was drenched in sweat under the blazing, dusty desert. Yon smiled because it was great to see so many soldiers who work and train hard.

Yet the Major cut fun at the soldier, saying he was dumb to be running in that heat. Writes Yon, "I nearly growled at the Major, but instead asked if he ever goes into combat. The answer was no. And, in fact, the Major does not leave the safety of Camp Bastion." He continues:

That a military officer would share a foul word about a combat soldier who was prepping for battle was offensive. Especially an officer who lives in an air-conditioned tent with a refrigerator stocked with chilled soft drinks. Just outside his tent are nice hot and cold showers. Five minutes away is a little Pizza Hut trailer, a coffee shop, stores, and a cookhouse.

This very Major had earned a foul reputation among his own kind for spending too much time on his Facebook page. I personally saw him being gratuitously rude to correspondents. Some correspondents - all were British - complained to me that when they wanted to interview senior British officers, they were told by this Major to submit written questions. The Major said they would receive videotaped answers that they could edit as if they were talking with the interviewee.
This behaviour is not only gratuitous, it is dangerously harmful. Yon rightly states that it is essential to underscore the importance of the "Media Ops" in the war. When Media Ops fails to help correspondents report from the front, the public misses necessary information to make informed decisions about the war.

But if Cole is the "roach" leg, the king roach is the boss of Media Ops in Afghanistan, Lt-Col. Richardson. Says Yon, Richardson is doing more damage to the war effort than the Taliban media machine. By perpetrating falsehoods that undermine our combat capacity, Richardson has helped the enemy. He thus writes:

Some of the smokescreens are less important but they are demonstrative of the pattern: On 20 August a, CH-47 helicopter was shot down by a Taleban RPG during a British Special Forces mission. Richardson reported that the aircraft landed due to an engine fire. Some hours later, while I was on a mission nearby, the Taleban were singing over the radios about shooting it down. I heard the rumble when the helicopter was destroyed by airstrikes. The Taleban knew they hit the helicopter. So who is Richardson lying to? Not the enemy … unless the enemy is the British public.
We have met some of the efforts of Lt-Col Richardson before – defending Panther's Claw and the Viking, always touting the approved line.

Quite how serious this is Yon himself points out. The British people are demanding truth and they deserve accountability. They aren't getting it from Camp Bastion, he writes. Given the importance of the home front, it is impossible to stress how important it is that we are able to judge what is going on out in Helmand. For a long time, we have known that we are not being told the full story – or even part of it. For its contribution to that failure, "Media Ops" – with Major Cole and Lt-Col Richardson in particular - is losing us the war.


Thursday 24 September 2009

A deadly delay

Gradually, the British media is absorbing the implications of the McChrystal assessment, and the political ramifications surrounding it, and we are beginning to see some in-depth reports.

The Times for instance, is running a six-part series on Afghanistan, the latest dealing with the battle for "hearts and minds" on the home front, picking up on a theme it rehearsed in July.

The biggest challenge for the government, says this paper, is not how to beat the Taleban but how to keep the public at home onside. People tend to support the Armed Forces whatever they do but if there is any perception that British troops are dying in Afghanistan for no good reason the tide of opinion will turn.

Keeping people "onside" requires, at its most basis, a government which is able to offer a clear strategic direction and an indication that progress is being made, at an acceptable cost, with some prospect of an end in sight.

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth, agrees that the government has to make clear the real reason why we need to be in Afghanistan. First and foremost, he then says, we must get security right so that we can prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorism.

Only then does he moves on to tell us that building the Afghan state - its education and health services, alternative livelihoods to drugs and a strong legal system - will give the people a better future than the one offered by the Taleban.

The problem with that is that Ainsworth does not make a clear causal link between his assertions. A "secure" Afghanistan, he asserts, is necessary to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists. He then asserts that building the Afghan state will give people a "better future" than the one offered by the Taleban, but he does not tell us that this condition is necessary to defeat the Taleban. We are left to assume that, as indeed we have to assume that achieving this desirable condition is conditional on achieving security.

The sequential relationship between establishing security and then building the Afghan state, however, seems to have lodged as the prevailing paradigm, with the greater problem that we appear to be stuck in stage one, as yet unable to establish the security on which everything else depends.

However, it is now readily acknowledged that defeating the insurgent – in this case the Taleban – and thus achieving security, depends entirely on gaining the support of the people. Yet, to gain the support of the people, it is necessary to give people a "better future" which, under the prevailing paradigm, demands that security is first achieved.

Expressed thus, this is something of a self-defeating task, unless overwhelming force can be brought to bear over a very short period of time, thus to secure an area and allow rapid improvements to be implemented, all with the aim of convincing Afghans that there is a prospect of a "better future".

This, presumably – and, in fact, almost certainly – is what McChrystal aims to achieve through his assessment. And, while he has not yet formally asked for more troops, we learn from The Washington Post that he is about to do so. That request, though, will be made to the Department of Defense, which has indicated that it will not immediately forward it to the White House, pending the current strategic review which is being conducted by the president.

Here, one can understand the dilemma in the White House. There is absolutely no guarantee that the McChrystal plan – such that it is – will actually work, or indeed any indication that it has any chance of working. Based on the Iraqi "surge" concept, there is in fact every chance that it will not.

Thus, one can see the attractions of trimming back the ambitions, turning away from a counterinsurgency strategy, where the focus is on the people, to a counterterrorism strategy where the focus is on killing the enemy – in this case al Qaeda. Unfortunately, as Captain's Journal makes abundantly clear, that strategy is unlikely to work either.

Torn between two equally unattractive prospects, therefore, the response of the White House has been delay. Since late August when McChrystal delivered his report to the president, there has been no progress. No decisions have been made and there is no indication that one is forthcoming. A dangerous strategic vacuum is building up, where troops on the ground are marking time, waiting for a decision – and action – that they believe will enable them to make progress.

That delay is the worst of all possible worlds, and it is being noticed. Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian writes that Gordon Brown and, "less characteristically" (his words, not mine), Barack Obama appear irresponsibly indecisive. US and UK military chiefs are tearing their hair out at the inability of their political masters and civil agencies to get a grip on the Afghan conflict.

If the home front needs signs of direction, firm leadership and progress, this indecision simply reinforces the sense of drift. As casualties mount – as they doubtless will – the frustration and uncertainty may yet spill over into outright hostility to the war, culminating in demands for complete withdrawal.

We are, in effect, on the road to nowhere and while, generally – in road safety terms – we are told that "speed kills", on this particular road the greater danger might be delay. But if the wrong decision is also likely to have fatal consequences, there is a problem building up of alarming proportions. An immediate decision might rebuild public confidence in the short-term but the longer-term cost might be strategic failure, with catastrophic effects on public sentiment.

Perhaps the real problem is, in fact, the focus on strategy without due consideration for tactics. We will have a look at this in a future post.


Wednesday 23 September 2009

Leaving it a bit late

It is the New York Times that is now telling us that Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan. The process includes considering a plan advocated by vice president Biden to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out al Qaeda there and in Pakistan.

This amounts to a "wholesale reconsideration" of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago, helpfully summarised by Newsweek. That strategy involved defeating the insurgents, preventing Al Qaeda from re-establishing a sanctuary and working to set up a democratic and effective government.

Crucially, it also involved training Afghan forces to take over from US troops and coaxing the international community to give more help. There was also an added element, focusing on Pakistan - "assisting efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunities for the people of Pakistan."

In pursuit of the Afghan end of what became known as the AFPAK strategy, Obama agreed to despatch an additional 17,000 troops to the theatre and then another 4,000 to help train Afghan security forces. And it was that strategy which Gen McChrystal took as his brief, working to produce his "assessment" of how it should be implemented.

What has actually confused the issue is that McChrystal writes extensively about needing a new strategy. In fact, the strategy had already been determined. What he has offered is a "significant change in ... the way we think and operate."

As we know, the essence of this "significant change" is defined as "take, hold and build", the first step having been achieved in part with the 17,000 extra troops. But now the coalition forces have taken more territory, McChrystal finds – as he always would – that he needs more troops to hold it. The figure of 30-40,000 has been mentioned.

Now – or so it would seem – Obama is having to confront the inevitable consequence of a strategy defined last March, which effectively rubber-stamped what Bush had put in place, and is now having second thoughts. Thus do we learn that Obama met with his top advisers on 13 September to "begin chewing over the problem", only to find no consensus – in fact, quite the reverse. "There are a lot of competing views," said one official.

Major factors which have prompted the second thoughts, though, are deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and McChrystal's own report. However, there is view that Obama might just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he was not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to additional troops.

This notwithstanding, the debate seems to have polarised into two separate camps, on the one hand a counterinsurgency strategy – on which basis McChrystal has been working - and, on the other, a focus on counterterrorism. The latter is not dissimilar to that advocated by George F. Will known as "offshore balancing" which, as the New York Times observes, "would turn the administration's current theory on its head'.

Given that in May, Gen David D McKiernan was replaced by Gen McChrystal, who was empowered to carry out the "new" strategy, McChrystal can perhaps feel aggrieved by now having his assessment second-guessed at this late stage, after so much effort and energy has gone into responding to the original brief and the strategy has been partially implemented.

The "game changer" though appears to have been the Afghan presidential election, which has undermined the administration's confidence that it had a reliable partner in Karzai. As Bruce O. Riedel – the man who led the AFPAK strategy review – observes, "A counterinsurgency strategy can only work if you have a credible and legitimate Afghan partner. That's in doubt now."

Obama, says the NYT, now has to reconcile past statements and policy with his current situation. And, says former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, "The longer you wait, the harder it will be to reverse it." In fact, Obama has left it a bit late now to question the very basis on which McChrystal was working, when strategy issues should have been settled from the outset – as indeed they appeared to have been.


Tuesday 22 September 2009

Political games

Yesterday, confronted with the McChrystal assessment for the first time, we took the document at face value, starting on a process of review and analysis which is far from complete.

More than 24 hours later though, the document – seen through the prism of US political analysts – looks very different. From Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent, we see that the review itself is far from a neutral military appraisal of the situation on Afghanistan, and that the circumstances and the timing of the leak have strong political dimensions.

Via James Joyner of the Atlantic Council, we see the view expanded that the leak was an attempt "to box President Obama in to a static request for more U.S. troops and dare him to refuse his chosen commander’s recommendations", with a strong suspicion that the military was behind the leak.

I make no apologies for what might seem to a US observer as a certain naivety in my work so far. Firstly, it is difficult enough to get a grip with British politics and the subtleties of US politics are a minefield for the outside observer – we only need to see the mess US commentators make trying to understand British and European politics to see the pitfalls.

Secondly, with a complex document such as the McChrystal assessment, thrust into a highly political environment, the only way to evaluate it properly is to start at the beginning, and take it stage-by-stage, unpeeling it like an onion to reveal the inner workings.

What is amusing to see though is that while McChrystal deliberately plays down the resource (i.e., more troops) issue, putting strategy at the top, either he or the authors of the leak seem to understand the media all too well, fully expecting the Washington Post to focus on the need for reinforcements.

All it then needed was to rely on the coprophagic tendencies of the rest of the media to spread the word and, within a very short time, "more troops" would become the only game in town, the hope being to bounce Obama into giving the go-ahead for another 30,000 "boots on the ground". Predictably, the media fell for it, either not realising or perhaps not caring that they have been well and truly manipulated.

Looking in more detail at the assessment document, the view is beginning to gel that, although McChrystal is arguing for a new strategy, he is actually not offering one.

It was Herschel Smith of the admirable Captains Journal who started me thinking, when he remarked that counterinsurgency (COIN) was not a "strategy", per se. Rather, it is a collection of tactics. Thus, when McChrystal calls for a COIN strategy, he is actually defining a need to do things in a different way, but is not setting out any strategic concepts, the lack of which is dogging the Afghan campaign.

It was pointed out on our forum that the assessment bears some resemblance to the Briggs Plan of 1950, which shaped the Malaya campaign, and indeed it does. What is missing though is the all-important framework of the civilian role, in which context the military is supposed to be subordinate to the civilian power.

The McCrystal assessment, by contrast – and inevitably – is militarily orientated, which is what you expect from an army general. That notwithstanding, the Briggs Plan was framed by Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs, then retired, afterwards to become Director of Operations in Malaya.

Briggs, it seems, was able to transcend his military background. McChrystal, it seems, has not. What we have, on the face of it, is not a new strategy but simply a rag-bag of new tactics and a re-appraisal of tactical priorities.

One hates to concede that Paddy Ashdown (pictured) might have a point, but he is currently arguing for a proper political strategy for Afghanistan to support the military intervention in the country.

He has half a point – we need a proper political strategy, but not to support the military intervention. The military intervention should support the political strategy, and thus needs to be defined within the overall framework of a political strategy – not the other way around.

Emerging from the Malaya campaign were two basic precepts. Firstly, the government had to give priority to defeating political subversion, not the guerrillas. Secondly, to succeed, counterinsurgency efforts had to meet the true grievances of the people better than the insurgents.

McChrystal partially acknowledges these requirements, but he does not really spell out how they will be achieved, and it is not for the military to say. What we are missing, therefore, is that all-important civilian dimension, around which the military effort should be focused. All we are left with is a call for more troops. We have been had.


Monday 21 September 2009

We can defeat ourselves

That is the blunt assessment from General Stanley McChrystal, the senior US commander in Afghanistan, in his aptly-named "assessment report" leaked by The Washington Post.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious," he writes. "Neither success nor failure can be taken for granted." And, "although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress," he adds, "many indicators show that the situation is deteriorating."

McChrystal sees three major problems, and he does not distinguish in importance between them. There is "a resilient and growing insurgency", but there is also "a crisis of confidence among Afghans" – in both their government and the international community. That undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Thirdly, there is "a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."

Despite that, McChrystal believes that success is achievable. And in a single sentence, he injects a degree of realism that may yet make it happen, cutting through the cant and false optimism that we have been hearing for so long. That success "will not be attained simply by trying harder or 'doubling down' on the previous strategy."

The general concedes that additional forces are necessary but, he writes, "focussing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely." The "key take away from this assessment", he declares, "is the urgent need for a significant change in our strategy and the way we think and operate."

There is no mistaking this phrasing. No matter how much the media – and anyone else - might spin it, McChrystal puts strategy as his first priority, his "key take away". To focus on force or resource requirements "misses the point entirely". You cannot get clearer than that but, just in case there is any doubt, he later adds: "... it must be made clear: new resources are not the crux."

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), McChrystal avers, requires a new strategy which is credible to, and sustainable by, the Afghans.

When it comes to resources, he frames this carefully, stating that the strategy must be "properly resourced" but he links this with the requirement that it must be executed "through an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides then with a secure environment."

There is no room for debate here either. McChrystal is making it clear that this is a "civilian-military" effort. He is not talking about the military winning the fight on its own.

Nevertheless, McChrystal concedes that the campaign in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced, and "remains so today". ISAF, we writes, "is operating in a culture of poverty". Consequently, it requires more forces, well in excess of those which can be achieved by efficiency gains.

But, he admits, those greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success. They will merely enable the implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, though, "inadequate resources will likely result in failure". Then, again emphasising the primacy of strategy, he declares "without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced".

There is no messing here. Strategy comes first, then it must be resourced. Without the right strategy, there should be no resources, but without the resources, the "likely" result is failure. And the result of that, inevitably, must be withdrawal. McChrystal is effectively saying, change the strategy or pull out.

As expected, he lays great emphasis on growing and improve the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces (ASNF), but he adds that the coalition must "elevate the importance of governance."

But then, in a clear change of direction, he notes that, in a country as large and as complex as Afghanistan, ISAF "cannot be strong everywhere". Therefore, we must, he writes, "prioritise resources in those areas where the population is threatened, gain the initiative from the insurgency and signal unwavering commitment to see it through to success."

Interestingly, McChrystal also devotes considerable space to looking at the nature of the "fight". We will look at these observations in detail in a separate post but, in summary, he tells us that we must redefine the nature of the fight, clearly understand the impacts and importance of time, and change our operational culture.

This is a different kind of fight, he states. It is not an annual cyclical campaign of kinetics driven by an insurgent "fighting season". Rather, it is a year-round struggle, often conducted with little apparent violence, to win the support of the people. Protecting the population from insurgent coercion and intimidation demands a persistent presence and focus that cannot be interrupted without risking serious setback.

As if that was not problematical enough, we are told that the coalition must conduct classic counterinsurgency operations in an environment that is uniquely complex. Three regional insurgencies have intersected with a dynamic blend of local power struggles in a country damaged by 30 years of conflict. This makes for a situation which defies simple solutions or quick fixes. Success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign.

As to the strategy, it cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population. In the struggle to gain support of the people, every action we take must support this effort. The population also represents a powerful actor that can and must be leveraged in this complex system. Gaining their support will require a better understanding of peoples choices' and needs.

Within that, there is both a short and long-term fight. The long-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.

And then we get some serious candour, Formidable as the threat may be, McChrystal says we make the problem harder. ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with challenges inherent to coalition warfare. These intrinsic disadvantages are exacerbated by our current operational culture and how we operate.

Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a matter that distances ourselves – physically and psychologically – from the people we seek to protect. In addition, we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage.

The insurgents, he concludes, cannot defeat us militarily but we can defeat ourselves. How McChrystal thinks we can avoid that, we will look at in more detail in successive posts.


Missing the point

The Washington Post has obtained a copy of Gen Stanley McChrystal's 66-page "assessment report" on Afghanistan. On the back of that, it headlines: "More Forces or 'Mission Failure'" with the strap: "Top US Commander For Afghan War Calls Next 12 Months Decisive". The lead paragraph of a long article written by Bob Woodward then tells us:

The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure."
To give him his due, though, Woodward then goes on:

McChrystal makes clear that his call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasize protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory. Most starkly, he says: "[I]nadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced."
This last sentence is the nub of McChrystal's report. As it stands, the coalition forces are doing more harm than good, and are losing the war. Thus, in his report, he says: Success is achievable but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or "doubling down" on the previous strategy.

He then goes on to write that: "Additional forces are necessary, but focussing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change in our strategy and the way we think and operate."

The British media seems to be slow on the uptake, with the BBC first out of the traps with its report. Now look at the way it handles the issue. It tells us:

The US mission in Afghanistan will "likely result in failure" unless troops are increased within a year, the top general there has said in a report. He recently called for a revised military strategy in Afghanistan, suggesting the current one is failing.
This was followed by The Times which told us: "America and Nato's top military commander in Afghanistan has warned in a secret report that he needs more troops and a new strategy or his mission will probably end in failure."

You can bet that, when the rest of the media catches up, there will be heavy emphasis on "resources" – i.e., more troops - and much less on the need for a new strategy. Very little, I suspect, will be said of McChrystal's caveat, that "without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced."

For what it is worth, that has been the consistent stance of the British government, which it is why it has resisted the siren calls of the "generals" and the media for more "boots on the ground". The case for more resources is not denied, but they have to be used properly, within the context of a well-founded strategic framework.

To date, the British military have not been able to offer anything like a coherent strategy, even within its own area of operation, as indicated by the tenor of the constant media briefing that we see in the British media. The emphasis throughout has been on more resources. There has been next to no discussion on strategy and, in fact, Stirrup's official "take" is that "the strategy in Afghanistan is the right one."

McChrystal now gives the lie to that, but there is little expectation of the media focusing on that. As with Iraq, the military will be the last to acknowledge that they got it wrong and their pals in the media will back them to the hilt.

The fact is though, that the most recent government (i.e., political) stance of not reinforcing failure has been the correct one. It had always been the intention to wait for the McChrystal review and then make decisions as to force levels on the basis of the strategic appreciation.

Now, it remains to be seen whether the coalition can absorb and deal with McChrystal's recommendations, and indeed whether he has got his priorities right and has offered a successful strategy. We will look at this in a more detailed post.


Friday 18 September 2009

They didn't stand a chance?

In yet another graphic example of how the media have lost the plot, we see reported the outcome of an inquest on the deaths of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. This time it concerns Cpl Tom Gaden, L/Cpl Paul Upton and Rifleman Jamie Gunn, all three of whom died on 25 February this year when their Land Rover WIMIK (example pictured) was blown apart by an IED.

The soldiers were part of an Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT), on an "escort patrol" in the Gereshk district, driving along a new metalled road. They were hit by a "culvert bomb" estimated at 250kg, triggered by a command wire, with the triggerman some 500 yards distant.

The bomb blew a crater more than 6ft deep and the vehicle was "obliterated". Describing the scene was Captain Richard Camp, who was in the convoy: "Nearest to me the engine block was upturned," he said. " Forward of that was the main body upside down. Then forward of that was the gun turret upturned. Three big bits and a number of small bits."

The Army must have been mightily relieved when it submitted to the coroner that "no vehicle would have withstood the force of the improvised device," eliciting from the coroner, David Ridley, "... they didn't stand a chance." Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, he described the action as "cold, callous and arguably cowardly".

Whether it is any more "cowardly" than killing Taleban with a GBU-38 dropped from a B-1B flying at 30,000ft is certainly arguable, but even more so is the assertion that the soldiers "didn't stand a chance." They did ... or should have.

For sure, the size of the IED would indeed have challenged any vehicle, although a Mastiff might just have withstood the blast. But, against such devices, armour is not the issue. Dealing with culvert bombs demands a strategy all of its own.This, we dealt with in an earlier piece, the point then made that culvert bombs were by no means new to the British Army.

These bombs were encountered many times in the Northern Ireland campaign, and were used with devastating effect in Iraq. Nor are they new to the Afghan theatre. A US media report, in piece dated 31 October last year.noted that they "began cropping up in June – at least eight months before the three soldiers were killed.

There can be no question that dealing with culvert bombs presents problems for the coalition forces, especially as on some roads, they crop up at 100 yard intervals. They require assets such as UAVs, ground patrols and mast-mounted surveillance systems.

But, as we remarked in our earlier piece, engineering should play a major part in the mix, fixing grids to culvert entrances to prevent bomb emplacement, guarded by sensors which trigger alarms if there is any attempt to interfere with them.

Given that the road on which these three soldiers were murdered was newly-built, one would have thought that pre-emptive engineering would have been incorporated into the structure – it must have been entirely predictable that the culverts would become targets for the Taleban.

Ostensibly, therefore, these were entirely preventable deaths. The soldiers "didn't stand a chance" because the obvious and necessary precautions were not taken.

In terms of the media, this episode is one where the newspapers could be asking serious questions, highlighting the lack of precautions and demanding that the appropriate counter-measures are taken. But, with the anodyne comments from the coroner, there is barely any interest at all. The BBC and one or two papers have published brief reports, taking the coroner's remarks at face value.

Even The Sun, which tells us today that "Our boys need gear to survive", takes the report at face value, reserving its criticism for Gordon Brown, demanding that troops must "... be given the best-protected, high mobility vehicles ... whatever the expense."

What is missing from the WIMIK story is pre-packaged opinion, for example from a critical coroner, a high-ranking military officer, a celeb joining the fray, or grieving relatives weeping at their loss, demanding action from ... Gordon Brown.

With no political mileage to be gained, no "comfort blanket" of a pre-packaged quote, and no understanding of what is happening or what needs to be done, the media simply do not want to know. And sadly, as long as that is the case, our soldiers won't stand a chance. The media is too busy with its own agenda to care.



If our opposition politicians had been listening last night – which is doubtful – they might have learnt something from General Sir David Richards, the new Chief of the General Staff.

Prominent in his speech to Chatham House he made a declaration which would have shocked the purists, had they noticed, telling us that we must "rebalance our investment in Defence". Furthermore, he said, we must rebalance, "not from one service to another but from one type of conflict to another, for we simply can't afford to retain a full suite of capability for all eventualities."

All professional groups have their secret languages – their jargon, which serves to mark them out as different from the rest of the herd – with its own special vocabulary, where ordinary-sounding word have very special meanings, not immediately apparent to the outsider.

"Balance" is one of those words, as is "rebalance". For General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former CGS, "balance" was one of his favourite words, applied in the context of "balanced force".

Cracking the code, this means an Army which maintains a full range of capabilities, able to fight a full-blooded conventional war against a technologically advanced enemy, as well as the "lesser" tasks of peacekeeping and counterinsurgency.

Even in early August, when delivering his, valedictory speech, Dannat was pitching for his "balanced force", capable of fighting his "future wars" – battles of mass manoeuvre on some unspecified plains, involving huge mechanised armies, fielding tanks, guns and all the high-tech weaponry which comprises the inventories of modern forces.

But if that thinking held back the reshaping of the Army to deal with the insurgencies in Iraq and then Afghanistan, Richards is a breath of fresh air. He wants to "rebalance", based on the idea that the character of warfare is fundamentally changing.

Globalisation, he says, is increasing the likelihood of conflict with non-state and failed state actors, and reducing the likelihood of state-on-state (i.e., conventional) warfare. It will not disappear – but its character will change, becoming more asymmetrical, complex and mosaic.

Thus says Richards, our armed forces and other national security instruments across government must get better at tackling the challenges of this new security environment. This includes re-engineering non-military means to be relevant and effective security tools and, he adds, "Ensuring our armed forces are relevant to emerging security challenges and the increasingly sophisticated adversaries we will face."

Once you have cracked the code, this is heady stuff – amounting to nothing less than a revolution in thinking at the highest level of the cobweb-infested Army.

Successful armed forces adapt and transform at a pace faster than their potential adversaries, Richards observes. Cromwell, as an example, unlocked the synergy of discipline, training, new equipment and new tactics in a manner that left the Royalists looking like barely gifted amateurs. This process can be found throughout history although rarely is it accelerated with the vision and drive of a Cromwell.

Borrowing from his earlier speech, where he warned that the Army was facing another of those "horse and tank" moments, Richards noted that, "although not yet culturally internalised," there has been a radical change in the way wars are fought.

We cannot, he said, go back to operating as we might have done even 10 years ago when it was still tanks, fast jets and fleet escorts that dominated the doctrine of our three services. Instead, we have to face up to such "non-kinetic" requirements as "counter-IED, information dominance, counter-piracy, and cyber attack and defence".

Soldiers had to operate in a "complex combat, joint, interagency and multinational environment in which success is measured in terms of securing people's confidence instead of how many tanks, ships or aircraft are destroyed."

Then, straight out of the Gates book of procurement, Richards declares that the pace of technological change has left every nation's mainstream procurement process struggling to deliver equipment that will remain relevant against more agile opponents satisfied with cheap and ever-evolving 80 percent solutions.

Too often, he says, we still strive for hugely expensive 100 percent solutions – "exquisite solutions" as Secretary Gates calls them – relevant only in a traditional hi-tech state on state war but that risk being out of date before they are brought into service.

In sum, he adds, tactical, operational and strategic level success in today's environment is beyond that of a military that draws its inspiration from visions of traditional state on state war, however hi-tech in nature.

Much later in his speech, Richards returns to this theme, telling us that those who seek to continue investment in traditional forms of conflict at the expense of the new fail to understand the degree to which inter-state dynamics have changed since the Cold War era.

The asymmetric war, he says, is the war of the future and countries like the UK need only possess a deterrent scale of traditional warfighting capability - one that reflects our stated policy of only going to war as part of the NATO alliance or, in a regional context, with the USA.

He is not advocating the scrapping of all our aircraft and tanks to the point that traditional mass armoured operations, for example, become an attractive asymmetric option to a potential enemy. But ensuring tactical level dominance in regional intervention operations or enduring stabilisation operations and to deter is going to be achieved with allies, not by ourselves.

Accepting this logic will free up resources needed for investment in other more likely forms of conflict. It will also go a long way to finding the money needed to allow our armed forces to contribute to important stabilising activity in fragile and failed states as well as to that Cinderella activity of peace-keeping.

And that is what he means by "rebalancing" – spending less on the expensive "toys", accepting that we can no longer afford a capability for autonomous "high-end" warfare and tailoring our resources so that we can work alongside allies to common effect. If this "horse and tank moment" is not gripped, our armed forces will try, with inadequate resources, to be all things to all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any.

Yet the only newspaper really to have got the point was The Guardian, which was the only one to report the speech properly. Even then, it missed the political dynamic – Richards, on the face of it – is at odds with the world view expressed by Liam Fox. We are in for some interesting times.


Thursday 17 September 2009

The values of the harlot

One wonders quite what the media are seeking to achieve with the prominence they have given today to a letter from aggrieved relatives directly blaming the prime minister for the death of Sergeant Paul McAleese. He was killed by an IED on 20 August in Sangin, while coming to the rescue of his stricken colleague, Private Johnathon Young (both pictured).

Leading the fray is The Sun, which runs the story on its front page (below right), with the headline "Dear PM, You killed our boy."

This, by its presentation and prominence, goes far beyond straightforward reportage, implying the paper's endorsement of the accusation, an endorsement made more explicit in the body of its story. The Sun, effectively, is accusing the prime minister of being directly responsible for the death of a soldier.

In general terms, of course – in the context of any war – the charge of being responsible for the deaths of our soldiers can be made against any prime minister, the office holder being the notional head of government and thus responsible for the prosecution of the war and its conduct.

This accusation, however, is different in tenor. It makes specific charges as to shortages of "manpower, surveillance kit, vehicles and helicopters", directed specifically at Gordon Brown. "As the Prime Minister, you must accept responsibility for the deployment of our troops," the letter goes. "You have a duty to ensure they are provided with the best equipment available and the operational tactics that are used are sound and sensible," it then declares.

Herein rests one of the crucial issues in the conduct of the war in Afghanistan – and generally – as to where the responsibilities lie between the politicians (at all levels) and the military. But this newspaper is not prepared to address this issue, preferring instead to direct its ire at the prime minister.

In so doing, it fails to recognise that there is, and always has been, a distinction between policy (and the direction of overall strategy), which rightly comes within the political ambit, and strictly operational matters, which are the responsibility of military commanders.

Inevitably, there is often a blurring of the line but, in general, operational matters are left to military commanders. This is territory into which the politicians will not venture and, if they attempted to do so, there would rightly be a media furore, with the politicians condemned for meddling.

The particular issues surrounding Sgt McAleese's death, however, are problematical. McAleese was operating from the Wishtan patrol base on the outskirts of Sangin, about which we know something, not least from Michael Yon's descriptions of operations in the vicinity.

We know, for instance, that Wishtan is a small base, out on a limb, and for some time was cut off from its support at FOB Jackson, to the extent that a major operation had to be mounted to restore access and re-supply the base.

The first question to confront, therefore, is whether the base should have been maintained at Wishtan. And, for such a small base – amounting to a company deployment – this is not something in which politicians would be involved. This has to be considered a military decision.

Then, through the good offices of Michael Yon, but also from other sources, particularly this moving account, we are aware that Army tactics are heavily reliant on establishing remote bases, from which routine foot patrols are mounted – for diverse reasons, not least in pursuit of the "hearts and minds" policy adopted as a core part of the strategy.

Given that McAleese was killed while on foot patrol, the next issue to confront is whether such patrols should have been mounted from Wishtan. Dismounted soldiers are extremely vulnerable and dozens of soldiers have been killed whilst on foot, mainly by IEDs. It must, therefore, at least be questionable as to whether the tactic was appropriate for this base, in the particular circumstances.

On the face of it, this again is an operational matter, which puts it firmly in the military sphere - something for military commanders to decide, based on their appreciation of local conditions. It could not be, and should not have been, a decision made by politicians, especially from their desks in London.

Given that two hurdles were passed – that the military had decided that the base was essential, and that the patrols were equally so – only then comes the question of resources.

In this instance, the question is focused on manpower, surveillance equipment and armoured vehicles. There is also an issue of detection capabilities, as it is alleged that the Taleban had access to the same type of mine detector used by the British and were thus able to devise IEDs which were undetectable with this equipment. Helicopters, although mentioned, are not strictly relevant.

However, before addressing the relevant issues, it has to be noted that a decision to maintain a base in the heartland of Taleban activity, and then to mount foot patrol from it, must be taken having regard to the resources available. If there were insufficient resources to secure the safety of the troops, then it would seem logical that operations should have been curtailed.

This is actually a key element of the whole debate on the conduct of the war. It boils down to the question of whether the military, given overall policy/strategic directions, should plan and execute their operations in vitro - i.e., without regard to the resources available – and then demand those resources. Failing their provision, the question devolves as to whether the Army should undertake those operations anyway, the politicians (or resource providers) being held accountable for any failures or calamities arising from their lack.

Here again, the matter is not completely clear-cut. If, on the one hand, the Army is bound specifically to carrying out a strategy which has been devised and imposed by the politicians, the implementation of which necessarily and unavoidably required mounting foot patrols from isolated bases in hostile territory, and which required certain resources which were asked for and denied by those politicians, then there could be no doubt as to where responsibility lay.

On the other hand, if the patrol tactic was entirely discretionary, under the control of the Army, which could decide whether to maintain a specific base and mount particular patrols, then this perhaps puts a different perspective on where the responsibility lies for any failure or calamity. Lack of resources would not be a political issue, as the command decisions would be taken having regard to resource availability.

Even then, there are complications. We see in this instance, the complaint about the lack of armoured vehicles. But, in the context of foot patrols, this hardly seems relevant. However, should they have been judged necessary, we know that a number of Ridgebacks were available, but the Army had decided to hold them back for issue en masse to the new roulement. This was despite the wishes of the politicians that they should be have been used immediately. Where then, does the responsibility lie?

More relevant perhaps, is the matter of mine clearance vehicles – something not brought up in the relatives' letter. We had our own suggestions for this, and have written on the need for vehicles such as the Buffalo, the Husky and even a variant of the Pookie for more restricted areas.

If we accept that there was an operational imperative which demanded routine foot patrols, such equipment would on the face of it seem appropriate and necessary. But, before attributing responsibility for any failure to supply such kit, we have to return to the questions of whether it was asked-for, by whom, when, under what conditions, and whether any such requests had been refused. If that equipment was available – but was not requested at the appropriate level of command – then responsibility lies where it falls.

Another issue raised was surveillance, the lack of which allowed the Taleban to emplace IEDs without being observed. This is very relevant, and there are several technical means by which it could be provided. The most obvious is the UAV but, for a fixed base from which troops mounted routine patrols, area surveillance might best be achieved by using fixed sensor masts.

Here, there has been some controversy. But before any blame can be attached for the failure to make suitable arrangements, the questions yet again have to be asked – and answered – as to whether such equipment was requested and whether any request was refused.

That then brings us to the vexed question of manpower. Whether more troops, in the short-term, deployed to Sangin would or could have led to a reduction in casualties is moot. One of the issues confronted by the US planners of the surge in Iraq was that more troops, initially, would yield more, not less casualties. More troops in Sangin, likewise, could have led to more casualties.

But again, the relevant issue here must surely have been whether, given the current manpower levels, it was safe and militarily appropriate to maintain the base at Wishtan.

All of these issues, collectively, point to the responsibility for the death of Sgt McAleese – and Pte Young – resting on complex issues and many unanswered questions. Notwithstanding that the soldiers were actually murdered by the Taleban, it is far too simplistic to point a finger of blame at the prime minister.

That then returns us to the question posed at the beginning of this piece – as to what media is seeking to achieve by giving such prominence to a letter from grieving relatives.

One can quite understand their grief and their very natural – and entirely commendable - desire to seek explanations. And it is forgivable that they should lash out at those who they think might be responsible. On the other hand, the writers are neither expert nor informed critics, nor necessarily balanced in their views.

Arguably, a responsible media would take this into account. Furthermore, while there is no restraint on grieving relatives making what accusations they think fit, the media should bear the responsibility for levelling informed accusations, directed at those who could reasonably be found wanting. Promulgating or supporting wild or unsubstantiated accusations – made for whatever reason – should be no part of the media brief.

Yet, no sooner had The Sun published its charges, the story was picked up by diverse other media outlets, including The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Times. But the process of publication is not value-free. Without explanation, caveats or commentary, it implies endorsement. The media is, in effect, exploiting the grief of relatives to pursue an attack on the prime minister, adding to a narrative already in place.

Against that is the marked reluctance of the media to address any of the issues raised in this piece, or even to question the tactics of the Army, or its responsibilities for keeping its soldiers safe. To that extent also, the media seems to be exploiting the deaths of these soldiers, all in the guise of concern for their welfare, when not one of the papers involved is prepared to expend the time or energy needed to understand the issues.

What is so very depressing is that a properly focused and informed media could be a very powerful force in ensuring that our troops are properly equipped and that tactics and strategy are properly scrutinised and improved. Instead, the media have chosen the role of the harlot – power without responsibility – milking the grief and misery of relatives, and exploiting the dead, for their own sterile agendas.

They are always the last to accept any responsibility for their actions but, as with politicians and the military, we should let the responsibility lie where it falls.