Sunday 30 May 2010

Going through the motions

The resignation of David Laws would be big news at any time, but the homosexual relationship gives it an extra edge. The saga of "poofters in power" – as it was characterised by one of my correspondents – has a special fascination in the Westminster village, which is far more interested in who is buggering whom than it is the general proposition that the population as a whole is being right royally buggered by the political classes.

Needless to say, the extravagant coverage being given to the affairs of Mr Laws has pushed other issues further down the agenda and excluded other items completely, not least by the absurd proposition that the low-grade-Laws will somehow "bounce back" once this bit of local difficulty has been quietly forgotten.

One of those issues which has doubtless got less coverage than it might is the vexed matter of Afghanistan. But then the unnecessary slaughter of (mainly) heterosexual young males through the cupidity, incompetence and manic stupidity of our political classes – willingly aided and abetted by the military itself - is of very little importance compared with the weighty matters of state to which the likes of Mr Iain Dale wish to draw our attention.

Nevertheless, some coverage has survived as, it appears, "Call me Dave" is this week convening a "secret summit" of military experts, ministers and Tory MPs on the war in Afghanistan. It is to be held at Chequers and will also be attended by members of the new National Security Council, including NickNick, Hague and little Georgie Osborne.

Also in attendance though will be (or so we are told) Conservative MP Adam Holloway, a former soldier who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He has publicly suggested that the mission is on the brink of failure, and warned that the heavy presence of coalition troops is "aggravating the problem" in the area.

Another "outsider" will be Rory Stewart, a new Tory MP and former British Army officer, described as having "extensive experience of the conflict". Although rather too full of himself for some tastes, he too has voiced his concern about the mission, suggesting it is doomed, and has publicly questioned the government's key argument for Britain's continuing involvement in Afghanistan - that it reduces the terrorism threat in Britain - describing it as "ridiculous".

Coincidentally (not) we have seen in the media a raft of what could loosely be called "strategy" pieces, the latest being from Denis MacShane in The Observer, who repeats an earlier call to bring the troops home.

The MacShane thesis is that our soldiers have shed enough blood and the strategy of sending patrols out to be shot at by the Taliban is needlessly costing the lives of British troops. Thus, he argues that it is "time to stop the blood sacrifice of our young soldiers in Afghanistan," noting that Britain has no general, no "master of strategy" with the 21st-century vision to stop the blood-letting as officers and men are sent as IED fodder.

War is too important to be left to generals, he says, then asserting – almost certainly correctly – that ministers past and present have flinched from thinking strategically. Instead, far too much has been left to the generals. Says MacShane:
Every six months, a new commander is sent from London to head the fighting soldiers in Afghanistan. These brigadiers rotate, so that, instead of fighting one six-year war, we have fought 12 six-month wars, so that future red tabs can punch their tickets. The can-do, will-do power-point style of the British army impresses politicians, and every visiting minister and journalist is in awe of these tough, sun-burnt, dedicated professionals.

It is hard to say that they and their generals are wrong, but the time has come to put parliament and elected ministers in charge. The pro-war tabloids say they are backing our boys. They are not: they are backing the generals. Officers and men ready to criticise the campaign have no voice.
The problem with that line is that putting "elected ministers" in charge means giving 13th Century Fox and William Hague their head. Yet nothing they have so far offered gives any confidence that things will be better than they were under Labour.

On the other hand, leaving the campaign to generals means more of the same, with precious little being done about the "blood sacrifice". This is largely regarded as tolerable - and necessary to keep the new kit coming and the funds flowing. After all, if the Brass was not allowing the Taliban to spread a sample of its finest in pieces across the plains and hills of Helmand, politicians like "Call me Dave" might actually start asking what the Army is for – and that would never do.

Interestingly, Charles Moore attempted that on Saturday – sort of. Along the way, he remarks that "the current truth" is that Britain's effort in Afghanistan is not working.

But the Grand Charles, who so often dines with the great and the good that he has long lost touch with reality, believes the failure arises because it (the effort) "is not granted political, developmental or military freedom of manoeuvre."

His answer is to ditch Stirrup (who has been a disappointment, not least as one of the few senior officers with any experience of counterinsurgency) and appoint a new CDS. "One hopes that rumours that Mr Cameron would rather appoint a soldier fresh for the task are true," says Charles. This man, though, is still locked in the claustrophobically narrow world of the military perspective, looking for a British military figure akin to General David Petraeus who can lead our forces to the promised land. He will search in vain ... this is not a military problem.

At least MacShane is thinking in geopolitical terms, arguing that "diplomats and development aid should be redirected to Pakistan and India, as well as to China and Iran, to remove the widespread feeling among Muslim communities that this is Kipling's west again seeking to control the lives of people whose customs and needs they do not understand." And thus does he focus on the "burning issue of Kashmir", which is one of the keys which will unlock the Afghan conflict.

The one thing that the Tories - and especially the Grand High Tories like Charles Moore - don't do though is think. Anyone who ever attempts such a perilous process is quickly exorcised from the party ranks. And that is why you have Con Coughlin noting that they have already sold the pass, with an analysis piece headed: "We will never defeat the Taliban if they think we're going home".

Politicians both sides of the Atlantic, says Coughlin, are desperate to escape from the quagmire that is Afghanistan. Yet paradoxically, the only way we stand a chance of extricating ourselves is by sending a clear and unequivocal message that we are going to stay the course, he writes.

Well, we can do that but, frankly, no one would believe it, least of all the Taliban. In that sense, Liam Fox, in saying that he wants to speed up the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, is only articulating the common objective. The question really is the terms – whether we accept humiliating defeat barely dressed up as victory, as we did in Iraq, or whether we hold out and engineer a more plausible fig-leaf to cover our humiliating defeat.

When one looks at today's newspapers, however – and follows through with the TV news if one is mad enough to do so – the over-riding impression is that no-one really gives a damn. We go though the ritual wailing and rending of clothes as body parts are returned in flag-bedecked coffins borne by highly polished limousines but you can see that the real interest is in the "poofters in power" soap opera. If we declared "victory" tomorrow and walked out the next day, few would even notice and fewer still would argue the toss.

Coughlin says we are giving "the unfortunate impression that the West is rapidly losing its stomach for the fight." In fact we lost it years ago and all we are doing is going through the motions.

Tragically, we will have to go through those motions for a while longer, pretending we are serious about fighting this war. That will last for as long as it takes for "Call me Dave" to get round to making some meaningless but profound statements, all to save some notional "face" and make it look as if he is in charge - although in actuality, he will be doing whatever Mr Obama tells him to do.

It is interesting how wars are often much easier to start than they are to stop, and this one is no different. The "blood sacrifice" will have to continue because no one knows how to stop it more quickly, or cares enough to try. But then, in the grander scheme of things, a few more body parts in a few more coffins won't make any difference and it is clearly not worth any great effort trying to safe a few lives. The show must go on, doncha know.


Friday 28 May 2010

So where are they?

A coroner has said there has been an "unacceptable level of mortality" among bomb disposal experts working in Afghanistan.

Coroner Stuart Fisher made the comments as he returned a verdict of unlawful killing at an inquest in Lincoln into the death of Captain Daniel Shepherd. Capt Shepherd was killed as he defused an improvised explosive device by hand in Helmand province in July 2009. The coroner said it was critical that remote devices were used on bombs.

Well, blow me down with a feather! That's exactly what I said in July 2009, just after Capt Sheherd's death was reported. And if I can see it, from my desk in Bradford, and a Coroner – on hearing expert evidence – can see it (and recommend it), where are all these military experts and on-the-spot defence correspondents? Why couldn't they see it?

Further, I very much doubt whether the Coroner had the Buffalo in mind, as a local coroner would know nothing of this equipment unless he had been told about it. And the one thing the Army seems to be extremely good at during inquests is keeping quiet about the availability of life-saving equipment, and the lethal inadequacies of its current systems and procedures.

There is also always going to be the smart-alec who will say that the Buffalo cannot solve every problem. In fact, there seems to be a remarkable sub-strain of military stupidity which asserts that, because one piece of equipment cannot resolve all problems, it should be used for none at all.

But the fact is that the Buffalo has a proven record in saving lives – it is ideal for investigating suspect IEDs which might otherwise kill bomb disposal operators. We should have ordered them in 2005 (or earlier). The Army didn't, and it wasn't until November 2008 that an order was finally placed.

But that was 18 months ago. In the interim, we have heard nothing, and there is little indication of when these life-saving machines are going to go into service. Where are they, and how long is it going to take to get them into action?

And why aren't all these clever, knowledgeable defence correspondents agitating for their introduction, or are they still waiting for their Army minders to tell them what to think? This kit has been around, in US hands, since 2003 ... for SEVEN years. How long is it going to take before some bright journo actually notices that we are still using men with metal detectors to do the job that should be done with machines?


Dog should eat dog

Rather amusingly, The Guardian is letting Monbiot off his leash to have a go at The Times, telling the world that its "exclusive" tale on EU climate targets is "gibberish".

Although Moonbat is largely a free agent, there must be an element of policy involved here, as most newspaper editors are reluctant to allow attacks on other journals. The view is taken that "dog shall not eat dog" in an informal arrangement that binds together the media as a self-serving (and mutually supporting) club.

In that sense, it is good to see Moonbat break ranks – even if one cannot agree with all he writes. Climate change aside, another good place to start would be the defence coverage, breaking into the low-grade and ill-informed coverage that we see all too often. And, once again, The Times would be a suitable target, with a story that could easily qualify as "gibberish".

The headline claim of this story – which sounds so terribly plausible – is that the MoD "has spent £207 million on an armoured vehicle that has yet to leave the drawing board, despite seven years of development." This, it tells us, is the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) which "was supposed to provide soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan with better protection against roadside bombs but its development has dragged on and costs have continued to rise."

Here one must admire the skill of the journalist, David Robertson, in getting so many things wrong in such a short passage. Firstly, while the MoD might have spent £207 million on FRES, the very name should warn the unwary journalist to be careful.

The key is in the last letter of the acronym, the "S", standing for "system". FRES is not an armoured vehicle, but a system – one which is extremely complex, sophisticated and innovative. Agree with it or not, the overall procurement budget is provisionally set at £16 billion and, for what is supposed to be part of a revolution in military affairs, the sum of £207 million so far spent is relatively modest.

Secondly, FRES vehicles were never intended to give protection against roadside bombs – neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan. The whole concept was of a lightly armoured, air-portable force which relied on advanced sensors and stand-off weapons to neutralise threats, rather than weight of armour. In fact, it is largely the IED which has so far scuppered the FRES concept.

So keen is The Times to develop its theme of "waste", however, that it then drags in the mine and IED resistant Mastiffs and Ridgebacks, noting that the MoD has spent more than £1 billion on new armoured vehicles such as these, but "these are seen as temporary solutions and FRES was meant to be the long-term answer and become the backbone of the Army’s vehicle fleet."

This is an issue we have rehearsed many times – for instance here - and while it is true that the Army originally sought to make the mine protected and FRES vehicles an either/or issue, they have emerged as entirely separate categories, each with their own distinct operational niches. The Times is offering a distorted and incorrect view.

Interestingly, the paper then goes to the MoD for a view on FRES and then, separately, to 13th Century Fox, as if he was still a member of the opposition. Dr Fox has been firmly in favour of FRES – wanting it introduced more quickly – so he tells us that: "The whole FRES programme is just another example of a procurement programme going over time and over budget. This is yet another reason why the procurement process needs radical reform that only a new government can provide."

And there lies the final inadequacy of a wholly inadequate piece. Where there are indeed problems with FRES, these are not primarily procurement failures. There are serious definitional problems, which will continue as the Army consistently fails to work out what equipment it really needs. If Dr Fox does not understand that – and he mostly doesn't – only the ignorance of The Times is going to get him off the hook.

Unfortunately, on that he can almost certainly rely – unless the media grow some and start picking apart some of the garbage such as this piece represents.


Monday 24 May 2010

Thirteenth Century Fox

Politically, for the period that British troops remain in Afghanistan, it is going to be an interesting time. We are going to see a Conservative defence team, which in opposition specialised in low-grade sniping, now exposed to its own medicine, as unhappy events unfold.

What would have been a classic example of this is the resignation today of Colonel Bob Seddon, the principal ammunition technical officer of the Royal Logistics Corps. He has decided to call it a day over his concerns that cuts have left his team - which deals with the threat of IEDs in Afghanistan – "overstretched and undermanned".

Pre-election, then shadow defence secretary Liam Fox would have had a field day, condemning the inadequacies of the government. Now he represents the government, however, Fox is having to promise to remedy the inadequacies of his predecessors. He is now, effectively, on notice, and further problems with ATO shortages will, in due course, be laid at his door.

This, of course, is a game Fox cannot win. There will always be deficiencies emerging somewhere in the order of battle as our forces continue to engage with a relentless enemy. Of those deficiencies, Fox will have little direct knowledge – until they are brought to his attention – but, having been so keen to hold his predecessor responsible for every defect, will now find himself similarly in the hot seat.

So far, Fox has not made a good start of it, having incurred the wrath of the Afghan government during a weekend visit, after describing Afghanistan as a "broken 13th-century country". A senior Afghan government source said: "His view appears to be that Afghanistan has not changed since the 13th century and it implies that Afghanistan is a tribal and medieval society."

If that is indeed Fox's view, it says little for his broader understanding of the politics of the region, but this should come as no surprise. On this and many other things, he shows every indication of having learned absolutely nothing during his period in waiting.

From his privileged position as defence shadow, Fox has had every opportunity to explore the Afghan crisis at length and, had his understanding developed at all, he would undoubtedly be thinking along the lines of Denis MacShane, one of the few to understand the malign role of India in the conflict.

"We cannot keep on sending British soldiers to die in the will-'o-the-wisp search for an ultimate military victory," says MacShane. "Instead of warcraft we need statecraft and that must involve a stronger relationship with Pakistan. There has been much talk about Pakistan and the solution to Afghanistan. But there will be no solution in Pakistan until India changes its strategic approach in the area."

Alongside foreign secretary William Hague, however, the Conservative leadership – MacShane asserts – is totally India-obsessed, which leaves Fox's thinking undeveloped and superficial.

And, if his strategic thinking is lacking, so too is his response to local issues such as perceived shortages. Tonight's Panorama documentary may be a case in point, where Christina Schmid, widow of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, complains that her husband, who was killed by an IED in Sangin, was "flaking" with exhaustion on the day he died because of demands being made on him and his elite team due to staff shortages.

Taking them at face value, Fox has no choice but to respond to such complaints by promising to make good the shortages. But, had he been more conscientious in his research, he might have learned that there were alternative and less labour-intensive way of doing things, than currently undertaken by the military, which could square the circle – providing better military effect at less cost and loss of life.

Crucially though, where over the weekend there emerged what appeared to be a split between Fox and development secretary Andrew Mitchell, a more rational approach by Fox could have had the two ministers singing from the same hymn sheet.

The essential issue here is that, for many of the intractable military problems in the British area of operations, there are no pure military solutions. With such solutions are being sought, in vain, this gave Fox the opening to offer alternatives, such as the tried and tested engineering solutions which have served others so well.

Such an approach would have put Fox on the same wavelength as Mitchell, but instead has him creating his own hostages to fortune, with his current promise that the new government will "do everything we can to ensure that, whatever you are asked to do, you are properly, fully equipped to do so, to maximise your chance of success and minimise the risk to you."

That is a promise which Fox cannot keep – it will always be the case that there could have been something more which could have been done while, on the other hand, nothing Fox has in mind by way of strategy would offer any chance of success. He has already squandered multiple opportunities, to the extent that history has perhaps already marked Thirteenth Century Fox down for failure, before he has even got properly into gear.