Saturday, 12 June 2010

Approach to Helmand "flawed"

The Today programme has picked up on the Afghanistan series in The Times, interviewing Conservative MP Adam Holloway and Rear Admiral Chris Parry, the MoD's director-general of development, concepts and doctrine in 2006. The interview has since been reported by the Press Association and The Sun.

Parry's comments are especially interesting as he played a key role in discussions leading up to the initial deployment of troops to Helmand in 2006 and he has now admitted that the MoD's approach to the mission was "flawed".

Echoing then defence secretary John Reid's comment at the time, that he hoped the UK would leave Helmand without a shot being fired, Parry confirms that the MoD top brass were not expecting to have to fight the Taliban in the province.

"I think we had an immature approach to what is now known as counter-insurgency," says Parry. "We didn't realise the complexity and the character of the context in which we were going to fight. In fact, we didn't envisage we were going to fight."

He goes on: "I think we took too much baggage with us from previous experience from Borneo, Malaya and Northern Ireland and we hadn't really recognised that the lessons we had taken from those campaigns were valid, but they weren't sufficient for the context of Afghanistan, or indeed Iraq."

Then, for the coup de grace, Parry says: "I think at the time there was considerable senior resistance to ditching the lessons from the past and moving on to more radical and progressive ideas. The senior military at the time actually believed different things about what should be done in Afghanistan. The old doctrine, the thinking about how we conduct that sort of campaign still prevailed."

At this stage, as my readers may well imagine, this blogger's blood pressure was escalating to a dangerous level. Multi-adjectival descriptive sentences were forming, in which the word "fuckwit" could qualify as one of the mildest and most complimentary.

When I think of the shit I took from any number of commentators for daring to question the wisdom and expertise of our military "experts", who so obviously knew what they were doing ... and now we get the admission that these great experts were "immature" and that they "didn't realise the complexity and the character of the context in which we were going to fight."

However, one must take a calmer, more analytical approach – which I managed to do after walking several times round the garden, kicking the cat, slamming a few doors and only with difficulty resisting the temptation to punch the laptop keys through the machine and embed them in the table below.

Thinking back to the time, we knew that our great military geniuses like Jackson and Dannatt were basing their strategy on "memories" of Northern Ireland, but actually more so in Iraq than in Afghanistan.

It is interesting though that Parry speaks of "memories" – it was the memory rather than the actuality that was being applied. While the British military was lording it over the Septics, claiming greater knowledge of counter-insurgency though NI experience, the one thing that became very clear was that the lessons of Northern Ireland were applied neither in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In fact, as I point out in Ministry of Defeat, the lessons learned were almost completely ignored in Iraq – which makes it rather interesting that Parry, the man actually responsible for doctrine, is still claiming that Northern Ireland experience did guide strategy.

As regards Afghanistan, the very attraction of this theatre was that the Brown Jobs – having been roundly whipped by the Mahdi Army in Basra and al Amarah – were looking for a new venue where they could play with their toys, without the fuzzies getting too uppity and breaking them. Insofar as there was a strategy in the early days, it was made "on the hoof". It owed nothing to COIN and stemmed more from Rourke's Drift and the Alamo, only with more modern toys.

Once of course, the mad mullahs of the Taliban found that they too – like the Mahdi Army – were having difficulty ousting the British Army from fixed positions, they also went "asymmetric" and started using nasty things like old Soviet mines and then IEDs on an industrial scale.

It was only latterly that there was talk of Borneo and Malaya, but that was not until 2009, after Parry's time (he retired in 2008). By then, even the Septics were getting a bit dubious about British strategic wisdom and the brass were looking for something that might restore their credibility. Thus, briefly, the Far East campaigns became fashionable.

With not a great deal of jungle in Afghanistan, the brass might have been better off studying the campaigns in Aden and Cyprus, then Rhodesia and Bosnia, where land mines and IEDs were widely deployed and countermeasures were being developed. But our "immature" brass obviously had difficulty coping with more than one idea at the same time, so the lessons there went begging.

Eventually, our geniuses alighted on the military equivalent of putting men in front of vehicles with red flags, as way of dealing with IEDs, reasoning – if that is what it can be called – that the public was less concerned with the odd bod getting blown up, provided they weren't in Snatch Land Rovers, which the media might notice.

Then we got the US version of COIN, with Gen McChrystal articulating ideas about "take – hold - build", which have about as much relevance to Afghanistan as a spaghetti sandwich does to an eight-man bobsleigh. But, relieved from the responsibility of doing their own thinking by the Septics, our Brown Jobs have fallen in with a strategy which Adam Holloway complains is "fatally flawed".

This is the man who was less than impressed with the fun and games in Iraq and argues that it is time to seek deals with the hardcore Taliban leaders. Personally, I would suggest killing them – in very large numbers - and then bribing the survivors, once we have re-engineered their towns, demolished their walls and straightened their roads.

However, Holloway is on the right lines when he says, "We have to have a political settlement". For that, we need to listen to what people like Maharajakrishna Rasgotra have to say. He regards the current policy as "the march of folly", and offers his own ideas. Being a former Indian government minister, his views are neither practical nor trustworthy, but his preferred direction of travel is interesting.

Certainly, it is far more realistic than anything produced by our politicians, and far better than anything our brass have ever considered, not that that would be at all difficult. Given the revelations of late – combined with what we already knew – there are very few of our generals that we would be happy employing on road-crossing duties or as school dinner ladies.