Saturday 17 July 2010

Cannon fodder

Another two Brits have been killed in Helmand. One was a Royal Marine and the other was a trooper from the Royal Dragoon Guards.

The Marine was on foot patrol in the Sangin district, while the Trooper was a member of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, part of a dismounted patrol that was providing security to enable new roads and security bases to be constructed to the north-east of Gereshk. Both succumbed to IEDs.

This brings total British military deaths in Afghanistan to 320, less than a month after the three-century milestone had been reached. That puts the current annual death rate at close to 280 and makes it highly probable that the figure of 400 will be reached before the end of the year – unless there in a dramatic change in operational tempo.

In due course, there will be another street exhibition in Wooton Basset, and we are not alone in wondering whether the displays here are getting out of hand. What happened, for instance, to quiet dignity and the famous British "stiff upper lip"?

Moreover, while it is always tragic to see lives cut short, the campaign in Afghanistan has been going on long enough for soldiers to know what they are letting themselves in for. They either joined the armed forces in that knowledge or have not sought to remove themselves from harm's way.

Either way, the Army and the top brass do not seem to be mightily concerned about the losses, otherwise they might be doing something to prevent them, instead of indulging in back-covering propaganda. One does wish, therefore, that the Army spokesman would learn some new lines to go on the press releases when fatalities are announced.

Of the latest casualty, "... tragically he was struck by an explosion," says Lt-Col James Carr-Smith. "His courage, sacrifice and selfless commitment will never be forgotten." But of course it will. If he has any next of kin in Army quarters, the papers for eviction are already being prepared. The pay termination notice applied before even the body was cool.

We need to be a little bit more honest here, and call these men what they are – cannon fodder. Whatever their own personal delusions, they are only dying to cover the backs of Mr Cameron and Mr Fox, while they work out a suitable face-saving formula to cover their political embarrassment at announcing a defeat. That honesty might focus a few minds and get us out a little faster.

The pic shows soldiers en route to Afghanistan on the last roulement, in the belly of a C-17. More than three times the number visible will have returned in coffins by the end of the year. At least they get a little more space on the way back, and a car to meet them at the airport.


Tuesday 13 July 2010

Beyond demonstrable failure

"Renegade Afghan soldier kills three British troops." That's the headline in The Guardian with similar replicated elsewhere and more detail here.

Two (or four, according to some reports) more were injured during what is termed a "joint patrol" with local forces in southern Helmand, part of the mentoring process which is supposed to be improving the capabilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA) so that it can take over duties from ISAF.

This is not the first time we have seen such an incident. In November last, a rogue Afghan policeman killed five British troops. In December, an Afghan soldier also shot dead one US soldier and wounded two Italian troops at a base in Badghis.

Sadly, over the weekend I was discussing the process with a very senior member of the previous administration, observing in my own inimitable style that: "The mentoring scheme is crap, always was crap, always will be crap ... a very expensive and stupid waste of money ... and by now a demonstrable failure."

"Consistently," I wrote, "we turn our faces away from experience, from tried and tested systems that have a track record of working, to embrace something with a poor record of success. We then pursue it well beyond the point where it has become a demonstrable failure ... and express surprise that it does not work."

This was written before the piece in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Owen and Brian Brady. This revealed that the strategic plan of creating an Afghan security force to replace US and British troops is in serious disarray with local forces a fraction of their reported size, infiltrated by the Taliban at senior levels, and plagued by corruption and drug addiction.

Rather than be negative (which I am not when talking to people who are prepared to listen), I had observed that, in nuts and bolts terms, the interesting thing is that to pacify the plains tribes, you often had to use hill tribesmen. This was in the days of the Raj. Conversely, it was almost impossible to get plains tribesmen to go up into the hills and fight effectively.

The trouble is, I then noted, that we have cut ourselves off from the hill tribes. They are now in Pakistan ... except that they come of the hills raiding and looking for work. But it is rather remarkable that we are prepared to hire Nepalese and use them but not raise native regiments, drawing them down from the hills with bribes and offers of work.

In fact, one of my many earlier suggestions had been precisely that we should raise native regiments, officered by the British, but as part of the British Army, not the ANA, equipped by us, with British NCOs, and paid by us. Once knocked into shape, we could then hand them over to the Afghan government.

The native levy system was one which helped us conquer the Empire, the regiments so formed then going on to form the core of the post-colonial forces. And the best examples currently are the Pakistani and Indian Armies, living testament to our past military skills.

But the point has been made. Consistently, we turn our faces away from experience, from tried and tested systems that have a track record of working, to embrace something with a poor record of success. We then pursue it well beyond the point where it has become a demonstrable failure ... and express surprise that it does not work.

The only thing we seem to be able to excel in these days is consistency.


Saturday 10 July 2010

Even stupid people deserve better

"We have this old adage," says Captain Anthony Harris of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (pictured): "70% skills and drills, 20% equipment, 10% luck". He goes on to say, "Unfortunately that's quite a large percentage for luck. You can overplay blame. We just happened to take the patrol on that path on that day."

This is after the man has been blown up in Helmand while riding in the commander's seat in a Jackal – as recorded by The Guardian. But the point is that it isn't an "old adage" – it is the sort of crap they are taught in soldier school by people who should know better.

What is more, some officers seem to believe what they are told, without complaint – this one still believing it after the trauma of amputation. That's why they get blown up in the first place, and keep getting blown up - yet they keep repeating the mantras ... skills 'n' drills, skills 'n' drills, skills 'n' drills ... BAMMMMMMMMM!

Compare and contrast with this - Lt-Col Roly Walker's experience of getting blown up. He is riding in a Mastiff and survives uninjured. "I always thought it was a case of 'when' not 'if' we drove over an IED," he says afterwards.

No doubt, Col Walker has his own "old adage": "100% equipment", as long as it's called a Mastiff. If you want to live, fly Mastiff. The problem is that, after the event, even after they have been blown up, some of our less intellectual people are still not putting two and two together: "I am sat over the wheel," Harris says. "The blast goes off underneath the wheel, the shockwave goes through the metal ...". Doh!

You do wonder what it takes to get the message through when, as here in September 2007, we have the Jackal being paraded, alongside Gen Dannatt telling us: "the mounting death toll in the country should not overshadow the success forces were having on the ground." The troops, he then said, "are winning the tactical battle".

Well, three years later, they're still winning the tactical battle, the ones that are still alive and in one piece - and Dannatt is collecting his pension. But his troops, after winning that tactical battle (again and again and again ...), are also pulling out of Sangin with more than 100 dead, mostly to IEDs, with three times that number very badly injured.

And that's why the MoD under the new Cleggeron adminstration are spending £45 million on another 140 Jackals. That's so we can have another batch of young men (and the occasional women) to sit over the wheels of these insane vehicles - and they too can lose their legs, or even their lives. But hey! Skills 'n' drills, skills 'n' drills ... keep taking the mantras. These prosthetics are really good when you get used to them.

But you do also wonder why newspapers, instead of doing soft-focus, human interest stories, don't point out that so many of these deaths and injuries are entirely unnecessary, brought about by enhanced stupidity, bolstered by bad tactics, misleading training, blind faith - and duff equipment.

Even stupid people and Army officers (where there is a difference) deserve better than that.


Thursday 8 July 2010

You can't say it's a victory

The British withdrawal from Sangin was formally announced yesterday by defence secretary Liam Fox to parliament. The date set for their departure is October. In the meantime, the theatre reserve battalion from Cyprus is to be deployed in the district, responsibility for which is to be handed to US forces.

This is the first major contribution by the Cleggeron administration to the conflict in Afghanistan, and one which is being interpreted as a major turning point which Kim Sengupta, writing in The Indpendent thinks makes it now America's war.

In some quarters, this move is being regarded as a defeat. The view of Col Richard Kemp, writing for Channel 4 News is that the Taliban would certainly attempt to present it as a defeat. Parallels are being drawn with our humiliating withdrawal from Basra, although the Americans reject the comparison.

Perhaps it has more in common with the retreat from al Aamarah, where an ill-equipped Army abandoned a city torn by tribal strife, not fully understanding the dynamics in which they had become involved. Certainly, Richard Norton-Taylor, in The Guardian, remarks that British intelligence had been unable to get a grip on the tribal structure in the area, making it hard to cut deals with the key players and therefore protect UK forces.

This is unsurprising as the tribal mix is unusually complex even for Afghanistan, and further complicated by the presence of the Alakozai tribe and the long-standing feud with Ishaqzai, plus the ever-present Kuchi, who remain a poorly recognised but important component of the insurgency.

Predictably, Richard Dannatt, in his new role as all-purpose media renta-mouth, is also on the case. And it says something of the media that they should continue to lionise a retired commander who has probably contributed more to our tactical if not strategic defeat in Afghanistan than any other man.

By his wilful failure to recognise and deal with the IED threat in a timely fashion, by his sloth in ensuring that sufficient of the right type of UAVs and other surveillance assets were made available in theatre - to say nothing of the helicopters - and particularly by his early misreading of the tactical situation and his espousal of FRES as a suitable weapons system, he ensured that our troops were ill-prepared to counter the threats to which they were exposed.

Nevertheless, the former CGS argues in The Daily Telegraph that since the USMC, now in considerable strength, has assumed operational responsibility for northern Helmand, it makes no sense to have a lone British battlegroup in the middle of the US area. Redeployment is an entirely logical move.

Despite this, he says, some will present the change as the Americans bailing out the Brits and some will choose to see it as the start of a wider British withdrawal.

He too sees the Taliban attempting to claim the move as a tactical victory. And, rather forgetting that he is no longer in the Army, where he can order people around, he states: "Those views cannot be suppressed in a liberal democracy such as ours, but they should not be allowed to gain credibility or traction. It is more important that the move be seen for the sensible development of the campaign that it is."

Whatever Dannatt might declare, there is a sense of defeat. With a multi-national force where contingents from different countries are used to operating side-by-side, there is no overwhelming reason why the British Army cannot work within a US zone. But it has clearly reached a limit to how many men it can feed into the mincer of Sangin, which it has long failed to understand and has had no idea how to deal with it.

Of course, there are those in addition to Dannatt who will seek to defend British performance, especially those who have had the dubious benefit of "being there". But – as we have pointed out here, such campaigns are not won or lost on the ground, but in the offices and minds of strategic commanders and their advisors. And it has long been evident that they have lost the plot.

Patrick Cockburn, in The Independent, argues that British troops were never geared up to make a lasting difference. There were never quite enough British troops to gain permanent control of Sangin, and the Taliban obviously sensed the vulnerability of British troops spread too thinly. Roadside bombs, he writes, could inflict a toll which was difficult to justify in terms of bringing an end to the war.

He is not the only one to argue that we never had enough troops, but we disagree. In just one one example (and there were many more), we showed that the lack of imagination and ponderous tactics led to excessive demands for manpower. Much could have been done, more effectively, with far less.

And nor can anyone assert that we are being wise after the event. We have been nothing if not consistent in our criticism of the lacklustre tactics, the inadequate equipment and the limited strategic vision. You cannot defeat an insurgency in a land of a thousand walls.

Nevertheless, this is not a strategic defeat in the mould of Iraq, where British forces scuttled out of the field of fire, leaving unprepared and ill-equipped indigenous security forces to face the insurgency. This time, the US forces have learnt their lesson.

While even now the British are still talking up their expertise in counterinsurgency, based on their Northern Ireland experience, they are regarded as unreliable, their experience irrelevant (not that they are actually implementing the lessons). They have thus insisted on an orderly hand-over rather than allow a moonlight flit and are now - as always - to do the heavy lifting.

Nor is the military getting any support from the population. Ben Farmer in The Daily Telegraph interviews Haji Akhatar Mohammad, from Bostan Zoi village near Sangin.

He says: "The British had been there for a long time. They were not helpful and there was no good result from them. They didn't understand the people and there was too much fighting." Now, adds the 45-year-old elder, "People are happy the British are moving."

Neither does The Guardian offer any comfort. Sangin's residents, it says, have criticised the planned withdrawal, complaining that four years of fighting have failed to bring peace or development. "The British have failed," says Haji Fazlul Haq, a former town governor. "They could not bring security to the town and that is why they are handing it to the Americans."

This " blunt assessment" says the paper, was shared by other residents who expressed greater confidence in US forces due to take control in November. "The Americans fight harder. I think the Taliban will be afraid of this change of command," said Haji Abdul Wahab, acting director of the peace commission of Helmand, a government body that promotes reconciliation.

Despite this, our military have learned something from Iraq: minor embarrassments like failure can easily be dealt with by removing the word "defeat" from the military vocabulary. They simply substitute words like "redeployment", "reorganisation", "force realignment" or "a sensible redistribution of manpower". This latter phrasing was how 13th Century Fox justified it, having learnt well the art of spin from the Labour government that previously he was so quick to deride

The establishment line, being touted by the BBC is that "the changes being unveiled will improve the effectiveness of the overall military effort." They won't, of course – not without a significant change in strategy and tactics. The US tactics are probably marginally better, but still not good enough and their strategic appreciation is probably as lamentable as that of their British counterparts.

The only significant difference, therefore, is that the US forces are better able to weather the running attrition. With more men in theatre, the number of body bags is not (yet) quite so critical.

That aside, however much British politicians and the military care to dress it up, even Con Coughlin admits it still doesn't look good. The mockery has already started and, if they do manage to avoid the taint of defeat, the military sure as hell cannot claim that this has been a victory.