Wednesday 29 June 2011

Doing the honest thing

A splendidly indignant Peter Hitchens is fulminating about "Dave" doing the talking (telling the military to shut up and do the fighting), while the war dead from Afghanistan are to be sneaked out of the back gate of RAF Brize Norton when it takes over from Lyneham (a few weeks from now) as the arrival point for the fallen.

They will then be routed down side roads to avoid nearby Carterton – a town almost exactly the same size as Wootton Bassett – and make their way to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford along A-roads and bypasses. There'll be a small guard of honour near the hospital entrance (there already is) but somehow or other the cortege won't go down any High Streets, thus avoiding what has become a media circus.

All of this, however, has to be viewed in the context of the complete and utter failure of the Afghanistan campaign, typified by the experience of the Kajaki power project in Afghanistan, as narrated by the BBC's Mark Urban on yesterday's Newsnight, and repeated today in a BBC documentary.

He refers to a series of the heroic adventures, starting in 2007 and culminating in August 2008 with thousands of British troops taking part in an operation to escort a 200-ton turbine to the Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River, 100 miles north-west of Kandahar City.

The aim was to improve the hydro-electric scheme there, adding a turbine to the two already installed. This was part of a project that has so far cost more than £29 million, and was (and still is) regarded as an essential part of the hearts and minds campaign in the region.

But, three years after so much blood and treasure has been expended (albeit with the bulk of the cash being shelled out by the Americans), the third turbine lies unassembled – the parts littered about the weed-strewn site, exactly where they were left by the British military.

What makes this so desperately sad is that even the slightest knowledge of the history of the area would confirm that the project was never going to achieve its desired aim, even if it had been technically successful.

Not least of the problems was – as Booker recorded in September 2009 that the power lines and sub-stations which feed the electricity to several towns are controlled by the Taliban, who charge money to customers for allowing the juice to reach them.

So obvious, in fact, were the defects of the scheme that a year before, in September 2008, The Guardian, while acknowledging the "brilliant courage and ingenuity" of the British, dismissed it as a "glorious but dangerous folly".

The Kajaki, it said, has been a 90-metre-high, rock-filled demonstration of foreign good intentions for decades but has never delivered the promised benefits to Afghanistan - a political showpiece and always has been since it was built (but not fully completed) in the 1950s by the US to compete with Soviet projects elsewhere in the country.

Such was the delusional attachment to the scheme, however, that this brought a pained rebuttal from then defence secretary Des Browne. The project was not merely a symbol, he declared. "If it were only that, we would never have sent our people on such a risky mission".

Sense and analytical judgement, however, had been submerged in tales of derring-do, marking the self-declared "successful mission". Typical of the period, we got Lieutenant Colonel Rufus McNeil, Comanding Officer 13 Air Assault Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, declaring of those that had run the hazardous convoy, "Every one of the soldiers did fantastically well."

Well, indeed they did, but it was still a complete waste of time, money, effort – and lives. By December 2009, The Guardian was back on the case with a report headed: "Taliban stalls key hydroelectric turbine project in Afghanistan". The strap read: "Convoy diverted British troops from front but generator may never be used".

The enormous hydroelectric turbine dragged at huge cost by British troops through Taliban heartlands last year, said the paper, may never be installed because NATO has been unable to secure a 30-mile stretch of road leading to an isolated dam in northern Helmand.

To install the turbine needed, amongst other things, 900 tons of cement for new foundations, but security had deteriorated to such an extent that British troops were having to be resupplied by air drop and helicopters. Even the BBC reported the problems.

Now, with additional US troops in the region – but for a short time only – USAid, which is managing the project, remains convinced that the project is worthwhile. US aid officials are now claiming that turbine could be installed in 24 to 30 months.

This is so much moonshine. No more now than in 2003 when then current project was first mooted, is this a feasible project. It remains, as always, a testament to the vain, unrealisable hopes of the coalition forces that they can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Returning to Hitchens and his indignation, one recalls an episode during the London Blitz in 1940, when a cash-strapped council in the East End, finding rather fewer houses on its patch requiring collections, redeployed some of its dustcarts – cleaned out and painted a tasteful black – as hearses to collect the war dead.

Given the quite obvious disdain in which Dave holds the military, and the utter futility of the war in Afghanistan, where lives are being thrown away for absolutely no purpose – to say nothing of our hard-earned cash – he might consider following the example of the East End council.

Thus, for as long as Dave and his cronies continue to throw away lives for no purpose, he might as well do the honest thing and hire in a dustcart, instead of wasting money on expensive hearses that the public now will not be seeing. The symbolism would be entirely appropriate and serve merely to underline what our masters are doing with our money and soldiers' lives out in Afghanistan.


Tuesday 28 June 2011

Losing the will to live

Well, I watched the 13th Century Fox announcement in the Commons yesterday, and the whole of the subsequent debate. Then I read the 82-page report. But you can only take so much punishment before you lose the will to live, so I decided to sleep on it before writing it up.

Having further cogitated, I've come to the conclusion that I'm none the wiser for the travail. More seriously, it is well-evident that Lord Levene, his Defence Reform Steering Group, and thus 13th Century Fox, are not much wiser either.

Yes we agree that there are too many generals, and the number must be cut. But that's low-hanging fruit. We observed as much in November 2009 so it would hardly take a high-powered committee and 18 months to work that one out.

And yes, there appear to be some obvious and necessary reforms amongst the 53 separate recommendations. But even if it was acting purely by chance, you would expect that. And, of course, there is plenty of right-on guff, with the Group telling us that we need to create single, coherent Defence Infrastructure and Defence Business Services organisations, to ensure enabling services are delivered efficiently, effectively and professionally.

The trouble is that the moment you see words such as "coherent" and phrases such as: "to ensure enabling services are delivered efficiently, effectively and professionally", you know they're up to no good.

What one was looking for, though, was some sense that the Group really understood the problems they were looking at, and thus knew where to start the remediation. And here, centre stage is procurement, so that one looked especially for the views on this troubled issue.

What was needed was a clear statement that the failures here stem largely from the inability of ministers and senior military staff to define roles, to match equipment to the roles, then to devise acquisition plans and stick to them.

And here, the Group starts well enough, referring to the Bernard Gray review, where it was noted that successive attempts at reform have concentrated on acquisition delivery, rather than – as suggested – seeing procurement as a symptom rather than a cause of the problems in the Department’s decision making.

We go with that, but what are the problems? And here the whole damn thing falls apart. The Group is not into problem solving, but "lessons learned". Thus, they identify "conditions for success in transformations", producing a Janet & John list that comes straight out of the Common Purpose manual on how to bullshit the public.

Thus we get these headings: leadership: vision; engagement; communication; effective people; implementation; resourced; innovation (which "visibly encourages original and radical thinking, and leverages both independent expertise and internal knowledge"); honesty: "the programmes tone inspires confidence, enthusiasm and a 'sense of opportunity' while being realistic about cuts and challenges"; and benefits.

I will not trouble you further with this, for fear of making you physically sick, but that is a measure of the beast.

What one did not find, therefore, were any recommendations of lasting value. This is about shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic more efficiently, and getting more value from the band. The only merciful thing is that the report is only 82 pages long, as opposed to the 296 pages of the Gray report.

That, I suspect, will be the Group's only lasting achievement – reducing the amount of waste printed matter that goes in the bins.


Saturday 18 June 2011

A nosedive of morale

Cameron's drive to reduce the size of the Armed Forces, even to the extent that he is forcing Service chiefs to call for redundancies, is undoubtedly marking the final stages in the decline of the UK as a political power. It would be a fool, however, who did not expect this to have a knock-on effect within the Services, so the news from Thomas Harding that morale is at "rock bottom" comes as absolutely no surprise.

He tells us that this, together with concerns that the Army is in a "permanent state of decline" has led to twice as many people applying for redundancy as expected. They include several future battalion leaders and two officers singled out as potential generals. Six brigadiers have volunteered for redundancy and 48 majors, with an average of 16 years experience each, have asked to go.

The important thing here though is that we are not just talking about the over-paid and over-privileged officer corps throwing a hissy fit. The Army is expected to lose a substantial number of senior NCOs, and has also been inundated with applications from corporals, sergeants and staff sergeants.

This we picked up independently, a little time ago, when we learned that the trigger for departure was a tour in Afghanistan. Once they had experience the shambles, hardship and danger of that theatre – with no obvious reason why they should – few are willing to repeat it. Now, so desperately short of junior NCOs are some units that soldiers only a few months out of training are being promoted.

Whatever the MoD and government propaganda might proclaim, we are fully aware that the official accounts are biased and incomplete, on top of which the Army is haunted by its institutional memory of failure in Iraq.

Cynicism has thus become a dominant sentiment and there is a massive sense of the futility of the Afghan operation, Furthermore, the failure of the Army to come to terms with its experience in that theatre has carried over into Afghanistan.

We are thus seeing an institution which has lost faith in itself, the result being dangerous haemorrhage, ending up with the ranks populated by children, as the older, more seasoned troops leave, commanded by a higher proportion of the inexperienced, the incompetent and disillusioned.

Military historians will undoubtedly be able to tell us things have been worse – and the inter-war period when disarmament was the vogue, must have been pretty dispiriting. Nevertheless, when the Army chiefs asks for 25 colonels to volunteer for redundancy and receives 52 applications, it must be agreed that the situation is dire.

One wonders, though, whether in the short to medium term the situation it recoverable, and whether indeed there is any serious political will to make any improvements. One cannot help but feel that the people masquerading as our leaders are content with the way things are developing, and will be most happy when our Army looks like the picture above.


Saturday 4 June 2011

End game

We saw it coming in January 2006, but it goes back to November 1996 and the Bordeaux agreement on bilateral UK-French naval co-operation, in the dying days of the Major administration. Extended by Blair in 1998 in St Malo, we now have three prime ministers: Major ... Blair ... Cameron, all with the same agenda.

And now we move to the end game, the final surrender, as the Anglo-French force paves the way for a fully-fledged EU Navy.

Autonomous Mind also picks up the story. "All this has been planned and delivered, hidden in plain sight of the electorate and the media, yet even now many in the media are still unable or unwilling to connect the dots and explain to our population what our political class has done. They are sickening quislings to a man and a woman".

What more can one say?