British troops going into Afghanistan's Helmand province "turned up a hornet's nest" of ferocious insurgent violence because of a failure of intelligence, the head of the military, General Sir David Richards, said yesterday.
The UK force of 3,300 was sent in 2006 by John Reid, Defence Secretary at the time, who said he hoped that "not a shot would be fired in anger" by the end of the two-year mission. More than seven million rounds have been fired so far in an ongoing war, and the UK's defence chiefs told MPs yesterday that there had been inadequate knowledge of conditions.
General Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said: "There was in some respects a failure of intelligence." He added that most of the information given to the Ministry of Defence related to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, as "pretty positive and benign", not the condition of the enemy-held territory in northern Helmand. "When we went into the north we arguably turned up a hornet's nest," he said.
General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the Army, told the Commons Defence Committee that intelligence agencies were "actively engaged" and noted that there was even a former member of the mujahedin resistance who had fought in Afghanistan in his "gap year" on the staff of the military's Permanent Joint Headquarters.
General Wall continued: "What we found when we had our forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and been hoping for. We were ready for an adverse reaction but we did not expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be. We had always anticipated Taliban potential intent. What we probably underestimated was their capacity."
General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, said factors behind the violence included the Taliban's portrayal of moves to eradicate opium plants as evidence that the UK forces wanted to destroy local farmers' livelihoods, the appointment of a new provincial governor which destabilised the tribal balance, and previous intensive US military operations which "whipped up" the situation.