Afghanistan and other victory myths enlisted by the Army

The top brass overrate their own side and underrate the foe. They value conformity, reward yes‑men and block reformers. They reinforce failure

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If you want to hear the truth about a war, ask a serving soldier. In the case of Afghanistan, as the UK combat role ends after 448 fatalities and the presidential election drifts towards its run-off round next month, you may access an entire mess-full of off-the-record verdicts by sneaking a glance at “Arrse”.

This brutally frank web resource – the “army rumours service” – has been hosting a debate on the topic of the Helmand deployment under the pithy title: “Britain got almost everything wrong and should admit its failure”. One grizzled veteran is having none of such defeatism (even if the article that prompted it came from Rory Stewart, maverick Conservative MP and the T E Lawrence of Penrith). “The salad bar in the [Camp] Bastion 2 cookhouse was a delight,” he, or maybe she, posts. Salad bar? What would Wellington’s Bonaparte-trouncing “scum of the earth” have done with a quinoa and beansprout medley? No wonder the Taliban live in hope.

Rory Stewart argues that “the ability to recognise failure, and then to reform, is a defining mark of a serious country”. Over the past seven years, the UK has suffered two conspicuous military setbacks. The first came in Basra in 2007, where after four years of post-Saddam occupation our troops withdrew to the airbase and left the city in the hands of a sectarian militia, the Mehdi Army. Pretty soon they were executing unveiled women in the streets. My colleague Patrick Cockburn judged that at the time, “in terms of establishing an orderly government in Basra and a decent life for its people the British failure has been absolute”.

Now, in Helmand, the “job” is left undone in large part because no one defined the job in the first place. As for the casus belli, let’s shelve the al-Qa’ida argument (not a major threat there anyway) and the delusion that the Taliban had a single head to be struck off. If such a beast exists at all, it lives in Quetta, Pakistan, within the warm embrace of that country’s ISI intelligence service. That leaves the poppy. And the poppy flourishes mightily. In Helmand, the number of hectares under cultivation rose by a third in 2013, while opium production in Afghanistan as a whole jumped by almost 50 per cent.

Afghan civilian fatalities now probably exceed 15,000 since December 2001, when ISAF troops began operations under UN resolution 1386. In Helmand, Nato forces may have been responsible for more than 540, a number in excess of the deaths they have suffered. The British have paid compensation for 249. Those figures come not from some frothing peacenik but from the remarkable Frank Ledwidge – an intelligence officer with previous stints in Kosovo and Iraq, “justice adviser” in Helmand, and the military analyst who has emerged as the dauntless Cassandra of this brace of ill-starred conflicts. He calculates that the Afghan adventure, which lasted for as long as two Great Wars, will cost Britain £40bn – enough to fund a working lifetime for 1,000 nurses. In the meantime, to those 448 grieving families in Britain we can add several hundred amputees, thousands more with life-changing injuries – and the immeasurable suffering of post-traumatic stress victims. The failure is in no way theirs.

Michael Gove, take note: we examine our calamities far less closely than we should. They can teach us much more than success. At least the latest withdrawal from Afghanistan saw nothing to compare with Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul in January 1842. Then, among the fleeing column of 16,000 occupiers, only junior surgeon William Brydon and his servants reached Jalalabad.

Military incompetence is a fascinating subject. In war, the stakes are so high that a spotlight shone on inept strategy illuminates many kinds of folly and delusion. From Balaclava to Gallipoli, Kut-al-Amara, the Somme, Dunkirk, Singapore and Arnhem, British commanders have blundered at least as much as those of any other major power. As have the politicians who directed them: the Dardanelles disaster of 1915 was Winston Churchill’s trademarked debacle.

In the 1970s, the Royal Engineers officer turned psychologist Norman Dixon wrote a classic book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Everyone who works in any large, hierarchical organisation ought to read it. Why do the top brass blunder? Of course, they always try to fight the last war – conventional wisdom by now. Yet an attachment to the past, and to tradition, marches in step with a complete failure to learn from it. They screen out data which conflict with their world-view. They overrate their own side and underrate the foe. They value conformity, reward yes-men and block or evict challenging reformers. They bury bad news and hunt for selective scapegoats instead. They reinforce failure – what Frank Ledwidge calls the “cracking on” culture.

In the forces, or in indeed in boardrooms and in Westminster, the “Ditch the Etonians” mantra now has traction. Throw out a privileged elite and keen outsiders promoted on merit will save your bacon. Alas, Dixon shows that institutions can build in incompetence. A mere shuffle at the top is not enough. To which we should add Clausewitz’s principle: if you don’t know the nature and purpose of an enterprise, then you more or less guarantee its failure.

At least the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires have loosened the tongues of what you might call Britain’s dissident officer class. After his excoriating indictments Losing Small Wars and Investment in Blood, Ledwidge gave some devastating testimony last year to the House of Commons defence select committee. “The lack of institutional honesty and moral courage on the part of our senior military officers is a sight and a hearing to behold,” he told MPs. Ledwidge brands Afghanistan as “a campaign that arose out of determinism. We had this big army. We needed to use it and to do something. We are expeditionary warriors, so let’s go and do that”. Crucially, he also lays the blame for Britain’s grievously substandard performance in the “small wars” of the 2000s on an uncritical deference towards the US: “It is my contention that we were mistaken to look to the interests of another power before … our own interests.”

This week, another landmark in the Helmand reckoning has emerged from the morass. The Ministry of Defence tried but failed to censor An Intimate War by Mike Martin, a Pushtu-speaking reserve officer with the Royal Yeomanry who during his tours in Afghanistan researched an “oral history” of the war among local people. To Martin’s informants, the big words and great causes – whether espoused by the Nato forces or by the ever-shifting and fragmented “Taliban” – mean nothing. An “insurgency narrative” of violence in Helmand has blinded the Britons and Americans to the turbid realities of a “long-standing civil war” among a network of feuding clans and dynasties. This is not a jihad for faith or battle for freedom but pshe-pshe (leg-leg, or branch-branch) dispute. Now this “cyclical conflict of remarkable robustness” will probably enter another round. Martin even doubts whether the term “Taliban” itself has much validity in Helmand.

He offers a devastating verdict on the roots of British bungling. The Helmand deployment came about after a rivalrous Nato carve-up of provinces, even though the British record rendered them the worst possible occupiers there. It had left a deep-seated “historical hatred” towards the “Angrez”. Meanwhile, because of the West’s wilful and wholesale self-deception, “It is as if ISAF and the Helmandi population have been fighting different conflicts”. Martin ascribes the persistence of the “insurgency narrative” – and its deeply misleading parallels with Northern Ireland or Malaya – to a military version of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, as spurious “knowledge” of another culture locks the observer’s mind within controlling stereotypes. General, now Lord, David Richards, the former head of the armed forces who led ISAF in 2006-2007, calls Martin’s study – which the MoD sought to ban – “quite simply, the book on Helmand”.

But have we learned? It seems not. Ledwidge told the defence committee about being sent to Syria, after the ousting of Gaddafi in 2011, as a “stabilisation officer”. “None of us was given any briefings on the history and background of the place … We had to rely on ringing up friends who perhaps had been journalists there.” For the MoD, ignorance would still appear to be bliss.

Martin reveals that the ousted Helmandi governor Sher Mohammad used to call the British nah poh – “stupid, slow-witted, unintelligent”. Of course, we will find the true nabobs of nah poh behind polished desks back in Whitehall and Westminster. How to expunge their institutional idiocy? Frank Ledwidge is quite clear. “We simply cannot afford to get involved again in any of these ill-defined campaigns.” All the same, “we stand at risk of doing so if we set ourselves up as expeditionary warriors, rather than defenders of the realm”.

Just a century ago, the original BEF set sail for France. The Syria vote in Parliament last August suggested that our expeditionary appetite has waned at last. Military failure – or in any case frustration – has left 21st-century Britain sadder, wiser and considerably less nah poh. So the boots leave the ground. But the drones, deadly and sometimes misdirected, stay in the sky. “Smart” war might in the coming years deliver its own kind of hi-tech stupidity.

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