A "pervasive and resilient culture of pessimism" about the Afghan war back home in Britain is severely undermining troops on the front line, a senior army officer serving in Helmand has warned.
The negativity, reinforced by a maudlin “post-Diana reaction to fatalities”, with public focus on the numbers of British dead, is hindering an “objective analysis of the campaign” and falsely painting an alarmist and defeatist picture, he says. The sight of crowds turning out to see the return of soldiers’ bodies at Wootton Bassett has become a feature of the Afghan conflict.
There is frustration in the military that there is a lack of appreciation back home about what UK forces are achieving about what UK forces are achieving at great personal risk and in extremely tough circumstances, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bazeley told The Independent.
So far 279 members of the armed forces have been killed in the Afghan war, with most of the recent deaths coming from IEDs. But Lt Col Bazeley, the commanding officer of 28 Engineer Regiment, 11 Light Brigade, said: “The brutal reality is that our casualty rates are no more of an indicator of campaigning progress than head-counts of Taliban dead.
“In fact, while every casualty is in itself a tragedy, this remains one of the least costly campaigns in this Army’s 300-year history we lost 129 soldiers killed in Northern Ireland alone.
“We are succeeding, yet there is a conspiracy of pessimism among some quarters in the UK suggesting that we are losing as a result of military attrition. That is just wrong and it does a great disservice to the British forces out here.”
General Sir David Richards, the head of the Army, has stressed that public support is “critical” to the campaign, and a former SAS commander now involved in formulating Nato strategy in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, has spoken of the danger of “talking ourselves into a defeat back home”. Gen Richards acknowledged that the Afghan mission “could not go on forever”. But he said there was a credible plan in place. “Success is becoming more attainable and the last thing my soldiers want is for the public to go wobbly on them,” he said. “We know this thing is doable and we must help persuade others of it.”
Young soldiers serving in some of the most dangerous parts of Helmand talk often of the reactions to the war back home. No 1 Company the Coldstream Guards have had five soldiers killed – including the latest member of the British forces to die, Guardsman Michael Sweeney, last week – and 35 injured, while operating in Babaji.
Guardsman Ross Caddy, 18, said: “I think we are doing some good. The Afghans are taking over security more, it’s their country. I don’t think anyone likes to see a foreign army in their country. But I don’t think people back home really know what’s going on here.”
Drummer Lance Mawson, 20, from Leicester and also of No 1 Company, said: “It’s been a very tough tour and pretty hard to see guys you know and work with becoming casualties. We like to think we are doing the right thing and this is worth it. It would be pretty bad if we lose the support of people back home, all you can do is hope that doesn’t happen.”
Lt Col Bazeley said there was ample evidence of public support for the soldiers: “It is humbling to see the quite extraordinary level of support we receive from the British people, but there is clearly less enthusiasm to sustain a demanding and costly military campaign.
“Support is subtly different from sympathy and I sense on occasions the two are conflated in the public mind. We don’t want sympathy; sympathy is for losers and we are not losing. We are soldiers, we know the risks, we know what we are doing and why we are here... We face the challenge with informed and considered determination but we want to be drawing on a national strength and resolve to underpin our efforts and not just our morale.”
Military commanders and diplomats point out that the conflict has reached a critical stage with the arrival of tens of thousands of American reinforcements and the launch of Operation Moshtarak to retake the insurgent enclave of Marjah. A similar operation is being planned for the summer in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, where the militants have been gaining ground.
The missions are unfolding against the backdrop of Western countries pressing the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to tackle corruption and investigate officials including his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the chair of the provincial council in Kandahar and an alleged drug trafficker.
Lt Col Bazeley maintained that a failure of will at this juncture will have far reaching and damaging consequences. “Our engagement in Afghanistan is not one of national survival, it is conflict of national interest and now we are in it, our involvement has ceased to be discretionary,” he said.
“A failed international effort in Afghanistan will leave a security black hole from which extremism on a large scale will emerge and our efforts here will have been for nothing. From my seat in Lashkar Gar…the argument remains clear. Our domestic security is tied directly to a successful resolution of the current disorder in Afghanistan; a safe Britain needs a stable Afghanistan and to achieve this we must remain focused.”
“Now is the time for resolute commitment and recognition of the need to face up to these challenges. It is not a time to constrain our commitment or bound our aspirations. We are approaching a critical juncture. My soldiers live with the realities and challenges of this task every day. For us this is not some far-off, easily forgotten, security action. This is very real and needs to be done properly and secure Afghanistan.”
Lt Col Bazeley acknowledged that their was still work to be done in winning the confidence of the Afghan population. “They will not fall in behind the international effort or recognise what the nascent Afghan Government is offering until the weight of evidence is convincing. The fear of a rejuvenated and vengeful Taliban makes them understandably cautious. They are a shrewd people and will not take a position until they know they are secure in doing so.”
Lt Col Bazeley stressed that development projects being carried were vital. “The recent construction of a large bridge over a canal in Nad-e Ali District, by one of my Royal Engineer Squadrons, demonstrates this well. The Taliban cannot build bridges. Theirs is a battle of destruction and denial, we seek to open up and liberate the populace.
“We don’t seek to destroy the deep and cultural history that is Pashtun society but we do endeavour to give them the opportunity to flourish in whatever they consider to be a viable and acceptable Pashtun way.”
* A British soldier on foot patrol in southern Afghanistan was killed by an explosion yesterday, the Ministry of Defence said. The soldier, from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, was killed after the blast in the Kajaki area of Helmand.
Foreign fields: War dead and repatriation
First World War, 1914-1918
673,375 killed or missing, 1,643,469 wounded
Up to 1915, repatriation of bodies from the front was allowed if the family could afford it; the few brought back included the octogenarian Victorian commander Field Marshal Frederick Roberts. But in April the French Marshal Joseph Joffre banned repatriation, on grounds of hygiene and equality between rich and poor dead. Eventually the repatriation of bodies was banned by all nations: the scale of losses was too high. The decision was highly unpopular, leaving families and friends without a focus for their grief. For this reason there is a First World War memorial in almost every town and village in the UK.
The initial patriotism and unity over the war became known as "the Spirit of 1914". As casualties grew to unimagined levels, support steadily dwindled.
Second World War, 1939-1945
382,700 killed, 475,000 wounded
The ban on the repatriation of bodies remained and was not lifted until the 1950s, after the Korean War. Even now, if remains from the Second World War are discovered there is no provision to repatriate them at public expense. Two relatives may attend a funeral or commemorative service overseas at the nearest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. Evacuation and rationing was said to have had a greater impact on public support for the war than the number of military deaths.
Falklands War, 1982
258 killed, 777 wounded
Families of those killed were given the choice of having the remains brought back to the UK or buried in a military cemetery on the islands. Most chose to have the bodies repatriated. The Sir Bedivere made two voyages back to Britain, carrying 60 and then a further 65 bodies. A wreath was thrown overboard for the 174 men who died at sea. 16 bodies were interred on the island after a memorial service. Public support for the war wavered, particularly after the sinking of HMS Coventry with the loss of 19 lives, but support for the troops remained constant.
Afghanistan War, 2001 - ongoing
280 killed, 1,062 wounded
The practice of coffins being driven through Wootton Bassett came about by chance, due to the closure of a motorway flyover between RAF Lyneham and Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital, where they are taken to the coroner. The funeral cortege had to pass through the town. So many people came to pay respects that it has become customary to take the coffins on this route.
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