So, what are we fighting for today? Soldiers demand an end to 'farcical' lack of war leadership

We've forgotten the lessons of British history, says former commander in Bosnia, as forces are imperilled by absence of clear direction, defined objectives, support and adequate equipment

By Cole Moreton
Sunday 09 November 2008 01:00

On this Remembrance Sunday, British soldiers standing in dusty battle fatigues in Afghanistan will remember a friend whose death was so recent that the feelings are still raw.

Yubraj Rai was shot during an ambush by the Taliban. Medics tried to save him, but they couldn't. The 28-year-old died in a land where the poppy does not mean remembrance. It means opium, money and power. And death.

His mates have spoken about a man with a ready smile that hid how "brave, strong and hard" he was. Yubraj used his pay from the Royal Gurkha Rifles to support a mother, sister and three brothers back home in Nepal. "We are proud of you," said one of his closest comrades, "and what you did for us, your family and for the Queen."

His death in a skirmish south of the town of Musa Qala may well have passed you by. It wasn't much of a news event. A kind of media battle weariness has set in, as the number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan has continued to rise. Rifleman Rai was the 228th British Army soldier to die in those countries since 2001. It happened on Tuesday, as the world watched America vote for a new president.

Barack Obama has already said that Afghanistan will be his number one foreign policy priority, and it needs to be. As Americans prepared to vote, their missiles were killing 40 people at a wedding party in southern Kandahar. Seven years after the attack on New York, the US is fighting an indefatigable enemy in Afghanistan. But why? That is the question Barack Obama needs to answer, and that British leaders also face today.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in London this morning, in the company of the Queen and more than 8,000 veterans. It is 90 years since the end of the First World War. But as the casualties are remembered, and the folly of Iraq seems to be coming to an end with talk of withdrawals by the US and Britain, there is mounting anxiety within the military about the potentially deadly lack of focus in Afghanistan.

The operation is seen as "half-cocked", "overstretched" and "confused". Senior military figures and soldiers recently returned from the field speak of a "failure of leadership" that amounts to "a betrayal". The strongest words come today from a major who lost men in some of the fiercest fighting of modern times, and who uses an exclusive interview with the IoS to launch a scathing attack on the command structure he describes as "farcical" and political decision-makers he sees as "irresponsible". Major Will Pike says soldiers need to be given a much clearer sense of who is in charge and what they are supposed to be trying to achieve – as well as the resources to do the job, instead of just fighting for their own survival.

Major Pike led a company of the Parachute Regiment's third battalion during the vicious battle of Sangin in 2006, but resigned from the army altogether last year after a spell in Whitehall. Rare as it is for a commander to criticise his masters on the record so soon after leaving the battlefield, distinguished military figures have lined up behind his attack. "There has been a failure of leadership in Afghanistan," agreed Colonel Bob Stewart, former UN commander of British troops in Bosnia. "We've forgotten the lessons of British military history. When we were in Malaya we created safe areas and held them. We are not doing that in Afghanistan. We go into a town but we don't have the resources to hold it so the Taliban come back."

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, writing in the IoS today, also agrees. He describes the lack of a clear strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan as "a betrayal" of the soldiers there.

British casualties have slowed in Iraq, with only two this year, but there have been 36 deaths in Afghanistan. Barack Obama has spoken of winding down the US presence in Iraq and sending 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan instead. He must also decide whether or not to negotiate with the Taliban. Yesterday Douglas Alexander, the Secretary for International Development, said Britain also intended a "significant drawdown" of its 4,000 troops in Iraq. Military experts hope that will at last give the overtaxed military a chance to finish what it started in Afghanistan, if command structures can be put right.

Major-General Patrick Cordingley, leader of the Desert Rats in the first Gulf War, said: "At the low level, the Army is doing well and fighting bravely in a difficult war. What we're not getting right is co-ordinating the Foreign Office, NGOs and the military in a way that can create a sense of security – and that's to do with so few troops on the ground." Patrick Mercer, Conservative MP and former commander of the Sherwood Foresters, said a very senior serving officer had "expressed grave doubts" to him about progress, for the same reasons: a lack of resources, co-ordination and planning. "There is no point in building a school and then pulling out so the Taliban come and burn the school down."

Major Will Pike said the command structure during his action in southern Afghanistan in 2006 was "farcical", with the military and British government agencies following "rival agendas" that left troops isolated and overstretched. Resources were "pathetic", with not nearly enough troops, helicopters or radio training and Land-Rovers that were "disgraceful".

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said the Armed Forces were working "incredibly hard in difficult and challenging circumstances but we are making progress. UK Commanders in Afghanistan have said that deployed brigades are now the best equipped they have ever been".

However, an SAS commander quit last week over kit issues. And Major Pike said the biggest continuing problem was a command failure at the top. "Who is in charge of the campaign? Is it the Secretary of State for Defence? Is it the Foreign Secretary? Is it the Minister for International Development? Who is it? That's not clear."

Nor was the mission. Soldiers had been told they were preparing the way for the country to be rebuilt, but NGOs were reluctant to work with them. "We go into these things half-cocked, relying on the military to do it all. That is never going to work."

Afghanistan's nightmare: Taliban resurgent, opium booming and famine stalking the land

Civilian casualties At least 1,000 non-combatant Afghans have been killed this year.

Kabul in chaos Suicide bombers and assassins are increasingly active, spreading terror among government and aid workers.

Taliban on the march Large parts of the south and east again under control of those "defeated" seven years ago.

Soldiers dying 70,000 troops from 40 nations have now poured in, but the risks rise as resistance stiffens.

Conflict spreading Over the border, more than 100 people have been killed by US drones, stretching relations with Pakistan to breaking point.

Bumper opium crops UK-occupied Helmand has become world's heroin hub.

Spectre of famine More than eight million Afghans face severe hunger this winter.

Civil liberties Things seem to be slipping backwards in tribal areas.

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