Will Pike and Patrick Little: We are at war, but where is the leadership?

The Government says Afghanistan is of national importance, but that's not how some politicians and soldiers seem to treat it

Sunday 19 July 2009 00:00

Those who criticise our Afghanistan policy for lacking a credible plan and being lost in empty rhetoric are right. We are fixated on what allies and partners call "Helmandshire". Unlike our American allies, we lack a cross-government strategy and plan, the commitment, resources and Whitehall willingness to change sufficiently to deliver success.

What would success be? We have to stabilise the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan – bring the Pashtu into the fold, give them a stake in their nations' politics, wean them away from extreme Islam, deny sanctuary to terrorists and give the Afghans a state that can deliver what they want. Without Pashtu support, extremism in the region will decline. These are substantial aims, but failure, which would increase extremism – with inevitable and violent consequences within the region and internationally – is not an option.

We are a nation at war – and should be behaving like one. Judging by the Commons debate last week, or the Prime Minister's abject performance in front of the select committee, or the Tories' lame contribution, Afghanistan is as an inconvenient sideshow. Of the political class, only the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has raised the debate beyond equipment. The current argument about helicopters is a symptom of this wider failure of government.

The military is an enabling, not a leading, element for reconstruction and reconciliation. These goals demand the attention of several departments, unified leadership and a properly implemented plan. Some sort of "command group" is needed, headed by a powerful senior minister to whom the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and the Minister for International Development report. He should have a non-partisan deputy in the region with similar powers. Continuity beyond the election is vital, so all three party leaders should sign up to such an appointment.

Any serviceman, if allowed to speak freely, would say that the military resources allocated to Helmand are hopelessly inadequate. As for the (decisive) development effort, the resourcing is risible. The development effort should start as soon as the military enter a location. It should be visible, enduring and of immediate benefit to the local people. If not, insurgency supplants government.

In 2006, Parachute Regiment companies arriving in Sangin had nothing but words to deliver. Within days they were fighting at great cost to themselves and to those Afghans trying to force them out. Only marginal improvements have been made since then. Napoleon believed that in war the moral to the physical is as 3:1; we would say the development resource to the military resource should follow the same ratio. Where the NGO community doesn't go, the Government must.

Whitehall must wake up and place itself on a war footing. The Ministry of Defence, as well as the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, need to look at their shortcomings (too numerous to list here) and act accordingly. But the changes should go further. Many senior officers and civil servants in the MoD have failed to support and deliver a winning strategy. They are distracted by wrangling over the defence budget, with its expensive equipment programmes; none of which will benefit the front line anytime soon.

Projects conceived decades before 9/11 must not be allowed to wreck the prospects of success in what the Government claims is a war of critical national importance. They need to focus on the current battle and deliver blunt and objective advice to their political masters. If that advice is not being taken, they should resign and tell the public why. Equally, the political masters must assess carefully the advice they receive and test it against their political objectives. Politicians should be fully engaged in what is going on in Afghanistan, and not be afraid to meddle where appropriate. What is being done – militarily, diplomatically or developmentally – is being done for a political end.

Some reform in the Army is under way. In inception parts of it is fairly radical, but none of it is funded and therefore fragile. It needs to go much further to address the longer term issues responsible for its ponderousness in learning and adapting. The Army needs a campaign of institutional renewal, facing up to its failings, and embracing critical debate. It needs to be prepared to overhaul any aspect of its organisation. Moreover it needs to prove that it now listens to its highly experienced middle-ranking officers. All the evidence suggests that they have not, in contrast to the bottom-up impetus that so transformed the US Army's performance in Iraq in 2007.

The military task force in 2006 was deployed beyond its remit, and thus over extended itself. This resulted in a bloody summer and widely dispersed dispositions that subsequent units had to inherit but were not resourced for. Thus the military arm extended beyond their political direction. Where was the national chain of command? Three years later nothing has changed – it is just a bigger force, with equally confused ends, ways, and means. The effort remains woefully resourced and poorly directed.

We are at war. We have responsibility for part of an Afghan province that could lose the war if lost, but will not win it in isolation. We are subordinate to a coalition effort, and we have damaged our national credibility by writing cheques we could not cash – a direct consequence of the Blair mantra of punching above our weight. We need to repair this urgently.

Finally, there is an immediate responsibility to renew the faith in the plan that the soldiers need to put their lives on the line, and that the country needs to carry on supporting this effort. To come up short of what we are calling for risks irrevocably damaging this faith. We need to get a grip.

Major Will Pike (Rtd) served with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment in Helmand in 2006, and is the author of From the Front Line Major Patrick Little (Rtd) was posted to Afghanistan in 2004, and left the Army last year after 16 years' service

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