Operation Amnesia

Matt Cavanagh has written an interesting piece for the Spectator which I have reproduced here in a single page format. The original seven page links will be listed below.









Matt Cavanagh
9 April 2011

Britain’s failings in Afghanistan have as much to do with short memories as shortages of troops

When Liam Fox visited Afghanistan in January, he was, like the defence secretaries before him, keen to tell the story of a country moving towards peace and stability. So he stopped by the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, seen as one of the most orderly and peaceful in the country. At least, that is how it was seen until last Friday, when a mob stormed a United Nations compound and murdered seven unarmed staff — apparently to avenge a Koran-burning in Florida.

A year after America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, there are dispiritingly few signs of progress. President Karzai recently named seven areas where security would be handed over to Afghan control, and until now Mazar-i-Sharif was an obvious candidate for the list. More surprising was the choice of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, where the vast majority of British troops have been fighting for the past five years. In Helmand, the insurgency remains strong and the Afghan state has always been weak. But the transition process is as much about symbolism as substance. It is designed to satisfy the desperate search for a credible ‘metric of progress’ even as violence remains stubbornly high. Measures of territory occupied and enemy ‘body count’ are rightly rejected as counterproductive, and more detailed assessments of the Afghan state, of its army, police, or local governors, are far from reassuring.

When Karzai published the list, the BBC took the bait and spoke of progress in Lashkar Gar. To illustrate this it showed an open-air concert, attended by thousands of Afghans. Such an event would have been ‘unthinkable’, it said, in previous years. In fact,

What this really symbolises is how short western memories are. Everyone who works on Afghanistan learns the saying that ‘the West have the watches, but the Afghans have the time’. Few, however, bother to read up on the past, and most are focused simply on the short period for which they are seconded to the job. Short-termism has cursed every aspect of the campaign. Journalists produce reports devoid of historical context, and are too eager to believe their briefings. Ministers, advisers and civil servants doubt that they will be around long enough to see any success, but fear that they may preside over disaster, and so adopt a risk-averse approach until they can pass the whole mess to their successors.

The military react in the opposite way, determined to make an impact in the short time they are there. This may seem more admirable, but its effects are equally perverse — especially when combined with a narrow way of thinking about how to make an impact. Large-scale, conventional military engagements predictably recur in the second half of each brigade’s six-month tour. Afghans watch the British clear and re-clear territory, but to each new batch of soldiers, it looks and feels like success.

During the Vietnam war, Col John Paul Vann put it brilliantly. ‘We don’t have 12 years’ experience in Vietnam,’ he said. ‘We have one year’s experience, 12 times.’ This could be adapted for the British military today. We don’t have five years’ experience in Helmand, we have six months’ experience ten times. Successive brigades have relearned the painful lessons of their predecessors, or overcompensated for their perceived failings. Debriefings of battalion and company commanders, and attempts to harness their valuable experience, have been perfunctory.
a similar event took place in May 2008 — and then, too, it was seized on as evidence of progress.

Four years ago, when I was working for the then defence secretary, Des Browne, we pressed senior military officers to look for ways of mitigating this short-termism: longer tours, or a staggered rotation of units, or greater continuity in the command structure. The army, then led by General Dannatt, flatly rejected the first two options. They dismissed longer tours on the basis of the strain on soldiers and their families, and rejected staggered rotation due to the importance of ‘a brigade training and deploying as a brigade’.

We were sympathetic to the former argument, both on human grounds and because we knew that the American military, in which tours routinely lasted 15 months, struggled to retain experienced personnel. We were less sympathetic to the argument for training and deploying as a brigade, which appeared rather dogmatic. I suspected it encouraged precisely the kind of large-scale set-piece engagements I was sceptical about. It also put our creaking helicopter and transport fleet through the added strain of mass troop rotations, and required us to keep scarce equipment in Britain so an entire brigade could train with it.

But as happens so often in politics, we civilian advisers and strategists shied away from overruling the military. We worked with the less dogmatic generals to identify a small number of senior posts (and junior posts in specific areas like intelligence) where tours of duty could be lengthened. We were assured that other initiatives would improve continuity, but these too were relatively minor and seemingly given a low priority. The issue of command structure got lost in wider debates about troop numbers and the looming arrival of American forces in Helmand.

At this time, I was more optimistic about the Americans’ ability to learn and adapt. Besides their longer tours, they had shown themselves more reflective and open to constructive criticism, particularly under the leadership of Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. But the transformation those leaders wrought, though impressive, now looks like a one-off ‘reset’ of their counter-insurgency approach rather than the start of a process of continuous learning.

Around the turn of the year there were many positive reports about what US forces were achieving in Sangin, but I fear they are repeating the dynamic of some of the more aggressive British units who went before them. The cycle runs as follows. A new team take over an area, and at first believe their greater ability, or resources, or aggression, will enable them to win easily — to succeed where the other guys failed. Pretty soon they learn that whatever else, it won’t be easy, but they still believe they will prevail. This was the point in the cycle when British journalists like Paul Wood were faithfully relaying the Americans’ line (in The Spectator as well as on the BBC) that they had ‘retaken the momentum’, ‘put the insurgency on the back foot’, and ‘expanded the security bubble’ because they were less squeamish about casualties. Sangin was the deadliest place for British forces in Afghanistan, with a hundred killed in four years, but when the Americans took over, the casualty rate doubled. In their view, they were succeeding because they were prepared to ‘take the fight to the Taleban’ in a way the British couldn’t or wouldn’t.

At best, it was six months too early for this kind of talk, given the seasonal nature of the fighting in southern Afghanistan. And there are already signs that the Americans in Sangin are moving to the next stage — where they start to wonder whether they have truly retaken the momentum, or simply increased their footprint and activity to no obvious strategic effect. They start to realise that their more aggressive approach is not only difficult and dangerous, but counterproductive, as civilian casualties and damage to property alienate the local population.

At this point they usually get relieved by another unit, who begin the cycle again; or, as will be familiar to those who have seen the documentary film Restrepo, their superiors decide that the area isn’t a strategic priority after all. In the case of Sangin, General McChrystal decided back in summer 2009 that it was not a strategic priority — but that it was not peripheral enough to justify withdrawal. It was this cold and rational strategic assessment, as much as the limits on British troop numbers, that explained the bloody and bitter stalemate in Sangin during 2009 and early 2010.

This is not to deny the importance of the limits on British troop numbers, the subject of such heated debate during 2009. As someone who had a share in responsibility for those limits, I was acutely aware of the dilemmas they forced on commanders. But I was also aware of the potential for troop increases to exacerbate the military’s dominance of what was meant to be a joint civilian-military campaign, and to feed the tendency of new commanders to try to do too much. For three years the top brass had argued that additional troops would enable us to ‘thicken’ our forces, increasing their effectiveness, reducing casualties, and enabling proper stabilisation work to begin. But when we sent reinforcements, it had the opposite result: an expanded footprint, increased activity, and increased casualties, to no obvious strategic effect. I fear this is precisely what is happening in Sangin now.

The military’s obsession with troop numbers and the media’s failure to challenge it have obscured the wider lessons of the Afghan campaign. Before the American surge, lack of troops was blamed for everything. Since the surge, the new response to any setback or criticism is that ‘the right resources have only just been put in place’. But like it or not, the campaign is already measured in years in the minds of those who matter: the Afghan people and the public back home.

Even if a window of opportunity arises at the strategic level, as it did in Iraq, the military will need to learn and adapt far faster if they are to prevail against an enemy which is adaptable, nimble and utterly unscrupulous, in an environment which is linguistically, socially and culturally alien. This will be difficult. In admiring the courage and character of our armed forces, it is easy to forget that the military is also a large bureaucracy. Unique in many ways, not least in putting their lives on the line, but a bureaucracy nonetheless. By their nature, bureaucracies are blind to their failings and slow to rectify them — even when staring at the possibility of defeat.

When failure becomes not just a possibility but a reality, it ought to provide the impetus for change. In war it is vital to learn from mistakes. The American military did this ruthlessly after the Kasserine Pass in the second world war, and they did it again under Petraeus in Iraq. But it won’t happen if politicians are blamed instead, as in America over Korea and in Britain over Iraq.

The media, the Conservatives and the military have already prepared the way for a similar narrative on Afghanistan: blaming the previous government, mainly for not providing enough resources. If only we’d had more troops and better equipment, the argument will run, we would have defeated the Taleban, and got out on our own terms. It suits a great many people to go along with this, but in the long run it will only prevent us from learning the real lessons of the past five years.

The more fundamental point is that more troops would not have ensured British success in Helmand. Not even the American surge — more than ten times what we could have mustered — can ensure success by itself. More troops will not help our militaries master the complex tribal dynamics, nor judge whether they are making friends faster than they are alienating people. More troops will not change the attitude of the Afghan and Pakistani authorities, nor create a political process that addresses Afghan grievances.

Because of these wider political problems, Britain’s lack of success in Afghanistan in strategic terms cannot be blamed on the military. But at the operational level, most of the responsibility is theirs. They took the tactical decisions in summer 2006 — admittedly under great pressure — to disperse our forces across the ‘platoon houses’ in northern Helmand. They chose, in the years that followed, to continue to prosecute the campaign in an expansive and aggressive manner, despite the constraints on resources and the lack of evidence that this approach had a lasting positive effect. And while they lost no opportunity to plan and lobby for more troops, they were slow to fill the gaps in our intelligence, or to respond to the Taleban’s shift in tactics towards improvised explosive devices.

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