The British military will want to ignore its failure in Afghanistan. He has to face reality | Simon akam
IIt was an extraordinary about-face. On August 7, General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defense Staff and Professional Chief of the British Army, wrote a editorial on Afghanistan in the Times saying it was too early “to write off the country”. “There are more and more signs that the population is mobilizing to challenge,” he added. Eleven days later, after the Taliban captured the provincial capitals of Afghanistan, followed by Kabul, and the Afghan army – raised from the west to a cost of $ 83 billion – had melted, Carter appeared on TV. “You have to be very careful using the word enemy,” he said. told Sky News. “People have to understand who the Taliban really are… They are bound by a common goal which is that they don’t like corrupt governance… I think they have changed.
The general deserves a little sympathy. Like the rest of the British Army leadership, the post-9/11 wars defined his professional life. Carter commanded a brigade in Iraq in 2003-04 and then headed a “regional command” in Afghanistan. His recent public statements suggest an understandable desire not to undermine the sacrifices of his troops. Nonetheless, Carter’s dramatic pivot, combined – more bluntly – with the fact that he’s still in office, underscores an important point. There is now an urgent need within the British Army for a thorough assessment of why this all happened. Yet, due to various factors, both inside and outside the military, a full autopsy is unlikely.
A proper assessment of the Afghanistan campaign requires three preconditions. First, a recognition that what happened is a defeat. There is no more room for semantic analysis now; a lesser confession would allow the affair to be avoided. Second, failure in Afghanistan must be seen as a problem for British defense as a whole, including the Department of Defense (MoD), rather than just the military. There is a parallel “Eternal War” in Whitehall between the Navy, Army and Air Force for resources, and although it was the Army that was most engaged in Helmand, a focus on one serve would derail a failure. Finally, there needs to be institutional preparation to be honest and a willingness to prioritize a real reputation management investigation in the short term. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen.
While writing The Changing of the Guard, my book on the British Army since 2001, I found myself embroiled in an extraordinary series of events, the end result being the book’s cancellation by its original publishers. But it’s not really about me. My book was the third in which the British Army had attempted to intervene in the last decade, following Toby Harnden’s Dead Men Risen in 2011 and Mike Martin’s An Intimate War in 2014. Each of those circumstances was different: that de Harnden was an “authorized book,” meaning the Department of Defense was able to see it pre-published in exchange for access to serving troops. Martin was a reservist commissioned by the army to study the Helmand campaign; mine was an entirely exterior work. But the overall message is clear. The British military is an institution that has difficulty engaging in external criticism.
The instinct to deviate rather than engage also occurs internally. Promotion depends on feedback from direct supervisors, deterring officers from reporting problems. Institutional culture often views problems through the narrowest lens, such as with the assessment of the ‘one bad apple’ of Alexandre blackman, the Navy who shot and killed an injured Afghan fighter in 2011. After film of the incident surfaced and Blackman was initially convicted of murder, the Deputy Commanding General of the Royal Marines said, “What we have heard over the past two weeks is not consistent. with the ethics, values and standards of the Royal Marines. It was a truly shocking and appalling aberration. However, in reality there had been a previous complaint of overly aggressive behavior by 42 Commando, Blackman’s unit. A decade later, the full report of Operation Telemeter, the Navy’s official investigation into the broader circumstances of the incident, has never been released.
More broadly, official reports on lessons learned are watered down or suppressed, while public sentimentality tends to “compensate” the military. As a serving officer wrote to me earlier this week: “In the debate in the House of Commons today, you see a lot of support for the military and criticism of policy / strategy; somewhat inevitable. But it also makes it easy for the military to convince themselves of a story that they did all they could. This would be misleading and mask the fact that many tactical and operational mistakes have been made and must be learned to avoid repetition elsewhere. “
Some are now calling for a public inquiry into the campaign in Afghanistan. Iraq has generated numerous investigations into events such as the murder of Basra hotel receptionist Baha Mousa and al-Sweady’s investigation into alleged ill-treatment of other prisoners. The Information request was also a huge exercise. In some ways, these probes were impressive. But in Iraq, they dodged the central legal question of war – the decision to invade – and their icy pace meant that by the time they reported, key events were receding into the past. A proper investigation into Afghanistan must now be faster and more efficient. A better model would be the recent Brereton Report on Australian Special Forces Misconduct. Finding that the Australian SAS murdered 39 civilians, Brereton was ready to take on the shibboleths in a way Britain traditionally does not.
Recent footage of Kabul, with helicopters taking off from the US Embassy, reminded many of the fall of Saigon in 1975. Yet after Vietnam, the US military changed. The project entered service in 1973. New equipment entered service, including the “big five” of the Abrams main battle tank, the Bradley combat vehicle, the Apache attack helicopter, the Black Hawk utility helicopter. and the Patriot missile system. New Weinberger’s doctrine determined that US troops should only be engaged if the country was prepared to commit enough forces to win, and clear political and military goals had been established. In 1991, a reshuffled US military entered the Gulf war and won quickly and decisively. Some say the United States was too quick after Vietnam to abandon its counterinsurgency experience, which put it at a disadvantage in the Iraq war of 2003. But the first step in dealing with a problem is to recognize its existence. The United States did it after Vietnam. We have to do it now.