Editor’s Note: A former Royal Irish Captain and King’s alumnus reacts to an important Commons Report on Afghanistan that was largely downed out by the media hype surrounding the hacking scandal. Patrick Bury is also author of Callsign Hades, a memoir from Helmand, just out in paperback with Simon & Schuster. TR
The Defence Select Committee Report on Operations in Afghanistan, which was released on Sunday, catalogues an array of political, strategic and tactical mistakes and negligence on the part of ministers, military commanders and the Ministry of Defence.
The report has not got the attention it deserves from the media, and the fact that there have been few ramifications to its publication thus far is an insult to the soldiers and Afghan civilians who died in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008, when the Helmand operation was woefully under-resourced and under-manned.
The depth of arrogance, ineptitude and negligence revealed in the report is astonishing, and much of its content points the blame at the top military commanders at the time. It seems the decision to deploy to Helmand was not thought through strategically, barely even operationally and, to some extent, was taken by commanders in order to bolster the British army’s reputation after its defeat in Basra.
In doing so, army chiefs were likely trying to safeguard their army from cuts vis a vis the other services. That the ensuing commitment would last over 8 years, cost an estimated £20 billion by its end, and leave the army far smaller than it was before, shows the fallacy of such a judgment.
Not only was the decision to move into Helmand a poor one, the report also finds that the intelligence to support such a decision was inadequate. Both military intelligence and the SIS had insufficient knowledge of Helmand, its tribal structure, economy and level of support for the insurgency to efficiently support decision makers. When one FCO official questioned some of the assumptions underlying policymakers unrealistic vision for Helmand, one SIS member reportedly replied: “We know all we need to know”.
Such a level of arrogance in a national intelligence service, one that should be acutely aware of its constant quest for intelligence and of the Socratic nature of its knowledge, is incredibly worrying. I would think it reasonable to hope that the individual who made this assessment would lose their job.
Once the decision to enter Helmand was taken, the report finds that operations there took on a dynamic of their own: one that no-one had planned for. Here, failures must be laid at the operational planners in Joint Headquarters. Quite why the Chief of Joint Operations, Air Marshall Sir Glenn Torpy was not questioned by the Committee remains a mystery, as he was the military commander responsible for contingency planning and resourcing the operation.
The effect of this lack of intelligence, planning and resourcing, and the climate of “making do”, was that the commanders on the ground in 2006 – Brigadier Ed Butler and Colonel Stuart Tootal, were essentially reacting to events rather than shaping them.
In military parlance they had lost the initiative. The net result was a string of stranded outposts/inkspots along the Helmand valley that took over 100 killed and countless more injured and maimed over the next 3 years fighting the Taliban. Both commanders left the army soon after their return, probably in large part due to the lack of planning support and resources they had been given to conduct the disjointed campaign.
Put simply, those that made the decisions to move into Helmand and those that failed to plan for contingencies and properly resource the operation, therefore neglecting their duties, should be brought to account. For those commanders who have left or have been knighted, the historical record should reflect their neglect. For those that still serve, careers should stop. The same applies to civil servants and ministers. Here, one suspects that the Commons report could have placed the lion’s share of the failures at the feet of the military, for obvious reasons.
The media and us soldiers alike always understood that we were undermanned and under resourced in Afghanistan. We knew Land Rovers were inadequate, we knew there were too few helicopters. We knew we were surrounded and we knew IEDs were dangerous. But we kept going, because we trusted in our abilities, trusted in each other, and most of all we trusted in our top-level commanders and their political masters’ decisions.
I have friends who paid for this misplaced trust with their lives.
I owe it to them to say how deeply angry and mistreated I feel at the failings this report has shown and how angry I am that so few people seem to care about them.