A Soldier Responds to a Commons Report on Afghanistan

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.


9 thoughts on “A Soldier Responds to a Commons Report on Afghanistan

  1. Only superficially aware of Helmund during this period, bu I heard MG Page give the following remarks in 2009:

    “I read many well-written campaign plans produced by NATO and each nature—each nation—and they spoke beautifully to the verities of counterinsurgency. They were well written. But nowhere is there a gearing that turns what you are expected to achieve into “there are no troops to task” that gives you a sense of how much force, how many troops are needed, how much force you can apply.”

  2. davidbfpo says:

    Patrick Bury writes well and has added value having been there in Helmand in 2006, quite unlike many of us who write here.

    There has been a long-running commentary on Small Wars Council on the UK in Afghanistan, which has attracted a high volume of ‘reads’ and posts on the Select Committee’s report are Post 769 onwards: http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=7644&page=40

    I understand the author’s disgust at the lack of public, let alone a political response to the report, as much of the media and political establishment have focussed on the “hacking” scandal for the past ten days or more.

    What an indictment for a nation supposedly at war in Afghanistan?

  3. DE Teodoru says:

    The debt is tremendous, as you so ably say; not for what we individually failed to do but for what imbecility we permitted at the top. Experiencing Vietnam multiple times over a decade one was left wondering what role the military played. As the war escalated, the Pentagon’s consumption of national assets, both human and material, was limitless. And, yet, Old Westy could only demand ever more to achieve ever less….namely, NOT losing. Imagine a surgeon who requires ever more blood transfusion because he cannot repair the vascular damage he incompetently inflicts in the course of digging his way to a tumor. The crisis created by his incompetence demands that more and more tissue must suffer the cutting off of circulation to prevent exsanguination. And then, more and more of the functional body body parts made of that tissue must suffer amputation to avoid systemic infection, sepsis. In the end, with so many costly resources consumed and so many of the patient’s body parts destroyed resulting in at best an abysmal quality of life– should the patient somehow survive– as such a depressing prognosis, one begins to wonder why keep up the heroics. Reason: to avoid accountability and getting sued!

    Does this sound like the SURGEon Petraeus who botched two SURGEries?

    Secrecy is what protects the incompetence of generals that got their stars as “yes sir” men. Perhaps if Petraeus were really smart, he would have never made it up the ranks for he would not have suffered the fools above him gladly. So there is the question: as “yes sir” men acquire more and more authority, acquiring more and more “yes sir” men of their own, do they become arrogant and mendacious, thus impervious to accountability and feed back?

    For me, seeing this report enumerating a lot of the Vietnam errors that made “victory” pointless, I cannot help but wonder how they get away with it. Reading Petraeus’s PhD thesis one sees that “PR” seems to be the whooooole issue!

    Today, the anti-Vietnam academics of the 60s/70s are faced with the archives of the Cold War. Their quandary is how to acknowledge these without admitting that they were, back then, all wrong. So, between disconnected declarations and obscure footnoting, their published revisions show awareness of data without allowing it to impact their personal record. The military– that always thought of the acads as just a bunch of anti-mil pinkos– is more than happy to conclude that they’re not worth reading. And so, given that they’re action boys with little patience to read by nature, we’ve got a perfect Santayanian repeat of history covered by short-sightedness, ignorance, arrogance and deception. Since most people can now say, “ain’t my kid going to war” because there’s no drat, TV news can show all the horrors they want– much faster, in starker color much more often that during Vietnam, but nobody’s watching as Americans and Brits are truly “DISCONNECTED.”

    Now, unlike during Vietnam, there is no MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE because acads don’t give a damn and prefer DoD grants and to publish in its publish or perish think-tank world. And so, the emperor has no clothes, but who’s looking?

    As a parent and grandparent I despair at how helpless I feel in face of universal NOT caring. Just as >50% of Americans opposed the Vietnam War only when LBJ imposed a 10% surcharge on income taxes, opposition to Iraq and Afghan Wars was missing so long as these wars were fought off budget. Now that the bills come due, Bush and Blair are cocooned from liability because their successors are mum. The only price they paid for their wars is that their political parties don’t ever want to see them again. As for the generals, like Keane, they’re in cushy military-industrial-complex retirement positions, rewarded for past friendlyness to the industry and for current contacts.

    In war, cerebral cortex is the first casualty as the cerebellum takes over aiming and killing until it too is blown to bits by an IED. What gets me sick is all the slick industry-funded pro-military think-tank high-school level papers to which military men append their names, just as they used to do in high school. Meanwhile, the Reservist mom and dad soldiers are still sent in, intel blind, language deaf and cuiture dumb to make for more needless orphans and widows on the homefront. As for the Iraq and Afghan nations we were democratizing, well, like My Tho, we had to destroy them in order to save them. binLaden, surrounded by his 77 virgins in Paradise, must be really laughing at us now.

  4. Chirality says:

    Quoting David Richards, ‘it is much harder to be an active practitioner than to be an analyst, historian, academic, journalist e.t.c., especially when they have the benefit of hindsight and no pressure of time and events’. So I hope my comments are taken with this in mind.

    I fully agree that the ‘decision to deploy to Helmand was not thought through strategically’ – on the part of the Government, the FCO, the DFID, the MOD and the military. This is the absolute KEY to all that flows from your article. Strategy at all levels was missing.

    I think it amiss though to lay any failure at the door of operational planners at Joint Headquarters. It was the lack of any clear coherent strategy that led to operations taking on a dynamic of their own. A type of cumulative strategy self imposed by omission. Failure to ‘plan for contingencies and properly resource the operation’ was down to lack of strategy not planning. Let’s be clear, strategy is not planning. Strategists create strategy and planners plan. The planners make strategy actionable. As Harry Yarger put’s it, ‘The role of the strategist is to exercise influence over the volatility, manage the uncertainty, simplify the complexity, and resolve the ambiguity, all in terms favourable to the interests of the state and in compliance with policy guidance.’ (albeit there was no clear U.K. policy either).

    The original ‘plan’ for Helmand formulated between the Government, the MOD, the DFID, and the FCO identified the area within the triangle of Bastion, Lashkar Gar and Gereshk as vital. All British inter-agency efforts were to be focused on this area. The military ‘plan’ was based on this and as Stuart Tootal said, ‘Even if our operations could be limited to the region around Lashkar Gar and Gereshk as we planned, it was still a huge area for the limited number of troops that I would have at my disposal.’

    Why then, or under what pressure, did Ed Butler and Stuart Tootal so utterly corrupt this plan so as to result in ‘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.’?

    This is certainly not a critique of either Ed Butler or Stuart Tootal (for whom I have nothing but respect). They are the product of their experience and training and clearly could not predict the future quagmire that the upper Helmand valley would become with the tools to hand. It is however a critique of the complete lack of strategic ability and education at all levels of U.K. Government, all levels of Whitehall and all levels of the military.

    If this can be changed, if we can learn strategy from the mistakes the report highlights, then maybe this is the true prize from our Afghan undertaking.

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks for that excellent post Chirality, and for driving the debate on. You are bang on the money about planners not being able to plan if they don’t have a strategy to guide them. This is exactly what happened it appears, but as professional military men, indeed some of the most able in the UK’s armed forces, they must surely have realised this. Why the hell somebody didn’t shout STOP! is beyond me and my low pay grade….

      I think the ground commanders didn’t have any space to create initiative once they were committed, they were, to a large extent, just reacting. That’s what happens if you don’t have strategy that has matched goals with resources. You fail.

  5. DE Teodoru says:

    Patrick, please consider that, at least on the American side, the strategy was left to the military by an extremely unable president. This is not the first time as LBJ left strategy to Westmoreland and only sought to limit the JCS in far that their goal was war with China.

    Then there is the factor of whether the locals are availabe for “poof” magic by the Petraeuses of the world to train them up into a giant AMERICAN army.

    While searching to secure their “egg,” South Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Americans have destroyed any intrinsic stability these nations knew with their “victory” ops– at least that what’s your British command said of the last Helmand SURGEry.

    Lastly, as in Vietnam, command always felt that there’s no cost limit and the more they invest in “victory” the longer with the civilian rulers hold out before they say “enough, it’s defeat” as in Vietnam.

    In the repeat of the means of defeat, victory is taken out of the mouth of the winner. Repeatedly we fight as if led by a one star if a clerk seeking to become a four stars CEO some day. Everything is a demonstration of “ability” to above, not good for those below. I suggest you re-red the recent version of Race’s WAR COMES TO LONG AN and ask yourself what so different in the current COIN SURGEry?

  6. Chirality says:

    Although there’s been more Euro discomfort, continued phone hacking revelations, and a handful of light fingered imbeciles on the streets, I’m still surprised there has not been more comment in the last few weeks on the select committee report – either by the contributor panel or regular commenters.

    Curious…it raises so many thoughts and questions to me…

  7. davidbfpo says:


    Yes there has been an absence of a public, let alone a political response to the Defence Select Committee report. On reflection where have the KoW contributors been? Some have previously posted on this war and some have been on the ground itself. Is there a fear a comment will upset the MoD and others nearby?

    Timing is one aspect, the report was published after the recess began IIRC. Followed shortly after by the academic summer vacation.

    We have been allowed an increasingly vivid, if occasional, diet of TV documentaries and this has led to a clear gap between the public viewpoint on “what the poor, bloody infantry do” and who & what put them there. An astute piece of PR spin?

    Nor should we overlook the Afghan campaign started in 2002, with a British presence in Kabul, alongside some SF and PRT activity. In 2006 along came the expedition to Helmand Province and it has become a long war.

    Sad and as I posted before what an indictment for a nation that apparently is at war (citing General Sir David Richards IIRC).

  8. eugnid says:

    May I propose factors that some of us experienced in 1960s. Then there was a war and a similar command management of it. From the top one would get “good news” from the air conditioned Quonset huts where resided the commanders. From the ground up one would get the “I was there, I fought these, so what the hell do you know as you weren’t emptying magazines into Mr. Charley?

    Well, the “grunts” insisting that their experience “is it” is like saying that a physician can’t used lab results to make a diagnosis because he’s never been a lab tech so he can’t know what it’s all about. From above, commanders forget their operational tactical limits with strategy as the civilian ceiling. All this from people whose job it was to kill, just like the job of the weapon they were issued. Needless to say, as Viet Vets Against the War vs. Viet Vets for a Just Peace debating, it was soldiering stories that Mao described: like a frog looking at the sky from the bottom of a well.

    So with Iraq/Afghan War. We’re being told that unless a grunt or a commander you just don’t know. But since its all volunteers this time around, people just say: ain’t my kid going to war so let them do what no one forced them to do– they volunteered– so let them go there and kill all the towelheads. And so history is repeated in a long train of Santayanian moments. Careerist commanders and ever redeployed troops go to do what they do best: yes sir, can do and shoot, shoot, shoot until you’re shot. The rest are all Petraeus types convinced that they can media manage their way out of their inherent incompetence as expeditionary forces run and shoot, run and shoot…….and since the world is round, find themselves eventually shoot there from where they left. So sad, so rotten! But myopis is as military as economic. When you’re old all you can do, if you care, is weep for “our” kids i the field, fighting intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb…but often convinced that they can see things that no one else can. Been there– more than once– so this report says little that’s new, unfortunately. So old age makes us weepers and tears you can’t type on a keyboard, only rage!

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