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Learn-and-Forget in Afghanistan

John Rentoul

afghanistan soldier 243351t 220x300 Learn and Forget in AfghanistanHow to explain Britain’s lack of success in Afghanistan? Matt Cavanagh, who was special adviser at the Ministry of Defence 2006-07 and then in No 10 for Gordon Brown 2007-10, has an important article in this week’s Spectator.

In strategic terms the lack of success cannot be blamed on the military, he says.

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.

The article is entitled “Operation Amnesia”, which sums up his thesis:

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 … 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.

It is an argument that has been made, again and again, by Denis MacShane, the former Foreign Office minister. Such as in the Commons, 26 May 2010:*

It is time to assert the principle that war is too important a matter to be left to generals … We need long-term thinking. It is absurd to have army chiefs rotating every six months. Instead of one six-year war ,we have 12 six-month wars. The Taliban are not stupid. Why fight face to face when planting an IED is just as effective? Yes, our soldiers will always chase them out and behave heroically as they do so, but it is like squeezing a balloon. The can-do, will-do PowerPoint style of the generals must be replaced by a real feel for the tribal and political reality and relations of the region.

Cavanagh’s conclusion is sobering:

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.

The media, the Conservatives and the military have already prepared the way for a similar narrative [to that on Iraq] 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.

(I commented on Cavanagh’s Prospect essay comparing and contrasting military decision-making in the US and UK in November.)

*It is an argument that was also made by Anthony King in Parliamentary Brief last month, and by Lieutenant General Chris Brown, in a report for the MoD that top brass found so embarrassing that they suppressed it.

Photograph: Sean Clee/MoD/PA

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  • LancashireLad

    The US were looking bankruptcy in the face, worse than the depression, this time it would lead to civil war and the destruction of the union of states. Energy security, through securing oil supplies was part of the solution.

    The other part of the solution was to gain control of the distribution of oil in other parts of the world. The Russians have proved that they cannot be trusted in policing the supply, if they don’t get their way they turn off the tap. The Taliban will not do the US bidding so they cannot be trusted to protect oil and gas pipelines, in fact they are likely to blow them up if demands are not met.

    Afghanistan is geographically and strategically the king pin in supplying energy to Asian markets and beyond through a number of oil and gas pipelines (existing, under construction and planned). Security of those pipelines is essential to secure the Iraq oil for the US. Britain and Europe need to look to Libya and elsewhere for their supply. A breakdown of Asian supply would put the US Iraq / Middle East supply at risk.

    The US is setting itself up as the global oil policeman, Blair and his special relationship with the US lecture circuit realised the benefits he could personally achieve if he supported not just the US grab for oil but assisting the US gaining control of the world’s distribution of oil.

    Job sorted; US get their oil, the rest of the world gets theirs and Blair is counting his money whilst Wooten Bassett continue their dignified count.

  • StarDasher

    “When they failed to find bin Laden Bush and Blair thought it would be a good idea to stick around and pick a fight with the locals. The locals were better equiped than our guys so they won; we lost.”

    Thank heavens for something that makes you happy; it’s been concerning, the amount of anger and unhappiness you have been exuding over many months past…

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.garvin Joseph Garvin

    One of the consistent problems mentioned is the inability of the Coalition forces to protect Afghanis, and the appearance of being thugs walking in, often crushing vital crops, to demand information.

    Why not offer to move in? Literally build camps in or adjacent to villages, use them as convoy stop off points for the transport not only of military goods but the locals crops, medical supplies, etc. There are severe risks there, but it might actually work…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Al-Loomis/100001670929188 Al Loomis

    “It is time to assert the principle that war is too important a matter to be left to generals … We need long-term thinking. It is absurd to have army chiefs rotating every six months. Instead of one six-year war ,we have 12 six-month wars.”

    this same argument applies even more strongly to politicians. at least generals were lieutenants once, while politicians in parliamentary society can come to power with no visible management experience at all, beyond back-stabbing in the caucus room.

    long term policy needs referendum, to put the policy out of reach of politicians.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RWQW5VGWYSRA5K3VBT7ZWOEJLE Stephen

    ‘Success’ was never on the cards, was it? You don’t really plan to ‘win’ a war by sending a mere 8,000 men to a vast and trecherous country to fight an enemy embedded in the general population. If ‘winning’ were the real objective, why the minimal troop levels, why the stingy budget, the no massive effort? Our politicians and generals don’t know what to do there and don’t have the means to do it if they did, so look forward to years more pointless war. Blair fancied a war and this is it. Someone should ask him directly what to do next – maybe for $500,000 he’d give a lecture on the subject.

  • gram64

    ‘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.’

    Strange, then, that this ‘bureaucracy’ was able to adapt its tactics and recover from being on the brink of defeat in 1940 to achieving victory in 1945, after huge and varied campaigning around the globe. Strange, also, that the same bureaucracy was able to come up with tactics that won the war against the Malayan insurgents in the 1950s. And so on.

    Strange, also, that Rentoul isn’t aware of the latest commentaries on the Afghan war, as related on Newsnight, which suggest that the Taliban are all but beaten in areas under British control, thanks to tactics which the cumbersome ‘bureaucracy’ have somehow managed to come up with.

  • http://www.google.com Web SIte Builder

    Afganistan is never ending war

  • petersimplex

    Oh, I thought it was because we started off backing the Taliban (sorry, Mujahideen) with Sandy Gall doing the John Simpson bit then. And which part of the globe provides the majority of Al Qaeda suicide bombers in Iraq? Step forward John Simpson land, Eastern Libya: Benghazi, Derna, Tobruk. Who says so? The USA (West Point)


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