Learn-and-Forget in Afghanistan
How 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/PATagged in: Afghanistan
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