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Robert Oulds: How the MOD's strategy in Afghanistan helped the Taliban - not our troops

Robert Oulds is the author of Montgomery and the First War on Terror: What a British Military Hero Can Teach Those Fighting Today's War on Terror published by Bretwalda Books and Director of the Bruges Group.  Follow them on Twitter

Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 20.20.49Churchill thought that if he were still Prime Minister he would not have begun the Suez Operation, but he recognised that cutting and running before the job was done was a major mistake. Clearly history does repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The latest shambles has been British military involvement in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. This comes soon after the abject failure to defeat the insurgency in the Basra Province of Southern Iraq (2003 - 2009).

Such defeats have long-term consequences - and not just for the local population who are exposed to the rule of the Salafist Sunni extremists that are in league with the criminal enterprises that are flooding many nations with cheap heroin. In 1983, U.S peacekeeping forces based in Beirut were attacked by a massive truck bomb leading to much loss of life. This led to the political decision to withdraw from the Lebanon, an act which was to convince Osama Bin Laden that America lacked resolve and was susceptible to terrorism.

Where has Britain gone wrong? Some have pointed to too few troops and not enough helicopters, and the use of vehicles that offer little to no protection from improvised explosive devices. Clearly, these are factors, but at the heart of the failure in Afghanistan is something that is perhaps more deeply ingrained and fundamental. The strategy employed by the Ministry of Defence and the army’s top brass makes them directly culpable for handing the initiative to the Taliban.

The use of the now infamous Snatch Land Rover, which left the soldiers vulnerable to both the bullet and the bomb, was not an oversight, but came from a clear and considered position. When the Army began the Helmand campaign in 2006, it failed to realise that it was wandering into a war zone. British soldiers were sent to live and work in the community with the aim of seeking to find reconstruction projects. They wore soft hats and travelled in open-top vehicles, rather than heavily armoured trucks, because this made them accessible. But the practice exposed the troops to danger, and led to more casualties than would otherwise be necessary. Soldiers should not have been employed as social workers carrying guns on some vaguely defined outreach project.

The Taliban saw that the British were defenceless, thus the insurgents were emboldened, and realised that they could score victories that would eventually lead to the British Army retreating. Those casualties had the desired effect. The British Government removed troops from areas where the Taliban presence was strong. In July 2010 the then Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, announced the withdrawal of British troops from the Sangin district of Helmand to safer areas in the province. They would, from now on, manage a much smaller area in the relatively peaceful area of Nad Ali. Combat was then left to the Americans, whose leaders were more willing to be involved in offensive operations.

In an insurgency the population, will quite rationally, back the side that appears to be winning and looks more likely to stay the course. The British military leadership, however, remained wedded to the mistaken concept of "hearts and minds". The lesson of history, however, is that victory against an insurgency is achieved when the principle of Military Control is established, and guerrillas realise that taking up arms will result in their destruction.

The hearts and minds strategy evolved into a Whitehall box ticking exercise and developed a language of its own. It was intended that this approach would influence the behaviour of the insurgents with less reliance on ‘hard kinetic engagement’. This was clearly a triumph of hope, but perhaps not of reason and certainly not of plain English.

British troops were also hamstrung by the UK’s restrictive rules of engagement which prevented them from adequately fighting back and taking preventative action. Furthermore, those suspected of being members of the Taleban often had to be released by the troops.

At the heart of the armed forces failure is the official advice on how to suppress an insurgency. The Army Field Manual Combined Arms Operations establishes guidelines in its chapter on Counter Insurgency Operations. The guidance contained within this manual left Commanders psychologically unprepared for the bitter conflict which faced them. Much of it is concerned with the bureaucratic relationship between the armed forces and the civilian administration. Its strictures effectively nullify the army’s principle of Mission Command with officers subordinated to the civilian authorities and legal advisors - a recipe for delay, and even inaction.

The guidance even discusses database management and record keeping. It also mandates that the provision of social services and their improvement is an aim for the army. The strategy rules out the use of a gloves-off military approach; instead it advocates ‘soft’ measures and the use of minimum force, and prevents the use of punitive measures being taken against the supporters of an insurgency.

Furthermore, the guidelines establish that commanders can be prosecuted for breaches of health and safety rules, and recognises the relevance of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. It even accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights over military actions, warning personnel that they might be answerable to the ECHR which is based in Strasbourg, France.

In Britain, the debate about Afghanistan focuses on repeating the mantra of the need to ‘find a political solution’. History, however, teaches us that a political agreement is only ever achieved when one side realises that it has effectively been defeated. It was necessary to demonstrate who was in charge - but in Afghanistan, it has been shown not to be the British army.


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