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Defence: at war with the truth

2019-12-16 07:31:46

Necessarily, over the last few weeks, we've been engrossed with the general election. And before that, since the 2016 referendum, we've devoted these pages almost exclusively to Brexit. Before that, we were reporting on the run-up to the referendum campaign and then the campaign itself.

But, on this blog, we haven't always been focused on the one subject and, in 2006 we branched out in a big way to cover defence issues, at that point specifically to campaign about the deployment of Snatch Land Rovers and the excessive casualties arising from the use of these vehicles in the Iraqi theatre.

The interest spawned a new blog, Defence of the Realm, to which I transferred most of the defence-related posts which had been published in EU Ref, adding many more. Over time, I branched out to cover in detail many aspects of the war in Afghanistan.

The peak year was in 2009, when both the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were still running, with coverage winding down in 2010. Effectively, I finished routine blogging on DoR then, although I added a few posts in the following years, up to 2014, when I archived the blog, leaving it online as a record of those tumultuous years.

My very last post on the DoR blog was dated 24 October 2014, over five years ago now, which I entitled: "Afghanistan: admissions of failure". In this, I trailed a BBC programme called "The Lion's Last Roar", tabling some of the mistakes made by the British Army in this theatre.

But I'd already been there, with multiple posts, pointing to an article I had written in August 2009, calling for the troops to be brought home from a mission in which they could not possibly succeed. Citing my own work, I recorded:
… As we have watched the train wreck that masquerades as strategy in this benighted country, we have become more and more convinced that it is wrong – totally, completely, fundamentally wrong.

It cannot succeed. It will not succeed and the inevitable outcome is that, after the expenditure of much more of our treasure – which we can ill-afford – and the death of many more fine men (and, probably, some women), we will be forced into a humiliating retreat, dressed up as victory, leaving the country in no better a condition than when we found it – if not worse.
I was particularly critical of our lacklustre generalship, arguing that Richard Dannatt was (then) possibly one of the worst heads of the Army we had had in living memory, having charted some of his failings in my 2009 book Ministry of Defeat, vying for that title with his predecessor, Mike Jackson.

Now, slightly over ten years later, we see in the Washington Post the first of a series of long articles, this one headed, "At War with the Truth".

The articles are based on "a confidential trove of government documents obtained" by WaPo which reveals officially that which we already knew and had known for ten years or more: that senior US officials had failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, "making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable".

Published on 9 December, the documents used were those generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in US history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

I cannot begin to summarise the WaPo articles (which can be read online), but it is almost sufficient to say that they confirmed our worst fears at the time – and some more.

Coverage in the UK media – also engrossed with the election – has been slight, but we were treated to a short article in yesterday's Sunday Times. This is as good a summary as any, which recalls that thousands of lives were lost and more than $1 trillion was spent in a war that never ends amid evidence that "the American people were repeatedly lied to".

The so-called "Afghanistan Papers" show how successive presidents, George W Bush and Barack Obama - along with their senior officials and military commanders - assured Americans that they had a clear strategy and were executing it effectively, while privately acknowledging that America had no idea what it was doing.

"The American people have constantly been lied to", said John Sopko, head of the office of the special inspector- general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar), which conducted the research. Yet, its "lessons learnt" report was kept hidden from the public until the government lost a three-year legal battle with the Washington Post.

As one might expect, the papers largely deal with the involvement of US forces, but the UK effort does not escape attention. America's former commander in some of the bloodiest years of the conflict lambasts Britain's strategy as "dysfunctional" and accused Tony Blair's government of sending in troops who were unprepared for battle.

This is retired general Dan McNeill, who paints a picture of the British entering a hostile province - Helmand - without adequate preparation for the kind of combat that unfolded, describing "the devastating consequences" of poor UK planning.

With UK forces lacking in security or resources, McNeill says that the British "couldn't get their casualties out", adding that the Afghans "thought it was the 19th century all over again", referring to the Anglo-Afghan wars when British forces lost thousands of men in costly military campaigns.

We might recall that, when Blair's government boosted Britain's military presence in Afghanistan in 2006, sending troops into Helmand on an "economic development" mission, his then defence secretary, John Reid, famously said "we would be perfectly happy to leave … without firing one shot, because our mission is to protect the reconstruction".

It was fashionable at the time, and subsequently, to blame the politicians for the debacles that followed, but as I explain in Ministry of Defeat, this was very much a war that Dannatt wanted. Unlike the Iraqi insurgency in which the British Army was mired, this was a war which, with the advantage of some new kit, he thought he could win.

Needless to say, Dannatt's ambitions did not survive contact with reality. Casualties inflicted by the Taliban soared: there were 101 British fatalities between June 2006 and June 2008. And, from thereon, it went downhill. Despite this, there has never been published in the UK an official "lessons learned" report, although the Army certainly did spend some time in exploring what went wrong.

Interestingly, I was invited to the Army's staff college in 2013 to give my views on the campaign, the first of two lectures I gave. The first one was well-received but, by the time I came to give the second, minds had snapped shut. The corporate Army had decided that, apart from a few minor glitches, it had performed well enough under the circumstances.

The last word in the ST report goes to Douglas Lute, who observed the war more closely than perhaps any other US official, first as a general, then as Bush's "war tsar" and Obama's Nato ambassador.

In the Sigar report, he bemoans the fact that "we didn't have the foggiest idea what we were doing", telling the ST: "We did not understand just how complex Afghanistan was. What made us think that we could turn all those factors positive and come out better in the end? We were strategically naοve".

That could, and does, in my view, apply equally to the UK effort, and nothing has changed since to indicate that any serious lessons have been learned from the experience, or that similar mistakes could not be made again.

Classically, it is mainly the politicians who have taken the flak for the failures, while the military have emerged with their reputations largely intact – undeservedly so in my view. Sadly, though, here as in the US, people have largely lost interest. And therein is the guarantee that the future will hold for us failures of the same magnitude.