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Eight Lessons that Britain Should (But Won't) Learn after Afghanistan

Eight Lessons that Britain Should (But Won't) Learn after Afghanistan

1. Never invade Afghanistan

This was Britain’s fourth war in Afghanistan – and really the lesson should have been learned after the first one in 1842 when at least 16,000 British servicemen, women, children were butchered, froze to death, or were captured on the ignominious retreat from Kabul.

The point about the Afghans – and if the British imperial experience didn’t remind us of this, the more recent Soviet one should have done – is that war is their national sport and they will always win in the end. As the Taliban famously boast: “You have the watches. We have the time.”

2. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them

Sherard Cowper-Coles, from 2007 to 2009 Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, recently recalled how British troops clearing IEDs and mines from the roadsides in Helmand province would occasionally unearth the bleached bones of their Victorian predecessors from the First and Second Afghan Wars.

The British may not have known much about Helmand when they were arrived, but the Afghans have never forgotten its significance: it was the location of another of their greatest victories over the British – the Battle of Maiwand in 1880 when Ayub Khan defeated a brigade under General Burrows.

3. Afghanistan was always a Pakistan v India proxy war and we got caught in the middle

It goes back at least as far as the Soviet invasion when India, then a client state of the Soviet Union, supported the Russians while Pakistan created and launched the Taliban to oppose them. But the tensions go right back to Partition and Pakistan’s fear that one day its giant neighbour will seek to destroy it. Afghanistan has long been seen by Pakistan as its place of final retreat and has therefore always sought to guarantee a pro-Pakistani regime in Kabul. India, meanwhile, has been using the Afghan conflict to destabilise its old enemy.

After 9/11 Pakistan claimed to have changed sides and it suited the US under President George W Bush to claim it as his principal regional ally in the War on Terror. But this was never more than a convenient fiction. As a US intelligence officer quoted in the BBC’s Afghanistan: The Lion’s Last Roar pointed out: “The President had said that he looked into [Pakistan president] Musharraf’s eye’s and found an ally. He couldn’t now come out and say: ‘Well actually, they are the Taliban’s number one supporter.'”

4. Britain’s generals are at least as bad – if not worse – than the ones in the First and Second World Wars. They could even give the ones responsible for Crimea a run for their money.

Essentially the recent Afghan war was created by and for the British army – as a budget- and skin-saving exercise. It needed a purpose after its failure in the Iraq debacle – culminating in its humiliating retreat from Basra airport. Afghanistan was sold to the British government by the military as a “good war” in which the Army could play to its strengths, established from Malaya through to Northern Ireland, as a peace-keeping/counter-insurgency force.

In one tiny respect this plan, cooked up by the Army’s generals, succeeded: Afghanistan gave the Army more intense and extensive combat experience than it has had since the Korean war. But this came at a terrible cost which should have been foreseen from the start.

Arguably the general most culpable for this is General Dannatt, Chief of General Staff from 2006 to 2009. He told the BBC documentary:

Looking back we probably should have realised, maybe I should realised, that the circumstances in Iraq were such that the assumption that we would get down to just 1,000 or 1,500 soldiers by summer 2006 was flawed – it was running at many thousands.

We called it the perfect storm, because we knew that we were heading for two considerable size operations and we really only had the organisation and manpower for one.

And therefore perhaps we should have revisited the decision that we the UK would lead an enlarged mission in southern Afghanistan in 2006. Perhaps we should have done that. We didn’t do that.

But this should have been perfectly clear at the time, not with hindsight. Even back then – and certainly more so as a result of the extensive cuts since – the British army has neither the manpower nor the materiel to fight two wars simultaneously. It was utterly irresponsible of Dannatt to try to draw down Britain’s military presence in Iraq at the very time the insurgency was getting more intense.

Nor did Britain have the strength to control Helmand province, the most volatile and warlike in all Afghanistan. The notion that it did – initially with a force of perhaps 300 actual combat troops – was just a joke.

5. “No boots on the ground” is fast-becoming a weasel’s charter

After Iraq and Afghanistan there is little public appetite, either in the UK or the US, for quicksand wars which achieve very little at the expense of lengthy casualty lists. (If we had won at least one of them it would have helped, but we didn’t). Hence the Obama and Cameron administrations’ fear of committing “boots on the ground” to places like the current Islamic State battleground in Iraq and Syria.

Their reluctance may well be justified but it follows a worrying precedent established by the Libya debacle, which saw no “boots on the ground” (well, apart from those hapless victims of the Benghazi fiasco), lots of materiel squandered, all resulting in the creation of a rogue state now even less stable and more dangerous than it was under Gadaffi.

6. Never tell your enemy your departure date

If you’re so squeamish about public sensibilities towards unpopular wars, perhaps you shouldn’t have started those wars in the first place. How, exactly, does it help win hearts and minds in a place like Afghanistan (or Iraq) if you announce that you are only going to be there for a limited period – and that therefore your enemy only has to bide his time until your departure date before taking over the country. What incentive is there for locals to take your side if they know that as soon as you’ve gone it will be their death sentence?

7. It is criminally irresponsible to send your military to fight wars they cannot win

Those who enlist in the armed services are, almost by definition, the bravest, best and most noble among us because they have volunteered to risk sacrificing their lives for their country’s greater good. The very least we owe them in return is to ensure that such sacrifices are a) minimised insofar as it is reasonably possible and b) not made in vain.

In Afghanistan we betrayed our service personnel on both scores. They were lamentably ill-equipped – in the early stages even lacking rudimentary kit like bipods for machine guns and night-vision goggles, and almost throughout transported in machines which were virtual death traps because they were so poorly protected against mines and IEDs.

They were severely handicapped by rules of engagement which might almost have been written to give their enemy the upper hand. And they were the victims of often suicidal tactics, requiring them to out on patrol from tiny outposts on patrols so predictable they became known as “mowing the lawn” – virtually guaranteeing they would be ambushed.

As for the cause for which 453 of them lost their lives – with many more maimed – and which cost the British taxpayer at least £37 billion: what do we actually have to show for it? Afghanistan is in little better shape than it was when we arrived and such small improvements as we have made – girls attending school in some areas – are bound to be eradicated once the Taliban resume control.

This war was pointless and the only reason you hear the military claiming otherwise is that it would simply be too depressing to admit the truth that all those brave men and women were sacrificed to no useful purpose.

8. Afghanistan was Britain’s last gasp as a credible military power

After Afghanistan and Iraq Britain’s reputation as a credible military force lies in tatters. No one doubts the bravery, skill or determination of our fighting men in individual actions. We don’t have enough of them to make a difference, that’s the problem. It was all we could do to hold our own in one, relatively small, area at the northern tip of a single Afghan province. Besides which there is simply no public appetite at home for the kind of expense and sacrifice that would be necessary if Britain were to try to regain its former imperial glories.

Sure the world may have been a better-run place when the map was coloured pink. But to mould the world in your own image requires a) manpower and materiel we are unwilling to afford and b) a sense of pride and mission which we no longer possess.

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