Bob Seely served with British forces in Iraq from June 2008 to February 2009. He was a foreign correspondent in the 1990s, covering the collapse of the former Soviet Union and also worked in Conservative Central Office from 2001 to 2005.
I attended a Help for Heroes event last weekend and it got me thinking about Liam Fox’s reaction to Sir David Richards’ statement that the UK will be in Afghanistan for 40 years.
First, the background. In a recent interview Gen Sir David Richards, said of Afghanistan:
“This is nation-building — not the starry-eyed type, but nation-building none the less. It is not just reconstruction; jobs and simple governance that works are the key … The army’s role will evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 or 40 years.”
His remarks were condemned by Liam, who warned that such commitment was “unaffordable”:
“Any idea of maintaining military involvement for that length of time is not a runner. It would require a total rethink of our foreign and security policy. The military campaign in Afghanistan has already cost British taxpayers more than £5 billion.”
Here’s what worries me about Liam's statement.
First, Afghanistan is a Counter-Insurgency (COIN) campaign, and like most COIN Ops it’s a generational struggle. Our response, as Sir David Richards rightly points out, has to be generational too. That doesn’t mean the UK is committed to fighting a conventional war for 40 years, but it does mean that the UK as part of NATO is likely to have a role in fighting for the next five to ten years, and then training the Afghans for 10-15 years. Let’s remember it took 30 years for the security services to win in Northern Ireland, 12 years in Malaysia and eight years in Kenya.
Second: Liam says it is too expensive. Within reason, wars should be fought not on the basis of cost but on the basis of principle. This is for the reason that when people die, their lives have not been lost for nothing. If we are going to pull out in a couple of years anyway because it has got too expensive, then frankly we should do so now. Anything less means committing soldiers to something that we don’t think is important. The current casualty rate means that we need to be very clear that the price we ask soldiers to pay is worth paying. In one of the speeches at last weekend’s fundraiser, we were told that out of 32 people in one Light Dragoons sub-unit currently in Afghanistan, just nine are alive and uninjured. We owe these brave people honesty.
Third: putting time limits on long-term counter insurgency operations plays to our enemy’s influence operations and message. One of the Taleban’s arguments to Afghan audiences is that the West will not be in Afghanistan forever, but they will be. Every time US or UK political leaders starting talking about exit strategies or unaffordability, it is another small victory for our enemy, and has the potential to damage our troops on the ground, because they are there in part to show commitment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about the war, Britain is (still) a democracy, but please can we do so in a way which limits our enemy’s ability to extract a psychological victory from it. If I was the enemy, what I would take from Liam’s statement is that I should be focusing on UK areas because their future Government’s commitment is limited by casualty rates and finance, certainly by comparison with the US. This is not a good signal to send out.
Fourth: as Iraq showed, you can’t fix a budget for a war according to what you hope will happen. In Iraq, our Government became embarrassed and ashamed of the war once the casualties started to rise. It lacked the political determination either to pull out or to supply the necessary manpower for the army to clear Basra of armed militias. It drew down UK forces as the insurgency took off, and left 5,000 UK service personnel in Basra stuck in an airbase being rocketed by insurgents. We maybe in danger of doing something similar in Afghanistan: denying the military the tools to do the job but refusing to quit due to political considerations. It’s worth remembering that politicians set the tone and leadership for the broader military aims, and unclear political leadership can affect ground effect. Other counter-insurgency operations throughout the 20th century: Algeria, Vietnam, Malaysia, Palestine, etc., highlight the importance of getting the politics and aims right. I wonder if our political classes have got their heads round this war yet.
Fifth, and related to the above, the Armed Forces have been asked to make and mend, patch up and carry on, for a generation and it is beginning to have a significant detrimental effect on them. They need to be funded on the basis of what jobs they are required to do. That is not currently the case, as we see with the supply of helicopters, the piece of kit most needed in fast counter-insurgency operations.
Sixth, NATO and the US are staying in Afghanistan. There is a powerful mandate to be operating in that country, and it is a war of growing importance, which, if lost, will significantly embolden the forces of fundamentalism throughout the globe. If the UK pulls out it will damage NATO. If NATO is still the bedrock of our security, then it needs to be supported, and that means recognising that this campaign is long-term.
Seventh, after the Iraq debacle, a UK withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to pretty much finish off the military element of the special relationship. The US bailed the UK out in Southern Iraq and is now doing pretty much the same in Afghanistan. A further drawdown will result in the US seeing the UK as being a) not committed to playing a global role, and b) too small to be of military influence. Such a decision will hasten the UK’s withdrawal from a wider influence role in the world. Indeed, it is already happening – for example the Navy is now so shrunken that it is not expecting to have a warship in the Mediterranean for the best part of two years.
One could argue that all these points are debatable, that the purpose of the Herrick Campaign – the Armed Forces’ name for the Afghanistan campaign – is unclear and that we should leave. But the problem is that instead of having a debate and a realistic conversation about funding and affordability, yet again our military budget is being cash-led rather than requirement led, and it has now reached the point where decisions that will have long-term operational consequences may start being made on the basis of short-term cash requirements. Flag waving and saying how wonderful our armed forces are, both specialities of our current Government, are no substitute for serious debate.
Sir David Richards is admirably clear – and most likely correct – in his assessment. If the next Conservative Government does not agree with his assessment, this debate needs to be had now.