Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and Vice Chairman of the All Parliamentary Group on
Afghanistan. He is also author of the publication 'Bridging the gap between
Military and Civil Affairs on the modern battlefield', published by
With 77% of the UK population no longer supporting British troop deployment in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister is right to re-assess our strategy. We have inherited an abysmal situation from Labour. I stress inherited, for we first went into Afghanistan in 2002 and took responsibility for security in Helmand Province in 2005; we are still there over half a decade later, thanks to a flawed political strategy, limited support for our troops and an abject failure to commit to post conflict reconstruction and governance.
We have done enough NOT to lose – but never enough to win. Not only do we now require the assistance of our US allies but we have been absolved of our responsibility for the military command of Helmand. Our once superior knowledge in counter-insurgency operations has been overtaken by the Americans.
To compound matters this is the second time a British flag has been lowered and replaced, not by a liberated country, but by the US who are only too aware that lessons from our experience in Iraq have not been learnt. In 2003 we failed to follow up a solid security position in Basra, with immediate support for local governance and reconstruction. The Shiite community, so pleased to seek the back of Saddam, soon ganged up on us, the liberators, because progress was so slow.
Sadly in Afghanistan another window of opportunity was missed in 2002-2005 as the locals, unimpressed with any real change in their conditions, turned a blind eye as the Taliban regrouped and secreted themselves within a reticent population and this has kept us in Afghanistan far longer than expected.
What went wrong?
Simply put, in a very British way, we were quick to raise our hand and volunteer for duty in the aftermath of 9/11 but slow to recognise the scale of our commitment. In 2003/04 our Afghan budget was a paltry £46m. Today it is over £5bn a year which now carries with it a toll averaging almost three deaths and around five life changing injuries a week. Had such large sums been available from the start we could well have been home by now.
If we are serious about successfully concluding military operations in Afghanistan then we need to recognise our mistakes and not repeat them. The basic schoolboy errors include firstly a Kabul-centric (rather than regional and local) approach to helping the Afghan population. Pouring UK and international funds into any newly formed Government riddled with corruption and lacking experience, expecting these funds to trickle down and improve lives in the towns and villages across a country, is simply naive. But to do this in Afghanistan and so ignore the existing powerful traditional structures has played into the hands of the enemy.
Secondly, Britain’s offering to the overall mission was poorly constructed, confusing and failed to consider that our rather grim reputation courtesy of previous interventions in Afghanistan still precedes us. The Treaty of Gandermack in 1879, considered the most humiliating ever signed by an Afghan leader, ceded huge chunks of land to the UK and the Battle of Kandahar a year later (the last major conflict of the second Anglo – Afghan War) resulted in defeat for the Afghans involving a series of battles in the very areas British troops are now patrolling. Surely other members of NATO with less dubious historical connections might have been better tasked to Regional Command South. In counter insurgency, the population is always the prize. So why did we waste years going after territory rather than winning hearts and minds, as we are now doing under General McChrystal? Have we learnt nothing from Sir Gerald Templer?
Thirdly; why did our offering not come with any post conflict, re-construction capability, consideration for training local Afghan national forces and development of local governance? That seemed to be someone else’s problem. Today, thanks to Whitehall's Stabilisation Unit enduring a steep learning curve, these factors are mostly in place – but 6 years too late!
So let’s not kid ourselves, thanks to Whitehall’s failure to effectively support our valiant troops our involvement in southern Afghanistan has not been our finest hour. Military command for Helmand has now been handed to the US because both they and the Afghans called for it.
So what needs to change? I would humbly recommend the following:
We need to show the Afghans, the US and the UK population that we remain committed to supporting Afghanistan. This means spelling out why we are there. Were ISAF to withdraw then Kandahar would fall to the Taliban and Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal and the region would become destabilize. This is not a scenario we want to contemplate.
We must end the turf battle and confusion of ‘ownership’ in Government. Winning wars requires leadership – not just on the battlefield but in Whitehall too. The creation of a National Security Council and National Security Advisor is a welcome step towards a more comprehensive UK approach.
We must get better at post conflict operations. The Lib/Con coalition document calling for a more integrated approach to post conflict reconstruction with the creation of a Stabilisation and Reconstruction Force to bridge the gap between the military and the reconstruction effort is welcome. Sadly the UK has now been surpassed by US counter insurgency training. The US Marines in Helmand are already tasked with the full spectrum of comprehensive operations and now see governance and development as the main effort of their campaign. We need to get better at it again. It should not take us five years to realise that training the Afghan Army must be a priority. As challenges from Haiti to Louisiana and even here in the UK (tackling foot and mouth) prove our military are used in a variety of capacities other than traditional war fighting. The forthcoming Strategic Defence Review should recognise this when considering the training and equipment needed for the next decade.
We must start taking the opium issue seriously. Half the Taliban’s income goes on wages. Cut that income and there will be fewer foot soldiers planting fewer IEDs. It is also pointless convincing farmers to abandon poppies for wheat if there is no access to local markets. The recently liberated town of Margah is an example of this. It has been freed from Taliban rule but the local road leading to bigger markets in Lashka Gah is deemed unsafe to use. The narcotics trade therefore remains the most reliable and, until challenged, will continue to be the simplest way to make a living, undermine the authority of local and national government and fund the Taliban’s war machine.
We must begin to plan for the long term. In the Seventies Helmand Province exported more peanuts than California. It has one of the biggest marble deposits in the world. Yet there is no long term plan to harness such potential assets or link the area via railway to the vast network built by the British the last time we were there in numbers. The UN, which has responsibility for long term planning, still has no presence in Helmand. This hardly provides the locals with a long term vision they can buy into.
Finally, we must encourage President Karsai to firstly purge his Government of the corrupt elements, beginning with his half brother, Ahmad Wali Karsai who uses his inappropriate appointment as head of the Kandahar Provincial Council to leverage his opium smuggling exploits. The President must also engage with the moderate Taliban. Afghanistan's recent Loya Jirga is welcome but has come very late in the day. It was a mistake however, to exclude the Taliban. Few long term counter insurgency operations have ended successfully without negotiations with the adversary. This war cannot be won militarily; it will end when the Afghans themselves find a compromise.
With the international troop surge expected to peak in just 13 months, Afghanistan has the potential to define Britain’s coalition foreign policy. Yet future flash points in other parts of the world loom on the horizon and so we must get better at intervention operations. The nation will not tolerate winning another war in a month followed by a decade to consolidate the peace during which the lives of our troops continue to be sacrificed.