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

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

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

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.

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.