Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Here endeth the lesson

And let the blame game begin!

Yes, UK forces have now withdrawn from Helmand Province in Afghanistan and it took less than 24 hours for various key players along the way - both political and military - to start flinging mud in every conceivable direction. Expect more of the same for at least the next few months. It is nearly Christmas after all and as such the perfect time to bring out new books with splash covers like "the real story behind why the British failed in Afghanistan" etc, etc, ad nauseam. Much money to be made, much arse covering to get in before someone else does I suspect.

But while publishers count their sales, now is when the armed forces begin the long process of dissecting the campaign in minute detail to figure out which bits went well and which didn't. Already many people have their own opinions, most of which seem to centre around the idea that Britain failed due to an insufficient number of troops, which apart from anything else presumes that the UK has failed, before we even wait to see how things pan out.

Looking to the future and what can be taken from this, for me there are three areas about the UK mission that I'm interested in exploring. The first is the mission.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan was triggered by the events of 9/11. In the aftermath of the attack the hunt began to find those responsible and the lines of enquiry led the US back to Southern Afghanistan and the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden. The US appealed for help from its allies, help which the UK promptly offered. But what was the original reasoning?

The idea was actually fairly simple. The ruling Taliban regime refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the US so he could stand trial, so the US was going to go in and get him, whether the Taliban liked it or not. At the same as trying to capture its leader, the US was also intending to take down much of the Al-Qaeda organisation and training facilities. The final cherry on the cake would be to topple the Taliban, which would send a message to other countries around the world that turning a blind eye to the activities of terrorist groups within their borders could have fatal consequences.

The mission - with coalition forces deploying to assist the United Front in the North - made rapid progress. The US turned down multiple offers (though the credibility of such offers has been questioned) by Taliban commanders and politicians to hand over Bin Laden, often with conditions attached, in return for an end to the fighting. By the 13th November Kabul had fallen and by mid-December the major fighting had largely ceased. The Al-Qaeda training camps were gone. The Taliban were (mostly) gone. Unfortunately though, so was Osama Bin Laden.

At this point the Taliban and Al-Qaeda still existed in small pockets, but by and large the mission had been accomplished. The priorities now were to form a stable government, bring in food aid for an impoverished nation and to start rebuilding the capacity of the Afghan army and police to take over security of their own country. I've written in the past that I think the US made a huge mistake at this juncture by backing Hamid Karzai who was not the popular choice among many senior Afghans. It would appear that the other major mistake was to not spend more resources on immediately rebuilding the state security apparatus, including the army.

And at this juncture we have to question how the US led coalition went from this point in time to where they are now. Osama Bin Laden still needed to be found and the remnants of the previous regime needed mopping up, but by this point coalition forces should have been scaling back. The focus should have been on moving the Afghans to the fore, with coalition support. When you look at the last few years of operations it's difficult to see what objective was being aimed for? Al-Qaeda was gone for the most part and indeed had shipped a lot of its fighters abroad by this point. The war was now one of protecting Kabul and the Karzai government, something which the Afghan forces should have been doing themselves.

I suspect it would not make comfortable reading for the friends, families and colleagues of those that died or were seriously wounded to hear that these sacrifices were unnecessary, but I suspect that is the inevitable conclusion that we have to come to. The main objectives of the initial invasion were finished and from this point onward coalition forces really should have moved into the background, with the occasional operation to support the Afghans on the more complex tasks. 

Their mission was done. 

On top of this the economic argument has also been made that the money poured into Afghanistan as both aid and support for operations (particularly from 2006 onwards) could have been spent at home to achieve the effect of security against terrorist attack. Ultimately the fight in Helmand has cost Britain over 450 dead, and many more seriously wounded, not accounting for the psychological toll. Even if just a fraction of the money spent on Afghanistan had instead been spent on UK security, and as a result a terrorist attack had taken place, it would have had to have been something spectacular to make the human cost of Operation Herrick worthwhile.

The British perspective of operations in Helmand tends to focus around the need for more troops. The common narrative centres on the small number of troops that were initially deployed to Helmand in 2006 and that things only got better after a much later "surge" when US Marines were deployed in large numbers to the North of the province while the British focused there resources on the South of Helmand.

It's been a compelling argument for a long time now, backed by the success of the US surge in Iraq. In essence it has become "common widsom" about this operation specifically and as such has become common wisdom about Counter-Insurgency (COIN) warfare practice in general. But is it really the solution to all future COIN woes, to simply up the number of soldiers deployed?

I find it an odd position given that two of the most successful COIN operations in the past for which Britain has been rightly lauded were done the opposite way. One of the reasons the British response to the Malayan Emergency has gained so much credibility is because the British forces managed to achieve with a peak of 40,000 troops what the US failed to do in Vietnam with a peak of over 540,000. In Oman British troop levels were exceptionally low, at least officially.

Now clearly there are differences between what happened in Oman and Malaysia vs what happened in Vietnam, or indeed in Afghanistan, but we can never escape from the fact that actually Britain has been at its most successful when it comes to COIN operations when the number of troops has been limited.

In Oman the battle for control of the people was centred on the South of the country, in the Dhofar Governate, an area almost twice the size of Helmand. Dhofar and Helmand share a number of traits, as much of the population is concentrated in certain areas while big chunks of both provinces are inhospitable desert. Both also have a fair amount of mountainous terrain to contend with. And both shared a border with a nation favourable to the insurgents, across which insurgents were able to travel to safety.

Even at its peak, the British contribution was not a huge one in manpower terms. Aside from the rotating squadron of SAS soldiers (around 70-80 men at a time) there were some engineers, signals personnel, medical and veterinary support, some RAF personnel at RAF Salalah, and not a lot else. British officers and pilots were seconded to help the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces (SOAF) by flying their attack aircraft and commanding many of the infantry units (from company up to battalion level), but the total British presence was really nothing to write home about, certainly nothing close to the troop levels seen in Helmand.

Indeed the total force levels including the SOAF were never really that high. The SAS squadrons were mostly deployed in groups of 8-12, to train and then fight alongside small groups of Firqats, former guerrillas from the region who had become disenfranchised with the communist leanings of the other insurgents. As for the SOAF forces, they typically were never able to deploy more than about a battalions worth of men at any one time. A locally raised police force rounded out the structure.

This motley sounding crew might pale in comparison to the size and scope of British forces in Helmand, but never the less they got the job done. Later on they received some assistance from Iran and Jordan, both of whom would eventually deploy a battalions worth of men, but these were mainly used to man a line of small, mutually supporting forts between the coast and the mountains to try and interdict insurgent supply lines, the value of which has been questioned.

It's a marked contrast compared to the earlier "common wisdom" of COIN that we looked at that says that large troop numbers are the way forward. Part of the trouble can be found in the accounts of some of the lower level British commanders who were deployed on Operation Herrick. Many have complained that when they went to Afghanistan they were put down with their platoon in a patrol base and then given vague instructions about patrolling the local ground and engaging with the locals.

In many cases the platoon commanders were very limited in what they could achieve. Their orders didn't seem to have a coherent end point in sight and some have complained that they seemed to be patrolling almost for the sake of patrolling, because they were doing something at least. Unfortunately in many cases that something was to be a magnet for IEDs, rocket and mortar attacks, and small arms fire.

Spread out across the province, the various units were competing for resources from their higher command, whether it be for money, engineer support, medical teams etc. They were meeting with the locals, but in many cases had nothing of value to offer them. They were essentially dropping in to say hello and then having to return to base, while getting shot at in the process, with no clear advice from above about what to do or how to make a positive impact towards the ultimate goal of creating a safe and secure Afghanistan.

And that's part of the problem with calls for troop increases. Increasing the number of troops only helps if there's some positive impact that can be achieved by them. Increasing troop levels does very little without an equal increase in supporting capabilities and without a clear plan for their use. Spreading these troops out to maximise coverage also causes problems because they simply become another series of isolated outposts to be targeted.

More troops can make things easier, but only if they're used in the correct way. Otherwise it would appear you're simply adding to the logistics burden, adding to the cost, and putting more people than necessary into harms way. I'm not sure as there is a clear cut answer either way, I just think we need to put the brakes on the hype train that seems to have already decided that the only option in the future is to pour additional manpower into the cauldron. There might be cases where that is absolutely appropriate, but then again in some cases it wont. What we need is a more constructive appraisal based on the specific circumstances and plan.

Going back to Oman for example, the SOAF typically deployed whole battalions into one area for a short period of time. The idea was to contact the enemy and try to inflict casualties, breaking larger concentrations of the enemy down into smaller chunks and holding the ground while police were moved in and government authority could be established. After this the troops could be removed and other operations could be planned. With a view to the long term the Dhofar province was gradually won back, village by village, town by town, with the bulk of the fighting and then security work being done by Omanis themselves.

This approach, especially for the smaller forces of the UK, offers a lot of promise where conventional British forces would be used more for training tasks and for the odd big clearing operation, but with the bulk of the hard work being done by local recruits, possibly with some British officers and NCOs among their ranks. The manpower requirement would thus be greatly reduced, as would the cost of supporting them.

Finally we come to the prickly issue of tactics. One of the key debates that takes place in this regard is the issue of the "Hearts and Minds" approach vs a focus on killing the enemy. And I find this a very odd debate because really the two are supposed to go together.

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point in the last ten years "Hearts and Minds" became a strategy in and of itself. The idea was advocated at every turn, appropriate for every area, and seen as an ideal approach to winning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite how the hearts and minds approach would do this on its own was never really made clear. Nor indeed is much of the literature and comment on what hearts and minds actually means.

Some people think that it's sitting down for tea with the locals. Some think that it's about giving sweets to the local children. For some it means building wells and schools. But none of these things actually relate to the original concept as practised in Malaya. That's because hearts and mind wasn't an overarching strategy, it was a local level tactic, with a very specific implementation for a very specific purpose.

The very phrase itself seems to have only appeared in formal letters at the time. The actual concept, the one relevant to COIN work, was being practised on the ground by small SAS teams sent into the Malaysian jungle. Groups of SAS soldiers, Malaysian Police and the occasional regular British add on such as an intelligence officer, normally numbering around 12-14 men total, would go into the jungle and make contact with small villages, often ones that had little contact with the rest of the population.

The intention was to use the villages as patrol bases, from which smaller patrols of men could be sent out into the jungle to hunt for the insurgents, to find their camps and/or their trails, so that they could be engaged and killed. But in order to use the villages as bases and to get the villagers who often hunted in the surrounding jungle to act as guides and informants, the teams first needed to win over the locals. 

Hence, hearts and minds.

Medical aid, veterinary aid, food supplies, even labouring on their small patches of cultivated land. The idea was to prove over time that they were friendly. Once this was achieved the village could either be used as a long term patrol base, or just as a one night stop during a jungle patrol, for rest and to ask the villagers for any intelligence they might have. It was a very small scale affair, carried out by small parties, helping very small, remote villages.

And it was for a very specific purpose, to make it easier for the British forces to find the insurgents hide outs and the trails that they used to move between them and the more populated parts of the country. For these men, the pioneers if you will, hearts and minds was a means to an end. It was one tactic among many for finding the enemy and killing them.

Because at some point the enemy has to be militarily beaten. That seems like it's become a dirty thing to say these days, that the point behind a COIN campaign might actually be to kill people. But it's true. And frankly it's always been true. There is no infinite supply of insurgents. Both the Malaysian and Omani campaigns were ultimately brought to a successful conclusion by defeating the enemy through attrition.

As the insurgents were killed off some of their supporters simply gave up the fight and skulked off into the shadows. Many turned themselves in. In Malaysia defections often led to intelligence on other insurgent hideouts. In Oman the Firqats who fought for the government were made up almost entirely of fighters who had previously been insurgents themselves. And in both campaigns over time the insurgent numbers were gradually dwindled down. That, fundamentally, was how both insurgencies were ended.

Now I accept that this approach has risks. One of the criticisms of the Vietnam campaign was that commanders became obsessed by the body count, as this was what the politicians and press wanted to hear, and upon which promotion prospects could hinge. Part of the problem with the body count issue in this war however was that the intense focus on it meant that deliberate manipulation of figures became common place. General Westmoreland himself became the chief architect of fudging the figures to make them add up the right way.

But the point still stands that at some point the military has to close with and defeat the enemy and hearts and minds is a part of this approach, not the opposite of it. To go back to Oman and the SAS/Firqat units, the intention was that these teams would set up in a small Omani village, ring the place off where possible with barbed wire to stop other people getting in, and then with the help of the local Askaris (police, sort of) they would secure the whole village to use as a base of operations to conduct fighting patrols, patrols that were designed to find and kill the enemy.

Note that the whole village was secured, not just one building. Hearts and minds came into play here with the establishment of clinics and small engineering projects such as well digging as a way to convince the locals that the presence of these government forces was a good thing. Let's not lose sight though of the fact that winning over the locals was essentially just one step on the path to hunting down and killing the Adoo, or enemy. 

It was not about winning support for supports sake, or because functioning schools and markets were a good thing and showed positive progress towards a brighter democratic future etc. It was about winning peoples support because support meant denying food and refuge to the enemy, while offering opportunities to gather intelligence about the enemies movements and a secure position from which to conduct patrolling operations.

Again, to emphasise, hearts and minds went hand in hand with the desire to find and defeat the enemy. The two approaches were not opposites, they were allies.

Does any of the above provide answers? Maybe, maybe not. What's clear is that the previous approach has attracted a lot of criticism and many suspect will fail in the long run. The reputation of the UK armed forces has been badly damaged and now - amongst a climate of cutbacks and transformation - its up to the forces to reassess their approach to future COIN campaigns.

I would simply suggest that given the political and domestic opposition to such campaigns, and given the shrinking size of the armed forces, "more troops" is not going to be a viable answer. Instead I suspect it will take some innovative thinking to draw up a new doctrine that is both acceptable to the public and politicians, and can still deliver the results required.


  1. While your argument holds water and is given to the reader as an intelligent and leading argument, I would simply regurgitate the lessons the British Forces have learnt over the past three/four generations and it is quite clear that 'boots on the ground' have a profound impact on the conceived enemy. This is not the answer to all our problems at present or indeed the future, but in conjunction with economic sanctions, ideological warfare/pressure and superior air power and military technology, the answer is at our finger tips when conjoined with military personnel taking the fight to the enemies 'front door'.

    1. Hello Ollie, thank you for stopping by and commenting, and in particular many thanks for the kind words.

      Now, while boots on the ground has proven its worth time and again, the UK armed forces are unfortunately facing the very real prospect of yet more cuts after the next election, which are likely to fall hard on the army. The cutbacks, combined with the negative public perception of campaigns like Afghanistan and Iraq, means that large scale troop deployments for another COIN campaign are unlikely. That's why I believe the UK needs to find another approach. It simply has no other choice.