Prospect held a round-table discussion this morning on Britain’s war in Afghanistan. This month, Prospect’s cover story (£) sets out the questions that remain unanswered about the war and suggested that an inquiry should be held. This suggestion formed the basis of the morning’s discussion.
The judgement of the assembled group of senior diplomats, military personnel and politicians was withering. Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan described Britain’s activity in Afghanistan as “a massive collective mistake.” He went on to say that “many of us, including me, around this table are guilty of a combination of wishful thinking, of over-eagerness to please,” and “ambition getting in the way of doing our professional duty.”
However, he stopped short of calling for an inquiry, saying that it would yield little, and only serve as an extended reminder that humans are fallible and make bad decisions.
This view was not shared. Rear Admiral Chris Parry said he was strongly in favour of an inquiry, referring to “a series of myths that have grown up,” in connection with the war in Afghanistan “that need to be laid to rest.”
Bob Ainsworth, the Labour MP and former Secretary of State for Defence, while acknowledging that there would be some resistance to an inquiry, said that “I do not see how you can argue against one.” The area of focus, he suggested, would have to be the decision to go into Helmand, and what was said at the time of that decision about the consequences of deploying in the province.
Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP and member of the Defence Select Committee also said that, in her opinion, at some stage an enquiry was inevitable, a view reflected by the Conservative MP James Gray.
John Kerr, the former senior diplomat, said that he was not a fan of inquiries, but conceded that the Helmand decision required investigation. But rather than the Chilcot model of inquiry—which examined the Iraq war and is yet to report—he suggested a process closer to the Butler review, which would not go out explicitly to find “guilty men.” It would also have the added advantage of keeping lawyers out of proceedings.
Pauline Neville-Jones, the former Minister for Security and Counter Terrorism approved of this suggestion, cautioning that it was wise to be sparing with enquiries, as “you don’t want to cheapen the currency.”
What emerged from these comments and others was the strong sense of a systemic failure in the conduct of Britain’s Afghanistan War. Diplomats and soldiers were put under pressure to give only good news about the progress of the conflict—the system in which they operated demanded positive feedback. This was grossly counter-productive. There was a breakdown in communication between the military and politicians, who were constantly changing roles or being replaced. The relationship with the US was complicated by the factionalism of the American military and diplomatic structure, meaning that the policy of “stay close to the Americans,” resulted in British forces becoming just another one of those factions.
There were strong voices on both sides of the debate this morning, both for and against the notion of an inquiry. That unanswered questions remain, however, is beyond doubt.
For a more in-depth report on this round table, see the forthcoming October issue of Prospect