A culture of silence

Prospect asks senior military, diplomatic and political figures: should there be an Afghanistan inquiry?
September 18, 2013

Last month Prospect made the case for an inquiry into the UK’s role in Afghanistan. We then held a discussion with military, political and diplomatic figures, some of whom played a central part. There were strong voices for and against an inquiry. But key questions clearly remain unanswered: about the decision to go into Helmand, relations with the US, and the Whitehall culture of never delivering bad news.

Prospect has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the Afghan war, Britain’s longest (13 years by the time troops come out next year), most expensive (approaching £40bn) and one where the outcome confounded sustained expectations that it would be easy. On 10th September, we held a roundtable discussion, bringing together many of those who had made the key decisions in ministries or the military, witnessed them or argued over them in parliament.

There was a clash of views; many of those closely involved disliked the idea of an inquiry, or poured scorn on the idea that it would achieve anything (for the full transcript of those passionate and detailed arguments, lasting 90 minutes, go to the Prospect website (prospectmagazine.co.uk). As James Gray, Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, said: “Watching the great experts talking in this conversation, it seems to me that they break down into two broad groups. The professionals—whether they be generals, admirals or ambassadors—are all broadly of the view that it’s all too complicated and really this isn’t an awfully good idea, and it’s the British ruling classes in denial. The politicians are all saying, ‘Oh yes, goodness me, we must look into this.’”

Many present—on both sides of this divide—described a culture of silence in which it was impossible either to acknowledge bad news publicly or to convey it to those higher up the chain of command. That was one of the main themes of the discussion, and it is directly relevant to the current debate about dysfunction in Whitehall and the extent to which politicians have been using the civil service as a convenient scapegoat. Sherard Cowper-Coles, former Ambassador to Afghanistan, describing this culture, said “I think the infection started with Tony Blair and spread from the top down. Gordon Brown was obsessed with the next election.” Lord Kerr said that, in his view, Cowper-Coles had given “a very clear description of a system’s failure. It’s hundreds of public servants not telling the truth, feeling they’re under pressure not to tell the truth.” He added: “that’s a systems failure right across Whitehall, not just inside the Ministry of Defence.”

Some were vocal in their opposition to an inquiry. Cowper-Coles was one; another was Robert Fry, Deputy Commanding General of coalition forces in Iraq for most of 2006, who has written a response to Prospect’s cover story last month (p20). Baroness Neville-Jones, the former Minister for Security and Counter Terrorism and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said: “You need to be careful how often you hold inquiries. They need to be very serious affairs.” They should, she argued, “be reserved for instances where there are grounds for believing there’s been real malfeasance. I don’t think Afghanistan falls in that category” although “it certainly falls in the category of ‘why do things go so badly wrong?’”

Others disagreed. Rear Admiral Chris Parry said he was strongly in favour, citing “a series of myths that have grown up 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: “I do not see how you can argue against one.” Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and member of the Defence Select Committee, also thought that at some stage an inquiry was inevitable. This was a view shared by James Gray.

Among those who supported our proposal—and quite a few warmed, during the debate, to the notion of a limited inquiry with tightly specified aims and timetable—there was most support for an investigation into the decision to send British troops into Helmand province in 2006. That move was responsible for most of the 444 deaths to date among British personnel (compared to 179 in Iraq). Three of those present—Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP for Lagan Valley, Julian Brazier, Conservative MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, and Bob Ainsworth, were members of the Commons Defence Select Committee which closely scrutinised the Helmand decision in 2011. John Kerr, former Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, while offering that “I’m not crazy about inquiries,” said that a limited inquiry into the Helmand decision might have some value provided it asked “how we got ourselves into making such a very big mistake.” He added: “I’d look at 2004, 2005, 2006—why did we think it would be so easy and discover it was extremely difficult, in fact impossible?”

But rather than the Chilcot model of inquiry—which set out in 2009 to look at lessons learned from the Iraq war and has yet to report—he suggested a process closer to the Butler Review into the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which would not set out to find “guilty men.” Kerr emphasised the need to “keep the lawyers out of it,” a point with which many round the table agreed. Several participants expressed concern that an inquiry would, in the words of one, “end up targeting individuals.”

However, Ainsworth argued “Helmand is the shorthand for what is perceived to be the central error [and that] who said what, about what going to Helmand meant, is enormously important as well. ‘What are you going to Helmand to do?’—was that properly explained to politicians at the time?” He added: “In the short term it will become a blame game, but in the longer term if we get into the international aspects of how do you operate within a coalition, what agreements do you [make] at the start, there will be some lessons that will be enormously worthwhile learning, I believe.”

Others also argued for the need to look at the way that the goals in Afghanistan expanded from the original aim of pursuing Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda (what Kerr described as “a six-week war” beginning in October 2001 and which was broadly successful). Gray argued that we need “a very limited examination about how it is that we decide—the same applies to Syria—what we’re going to do when we decide to go to war.” While describing the notion of a wider inquiry as “bonkers,” he said: “I stood in the streets on 150 occasions welcoming bodies home—why is it that we had to do all that stuff and we don’t know why we did it?” Ainsworth said: “The kind of inquiry that John [Kerr] envisages, zooming in on Helmand, would get to one of the key issues, but you won’t have much of the coalition context, the Nato context, that had such an impact.”

Julian Brazier, noting that “I’m completely with Bob [Ainsworth] and with everyone who thinks we need an inquiry here,” said that “we do face a crisis of confidence as a country in the use of our armed forces. Two massive failures [Iraq and Afghanistan]; we’ve now got a popular opinion which is against military action of all sorts.” Tom Coghlan, defence correspondent of The Times, said: “I think there is a generation of soldiers, perhaps not at the strategic level, who are deeply desirous of an inquest into what happened and how they ended up in the position that they did.”

Two other themes of deep disquiet emerged as the discussion went on. One was the relation with the United States. William Patey, also previously Ambassador to Afghanistan, said that “my direct experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is that the only clear instructions I got [were] to stay close to the Americans and that is an inhibiting factor if you’re part of the alliance.” He added: “The American system is completely dysfunctional….[it] is a system with competing factions and the Brits are one of those factions, and if you end up being overly critical, honest, you get cut out, and if you get cut out you lose your value to your own Prime Minister.” However, he also argued that “we have more influence [on the Americans] than we give ourselves credit for.”

Neville-Jones warned, however that “it is important who delivers these verdicts.” She added: “One of the conclusions any investigation of Afghanistan will reveal is that coalition warfare—run at present by the Americans—doesn’t work. There are failures in their leadership. Do we want to deliver that as an official outcome of an inquiry in the UK? We do have to be careful.”

Many reasons were given for the entrenched culture of not delivering bad news. Cowper-Coles, who described Britain’s activity in Afghanistan as “a massive collective mistake,” said that “many of us, including me, around this table are guilty of a combination of wishful thinking, [and] of over-eagerness to please.”

Gisela Stuart took civil servants and military to task for not giving those MPs who made the effort to visit Afghanistan a full picture of what was going on. Others responded that diplomats and soldiers were put under pressure to give only good news—the system in which they operated demanded that only positive feedback be delivered; they were not rewarded for giving bad news and, in any case, the occupants of ministerial posts were constantly changing. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect diplomats or generals to expose to visiting MPs the flaws, that’s not what the government wants,” said Patey. Cowper-Coles cited David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, as a minister who did not recoil from being told bad news. Several remembered that Gordon Brown was not.

This account cannot of course represent fully the debate between people who devoted years of their professional lives to the conflict and have a great deal to say about it. Several have already written books about their experiences. Others have given evidence to the Defence Committee; others still were members of that committee. However, what was said here emphatically supports, in our view, the need for an inquiry which would not only examine the past but also draw clear lessons for the future. It would ask why Britain chose to go into Helmand, but also what it can reasonably expect to do in the future with the armed forces that it has and what that means for the alliance with the US. It would also examine what aid policy should aim to do in a conflict zone, and ask whether British policymakers have been too vague and too ambitious about the impact it can expect to have. Above all, an inquiry would ask why and when Britain should choose to go to war. As the debate over Syria has shown, the answer is far from clear.