Afghanistan: what are we fighting for?

Britain's new chief of staff David Richards speaks frankly about our failures in Afghanistan, the future of the military and Britain’s place in the world
June 30, 2010
David Richards (right) with his troops in Afghanistan in 2006: "I'm the first to be critical of the mistakes we have made"

The Prospect roundtable

General Sir David Richards became chief of the general staff of the British army in 2009, having been commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan (May 2006-February 2007). A graduate in international relations from University College Cardiff, he has served in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. He is one of the favourites to become the next chief of defence staff

Michael Clarke is director of the Royal United Services Institute, winner of Prospect’s 2008 think tank of the year award

Kishwer Falkner is a Pakistani-born Liberal Democrat peer and the party’s spokesperson for home affairs in the Lords

Patrick Hennessey has fought in Afghanistan, where he became the youngest captain in the army. He is the author of “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club”

Lewis Page is a former naval officer and author of “Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military”

Rory Stewart is the new Tory MP for Penrith and the Border. As well as writing, he has been a soldier, a diplomat, and has lived in Afghanistan and the middle east

MichaelClarke: Let’s start on Afghanistan. Are the government and the military losing credibility? There was a very critical analysis in the Times in early June.

DavidRichards: The Times was not criticising our being there. It was mainly criticising what happened in 2005-06, when clearly some decisions were taken that were wrong. But I’ve spent the last two days with General David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, and you’ve got to remember that the surge is, only now, coming on stream. We’ve got another 15,000 soldiers due to come into theatre around the end of August. So we must give a chance to Stan McChrystal’s [commander of US forces in Afghanistan] revised strategy of more troops, plus a “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency approach to the local population. I can see reasons for optimism—such as the gradual growth in confidence where we have the troop numbers right—that may not be so clear to outsiders.

Clarke: And what if we fail?

Richards: The geostrategic implications are quite horrendous. If we fail, or are perceived to have failed, then Pakistan is very vulnerable internally—General Wynne, number two in the Pakistan army, said recently that it would be “disastrous” for us to fail without having first stabilised Afghanistan. I travelled often to Pakistan in 2006 and had a number of meetings with President Musharraf, and at that time I wasn’t convinced that they understood the linkage between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is no longer the case. I do worry that the so-called “counter-terror” option—hitting the Taliban and al Qaeda as hard as possible whenever they raise their heads above the parapet and not bothering about the views of the local population—will create another alienated Muslim population: the Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan. Some Pashtuns identify with the Taliban, but I was in Kandahar and Helmand recently and it was clear that most of them did not want the Taliban back. If we disappoint them they will become more susceptible to extremist ideology—and if al Qaeda got back into Afghanistan on the tail of us surrendering the south, then they would not just be in the mountains of the Hindu Kush: they would be living in towns and cities, in the heart of a population that would now be protective of them.

RoryStewart: The thing we often hear from General Petraeus, or even from brigade commanders, is that there isn’t a military solution and the surge cannot really work unless the Afghan government role comes together—economic development and governance and so on. But then if you push the generals, and ask, “well what are the chances of the Afghan government sorting its act out?” they will say, “that’s not my bag… it’s up to the diplomats, up to the aid agencies.” In which case, don’t pretend that you command the overall strategy. Be more modest—just say we’re doing the military piece, and we don’t know whether it’s going to work because it depends on the Afghan government.

Richards: I don’t think the military are trying to deliver it all. It’s mainly the responsibility of western politicians and diplomats and aid people. You’ll remember that when I was there in 2006 I ended up playing much more of a military-diplomat-political role than I was comfortable with, and although the military do often end up going into places where others fail to go, we should avoid it if we can.

Stewart: But if this fails it will not be because of what British soldiers or US marines are doing in Helmand. It’ll fail because of what the Afghan government isn’t prepared to do or isn’t capable of doing. And then we will say: but we had the military A-team, we had a great counter-insurgency strategy, so it must be the fault of the civilians. People will say McChrystal’s a star, but maybe Richard Holbrooke [Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan] wasn’t able to play the same kind of role.

Richards: We all know that you can’t win these things by military means alone. I’m the first to be critical of the mistakes we have made and the things that we have still not done—is it nine years on? We still haven’t got a civil service training college, for instance. There are many other examples. The implications of failure are so serious that I would argue that if we don’t think it’s working then we had better invest again. And hang on in there a little longer.

Stewart: So if it looks like we’re failing that’s a reason to invest again, a reason to try harder, rather than to withdraw?

Richards: As I say, if we don’t try harder for “hearts and minds,” if we just go for counter-terror, you will end up alienating most of the Pashtun population, which has big implications beyond Afghanistan. Counter-terror is not an alternative to counter-insurgency and the implications of failing in the latter are so profound that we should stick to it a bit longer. If that means investing more, particularly on the civilian side, then we should.

KishwerFalkner: I hear the British military saying year after year how wonderfully the Pakistanis are doing, and I speak to the Pakistani military who say similarly nice things about the close co-operation. Yet the Pakistani public is completely opposed to their army going after the Taliban in the remote tribal areas.

Richards: Yes, and at the moment the Pakistanis feel that they’re shouldering a huge amount of the west’s burden in this—but that they’re only getting a small proportion of the resources that are going into Afghanistan. We need to look again at that—things like tariff barriers that could be lowered to help Pakistan’s economy. I think that Pakistan is quite fragile. There is now a Punjabi Taliban. Four years ago there wasn’t even a Pakistani Taliban.

PatrickHennessey: Can we look beyond Afghanistan? I’ve just come from lunch with some of my army contemporaries [Hennessey, now 27, served with the Grenadier Guards in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan and has since left the army]. And we were having those debates that you have when you’re in your late twenties and early thirties when you wonder whether you’re going to stay and whether you want to be a general one day. But what army are they going to be in charge of? There is no money, that’s clear. If we can achieve some sort of success in Afghanistan and withdraw in a few years, then for the first time in a generation there is nothing happening, not even Northern Ireland. We’d be naive to assume that nothing comes up in the future, but we will have a peacetime army for the first time in a very long time, and we’re wondering what that looks like?

Richards: Well don’t forget that despite those predictions about the “end of history” in 1989, it’s been a turbulent two decades since. My US army counterpart talks about an era of persistent conflict. There are many troublesome places that will often require some sort of military intervention, so if it’s fighting that your friends are ready for, I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of that. But it’s not always fighting that people join for.

Hennessey: But is there going to be the political will to intervene around the world still? Is there going to be the cash to go somewhere like Darfur if it’s required, or somewhere that we haven’t foreseen?

Richards: The new government is still formulating its strategy for the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) later this year, which reviews all our military commitments and capabilities. So I can’t tell you what the political appetite is, but I think the key to this SDSR is nothing less than determining what sort of nation we see ourselves being. Historically, we have been interventionist by nature as a country. I’m not sure how much Tony Blair’s force-for-good type argument will carry sway into the future—it will probably be a bit more hard-nosed. But the idea that you can stay hunkered down in Britain and hope that trouble won’t come your way is naive—especially in an era of mass communications and mass transit, with diasporas that stretch from some very troublesome parts of the world straight back into the heart of this country. David Miliband said, rightly, that we cannot go into some sort of “defensive crouch.” And if you look at the recent interventions in the Balkans, where we had to learn some hard lessons, then Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and early on in Afghanistan—before we took our eye off it—it was actually pretty successful and a lot of lives were saved. One of the reasons I would argue with your pals about staying in the army is that it’s not just about killing people, or being killed. It’s also a huge opportunity to do good. I bless the day I joined the army and furthermore stayed in the army. I’ve had the most interesting life. I’ve saved countless lives through the actions I, or the people around me, have taken.

Clarke: But what will the armed forces look like in 20 years’ time, when Patrick’s mates are senior?

Richards: Conflict has moved on from the era of the tank and aircraft in the way that it moved on from the horse to the tank and the aircraft back in 1920s and 1930s. But we haven’t really recognised how. On the one hand the internet is driving new forms of conflict; on the other, one of the most dangerous things that might confront my soldiers today is a simple improvised explosive device. Can we deal with that? Are we ready—as retired general Rupert Smith has put it—for “war amongst the people” rather than the old confrontation between national armies? I think we are still too much equipped for yesterday’s war, not enough for tomorrow’s war, and war prevention.

Hennessey: It’s easier to argue for money for the “defensive crouch” posture when your home seems safe. It’s harder to make the case for an interventionist force…

Richards: Politicians have got to be prepared to take risks on SDSR. And I think there are enough indicators as to how future conflict will be conducted for us to know where we can reasonably take those risks. There is little likelihood of us being involved in a traditional state-on-state conflict fought through mass man-oeuvre in the air, on the sea, or on the land. I wouldn’t be silly enough to say it won’t happen. But you can mitigate that risk through alliances and burden-sharing with allies. Where I think we know we are going to have to find headroom to invest more is things like cyberspace. I’d like to see a bigger navy, but with different ships, and ones we can afford. I think the army must focus more on the sort of counter-insurgency actions we’re involved in today in Afghanistan. The airforce: well, clearly the scope for unmanned aircraft will grow.

Hennessey: But what’s the unthinkable? Rather than sit and wait for the axe to fall, what are you going to propose?

Richards: The most important thing for Britain’s security is for us to be a prosperous nation. So it may be that in the short term some of our most cherished programmes have to be forfeited. I think that Afghanistan is a signpost of the future. But we need to be prepared for interventions more generally. Do we want to see another Rwanda? Can we afford to see important but fragile countries go down the tube? I think there will be a collective desire to do something about it. But when we do let’s learn our lessons and make it a Sierra Leone—where we acted swiftly and very quickly set in train the sort of things I wished we’d done earlier in Afghanistan.

Clarke: What about cancelling Trident?

Richards: That is a political decision, which I don’t want to speculate about. The government has agreed that the Trident replacement programme will be scrutinised to ensure value for money, so let’s see what happens.

LewisPage: For years people have been looking ahead and saying there is a huge gap between the projected costs of everything we’ve said we’re going to buy and the amount of money we’re going to have. And now we are looking at a budget cut. But there’s an easy way out of this problem—every time you want to buy a helicopter, or a plane, or a tank (if you’re still buying tanks), you simply buy an existing one, off an existing production line which would usually be in the US, but not always. At a stroke you could pretty much solve the budget issues and afford Trident, but obviously that would have big implications for Britain’s defence industries.

Richards: I would love to see a prosperous British defence sector but I don’t think it’s the job of the military to prop up ailing industries. If they’re too expensive versus the competition then I don’t think it’s our job to spend money simply to keep those industries alive. We’ve got to be robust in our approach to the defence sector. And I’m pretty certain that this is the view of the new ministerial team in defence. There may be certain things we must keep—shipyards are one example. But tanks, vehicles, these can be produced very cheaply under mass production. If you’re only producing 300 for the British army, they are going to be too expensive to export to anybody else. And probably too expensive for us.

Page: A lot of people like the idea of the US marine corps model, which would mean merging the three armed forces. The marine corps have about the same budget as all of the British armed forces—but they project far more power with four divisions backed up with air power and even a pocket navy. Give that money to the British armed forces and you get one division. And we have all these inter-service squabbles about procurement.

Richards: The US marine corps model looks jolly good but you aren’t comparing like with like. They’ve got a pocket navy, but they don’t have a blue water navy. Their airforce is good at close air support but our airforce has a much bigger role than theirs. Their army is quite limited—it doesn’t have a lot of armour, for example.

Page: They’ve got some Abrams tanks. And in any case all the talk is about us having a bit less armour ourselves.

Richards: Yes, we can do with less given the likely forms of conflict. And I’m not saying there are not attractive things about the US marine corps model, but I’m also very clear that the navy and the airforce have separate roles that I would be very uncomfortable about this country losing. I think the question is: can you achieve the synergy and the unity of purpose that the US marine corp offers, while still having three separate services?

Clarke: Are we now properly equipped in Afghanistan?

Richards: We are as well equipped today in Afghanistan as I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the case early on because we didn’t learn our lessons and gear-up for what we were doing quickly enough. But today the army and Royal Marines and the guys flying the Chinooks are very well equipped.

Page: The army is clearly very focused on Afghanistan and you have said it will remain the top priority for the next five years—but we seem to have a hard ceiling of 10,000 troops there. Yet you’ve got 100,000 in the army and then there’s the marines and the useful bits of the navy and the airforce, so you’re drawing on a manpower pool of… about 120,000. If numbers are so critically important, why don’t we double that 10,000? Is there a political constraint here?

Richards: You talk about the army being 100,000 strong, but the number that’s available to deploy is closer to 75,000 once you add on defence attaches, trainers… routine injuries, all the wounded in Afghanistan and so on.

Falkner: And some soldiers, we hear, are overweight.

Richards: I heard that too. But most of the army when I go round look very fit.

Page: But if someone came in and said pull out all the stops—would you have to say 10,000 is all we can do?

Richards: No, no, of course not. The reason we’ve got about 10,000 is that we can endure that forever within our deployable 75,000. If the government said, right, you’ve got to quadruple it, then we’d do whatever we’re ordered to do—but we could only do it for a limited period. So if you are on an enduring counter-insurgency operation, as we are, the optimum figure as currently configured is around 10,000.

Page: What does “enduring” mean? The Americans talk of being out quite soon.

Richards: Well, it depends who you talk to. That is not the official line coming out of the White House or the Pentagon. I’m assuming we’ll be involved in Afghanistan for another three to five years, that is the current working assumption at the MoD. If we get the civilian bits right—that is when the military should be able to say that the Afghan army and police are at a point where they can broadly contain any lingering insurgency. Incidentally, I’m pleased about the approach being taken by our new government. The first people to be invited to Chequers were the chiefs of staff, primarily to discuss Afghanistan, and we met President Karzai. We’ve got this new national security council. And Afghanistan is very much the starting point for the SDSR. We now need to be honest with each other during the SDSR process and us military men must focus on giving some military strategic advice, not second guessing political preferences. We’ve got to know what they want to achieve and then we will tell them what they need to do in order to achieve it.

Clarke: How much nation-building can and should the military do?

Richards: In certain stages of a conflict—usually the initial stages—when it’s too dangerous for most civilians to be present, we could actually do more. And if in Helmand back in 2006 we had been charged with doing more pump-priming then I think we might have ensured a better start. A mechanism has to be found to keep things ticking over while the long-term developmental things—electricity, roads, jobs—kick in. I think we can do more of that and I’m glad that the new government is talking about creating a stabilisation reconstruction force. I’m not suggesting that we should do what DfID [the department for international development] does, but we could set the conditions for their subsequent success. I think that was what we didn’t get right back in 2006. We’ve matured a lot since those early days when the military slagged-off DfID, and DfID slagged-off us.

Falkner: Alliances are clearly crucial in the future, and on European defence co-operation there are two directions emerging. One is an emphasis on the British-French bilateral alliance, and the other (born of quite positive experiences across Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere), a wider alliance of small European countries: the Dutch, the Finns, the Swedes, the Danes. Which side of that argument do you fall?

Richards: I would focus on those countries that can deliver today—in that respect I would go with the first option: the French are very important to us and I’ve got a very close relationship with my French counterpart. But we should also build on the growing capabilities of people like the Dutch, the Estonians, the Danes—people we’re working well with in Afghanistan.

Falkner: I understand the defence secretary prefers the Anglo-French option. We’re spending a lot of money on the French connection and if money’s tight we ought to get a return.

Stewart: Do you actually see a place for an independent British foreign policy? We’ve got accustomed to being a partner to the US and that drives a lot of what we do on Afghanistan. If for some reason Obama were to change his mind and leave, it’s improbable that Britain would try to put 60,000 troops on the ground. What can we still do on our own?

Richards: I don’t think that in terms of war fighting we should consider doing anything without allies bigger than a Sierra Leone scale operation, which was 5,000 people at its height. We do still have moral responsibility to certain parts of the world. But if we are involved in a big operation on our own it probably means we are out of kilter with most of the rest of the west. And yes, of course we want to remain close to America for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have an independent voice in foreign policy. Whenever I go round the world there are many countries that say “would you send a team to do this, and can you send some experts,” particularly in the middle east and Afghanistan, Pakistan—and lots of Commonwealth countries—we could do a lot more there.

Clarke: On the surface it seems that the army and the public are closer than they’ve been for decades. Consider those public displays of grief at Wootton Bassett.

Richards: We get these surveys done for us now and again and the British army—I think it’s similar for the navy and airforce—approval rating is 85 per cent. That’s the highest for any profession in this country. So Wootton Bassett is in part a cause, but also a symptom of that view. And I’m grateful to the people there for being a conduit for the nation as a whole to show their respect and gratitude.

Clarke: But do you worry that the Wootton Bassett effect may make the soldiers look like victims of government policy instead of instruments of government policy? It’s very individualised.

Richards: No, I haven’t really picked that up myself, but I can see why that is something we should be wary of. But on the whole it’s been a huge bonus for us.

Hennessey: Is there not a danger of what one might call “Diana-fication” of our culture, being less stoical about death and injury? There might be quite serious consequences here for the army—there are things coming through the courts at the moment where the MoD is being sued by mothers of people who’ve died, who are challenging tactical decisions made on the ground that have led to the death of someone. And there are tabloid outcries about payouts to soldiers who have been badly injured being too low. But in the event that we ever did have to fight a conventional war, the sums would be prohibitively high.

Richards: One thing we are worried about is the legal framework that currently applies to war. If you want to use armed force legitimately, in the way we have in the past, we must look again at the law underpinning its use.

Clarke: Do you worry that as every generation passes we become less interested in fighting and perhaps less patriotic too, less ready to die for that thing fluttering up there [Union flag]?… Do you not fear that in 20 years’ time you will have big recruitment problems because people simply won’t be prepared to die for their country?

Richards: Well, they don’t die for the flag, they die for their muckers. But no, I don’t detect the trend that you’re describing. If you look at what we’ve done since the cold war we’ve been involved in a lot of wars. Right now I’ve got more soldiers than I know what do to with in the sense that recruitment is not a problem, and our retention rates are the highest they’ve ever been: 2.8 per cent only are leaving the army annually at the moment. And it used to be around 5.5 per cent. I’m not saying it’s something we shouldn’t think about but I’ve got great faith in the British that if the cause is right then they’ll continue to dig deep. What we’ve got to make sure is that we always link the political goal with the ability to deliver—I think we have self-evidently not always got that right in the last few years. And we’ve got lessons to learn, strategically and tactically, from all this recent action. Indeed, I have created a new branch of the army in Warminster, under a three-star general, Paul Newton, to ensure that the criticism that was rightly levelled at us by the Americans—that we weren’t learning our lessons correctly—is taken on board.

Clarke: Thank you Sir David, I think the army wants you back again now.