Britain needs answers to five questions about its longest warby Bronwen Maddox / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
A British soldier passes a poppy field in Helmand province, 2006. (© John Moore/Getty images)
At the height of the summer, David Cameron flew unannounced into Kabul and Helmand province to explain why, after Britain had spent 12 years battling to defeat the Taliban, he was pressing for talks with them. In open-necked dark shirt and trousers, standing out starkly against the ranks of soldiers in desert fatigues, he shrugged off the recent remarks of Lieutenant-General Nick Carter, Britain’s top general in Afghanistan and Nato’s Deputy Commander in the conflict—that for a decade Britain and the United States had missed crucial chances to talk to the Taliban.
“You can argue about whether the settlement we put in place after 2001 could have been better arranged. Of course you can make that argument,” the Prime Minister said, gesturing with his sunglasses, before adroitly announcing that, to mark Armed Forces Day, the fines collected from banks for improperly fixing interest rates would go towards creating a permanent memorial for the 444 British personnel killed in Afghanistan. He concluded: “We want peace and stability in Afghanistan, we want the return of the Taliban back to their country.”
Twelve years ago, that would have been an astounding statement—an apparent bald contradiction. Now, it is a measure of how completely the Afghan conflict has confounded early goals, as well as a victory, at last, for the notion that military effort is futile without a political deal for the country. As Britain prepares to withdraw its troops next year from its longest war since the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, it is right to ask exactly what has been achieved—and to acknowledge that, with no hyperbole, the answer may be close to nothing. One former British diplomat in the region said: “No doubt they will redefine the original goals to claim some kind of success, but in my book, this is what failure looks like.”
There will be a temptation, as the images of army vehicles burned and twisted by roadside bombs disappear from television screens, to say that we are well out of it, and to leave the question of why it fell so short of its aims to fade in embarrassed silence. That would be an injustice to those who have died, to their families, and to voters, as well as an evasion of the lessons that should be learned.
It is hard to find any aspect of recent foreign policy in which senior diplomats are so incredulous and bitter about the mistakes, the confusions of strategy, the loss of life and the expense of tens of billions of pounds in pursuit of goals that were never clear and mainly never attainable. Sherard Cowper-Coles, UK Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009, used to transfix his colleagues and journalists by the fierce candidness of his briefings—startling enough when delivered in Kabul, but prone to leave a roomful of officials in shifting, discomfited silence when beamed back to large screens in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through the staccato transmission of a satellite video-link. Now he says of Afghanistan’s future after the Nato-led coalition forces leave next year: “The picture isn’t very good. Helmand province in a year or two is likely to be back to much where it was —apart from a few new roads and schools and clinics—before British forces blundered in there in 2006.” Asked whether he thought the 12 years were a waste of time, money and lives, he said: “It has been a good experience for the British armed forces at a tactical level, but on balance, yes.”
Another former senior diplomat says: “We achieved the essentials—al Qaeda routed out of Afghanistan and the Taliban overthrown. But all the rhetoric about founding a democratic country where women would have the same rights—that was never achieveable.” And Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat peer and former Royal Marine, declared at the end of last year that “it is now crystal clear that we have lost in Afghanistan” and that staying “is not worth the life of one more soldier.”
Yet Afghanistan is not just “Another War Lost,” as one headline put it recently. It was a worse failure for Britain than was Iraq. More British personnel have been killed (444 compared to 179 in Iraq) and it cost far more (good estimates put the cost at between £30bn and £40bn by the time troops leave at the end of 2014, compared to about £9bn for Britain’s contribution in Iraq). It was also a conflict in which Britain claimed it could demonstrate superior skills. The failure has far more implications for Britain’s place in the world than did the setbacks of Iraq.
This is the last war in which Britain will make those claims, not least because the regular army is now being cut to 82,000 (compared to 110,000 at the start of the Afghan conflict). But as the troops come home, there are five key questions that merit an inquiry by parliament that matches the seriousness with which it investigated the misjudgements of Iraq. Two must dominate any investigation: what has been achieved, and at what cost. But Britain made three mistakes above all which deserve particular scrutiny: fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time; taking on responsibility for combating the drugs trade; and taking on the lethal responsibility for the “hornet’s nest” of Helmand province.
Question 1: Did the Iraq war doom the Afghan conflict?
In a word, yes. Of all the UK’s mistakes, fighting two wars at once was the biggest. Of course, some say that for Britain to enter the Afghan war at all was a mistake, darkly citing the three failed historic attempts to subjugate the country between 1839 and 1919. Yet that is too dismissive. For Britain to have refused to join the US in pursuit of Osama bin Laden after 9/11 would been a rejection of any alliance with the US, never mind a special relationship. In an impassioned speech on the evening of Sunday 7th October 2001, Tony Blair confirmed that British “assets” were involved in the start of US military action, while acknowledging that “there is at present no specific credible threat to the United Kingdom that we know of.” For Britain, entering the war was the minimum price of keeping an alliance with the US. “It was not really a choice, for any politician, to go into Afghanistan,” says one former senior diplomat, “whereas Iraq, in a sense, was more a war of choice.”
One damaging effect, often overlooked, is that the 2003 Iraq invasion instantly changed the view of Afghans themselves about the foreign forces already within their borders; they suddenly saw them as hostile invaders, and the two conflicts as instigated in parallel by the west against Muslim countries—and (so the accounts often went) in pursuit of their resources.
A second consequence is that governments involved in both conflicts, particularly the US and UK, “took our eye off the ball,” as several British officials now put it. From 2005 to 2007, the US regarded Afghanistan as the easier war and already won, while in Iraq, the death count and level of violence were rising sharply. “If we’d got going earlier [in Afghanistan] with a security force, if we’d put in the effort in 2002 that we did in 2008, would the Taliban have regrouped?” asks one former official.
A third result is that UK forces were severely overstretched, a conclusion bluntly reached by the highly critical House of Commons Defence Committee in its 2010-11 hearings on Operations in Afghanistan. General Nicholas Houghton, former Chief of Operations in Afghanistan, in giving evidence, said that when the government made the decision to commit UK forces to Helmand province in early 2006, “the level of reduction in commitment to Iraq that had been forecast and hoped for in 2005 had not actually materialised.” He added: “But I sense there was an irreversibility [about the commitment], given the political and international level of the decision.” The committee concluded that: “Given the demanding nature of the situation in Iraq, we do not consider that the implications of the decision to move UK armed forces into the south of Afghanistan in early 2006 were fully thought through, in particular, the risk to UK armed forces personnel.”
Question 2: Why did Britain take on the role of quelling the narcotics trade?
In October 2001, giving his reasons for joining the US military action, Tony Blair asserted: “We act also because the al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large part on the drugs trade.” In a justification which would cripple and befuddle British policy, he added: “Ninety per cent of all heroin sold in Britain originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is, again, directly in our interests.”
Two months later, in the Bonn Agreement, as G8 countries committed to helping in the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan shared out the different tasks, Britain formally assumed the responsibility for combating the opium trade, which had been choked off by the Taliban but was rising fast again. As one former diplomat puts it now, “it sort of made sense for Britain to take it on—the heroin on our streets comes from Afghanistan, and America’s drugs wars are fought elsewhere.” There was also the desire to cut off funds for drug barons.
Yet Britain’s actions were a muddle from the start. At different points, officials set out to eradicate poppies, to pay farmers to destroy crops (problematic because of the perverse incentive it would give to grow them), to give farmers an alternative livelihood, and to tolerate the crop. Frequently, its plans were at odds with those of US officials and commanders.
Some projects, such as the Helmand Food Zone, run by the British Provincial Reconstruction Team, had success, although only in a small area, in persuading farmers to abandon poppies by supplying them with subsidised high-grade wheat and fertiliser. But the yield on wheat is a tenth of that on opium; “the truth is, it is very hard to find alternative crops which give them even a fraction of the income,” said one British official.
Overall, the efforts have comprehensively failed. Figures in November from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime projected that opium production would reach almost record levels this year, close to its 2007 peak. In April, the UNODC reported that this year “poppy cultivation is not only expected to expand in areas where it already existed in 2012… but also in new areas or in areas where [it] was stopped.” More than 90 per cent of the heroin on British streets still comes from there; the fields of purple, red, and pink-and-white poppies still stretch across the Helmand valley.
A consequence of the British commitment to take on the drugs traffic was that it also lethally complicated the military deployment to Helmand province, earning British soldiers the immediate enmity of the local population who feared that their opium crop was at risk.
Question 3: why did the UK take on Helmand?
The most controversial decision of all for Britain in the conflict is accepting responsibility for Helmand province in 2005 and 2006. As Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, wrote in the “Afghanistan Papers,” the think tank’s 2011 report on the Helmand decision: “It was the deployment of a battlegroup into Helmand in spring 2006 that turned the UK’s commitment to Afghanistan from a ‘military operation’ into a ‘war’.”
John Reid, appointed Defence Secretary in 2005, famously said in April 2006 that “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction.” Two years later, British forces had fired four million bullets. The UK moved rapidly from having about 1,000 military personnel operating with international forces mainly in Kabul and the north to a combat force of 3,300 in Helmand in the spring of 2006, to 6,300 troops by that summer, and almost 7,600 by July 2007. In 2009, Gordon Brown said that the number would be held at “an enduring maximum of 8,300” the next year, but it quickly rose further. Although David Cameron began to withdraw troops during 2011, the numbers still peaked at more than 10,000.
One senior FCO official now says: “If asked ‘Should we go into Helmand again?’ I’d say ‘No’—but we have done quite a lot of good there.” A former official says: “In retrospect, going into Helmand looks like a bit of a mistake.”
“I don’t blame John Reid—or not entirely,” said one of those present as ministers came to the decision. “The question is about the quality of the advice he had.” Britain had originally thought it would take on Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland, but Canada claimed that task. Helmand, with its green, central valley, appeared quieter “with a fair degree of law and order,” as one official put it. But it was by a long way the largest province, more than three times the size of Wales. Military chiefs did not expect it to be entirely benign—but intelligence was almost non-existent.
As Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup put it to the committee: “I can recollect a number of discussions around the Chiefs of Staff Committee table that essentially were along these lines—I have used these very words myself, so I can recollect them well—“we don’t know much about the south, but what we do know is that it’s not the north; it’s real bandit country.” General Peter Wall, now Chief of the General Staff, in evidence also said: “I absolutely accept that what we found when we had forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and hoped for. We were ready for an adverse reaction but… we did not expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be.”
The argument made at the time by some senior British military officials was that Nato forces needed to take on the south; to leave it alone would leave the Taliban with a zone in which they could operate without hindrance, just what the campaign had set out to deny them. Senior British military officials also argued that there was a need to pull back US attention from Iraq—and to demonstrate, after the humiliations of Iraq, that the UK was a valuable and competent military ally for the US. American military criticism had become openly scathing; “I don’t know that you could see the British withdrawal from Basra in 2007 in any light other than a defeat,” was one comment, from Colonel Peter Mansoor, Executive Officer to General David Petraeus, then US commander in Iraq.
But a desire to “do something about the south” does not explain why Britain had to take on Helmand alone and why there was not a more thorough assessment of the strength likely to be needed. “We thought we could do Helmand with 3,000 soldiers, and the Americans later showed that even 30,000 wasn’t enough,” says one British former official.
The decision to go in was compounded by other misjudgements. Britain pushed for the removal of the province’s Governor, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, because of apparent links with the drugs trade, but his replacement, Mohammed Daoud, lacked tribal influence. For his own reasons, Daoud encouraged British forces to adopt vulnerable “forward operating bases” in the north of the province. British planning, government briefings showed clearly, was also suffused with the notion of invaluable skills supposedly acquired through historical experience. The FCO gave many enthusiastic briefings on “ink blot tactics”—building on small pockets of success—by which, officials confidently asserted, Britain had succeded in the 1950s Malay campaign. Equally, there were claims that Northern Ireland had equipped the British army with a special skill in “counter-insurgency”—which it could now teach American forces.
Reid, who says the crucial decisions came after he was redeployed to the Home Office, puts some blame on those who fell for the exhortations of Daoud, such as setting up a forward operating base at Sangin. As he told the Commons committee: “You can imagine that when, five weeks later, sitting in the Home Office, I heard that we were fighting for our lives in Sangin, I could not entirely understand it.”
The committee concluded: “We are concerned that the Ministry of Defence did not anticipate that the presence of the armed forces in Helmand might stir up a hornet’s nest especially as much of the intelligence was contradictory.” It added: “We believe that such concerns as were raised by the armed forces were inadequate at best and that they were not raised, as they should have been, to the very highest levels of government”.
Question 4: What has the conflict cost the UK?
One Conservative MP, on a parliamentary trip to Camp Bastion in Helmand, looking out over the roads, the low apartment blocks, warehouses, shops, and one of the most successful surgical emergency hospitals in the world, said: “Who told us, who asked us, when they set out to build this?” Camp Bastion, which holds 28,000 people and covers an area the size of Reading, (and is named after the type of sandbag used to form blockades) is a town within a fortress, not a camp.
Defence accounting is opaque at the best of times, and in contrast to the US, the Ministry of Defence has not been forthcoming with the costs, claiming, in some cases that it does not have the full figures (such as for the future cost of supporting injured soldiers once they have left the services, or the use of equipment that will not be directly replaced). The MoD’s figure for the direct military costs to Britain so far, up to the spring of 2013, is £19.4bn (compared to its figure of £8.3bn direct military costs of the Iraq conflict, within a total cost to Britain of that war of just over £9bn).
However, many estimates reckon that the total costs to Britain of Afghanistan are much higher. Frank Ledwidge, a former military intelligence officer, who has published two detailed books on the mistakes and costs of the war to Britain, suggests higher figures, now widely quoted and regarded as plausible. He argues that the total military costs by the time of the exit at the end of next year could reasonably be estimated at £31.1bn, particularly if the cost of maintaining a larger army than would otherwise be needed is added in. In addition, he reckons, the cost of death and injury to forces, even taking a very conservative approach, could be £3.8bn more. The total of development spending by the FCO and the Department for International Development is a further £2.1bn. His total of the direct costs to Britain, therefore, is more than £37 billion. That fits with one informal estimate by a Treasury official that at the high point Britain was spending about £6bn a year.
Question 5: What have we achieved in Afghanistan?
“We arrived with one of the narrowest mandates you can think of—to prevent Afghanistan being a haven for terrorism,” says one FCO official. “We ended with a massively complex set of goals—a distortion of how Afghanistan itself worked.” He added: “Police, army, courts, education—you name it, we were trying to reform it.”
The mission was dogged from the start by a proliferation of goals. That was a reflection of Blair’s anxiousness to provide justification, and the US’s twin aims of retribution and nation-building—a cause to which the Blair team and Britain’s development lobby were initially very receptive. “We thought we were good at it,” says one former official. “We really did think we could remake Helmand.” Blair and his officials at different times proferred the following justifications for entering the conflict (as well as supporting the US and wiping out the drugs trade): to avenge Britons killed on 9/11; to destroy al Qaeda; to defeat the Taliban; to protect Britain from future terrorist attacks; to build a new democracy; to improve education and women’s rights.
The international effort has had the most success in the most clearly-defined goal: defeating al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in 2011, and al Qaeda cannot easily use Afghanistan as a base. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is believed to have plotted 9/11 and now runs the group, is said by Pakistani intelligence officials to have fewer than 100 operatives at his disposal; others add that al Qaeda is losing out to newer groups in attracting recruits. However, western intelligence believes that Zawahiri directed Nasir al-Wuhayshi, founder of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to plan the recent attacks which, when detected in advance, caused the closure of 21 US embassies and consulates across the Middle East in late July and early August. That is evidence of the growing strength of the group’s Arab affiliates, especially in Yemen, which could become its headquarters if the Taliban is contained or diminished in an Afghan settlement.
The second goal of overthrowing the Taliban has also been achieved, although they are clearly not defeated and no peace settlement is now possible without them. Few expect them to regain their pre-2001 control of Kabul or the country at large, but they have good hopes of strengthening their hold on the Pashtun south, and in the spells when military attacks have driven them from the south they have made inroads to the north, where they had no presence before 2001.
However, other goals have now been set aside or downgraded. Democracy? President Hamid Karzai effectively rigged the October 2009 election; this summer there have been loud calls for him to postpone the elections due next spring, either from his supporters who want him to stand for a third term although the constitution forbids it, or from people warning of Taliban intimidation of those with voting cards. This emphasises that security, outside the heavily fortified zones of the capital and a few other areas, is often non-existent, although the Afghan National Army is now performing far better than many observers had privately feared—and suffering considerable casualties. “The insurgency is as strong as ever,” said one former official, even if it is no longer reflected in Nato casualties, and so is less represented in western media. Yet if Nato leaves in 2015 with no elections scheduled, or with Karzai reinstated, it would make a mockery of the attempt to install a democratic government.
It is an understatement to say that relations with Karzai are poor; “it is hard to remember that we thought he was a good guy,” says one US official, when he stood in the balcony of the US Capitol in January 2002 to receive a standing ovation. He is determined, it seems, to be seen as the father of Afghanistan, not a puppet of the Americans; President Barack Obama had to call him earlier this summer, according to a senior British official, and remind him that he needed the US security forces more than the US needed them to be there, and that he should stop obstructing the agreement about whether some will remain after 2014. His recent demand that the US pay to take home military kit provoked uproar on Capitol Hill and a move to suspend US aid after 2014.
Other goals, such as education and women’s rights, have been downgraded, although there has undeniably been progress. Under the Taliban, only about 1.2m young Afghans were in school, 50,000 of them girls, out of a population estimated to be about 28m. Now, there are more than 6m young Afghans in school (the Kabul government quotes about 10m but western diplomats disagree); more than a third of those in primary school are girls. There are women in parliament, on television and in the health ministry. “There is a new educated, urbanised generation which didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says one official—although some with experience of the Soviet occupation argue that the Russians did at least as much, pointing to the hundreds of thousands they set out to train.
However the goal of a significant change in women’s rights, cherished by Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, has largely been surrendered with regret, in the face of resistance from a profoundly entrenched culture, particularly in the Pashtun south. The question is whether even the slender gains that have been achieved will last. Others warn, too, of the sheer disruptive shock of the past 12 years to Afghans. An estimated 12,000 of them have been killed—some put the figure much higher—and, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, half a million have left their homes since the US invasion, while the population of Kabul has soared from 2m in 2001 to 5m now, partly by those displaced.
Most important, perhaps, for the future, is the patchiness of economic development, despite the building of schools, hospitals, roads and a mobile phone network and some successful local projects in job creation. Analysts say that the US has put about $80bn into development, but that much has disappeared into security and defence. True, there are some striking successes; the central province of Bamiyan, largely populated by the Shia Hazaras, who were persecuted by the Sunni Taliban, has flourished, and has been particularly active in opening more schools. Kabul has the trappings of development, with dozens of international flights a week, newish cars, and mobile phones in evidence everywhere. Economic growth reached an estimated 11.8 per cent in 2011; tax revenues have risen steadily.
But Afghanistan cannot support itself without huge, constant injections of foreign aid. A confidential (but leaked) International Monetary Fund report in the spring said that recent improvements were faltering. It added that the government this year was failing to reach even the target of covering 40 per cent of its
annual non-security spending of about $5bn, because of “widespread tax evasion abetted by government officials, the increasing theft of customs revenues by provincial governors and softening economic growth,” as the New York Times put it. To take the most pressing example, estimates of the cost of maintaining the Afghan army range from $8bn a year, if kept at its projected size of 352,000 according to a former US official in Kabul, to half that figure for a smaller force—but the country cannot at present support either sum.
Meanwhile, rights to the country’s wealth in mineral reserves assets have been sold at prices that some regard as far too low. In 2007, the Chinese Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Company bought a 30-year lease on the copper deposits at Mes Aynak for $3bn; they reckoned that the valley held perhaps $100bn worth of copper, “possibly the largest such deposit in the world and potentially worth around five times the estimated value of Afghanistan’s entire economy,” according to author William Dalrymple.
Diplomats bravely sketch out a more upbeat possible future, in which Afghanistan develops its gas reserves and makes it attractive for foreign investors to develop minerals, but in a way that retains some value in the country, while farmers learn how to add value to their excellent agricultural products (other than opium). But they all point out that “this now depends on the Afghans.”
This leaves other countries with a difficult dilemma. Pledges of aid run only to 2016 and are dependent on progress against corruption; pledges of security assistance run only to 2018. Yet if these are cut off, the state cannot function.
The example of the Najibullah government, installed by the Soviets, which crumbled three years after the Russian money ended, is not entirely discouraging. Sherard Cowper-Coles argued recently that “when the last soldier of the Soviet 40th Army marched back into the Soviet Union over the River Oxus on 20th February 1989, the Russians left behind a regime which not only survived but also succeeded in defeating the insurgency which the Americans and British were continuing to support. It collapsed only when, in 1992, the Soviet Union itself collapsed, ending the external subsidy on which every Afghan government in modern times has depended.”
The international community is committed to trying to preserve some gains. But the slenderness of those gains, and the difficulty of working with Karzai, means that commitment is in doubt.
The fear is not that without foreign support, the Taliban will capture Kabul again but, more likely, that the army and the country will split into ethnic factions. Each would then find an easy ally in a neighbouring country: Pakistan might step up its support for the Taliban, and Russia and Iran (and India) support the Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north. As William Patey, former Ambassador to Kabul, puts it: “There is no guarantee that more money will buy success, but what is certain is that without more, it will all turn to something very bad.”
There are many lessons that the UK should learn. One is “that we should think much more carefully about getting involved in other people’s countries,” said one official, and that if we do “we need to be much more rooted in how that society works—we tried to import too many ideas we thought attractive, sitting in 21st-century Europe or America. We need to be very careful about creating a culture of dependency on aid, and much clearer about what foreign intervention is supposed to achieve.”
There are also lessons about the limits on Britain’s military capability, which should not be set aside just because the government is in the process of cutting the armed forces and there is little public support for any future conflict. In Afghanistan, even more than Iraq, Britain’s mistakes stemmed from a culture of gung-ho grandiosity about national capabilities as well as anxiety about the erosion of its standing in the world. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and some of Britain’s top generals (although not all) seized the conflict as an arena in which to restore a reputation left shredded by the retreat from Iraq, and a relationship with the US which was diminished as a result. “Our biggest mistake was not to be tougher with the Americans—to say ‘If you want us to go on with this, you have to put in place a serious political strategy,’” said one official.
Despite David Cameron’s rebuttal of General Carter’s remarks this summer, that is a point the Prime Minister appears to have embraced—and to have made at least twice to Obama. That conclusion—that military effort without a political framework was futile—appears to have underpinned his decision to bring troops home in 2014.
But this exit should not be the excuse to brush aside the biggest miscalculation and outright failure in British foreign policy since Suez. It was worse than that in Iraq, which prompted two parliamentary investigations: the Butler Review into the faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, and the Chilcot Inquiry into lessons learned from the conflict. The lessons of Afghanistan are even broader: they extend from military planning through aid to every part of Britain’s role in the world. That is the justification now for a thorough parliamentary inquiry which asks, above all: what did we think we were doing, and why did it go so wrong?