As July draws to a close, the deaths of nine British soldiers killed in Helmand this month have brought the question of the Afghanistan campaign into the centre of public debate. The deaths have precipitated extensive coverage in the media. Politicians and, perhaps, the public finally seem to be recognising the level of commitment Helmand demands. That realisation is to be welcomed. However, almost exclusively, the discussions about the campaign have focused on equipment, more specifically, on transport.
Continuing a long-standing theme from Iraq, the focus has been on the inadequate protection of land vehicles, especially the Snatch Land Rover, and the related lack of helicopters. The lack of aviation has always been a concern in Helmand, and the increased improvised explosive devices (IED) threat has added force to the argument that British troops need to reduce their vulnerability on the ground. And, at the same time, commanders have called for more troops.
It is undoubtedly true that more British troops are required. It also seems unarguable that the lack of helicopters, especially for re-supplying troops in the various Forward Operating Bases (see this map), is a serious problem. However, rectifying these shortages will not remedy a campaign that some already see as failing.
The success of the American surge in Iraq under General Petraeus was not wholly, or even mainly, due to a mere increase in troop numbers. On the contrary, the Bush administration agreed to the release of more troops because Petraeus had a credible and cogent plan for Iraq. By contrast, the British strategy for Helmand is notably absent of new thinking and a clear plan.
Since 2006, British commanders have chosen to disperse their forces across the province into small, isolated platoon and company Forward Operating Bases. The result is that even in the Sangin Valley (around the town where most British soldiers have been recently killed) where there are several significant positions, the British bases cannot mutually support each other; they are too far apart. British commanders there note that troops in these locations sit in a bubble. British forces have lacked the troops in any one location to dominate the area. Consequently, they have not been able, in American language, to ‘clear and hold’
a location in order to stabilise the situation.
The daily but inconclusive fire fights with the Taliban are evidence of this inability to dominate any one location. Up to now, increased troop levels have been used merely to reinforce this failing strategy of dispersal. Troops have been used merely to strengthen existing bases (but not in sufficient numbers to dominate an area) or to man new isolated bases.
It is not easy to identify the precise institutional causes of this predilection for dispersal, although it is deeply seated in British operational practice at the moment and was very evident in Basra. The fact that British troops rarely train in any grouping larger than 100 seems relevant here; professional expectations have been developed in training, which seem to be recurrently enacted on operations. It also seems plausible that the ‘war-fighting ethos’, central to British military culture, and in enshrined doctrine may encourage company- (small military unit) level tactics.
For all their avowed skill at counter-insurgency as a result of Northern Ireland, the British still prioritise conventional, high-intensity fighting. The company (a group of around 100-200 men) is the prime unit for conventional offensive tactical activity, and the Helmand campaign has been designed around it. The numerous successful battles which British companies have conducted (and the large number of Taliban they have undoubtedly killed in them) has then been taken as vindication, not only of the campaign strategy, but also of the very professional status of British officers and troops.
Ironically, in previous campaigns, the British recognised that the key to success in counter-insurgency was not that, but rather concentration and the slow suppression of insurgency by the presence of overwhelming force. Thus, in Malaya, Templar developed the ink-spot strategy. Instead of trying to secure the whole country poorly, limited numbers of British troops focused exclusively on the decisive areas they knew they could hold. They concentrated their forces there, obstructing Communist guerrillas from infiltrating and intimidating the population. This way, they could never challenge the British.
Gradually, by securing the population in these small areas, the British were able to gain more and more intelligence on the guerrillas, until they were able to undermine their effectiveness. While the Americans learnt this lesson in Iraq – Petraeus famously declaring that this was a fight to which you could not commute – the British have forgotten their history. They may not be commuting to the fight but there are never enough soldiers in any one place to win it.
In order to justify the increased investment in terms of equipment and troops, which are both likely to follow the current campaign, British commanders need to remember the past. They need to develop a genuine campaign plan for Helmand which finally creates the ink-spots of which they initially spoke in 2006 but which they failed to implement. Since it will be very hard to withdraw from established bases in Helmand, such a concentration of forces – around Gereshk and Lashkar Gar – will be very difficult to achieve without serious military and political consequences. However, it is difficult to see how the reinforcement of a failing strategy can work – the Americans tried such an approach in Vietnam.
There is a further risk for the British armed forces beginning to materialise. The US has just deployed 4,000 better equipped and supported troops to the region. There is a worrying possibility that, as in Basra, the Americans might interpret their actions as once again saving an incompetent British military from itself. Such a situation would be disastrous for the armed forces. What the British public and politicians should demand from military commanders is a plan. They then need to support it by providing the money and resources necessary to sustain it.