An Army Officer writes …

Reaction is coming in to some of the points raised in the joint piece I wrote with Andrew Mackay (now a retired Major General but former commander of Task Force Helmand), posted on the Channel 4 New website, and also here.

musaqala 08 14One quite senior person (like everyone, nameless for obvious reasons,) disagrees strongly with the point advocating the abolitin of the UK’s six-months tours. He says they are by far the best thing for soldiers in combat, and not least of which by far the best way to avoid PTSD, according to academic research. (Am looking into that). Also senior people are starting to do one year tours like the Americans.

The senior officer added:  “The key is your first point: political will is key. This is a war and if you want to succeed you had better do it properly!”

All I would add here is that no-one is suggesting long tours for combat troops. But what doesn’t make sense is the endless revolving door headquarters (and the nonsense that you can get to grips with a place like Helmand in six months). I hear plenty of voices suggesting that a Northern Ireland system of a permanent headquarters seems to make more sense. Those doing staff jobs aren’t in the same boat as those in the line of gunfire. A straw poll of  Army officers also indicates alot of dissatisifaction that although the UK military is supposed to be on an ‘operational footing’ there is little evidence of that in practice.  Mst people come back and do pretty irrelevant jobs after war tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. It hardly seems the career structure is geared towards winning.

Another officer in the ‘thick of it’ writes in some detail. He was commenting on a slightly earlier draft, so some of his points were already taken on board.

But, as he writes, “it’s too easy to produce a shopping list of cockups thus far, and without addressing the why and how we got here, it risks the easy option of ‘everyone before was incompetent – now its time for a new broom’.  With this approach, all current stakeholders become defensive, and will entrench to protect their reputations and narratives (CDS, senior MOD, DFID, FCO etc).  Therefore acknowledgement of context up front may be of use: Difficulty in maintaining a coherent internationalist approach with the distraction of Iraq from 2003-2009, a unilateralist US administration and a paralysed UK political machine. Also – we all need to recognise the limits of what UK plc can achieve – we are junior partners to a US led coalition campaign. And the reality is that (General Stan) McChrystal needs to demonstrate delivery to President Obama and the US Congress before the Democrats get punished for remaining bogged down in Afghan before the Mid-Terms in Nov.  Hence real pressure to deliver in Marjah, and growing concern at  how Kandahar will play out.  The limitations of the military instrument are stark set against the most complex Afgh tribal/criminal/governance/insurgence/spiritual Gordian knot!”

Re the demand for strong unified strategic leadership, he asks: “Isn’t this happening now under McC, as the NATO proconsul, and (the UK’s Mark) Sedwill as his civil equivalent?  And surely the real ‘sensible end to the war’ is owned by the GOvernment of Afghnistan delivering better security, and not disenfranchising southern pushtuns by its own corruption? This lends itself more to an embedded mentorship ‘management consultancy’ role for the West to build capacity, rather than a single Caesar.”

And adds “…. the quality control of command appointments is nothing without home base political support, and adequate resourcing.  UK %GDP on Defence remains at interwar period/Crimean levels…lessons from history are clear.: si vis pacem para bellum!”

The point we are making in the piece has been the absence of a joined up UK political approach, or even simple attention by political classes. That’s been the missing piece.

On suggested reforms of the Army, he writes.

“This is entirely fair, but if we adapt now for Afghan, we’ll still be preparing for the last war, and not the next one.  It is the height of indulgence – and the Western Miliaries recurring sin – that Commanders have the right to choose the war they want to fight.  If we’d been adapting since the end of CW, we’d have seen and neutralised AQ before they got off the ground by conducting full spectrum capacity-building/int led CT ops/Civ Mil high prestige ‘narrative captor ops’ to secure political and reputational depth.  Conflict reflects its era, and we now (and ever more) will need to be ‘more than soldiers’.  ”

And on our somewhat cheeky demand for a  ‘cull’ of those in the command chain.

“Totally with you on this – but see my initial comments – who will buy into this? What politico has the experience and credibility to argue with senior mil? Todays political class are by and large professional shmoozers who have started as SPADs, then minced about the PR/Media/Comms/lobbying circus before collecting their patronage and supporting the machine.  The more high profile ex-mil MPs have burned their reputations by being mavericks (Patrick Mercer etc) – and were also fairly junior.  Show me today’s Eisenhower who has succeeded in both Mil and Pol fields.  But you’re right to highlight our staid, entrenched senior leaders (who spent 20 years guarding golf courses in Germany to get to the top!).

“The answer (I think) is some form of 360 degree reporting, to genuinely identify the stars of the future (like me!).  But to work, it would need to guarantee anonymity – which is not FOI/open reporting/employment law compatible.”

On the points about strategy, we argued for the need to ‘give attention, not necessarily more resources’, suggesting the point was to achieve maximum effect with the resources available and there was no point sending in an influx of new troops if ground commanders spread them out too thinly.

My correpondent writes: “This conflates multiple issues.  TFH was always under-resourced – but particularly when Ed Butler chose to ‘support Daoud’ (ie chase a DSO) rather than comply with John Reid’s intent of a low impact security bubble around Lash to enable development…and thus ink-spots.  The real issue here is the lost art of command at senior levels, and investing too much pressure/responsibility onto too small forces .  Helmand should always have been a Div/Corps task – but we’re too small – resources again.

We obviously don’t agree on anything – but interesting to hear an obviously well thought-out point of view from an ‘insider’. Apologies for a bit of summarising going on here. (PS: I strongly disagree with point re Ed Butler; there is certainly a lot to debate in hindsight on the tactical front, but believe his motives were are  100 per cent on the mark.)

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