The UK Comprehensive Approach in Afghanistan: a parody of reality?

I gave evidence to the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee on 30th June, 2009. Extracts based on uncorrected transcript:

“…we owe it to all those that are sacrificing themselves in Helmand, to be brutally frank about what is going on there and what is going wrong, because it is only with that frankness that I think certain things can be put right. From the perspective of those on the ground, I think the Comprehensive Approach has largely been a parody of reality. In some ways the failure to get that right has done as much to stir up conflict and cause what is happening as it has to bring peace to Afghanistan, which surely is the ultimate objective there.”

“…the impression you get from very senior people within the military is that they are confronted with other departments who have no genuine belief in the value of this conflict; there is a sense in which they are not sure there is a real will to win.”

Attached here is a copy of the full uncorrected transcript of my part of the evidence in full.

A Lack of Cover

The deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan are not being given prominence in the press because the MoD is restricting access to conflict zones, making truth a casualty of war, says frontline correspondent Stephen Grey

* Stephen Grey
* The Guardian, Monday 15 June 2009


New York Times photographer Tomas Munita at work in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, on a mission with US troops. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Thirteen British soldiers died last month in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Their deaths were reported, for the most part, in small paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers. Why? Because journalists find it almost impossible to reach and report from the frontline of the conflict. When the Royal Marines launched a fierce hand-to-hand battle last Christmas in the muddy poppy fields of central Helmand, four soldiers died – but the only news that escaped was a press release from the Ministry of Defence.

As in so many wars, truth seems to be the first casualty of this conflict. There has been a devastating breakdown of relations between many defence correspondents and officialdom, journalists say. “Dealing with the Ministry of Defence is genuinely more stressful than coming under fire,” says the Telegraph’s defence correspondent, Thomas Harding. “We have been lied to and we have been censored.” Continue reading A Lack of Cover

Jonno the Brave


More than 150 British service personnel have died in Afghanistan. Like many of them, Sergeant Lee Johnson was just a name until Stephen Grey – who witnessed his death – uncovered his profoundly moving story

B Company of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) was formed up and ready for action. The officer commanding approached and reviewed his men. “Permission to have a go, sir?” asked Corporal Carl Peterson.
“I don’t think so, lads,” said the OC. “Not tonight.”
They were, after all, in Blackpool.
Major Jason Alexis Little, 36, had a twinkle in his eyes. He had known some of these men for nearly 16 years. He had grown up with them. They all addressed him formally as “sir”, but for the seniors among them he was simply Jake and he was one of them.
He probably knew Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson the best. Jonno was the reason they were all standing outside the Walkabout club in Queen Street, Blackpool, in early September 2007. The bouncers had just evicted him for being drunk, not to mention for wearing flip-flops. Jake had gone out to remonstrate. If Jonno was a little drunk, as most were that night, then he was a happy drunk and no cause for worry.
The rest of the company had followed Jake out and that was why they were lined up for action. Jonno was something of a legend in the regiment and not always for the best of reasons. As a boxer and army judo champion, his nicknames varied from “Judo Johnson” to “Mad Dog Johnson”. Every man with something to prove wanted to take on Jonno and it invariably ended up in big trouble.
When Jake had joined B Company as a green young subaltern, Jonno had seen himself as his protector. If they were in a club and someone started to pick a fight with Jake, he would come steaming to the rescue. Although they were poles apart in many ways, everyone remembered them as very close.
While Jake had been steadily promoted, Jonno had moved up the ranks and been busted down again more times than anyone could remember. It had taken him until he was 33 to realise he was a good soldier, a born leader. Everyone in the regiment was proud of what he had become. But even as he achieved self-belief he became convinced that he was about to die. Continue reading Jonno the Brave

Officers attack 'MoD muddle'

From The Sunday Times
March 22, 2009
by Tony Allen-Mills

SENIOR British Army commanders have denounced the government’s strategy in Afghanistan as a “constant muddling through” that has resulted in a “failing” approach to defeating the Taliban after three years of bloody confrontation.
In a series of outspoken interviews, several high-ranking officers who commanded British troops in Helmand province express anger and frustration at what one brigadier described as “making it up as we go along”.
Brigadier Andrew Mackay, who commanded Helmand’s Nato forces for six months last winter, claimed a British failure to deliver economic development or reconstruction for ordinary Afghans meant that “one of the central tenets of counter-insurgency doctrine is failing”.
Major Nick Haston, who was Mackay’s deputy chief of staff, revealed he had resigned from the army in protest at bureaucratic incompetence. He said troops had been so short of vital equipment that his staff bought spares on the internet. “I would say that some of the people that procure (equipment) in our Ministry of Defence haven’t a clue,” said Haston. Continue reading Officers attack 'MoD muddle'

Understanding the Taliban

Stephen Grey
First published 24 April 2008 in the New Statesman

Rethinking the war in Helmand has made the British army revise some of its basic assumptions. Working with “reconciled” Taliban commanders is part of that new strategy

There is a popular slogan seen stencilled on American gun trucks: “We do bad things to bad people.” Prince Harry had those words on the back of his cap. In the Afghanistan War, the difficulty is working out who those bad people are. An even tougher question is: which of them to kill, and which to put in positions of power and authority?
Winning the war here is not for the squeamish, and a long way from the “ethical foreign policy” of early new Labour. It all boils down to dealing with those bad men. Some of them are already our allies. Others, including men who are currently trying to kill our soldiers, will have a place as our future allies. As one intelligence officer said to me: “In this country, you get to power because, at one stage or another, you’ve done something really awful. You can’t waste time looking for the good guys.”
He was probably exaggerating. But you can still see the problem in Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold and opium bazaar, wrested back into coalition and government hands last December. I was present during that combat operation and watched as the Afghan flag was raised in the town centre. I have just returned from a trip back. Continue reading Understanding the Taliban

Band of brothers in vigil for fallen Lee 'Jonno' Johnson

First published in Sunday Times.

THE men of B Company gathered in whispers on the hilltop, helmeted silhouettes against a tapestry of stars.

Tonight, until first light, they would take turns at sentry duty � “stag”, as they call it � protecting the body of their fallen comrade. He was lying in our armoured vehicle. No helicopter was available that night to fly him home.

Major Jake Little, 36, the officer commanding, knew that emotions were running high. That morning, in front of us all, Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson, one of the company’s best-loved soldiers, had been killed by a mine. His death came only hours after an afternoon of fierce fighting with the Taliban. Many felt they had just cheated death.

Little, his stubbled face weary with emotion, dug deep to find the right words. “I’m s*** at this,” he confessed to the men. He spoke of the gap Jonno would leave behind and how he had died doing what he loved. “Jonno would have been proud of each and every one of you,” he said.

“It’s a hard thing to be spending the night here with Jonno,” one highly experienced soldier said. “The men are quite bitter that they couldn’t find a helicopter for him.” Continue reading Band of brothers in vigil for fallen Lee 'Jonno' Johnson

Terror on road to Taliban stronghold

From The Sunday Times, December 9, 2007

Stephen Grey in Musa Qala, Helmand

First there was a loud bang; then we were enveloped in dust that descended like a shroud. “Mortars!” someone shouted.

In a panic, we scrambled for the relative shelter of our vehicle on a hill opposite Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold under siege this weekend by Nato and Afghan forces, and dived inside.

Sand thrown up by the explosion swirled through the hatches and we reached for our helmets, keeping low in case of incoming fire.

Only when the dust had settled was the horror revealed: the blast had been caused not by a mortar, but by a mine that had been detonated when a British vehicle passed over it. One of the men with whom we were travelling was killed and two others wounded. The dead man’s next of kin were informed last night.

It happened as a British convoy passed along a wadi – a dried-out watercourse – in the desert near Musa Qala. We were standing at the top of the pass and stretching our legs as we waited for troops to recover an Afghan army truck that had got stuck in the sand 25 yards away.

The mine, probably one left by Soviet occupiers in the 1980s, exploded as the British vehicles steered past the truck.

Helplessly, we watched as British and US medics crawled across the Afghan truck to retrieve the casualties from their vehicle, its armour plating twisted by the force of the blast. Continue reading Terror on road to Taliban stronghold

Abandoned by Britain, the interpreter fleeing from Iraqi death squads

By STEPHEN GREY – first published Mail on Sunday on 11th November 2007

A senior British Army officer has hit out at the lack of protection given to his former translator after the man was forced to go on the run when Iraqi insurgents murdered his brother-in-law and kidnapped his wife.

He says the Iraqi interpreter, who also worked for the Foreign Office, was turned away by British officials and told: “Make your own way to safety.”

Last night, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, who was head of the Army’s legal service in Iraq, said Britain had an obligation to help Haider Samad.

He said: “We owe this man an enormous debt – we can’t abandon him and his family.”

Lt Col Mercer said Samad had been crucial to his work in establishing law and order after the British took over in southern Iraq. “We couldn’t have done it without him,” he said.

The news comes despite Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s promise to protect former employees of UK Forces in Iraq and allow them to settle in Britain. Continue reading Abandoned by Britain, the interpreter fleeing from Iraqi death squads