From The Sunday Times September 6, 2009
By Stephen Grey

THE Ministry of Defence has suppressed a report which warned that British troops are facing “strategic defeat” in Afghanistan.

The decision to block publication of the critical academic paper in the army’s in-house journal coincides with a scathing attack by a senior US military officer on the “arrogance” of UK tactics in Iraq.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, who worked closely with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq until a year ago, said Britain’s political and military leaders had “abdicated responsibility” in Basra by failing to protect local people.

Mansoor’s comments are made in the latest edition of the British Army Review which demands the “brutal truth” about the UK’s shortcomings in guerrilla warfare.

Sir David Richards, the new head of the army, favours a public debate so that lessons can be learnt from previous military mistakes.

However, critics believe that mandarins at the MoD have deliberately been less open to spare the blushes of politicians.

Last Friday Gordon Brown, insisted that Britain’s aims in Afghanistan were “realistic and achievable”, contrary to the warnings of Eric Joyce, who resigned as ministerial aide to Bob Ainsworth, the defence secretary.

“The line from Whitehall is that it’s okay to talk about mistakes in Iraq but not helpful to reveal errors in Afghanistan,” said a senior army officer.

“Attempts to censor debate to limit short-term embarrassment for ministers . . . loses wars and gets soldiers killed.”

Although they allowed Mansoor’s article to be used by the British Army Review, defence officials vetted the publication line by line, watered down the editorial and banned three other pieces. One of these was a paper written by David Betz and Anthony Cormack, two academics at the department of war studies at King’s College London, who had extensive access to the military.

In their paper, which had already appeared in an American journal, they predicted Britain would pull out in failure from Basra earlier this year and faced looming defeat in Helmand, Afghanistan.

They wrote: “The plain fact of the matter is that, at the time of writing, it seems entirely possible that Britain will suffer what amounts to a strategic defeat in both its ongoing counter-insurgency campaigns.”

The academics argued that the army has been undermined in Afghanistan because “defence reforms” have geared it up to take part in large-scale battles rather than guerrilla warfare.

Ultimately, they blamed failures to date on the government’s lukewarm commitment and unwillingness to provide sufficient resources.

Betz said he was “disappointed” by the article’s exclusion. “It’s important to learn lessons from Iraq but even more important to learn lessons from what’s happening in Afghanistan and apply them fast while there is still an opportunity of changing things,” he said.

Such views are shared by Richards, who took over leadership of the British Army at the end of August.

General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in overall charge of allied troops in Afghanistan, has indicated that the military strategy needs to be overhauled. He believes that greater emphasis should be placed on protecting the population and winning hearts and minds rather than killing Taliban insurgents.

It is precisely these tactics that the British Army failed to heed in southern Iraq, according to Mansoor, a retired former chief-of-staff to Petraeus. American forces, by contrast, were able to adapt their strategy, building on their experience on fighting insurgents in Vietnam.

At the end of 2007, British troops completely pulled out of Basra city and tried to cut ill-conceived deals with Shi’ite leaders to maintain the peace.

Mansoor writes: “Rather than protecting the Iraqi people in Basra and thereby insulating them from militia violence and intimidation, British political and military leaders had abdicated responsibility for their security — the exact opposite of what was happening in Baghdad and elsewhere, as US forces were moving off their large forward operating bases to position themselves among the Iraqi people where they lived.”

Failure in Basra was not due to the conduct of British troops, “which was exemplary”, says Mansoor, but rather to “a failure by senior British civilian and military leaders to understand the political dynamics at play in Iraq, compounded by arrogance that led to an unwillingness to learn and adapt”.

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