Helmand: anatomy of a disaster?

Published on Afpak Channel. By Stephen Grey, June 15, 2010

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills takes over command of Helmand – Afghanistan’s most violent province — from the British this week, Britain’s Conservative-led government of David Cameron is busy in London wrestling with the question: just what has been going wrong?

The shake-up of NATO command structures in Afghanistan — which spins off a new divisional headquarters, Regional Command South West — from the British-led Regional Command South in Kandahar, now places almost all of Britain’s combat troops in Afghanistan rather uneasily under the leadership of an American.

With a force now of nearly 10,000, the Brits have been fighting in Helmand since the summer of 2006 and lost more than 290 troops. While it is perilous to consider the province’s woes in isolation from the entire country’s downward spiral, there is a need to ask why things have gone particularly badly in Helmand.

For the British, it is a matter of national reputation. Not is only is there a small matter of the British Empire’s three previous Afghan wars thought (wrongly, as it happens) to have been disastrous failures. There is also the widespread view, shared by a majority of the British Army itself, that the U.K. tarnished its reputation for counterinsurgency operations by getting wrong its campaign in Basra, Iraq, and requiring an embarrassing bail-out by the Americans in Operation Charge of the Knights in 2008.

Is Helmand another case of waiting for the Yanks to come?

Continue reading Helmand: anatomy of a disaster?

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. Continue reading An Army Officer writes …

A ten point agenda on Afghanistan


Exclusive: As David Cameron gathers experts and ministers for “secret” Afghan talks, former Helmand commander Andrew Mackay and Operation Snakebite author Stephen Grey set out 10 key points for the PM’s agenda.

As the new prime minister, David Cameron now has an historic opportunity to engage in a fresh and innovative reassessment of the mission in Afghanistan. Today he will hold a Chequers summit of his National Security Council about the UK’s strategy in Afghanistan. It comes as the United States takes control of about 8,000 British troops in Helmand Province as part of a Nato restructuring.

We believe success in Afghanistan will be dependant on a) a coherent relationship with the US b) an agreed strategy within Nato clearly communicated to the public, c) an agreed approach to address the weakness of government in Afghanistan and d) a root and branch re-examination over the coming months into the contribution made on the diplomatic, military and development fronts by the UK in support of the Afghanistan mission.

Officials, diplomats and generals have often made a habit of telling politicians what they want to hear, rather than the candid truth about why we have failed to make the necessary progress in Afghanistan and why we have betrayed thus far the great sacrifices made by Britain’s armed forces.

Ahead of Cameron’s Afghanistan “shura” at Chequers, we offer some suggestions in the following 10-point agenda. It is based on our own experiences and conversations with those at the frontline of this conflict, whether inside or outside the military.

If he exercises too much caution in altering course, it will be time to start planning Nato’s exit and preparing for the consequences.


1) Leadership and will

Without UK “political will” all is lost; with it everything is possible. It has been an absent commodity for too long and we have been content to muddle through. The country is at war and requires wartime strategic political leadership that unifies the diplomatic, military and development objectives.

Continue reading A ten point agenda on Afghanistan

Just Cause: Unjust Means

Straying from reporting to comment, I gave a talk recently at King’s College, London, on the question: Is the Afghanistan a Just War? My reply was qualified:

that the cause  itself was right, but the way the war has been conducted since 2001 was very wrong..

“I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.”


US Marines in Khan Newshin



Ladies and Gentleman, It is honour to speak here tonight and share the platform with an eminent speaker.  I returned from Afghanistan last night and a spell with US troops just outside Kandahar. I haven’t brought back a message of gloom.  I agree the cause for intervention in this country is a just one, even if wrongly described by our government. But I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.

Before I get to that, let me declare my prejudices. You haven’t invited me to talk theology. But, as the son of a Catholic theologian, I’m not entirely neutral on the question of the so-called ‘just war.’  Suffice to say, I’m not fan of holy war – whether Islamic jihad or Christian jihad.

To me war is an evil, a monstrous act that reflects our own weakness in failing to conceive so far a peaceful alternative. That doesn’t mean that soldiers in Afghanistan or voters like us who sent them there should be wracked by guilt or be ashamed of what we’re doing. I just don’t think you should look to God for re-assurance. Christian religion is there to look for and articulate the alternatives to war – not to bless the killing.

Continue reading Just Cause: Unjust Means

Mystery over ‘closure’ of defence ministry’s ‘brains trust’

TB Peacekeepers_barracks_Ossetia_2008

IT most famously predicted the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and had a team of multi-lingual analysts dedicated to the study of future threats to security across the globe, and new ways of solving them.

But, strangely, to save 1.5m the UK’s Ministry of Defence has decided to close the Army Research & Assessment Branch, (more recently called the Defence and Assessments Branch, the D&AB), and which traces its history back over 50 years. Or has it? While sources close to the unit contact me to complain the 30-strong team has received its marching orders — with contractors axed, military staff transferred, and civil servants told to go job-hunting — the ministry insists the unit is not being closed at all.

Based at the UK’s Defence Academy in Shrivenham, the D&AB employed/employs among them analysts (and fluent native speakers) on Iran, Russia, the Caucausus, Arab states, the Horn of Africa, and the Georgian analyst who predicted the invasion, not to mention specialists in strategic communications, research managers, and librarians.

“It’s completely barking to close this down in the middle of active conflict and a strategic defence review,” said a former member of the unit.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman however said that, although the D&AB’s role is to be reviewed over the next six months, its work is continuing and will continue. “The bottom line is that it is not closing”,” he said.

Picture: © Dmitrij Steshin 2008.

Bombed, blasted and shot yet still the Taliban come

From The Sunday Times
November 15, 2009

Stephen Grey in Musa Qala

TWO years ago Corporal Alex Temple fought like a lion to capture the Afghan town of Musa Qala from the Taliban. Last week he was back, once again in a fierce battle just two miles from its centre.

Afghan soldier opens fire in Musa Qala (Photo: NIck Cornish)
Afghan soldier opens fire in Musa Qala (Photo: NIck Cornish)

“It has changed though,” he said. “It’s more dangerous. The fighting is harder.”

Amid the thunder of battle, I saw Temple lead men forward with the same raw courage I had witnessed before. The British soldiers with him seemed more composed, unperturbed by the bullets flying past their heads. The Afghan army on their flanks was better armed and vastly more competent.

Yet the enemy had learnt too. “The Taliban can shoot more accurately,” said Temple. “And they don’t give up so easily.”

In December 2007, with the photographer Nick Cornish, I was embedded with the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, as they joined hundreds of other British, American and Afghan troops in Operation Snakebite to take what was then a Taliban stronghold.

The capture of Musa Qala was declared a model for how this war might be won. The Taliban were bribed to switch sides, the Afghan army was portrayed as the victor and a reconstruction plan prepared. “The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala,” said Bill Wood, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan.

Now, we were back with B Company to hold a front line that, after two years of heavy fighting, has moved barely two miles north and south of the “liberated” town centre. We watched as the Taliban were pounded with bullets, grenades, shells, missiles and airstrikes — and still they came back for more.

Two years ago our journey to Musa Qala had been tinged with tragedy. We were standing close by when a B Company platoon sergeant, Lee “Jonno” Johnson, was killed in a mine blast, one of three Nato soldiers who died in the battle. A further 17 British soldiers have died here. This time we joined a B Company team led by Lieutenant Colin Lunn, who in 2007 had “Jonno” as his platoon sergeant. They cut their teeth in combat together, over at the Kajaki dam.

Continue reading Bombed, blasted and shot yet still the Taliban come

Cracking on in Helmand

(Published in Prospect Magazine 27th August 2009 — Issue 162)

Britain’s bloody campaign in Afghanistan has been marred by hubris, confusion and a failure to understand our Taliban adversaries

A cartoon was on the television but little Lilly grabbed the album and leafed through the photos of her father, the late Sergeant Lee Johnson. I was talking to her mother about his death, which I had witnessed in Afghanistan. When I saw Lilly up in Stockton-on-Tees last November, and I thought of my own young child, I struggled to reconcile my doubts about this war with wanting to remember Johnson’s death as honourable and meaningfulEven in chaos and dysfunction, the British army is good at preserving a belief in order and purpose. And when men die their officers steel them and move onwards with poetic speeches, just as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson did on 10th July 2009, after a dreadful day near the town of Sangin in Helmand in which five of his men were killed. In his eulogy Thomson wrote about men saluting the fallen, and returning to the ramparts. “I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts, and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to ‘crack on’… And that is what we shall do.”

Crack on. From Basra to Sangin, I’ve heard that phrase as regularly as Amen in church. Cracking on: the army’s greatest quality, and perhaps its greatest weakness. I remember standing vigil on Sergeant Johnson’s body at dusk on a hilltop, after he had died in the battle for the town of Musa Qala in December 2007. His fellow soldiers were silhouettes, drawn close to their commander. On the horizon muffled bombs flashed through the drizzle. Major Jake Little told his men to put their grief to one side, to deal with it later. After the battle.

Cracking on could also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy. In the year I spent studying the Helmand campaign for my book, I sensed a questioning, a doubt about whether it was worthwhile. One senior Whitehall figure stunned me by declaring, almost as his first words, that Helmand “was a terrible strategic blunder.” His views were not uncommon.

The public debate has rarely reflected the mixed-up reality of the war. Continue reading Cracking on in Helmand

Aiding the Enemy?

This is the official response to my piece on the British Army Review.

British Army Review
MOD Director of Media and Communication Nick Gurr has responded to Stephen Grey’s article in The Sunday Times in which the MOD is criticised for ‘blocking’ publication of a piece about UK efforts in Afghanistan in the British Army Review (BAR) – an official Army publication.

Mr Gurr said: “British Army Review has for many years published thought-provoking and controversial articles from a wide range of contributors about the British Army and its activities. It continues to do so. Mr Grey quotes at length from a critical piece in the latest edition of BAR by US Colonel Mansoor in his article and his colleague, Mike Evans, ran a double page spread earlier in the week on a number of others.

“Unfortunately, BAR has been seized upon in recent editions for easy stories and cheap headlines. A Sunday newspaper ran a splash in July about one article written last year by a junior officer based in Whitehall as evidence of ‘failing’ strategy in Afghanistan. This was seized upon as an authoritative and up-to-date ‘view from the ground’ – which it was not. At no point was it made clear that this was a dated article written by someone who had never served in Afghanistan. In order to avoid giving such propaganda gifts to the enemy in future we have found that, regrettably, we need to be a bit more cautious about what we publish or – in this case – republish. Hopefully, this will not always be the case.”

MoD blocked warning that Britain faces Afghan defeat

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. Continue reading MoD blocked warning that Britain faces Afghan defeat

The Fog of War

published in the New Statesman, 13 August 2009.
Stephen Grey

IN 2001, British troops marched into Afghanistan on a mission to combat al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban. Eight years and thousands of ruined lives later, they remain mired in conflict, with no sign of a way out. What are our soldiers fighting and dying for? How long will they stay?

Out into the attack with the Royal Marines last year, we drove in dust-choked Viking armoured vehicles through the sand desert and to the crest of a ridge that overlooked the lush, irrigated valley along the Helmand River known to the soldiers as the Green Zone, their battlefield. Then, in the landscape below, people began to run. Men on motorbikes went from house to house to announce the battle. In all directions spread a panorama of terror, as women, children, boys, anyone not fighting, ran for safety. The Americans call this the “blue stream” – the indicator, almost every time, of an impending engagement. Continue reading The Fog of War