Category Archives: Afghanistan

Afghanistan, Vehicles, and Urgent Operational Requirements

This week’s Top Gear had a very interesting segment about the British Army’s use of ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in Afghanistan. It is a subject that has been well written about, but now that Operation Herrick is winding down, is it time to pose some questions on British military procurement? It is well known that the British Army entered the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan relying almost solely on the faithful Land Rover for patrolling. Was this a case of simply retaining equipment that had been intended to fight previous wars? Did budgetary constraints prevent proper planning?

One thing that the recent, ‘post-modern’ conflicts have brought about is a re-assesment of the traditional dichotomy of ‘armoured’ and ‘soft’ vehicles. For ‘wars amongst the peoples’, main battle tanks are clearly too big and heavy – physically it is hard to move them around villages, and psychologically they are rather intimidating. Yet the Land Rover proved to be far too lightly armoured to protect servicemen when on patrol, in particular against the roadside bombs and other forms of Improvised Explosive Devices which proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007 – four years after the British Army went into Iraq, and a year after Britain’s commitment in Helmand province escalated to Brigade and then Divisional level, it was becoming clear that the Land Rover was no longer fit for the task in hand.

The first of the new breed of vehicles to be ordered were the Mastiff, Ridgeback and Wolfhound, which are all variants of the American-produced Cougar. Designed by Force Protection Inc – by a British team! – the British Army has in service around 400 Mastiffs, 125 Wolfhounds and 160 Ridgebacks. The original order from the MOD was for 108 vehicles at a cost of £35m. This first batch of vehicles were deployed to Iraq in late 2006, before a further batch of Mastiff’s were ordered in October 2007, at a cost of £100m. These orders came via Urgent Operational Requirements – essentially, when the troops on the ground need something yesterday, in order to make up for the accountants not letting them buy it beforehand. Further purchases have been made since then, taking the total to almost 700 Cougar-variant vehicles. The British variants seem to be heavily armoured compared to the American version.

The Warthog is actually based on a design by the Singapore-based ST Kinetics, called the Bronco. In December 2008 the MOD ordered 100 Warthogs from ST Kinetics, at a cost of £150m. Incidentially, the purchase of the Warthogs came as part of a package of £700m worth of UORs. The Warthogs replaced the lighter-armoured Viking which had been used in Afghanistan previously, but had proved vulnerable to IEDs and roadside bombs. The Vikings were being used in an environment for which they were not procured, having originally been purchased as amphibious vehicles for the Royal Marines. Post Afghanistan the Warthogs will be used by the Royal Artillery as support for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The Jackal and Coyote were designed by the British company Supacat. The first batch of Jackals – 172 – were ordered in 2008. In 2010 another 140 were ordered. Whilst the Jackal is a 4×4 chassis, the Coyote is a 6×6 variant. Many are believed to be used in different forms by Special Forces, and have not been declared in fleet totals. The Foxhound is a light patrol vehicles, based on the Ocelot, designed by Force Protection. The Husky is produced by International Trucks.

In the space of armoured six years, the MOD has purchased over 1,000 vehicles, at a price of hundreds of millions of pounds. From a procurement point of view, it is hard to believe that Urgent Operational Requirements will ever represent value for money – the troops on the ground need it urgently, the politicans will always sign it off to avoid adverse publicity, and therefore the contractors know that they can ramp the price up. Whereas if such purchases were made in ‘peacetime’, without the rush to get them into action, a more efficient procurement exercise would probably deliver better value for money. Of course, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of vehicles will be needed in any war, as wars don’t always tend to give us plenty of warning, and any conflict will require unique modifications for any equipment, down to climate, local cultures, and so on.

But by the same token, if we don’t know exactly what we will need, should we therefore think not about having equipment that is great in one scenario, but rather having flexibility that allows for easy modification to suit particular needs? There is only so much you can do with a Land Rover Chassis, after all. The same approach applies to air and sea assets – are giant aircraft carriers the right platforms for the wars of the next 50 years? The Type 45 Destroyers are marvellous anti-aircraft warships, but are they flexible enough to react to a range of scenarios? Whilst the Eurofighter is a finely tuned dogfighter, but was any thought given to how it might contribute to a similar range of scenarios? The British Army’s new camouflage was unveilved in the past few years, and the MOD’s policy was that it should be able to work in all environments, rather than just being excellent in one.

The MOD has recently produced a policy entitled ‘Generic Vehicles Architecture’ or GVA. The idea seems to be to create a single standard architecture for British military vehicles – sensible, given the experience of vehicles in Afghanistan. The first ‘post-Afghanistan’ British Army vehicle is the Panther – 401 of these four wheel drive, light multi-role vehicles have been ordered. The Panther is an Italian vehicles, based on the Iveco LMV. With a contract worth £160m contract, they are being assembled by BAE Systems in the UK. The Panther does appear to be a long-term procurement, and is slated to replace the CVRT series of light armoured vehicles (Scorpion et al), the FV432 and Saxon personnel carriers and the Land Rover Wolf. That the Panther is replacing light armoured vehicles and the Land Rover Wolf, suggests that it represents a shift in vehicle policy and doctrine.

Several lessons seem clear from the experience of military vehicles in Afghanistan. The first lesson seems to be that poor military procurement in peacetime – often based on the assumption of there not being a war in the forseeable future and hence money can be saved – actually ends up costing lives and even more money once war inevitably happens anyway. Secondly, it has often been thought that the British Army prepares to fight the last war. In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Army’s mobility was based overwhelmingly on the Land Rover – a vehicle used extensively by the Army tearing up and down thw Autobahns during the Cold War, and in Northern Ireland. After the end of the Cold War, did it occur to anyone that Britain would find herself fighting different kinds of wars, and that it was not necessarily equipped properly? Granted, it is difficult for anyone to forsee events such as 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts, but did anyone in the Army or the MOD foresee the need to be flexible, to expect the unexpected? Short term economies always seem to cost more money – and lives – in the long term.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Military vehicles, Uncategorized

Operation Enduring Freedom: America’s Afghan War 2001 to 2002 by Tim Ripley

This really is a first class book. Ordinarily, I would argue that it is very difficult to write history, in particular military history, until at least thirty years have passed. Sometimes events that happened relatively recently are very difficult to analyse, without the benifit of sufficient hindsight. But here Tim Ripley has given a first class exposition of one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times.

Ripley goes into incredible detail, and I am sure that his description of the air war in particular will be new to most readers. I for one had no idea what aircraft were operating where over Afghanistan. Pointedly, the US Navy had to move two aircraft carriers to the Pakistan coast, as there were no suitable usable airfields in the surrounding countries. Hence most of the tactical aircraft flying on Enduring Freedom were US Navy. But of course, we know that Aircraft Carriers are a luxury, because our leaders and betters tell us so (irony!).

One area in which the US did perform very well in 2001 and 2002 was the integration of Defence and intelligence. In this scenario, Central Command worked almost seamlessly with the CIA, who had significant experience in Afghanistan. The use of technology by the US was also an incredible force multiplier. The Taliban simply had no answer to the UAV’s such as the Predator, and could not hide from the satellite technology and high tec communications that enabled the US to fight in a way that the Taliban could never counter.

The complex social fabric of Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to understand. Made up of a veritable patchwork quilt of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, its not surprising perhaps that Afghanistan has spent the majority of its existence in some kind of upheaval. The tribal loyalties in particular are something that Ripley does well to describe. Even then, I had trouble keeping track of all of the different forces at play, particularly as tribes could change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. In a similar manner, Pakistan’s President Musharaf seems to have been playing the US. Pakistan had supported the Taliban prior to 9/11, and only switched sides when threatened with dire consequences by the US. But Pakistani forces did very little to secure the Afghan border, and then handed over hundreds of supposed prisoners, who it rapidly transpired were not terrorists or illegal combatants at all.

One thing that does emege, and confirms my impression, is that Donald Rumsfeld was completely inept as Secretary of Defence and, looking back, seems to have got almost all of the major calls wrong, basing his decision making on neo-conservative ideals rather than the strategic or tactical realities. This was a worrying trend that continued into the Iraq Invasion in 2003.

Ripley’s closing argument is that in some respects, the apparent success of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 was really a hollow victory. Yes, Bin Laden was on the run and the Taliban fell. The US Forces and their allies had won the war, but thanks to Rumsfeld’s intellectually bankrupt policies, they lost the peace. With more sensible humanitarian and infrastructure work, the kind of troop deployments required from 2006 onwards – such as the British Army’s bloody campaign in Helmand – would have been un-necessary. The momentum was lost, as Iraq took up everyone’s attention.

10 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Book of the Week

Thoughts on Bin Laden

So, the biggest influence in global politics and security over the past 15 years is no more. As most commentators have suggested, it doesn’t actually change that much in real terms. OBL has not in any real sense been commanding Al Qaeda for years, merely providing funds and support and franchising its activities out to other organisations. Osama was more of a figurehead, and he can probably  do that better dead than alive.

Serious questions have to be asked about Pakistan. For somebody as dangerous as OBL to be hiding deep in the country, within 1,000 yards of Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst? For two US Helicopters to enter Pakistani air space without being spotted? Let alone that he escaped detection for so long. Commentators have talked about the tightrope that Pakistan has to walk with regard to terror – meaning that although the Government wants to maintain law and order, many in Pakistan seem to have at least a lukewarm attitude to Islamic fundamentalism. It might be difficult to bring peace to the Afghan-Pakistan area all the time there are undercurrents of support there.

But the problems are not just in Pakistan – the world at large has dealt with Bin Laden inadequately ever since he first emerged onto the global scene. I can recall taking part in a model UN event for students in Geneva in 1998  just after Al Qaeda had bombed US Embassies in Kenya and Tanazania; as much as I tried, nobody was overly concerned with the threat, the regulation of the internet and female circumcision were bigger topics. Not to belittle those two issues, but history has borne me right on that one.

Al Qaeda’s message could well be increasingly redundant. Whereas OBL had presented violence as being the only option, the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the Arab and Islamic world that terrorism is not necessarily the only way. It’s probably not as simple a case as Islamic fundamentalism dying away forever; the movement is so amorphous and loose to apply any general trends. But the undermining of its message and the loss of its sprititual leader could be the end of the beginning.

I can’t help but feel that Terrorists – like many criminals – aren’t as much motivated by politics and rhetoric as we might think, and are merely interested creating in a bloodbath. The sheer hypocris of Bin Laden’s hatred for the US was almost comical. As much as he hated the presence of US troops in Saudi before, during and after the Gulf War, those very same US forces prevented the Islamic Holy Land from being over-run by Saddam, who was far from a devout Muslim. And as for Afghanistan and the Soviets, the US did much to defend that Islamic state too. But as an aside, it is also slightly sad to hear prominent US figures talking about terrorisim, when for years they did very little about the IRA. Not only that, in some quarters the IRA and Sinn Feinn were openly supported, while killing British citizens and servicemen. Records released from the National Archives recently suggest that none other than Senator Ted Kennedy blocked the sale of firearms to the RUC.

Ironically, I suspect that OBL’s death may cause the US more problems than it solves. Which bogeyman does the country unite against now? Where does US strategic policy head from here? A strategic vacuum can be an unpredictable and dangerous place to be. Withdrawing from Iraq, planning to withdraw from Afghanistan and with no appetite for an expeditionary foreign policy, we are probably looking at a new phase in American relations with the rest of the world. Hopefully aside from all the pantomime regarding Obama’s birth certificate Americans will realise that electing a President with brain cells is actually quite a good idea. The same critics would gladly elect the Austrian-born ex-Terminator in any case.

One thing I have enjoyed is seeing all the conspiracy theorists dining out on this one. Anything happens and the same old nutters crawl out of the woodwork. Here’s an idea guys, how about he was actually killed? There might be a very good reason they haven’t shown photos, namely that if he was shot in the head half of his face would be missing? And that the body was disposed of so quickly so as to not let it become a shrine? Even if they did release photos the same cranks would probably dispute that it was him, or even if they did hand over a body. And if some of the cassandras out there don’t realise, any photograph of a man shot in the head aren’t going to be pretty – bullets don’t make the nice neat little holes that some people seem to think. Any image of OBL with half of his face missing is bound to inflame tensions in some quarters. I agree with the Administration that the damage from releasing them outweighs any pros.

And while we’re on predictable responses to world events, can we stop talking about Afghanistan being a war for oil? There’s none there!

37 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, News, Uncategorized

Youtube Picks

Heres a few video’s I’ve seen recently, covering Rock in Helmand Province, another new Destroyer, a 1950′s american political advert, and some rock from an under-rated band.

Helmand Rock Concert

A rock concert? In Helmand?! yep, thats right… It’s got to be a sign that progress is being made in Afghanistan if events like this are allowed to take place. It’s called freedom. Somehow I think it’s something that the Taliban would not tolerate.

HMS Duncan launched

The last of the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers, HMS Duncan, was launched recently in Scotland.

I Like Ike‘ advert

I remember watching this advert while studying modern American history for A-level. I’m really not sure what it was about Ike exactly that US voters ‘liked’, but hey ho… I’m British!

Alter BridgeOpen your eyes

My Girlfriend’s made me rediscover this band. Mark Tremonti‘s a great guitarist, and a LOT better than you can hear here!

1 Comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, Music, Navy, News, politics, Uncategorized, videos

Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam - the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

21 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, defence, News, politics, Uncategorized

What next in Afghanistan?

With the onset of President Obama’s surge, and a change in Government in Whitehall, 2011 could prove to be a pivotal year for the future of Afghanistan, as this article on the BBC website suggests.

History shows that the only way peacekeeping forces can leave any country in which they are engaged is by enabling that country to look after itself and stand on its own two feet. Until that point, critics will be able to look upon foreign forces as ‘occupiers’, whether this is the nature of their involvement or not.

Progress in Afghanistan does seem to have been slow, bearing in mind that US and coalition forces first entered the country in 2001. Admittedly for several years the country was overshadowed by Afghanistan. But quite rightly questions are now being asked about whether enough progress is being made by the Afghan Government and security forces in moving towards taking responsibility for their own future.

The usual allegations about the US and NATO being imperialistic do not wash where Afghanistan is concerned, as there is nothing in the country to be imperialistic about. Much as in Britain’s Afghan wars in the Nineteenth Century, the aim is secure and stabilise the region. Afghanistan’s turbulent past shows that it is not a country where any foreign forces should want to linger any longer than they have to. Of course it would be great if we lived in a world where no countries ever failed, but sadly on occasions countries do become a threat to regional and global security.

But by the same token, we should be wary also of bailing out on a country before the job is done. If Saddam Hussein had been deposed in 1991 when the coalition had much broader support than in 2003, years of harmful sanctions would have been avoided – and not to mention the fracturous effect on world politics.

Its not difficult to see that pulling out of Afghanistan before it has a strong and stable Government would leave the country as a vipers nest that would only cost many more lives in years to come. A collapse in Afghanistan might endanger Pakistan, where the border region districts are controlled by either the Taliban or tribes. With Iran on the other side of the country the region is in danger of bubbling over into insecurity, and Afghanistan could be the first domino. And not only is interational security a big concern, but more needs to be done to knuckle down on the poppy growing trade, and the effect that it has on international crime and drug addiction.

Therefore the role of international forces has to move to words enabling as soon as possible. The problem with this is the state of the Afghan Government – can Karzai do enough to tackle corruption? Much rests on the ability of the Afghans to take over their own security, and to make it possible for ISAF to take a back seat and then eventually leave.

History has shown also that sooner or later the Afghan Government will have to sit down and talk with the Taliban, especially its more moderate elements. After 1945 in Germany many former Nazi party members played a role in rebuilding the country. In Northern Ireland progress was only made with the peace process once Sinn Fein was brought to the negotiating table. By contrast in Iraq after 2003 the US disbanded the Iraqi Army immediately, and embarked on strict de-Bathification,and chaos reigned.

As a recent British Army booklet on irregular warfare stated, the trick is not the defeat the enemy, but to make it impossible for them to win and thereby force them to the negotiating table. To do that ISAF and the Afghans will have to demonstrate that they can provide a more stable and peaceful future, thus cutting off the Taliban’s grass roots support and making their armed stuggle impossible.

But as General Mchrystal so rightly mentions in the BBC article, often in military history the turning point in a war ends up being competely unexpected. Thats why it wound be unwise to set any target dates for withdrawal based on domestic pressure.

12 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, News, Uncategorized

Art and War

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article on the BBC website magazine section about war artists past and present.

Art and Afghanistan

The Ministry of Defence recently facilitated a visit by a group of artists to Afghanistan. The artists were attached to military units, and given relatively free reign to paint and draw whatever the saw. Among them was painter Jules George, “I was going to join the army when I was a lot younger, but made the decision to pursue my art. I thought it would be interesting to combine my interests with my art.” During his tour with the 3rd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment Jules was caught up in a firefight, “I was on the top of a Mastiff [armoured vehicle] and we had a few rounds shot at us. I witnessed the whole skirmish.” After two weeks he had filled five sketchbooks: “On a trip like this it is best to do rapid fire sketches, with movement. I used my drawing book like a camera. I rely very much on the power and energy of the initial drawing.”

But what exactly is the purpose of sending artists to a war zone? Surely the role that they once plaid is now eclipsed by 24 hour news TV, newspapers and the iternet? Graham Lothian, another artist in the group and an ex Royal Marine Commando, has some very wise words on this subject: “It’s good to stand there and take a step back and just look at the Army from a distance. This will be history one day, Camp Bastion will be dust. We are painting history.”

There might be some among the anti-war brigade who think that painting scenes from the war in Afghanistan is tantamount to propaganda. There is always the risk that this might be the case, but by and large, it looks like they are allowed to paint ‘warts n’ all’. If the MOD were controlling what they were producing, it would be a different matter. But there is a lot of sense in Graham Lothian’s point of view – it is important to capture human conflict in as many different media as possible. This is for the future, not for justifying anything in the present.

Art and wars past

War has to be one of the most painted aspects of human life. Ever since men worked out to paint, they have painted scenes of struggle and conflict. And there are ways in which a painting can capture emotions that no photograph can. Whilst I am by no means a connossieur of art, there are some paintings that tell us so much about war, and the lives it has engulfed. Think of some of the haunting paintings that have been produced of the holocaust, for example. If written history is like a black and white skeleton, paintings and photographs are the coloured flesh. Books aren’t for everyone, but there is something more accessible than a painting.

Richard Slocombe, curator of art at the Imperial War Museum, explains the purpose of capturing war by art: “On the most basic level it is to make some sort of record of the conflict. On a higher level it is a way of interpreting a conflict. A lot of artists feel moved to create art as a way to exploration of the emotions of war.”

The argument that war art is just propaganda does not hold water either – there were not many positive, inspiring paintings that came from the western front, for example, nor photographs. While certain photographs and paintings might be censored for reasons of national security or the effect on morale, on the whole Britain has a heritage of being relatively liberal with how it allows its wars to be recorded. During boh world wars the Government encouraged the work of artists, and the collections of the Imperial War Museum are all the richer for it. There are also numerous examples of paintings that were commissioned by units for officers messes, and now reside in military museums.

Some examples of war art

Scotland Forever by Lady Elizabeth Butler is probably my favourite military painting of all time. Even though it was painted in 1881, some 66 years after the event that it depicts – the charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo. There are some inaccuracies – eyewitness accounts suggest that the charge started at a quick walk and only reached a gallop at the French lines. But at a distance of over 65 years it is quite an achievement, and has been so iconic in shaping the percption of Waterloo.

Arnhem Bridge 5pm by David Sheperd is one of the most famous images to have arisen from the battle of Arnhem. It portrays the carnage on Arnhem Bridge after the Para’s had defeated a strong counter-attack. The wreckage is plain to see, and it is interesting how the artist manages to paint a grim picture through the use of smoke and bleak, grey structures, while also showing fires. It bears a startling resemblence to aerial photos taken by the RAF at exactly that time.

One painting that I sadly cannot find a decent image of is W.L. Wyllie’s Trafalgar Panorama. Painted in the early twentieth century and based on extensive research on the movements of the battle, its a huge masterpiece in portraying the atmosphere of war, down to the flotsam and jetsam in the water. It was painted during a period when the ‘Britannia rules the waves’ culture was prevalent, and it shows – but in this sense, it potrays not only the events in it, but also when it was painted.

The future?

Speaking as a military historian, art is one of many sources that we can use to understand military conflict. Too often people are sidetracked into working with only manuscript documents, or books. In terms of visual sources, whilst television and photography might be prominent in the twenty-first century, art still has its own unique role to play. We should not be dazzled by the flashlights of photography – a good painting can be ten times as interesting and useful as a bad photograph.

If we suddenly stop documenting war, we would be leaving future generations at a severe disadvantage when it comes to understanding these momentous and tragic events.

16 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, art, Museums, Uncategorized, World War Two

Crimson Snow: Britain’s first disaster in Afghanistan by Jules Stewart

Britain. Disaster. Afghanistan. Words that are never far away from any news programme. And words that are also used quite casually by ill-informed commentators to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is doomed. Normally along with some reference to ‘the Russians couldnt do it’. We could be excused for thinking that the war currently being fought in Afghanistan at the moment is the first time that British troops have ever set foot in Afghanistan, and that the issues facing ISAF in Helmand and the rest of the country are completely new. Of course, we all know that the British Army first crossed the frontier into Afganistan way back in 1839, and this book by Jules Stewart sheds new light on one of the British Army’s biggest but least known disasters.

The ill-fated expedition into Afghanistan was conceived out of the broader picture of the ‘Great Game’, in other words the strategic contest between Russia and Britain for dominance over Persia and Central Asia. Britain was fearful of Russian expansion, and in particular feared that Russian success in countries such as Persia and Afghanistan might put India – the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – at risk.

As a result, the British Government ordered a military operation to occupy Afghanistan. The reasons are important to understand – there was clearly nothing to conquer in Afghanistan itself. The aim was rather to present a strong bulwark on the North West Frontier of India against the perceived Russian threat. The British Empire was built on trade rather than territory, and it would have run counter to all common sense to annexe Afghanistan purely for the sake of it.

21,000 British and Indian troops set out from India, commanded by Major-General William Elphinstone. Although the force managed to occupy Afghanistan with little trouble, it was only after the majority of the troops returned to India that the problems began. Surrounded by a plethora of hostile tribes, the British were forced to hole up in Kabul. Disaffected tribes flocked to the leadership of Akbar Khan. After a long and arduous siege, an agreement was finally reached with Khan to allow the remaining British troops and civilians in Kabul to return to India. Despite the promises of safe passage that Elphinstone had secured, the force was atacked in the snowbound passes. A massacre ensued, and only one man escaped.

The lessons in this book are not just interesting nuggets of History – after all the foreword written by General Sir David Richards, the current head of the British Army, and a former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. And I feel that Stewart captures these running themes very well. Firstly, that Afghanistan is such a patchwork of different tribes and loyalties, that it is almost misleading to think of it as a nation in the usual sense. And secondly, that Afghans have a very different code of values to those that we have in Western society. If we want to succeed in Afghanistan, then we need to immerse ourselves in these factors and work within them. Thirdly, that a large Army marching into any country where the populace is less than 100% supportive is bound to have a tough time. And finally, rather than send a tiny force to begin with, and then a larger Army to avenge is massacre, might it have been more sensible to do it properly in the first place? For 1842′s army of retribution, read 2010′s surge.

Did the first Anglo-Afghan war deflect Russia from the country? It is impossible to tell without looking at Russian sources. That must surely be the measure of whether the 1839-42 war was a success. Although the massacre is bound to attract attention, the mere presence of British troops might have been enough to blunt Russian designs.

Perhaps this book, in its focus on the 1839-182 war, does give the impression that British involvement in Afghanistan has always been a failure. But although a punitative force did exact revenge for the massacre, and the later Afghan wars were more succesful, this is very much a cautionary tale based on the first confict. Jules Stewart has used some impressive research, including original sources, to shed new light on this important episode. I found it a gripping read, and it should be standard issue to officers preparing to go to Afghanistan.

Crimson Snow: Britain’s first disaster in Afghanistan is published by The History Press

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Book of the Week

Bomb Disposal experts awarded George Cross


Two British Army Bomb Disposal experts have been awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy.

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid and Staff Sergeant Kim Hughers, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2009. As High Threat Improvised Explosive Device Disposal operators, Schmid and Hughes were in the forefront of the battle against the lethal threat that IED’s represent.

Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes

Staff Sergeantt Hughes’s actions are described in his citation as “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan.” In one incident on 16 August 2009, Hughes was tasked to clear a route near Sangin in Helmand. One soldier was seriously injured by an IED, and as he was being recovered another IED detonated and killed two more soldiers. The area was effectively an IED minefield, overlooked by the enemy. Hughes and his team were called in to deal with the devices. They left behind protective clothing in order to save time. Upon reaching the first casualty Hughes discovered a further IED, and calmly carried out a manual neutralisation. His citation states “It was an extraordinary act.”

“Dealing with any form of IED is dangerous; to deal with seven IEDs linked in a single circuit, in a mass casualty scenario, using manual neutralisation techniques once, never mind three times, is the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan. That he did it without the security of specialist protective clothing serves even more to demonstrate his outstanding gallantry. Hughes is unequivocally deserving of the highest level of public recognition.”

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid

After deploying to Helman in June 2009, Staff Sergeant Schmid personally dealt with 70 IED’s. He spent long periods of time in close proximity to IEDs and in the gravest personal danger. Before his death in action he responded to 42 IED tasks. One incident involved an 11 hour operation to clear an area, after an infantry company had had several of their vehicles blown up by IED’s.

On another occasion, Schmid was in Sangin District Centre to deal with an artillery shell. On arrival he immediately realised that many civilians around him in the bustling bazaar were in peril. He quickly assessed that the shell was part of a Radio Controlled IED intended to cause maximum casualties in a well populated area. The nature of the device also meant it was almost certainly over-watched by the bomber controlling it. Without any consideration for his own safety Schmid immediately decided to neutralise the IED manually. To do this he employed a render safe procedure that should only ever be employed in the gravest of circumstances and which is conducted at the highest personal risk to the operator. In an instant, he made the most courageous decision possible, consciously placing his own life on the line in order to save the lives of countless Afghan civilians and demonstrating bravery of the highest order and well beyond the call of duty.

Staff Sergeant Schmid was killed during an operation near Forward Operating Base JACKSON. Having dealt with three IEDs already that day, he and his team were transiting to another compound when a command wire was discovered running down the alleyway they were in. SSgt Schmid and his team were trapped with no safe route forward or back as they did not know in which direction the IED was situated. Knowing that his team were in danger, he immediately took action to reduce the hazard. SSgt Schmid eventually traced the wire to a complex IED with three linked buried main charges. He was killed whilst dealing with the device.

His citation states:

“Schmid’s actions on that fateful day, when trapped in an alleyway with no safe means of escape, probably saved the lives of his team. These occasions are representative of the complexity and danger that Schmid had faced daily throughout his four month tour. His selfless gallantry, his devotion to duty, and his indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless military and civilian lives and is worthy of the highest recognition.”

Time to change medal criteria?

For us mere mortals, it is almost impossible to comprehend the bravery and nerves of steel needed to work in Bomb Disposal. The awards of the George Cross to Staff Sergeants Schmid and Hughes are richly deserved, and not only a fitting tribute to them but their colleagues too. Among all the controversy about Defence funding, we should remember that the British Army can call on some of the most professional experts in the world when it comes to specialist tasks such as Bomb Disposal.

In previous times, the lines between ‘combat’ and ‘non combat’ were relatively clear. But in a world of increasingly unconventional warfare, can we truly draw a line between bravery that is under enemy fire and that which isnt? The inference of ‘not under enemy fire’ is that it is not quite so deserving. But IED’s ARE the Taliban’s way of fighting. Particularly with the case of Staff Sergeant Hughes, the press release on the MOD website states that the incident took place in the presence of the enemy, and that British soldiers had to fire shots to keep their heads down. If thats not in the face of the enemy, then what is? Is dealing with an IED less brave than a conventional pitched battle?

A similar case took place last year, when Royal Marine Lance Corporal Matt Croucher jumped on a grenade that had accidentally activated. His rucksack shielded him from the blast, but he saved the lives of his comrades at the risk of his own. Yet because there were no enemy present, somehow it is seemed slightly less brave. Clearly, if a token Taliban fighter had been so much as standing nearby firing into the air, Croucher would have been awared a Victoria Cross.

In 1993 the Government reformed the Gallantry Medal system, to remove distinctions between officers and men. And quite rightly too – an act of bravery is an act of bravery, and it should not matter whether it was performed by a Private or a General. Much as the 1993 review took account of the fact that class should not be an issue in the modern age, is it now time to review the caveat of ‘under enemy fire’? The nature of warfare has changed considerably, and if we are going to expect our men and women to go int harms way, we should ensure that we honour them properly.

17 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, News

Army says it need 20,000 more soldiers

The Daily Telegraph has obtained a British Army Document stating that it needs 20,000 extra soldiers in order to meet its commitments.

One of the most telling comments concerns the trade-off between equipment and manpower:

“We should be mindful of the fact that our US, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand allies have all recently increased the size of their Armies by approaching 20 per cent. Indeed defence may need to prioritise manpower over equipment if that is what we require to fight wars in the 21st Century.”

The Army spends dramatically less on equipment on the Royal Navy and the RAF. By presenting the upcoming Defence Review in terms of this choice, the Army is placing itself very well for what will be a very tough process.

The Army currently has 101,000 men and women serving in its ranks. It consists of 37 Battalions of Infantry (Light role, Mechanized, Armoured, Air Assault and Special Forces support), 10 Armoured Regiments (Formation and Recce), 16 Artillery Regiments (Air Defence, MLRS, Armoured, Light Gun, Surveillance), 15 Engineer Regiments, 10 Signals Regiments, 21 Logistics Regiments and 6 Army Air Corps Regiments. Modern Warfare calls for such a plethora of supporting services.

The fall in the numbers of Infantry units has been most marked. In 2004, with the end of Operations in Northern Ireland, the Treasury forced the Army to cut its Infantry strength by 4 Battalions. Supposedly not needing to base Battalions in Northern Ireland meant that the Army needed less of them. This is despite the fact that the Army had too few Battalions at the time anyway. As traumatic as they were to regimental identities, the 2004 reforms were right to establish larger Regiments with more Battalions.

The Options for Change review in 1990 set the current tone for Army cuts. With the end of the Cold War it was felt that the Army no longer neeed to to base such large forces in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine. Throughout the 1990′s successive cuts sliced away at the Army’s strength. Now, even though the Army is fighting a strenuous war in Afghanistan that is at present involving 6 Infantry Battalions, the cutting mentality is still there – Politicians, as ever, are obsessed with peace dividends. Yet the other combat arms and supporting corps’ seem to have escaped the severity of cuts.

Perhaps it is a case of the Army looking at its structure? Whilst it is unwise to plan only for the current war, when the armed forces are looking at having such limited budgets, it is more important to win a war we are fighting now than to sacrifice it for a war we know nothing about. The Infantry time and time again have been the key force in wars, and the war in Helmand right now is very much an infantryman’s war. The Taliban and other asymetric forces fight in an old fashioned, guerilla manner, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that large numbers of troops are needed to hold and secure ground in this context.

Perhaps also it is time to look beyond the narrow specialised roles of infantry? The Cold War in particular led to a large number of armoured and mechanised infantry Battalions sat in Germany. Such units then took almost a year to retrain to serve on the streets of Northern Ireland. In my opinion the primary role of infantry should be exactly that, to fight as foot soldiers. Specialist roles such as armoured and air assault should be an additional flexibility that all are capable of. The British Army has an Air Assault Brigade, yet infantry units that are not part of this Brigade regularly take part in helicopter assaults.

If only the RAF can be persuaded to invest in troop-carrying helicopters and close-air support…

5 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, defence, Uncategorized

RAF pilot flies Joint Strike Fighter for the first time

A British pilot has flown the F-35 Lightning – known in the UK as the Joint Strike Fighter – for the first time. Squadron Leader Steve Long of the RAF flew at 20,000 feet over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. Squadron Leader Long has been based with VX-23 US Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron since May 2008. It is encouraging that a British Officer has been working on the project, so the Ministry of Defence should not be buying blind.

Squadron Leader Long said:

“Flying the JSF was exactly like the simulators that I’ve been flying for over 18 months now, which gives you a lot of confidence in all the modelling and simulation work that has been done in all the other areas of flying. This aircraft gives the RAF and Navy a quantum leap in airborne capability. A pilot in this aircraft will have an unprecedented level of situational awareness about what’s going on in the airspace and on the battlefield or ocean below because of its highly advanced sensors. This aircraft will plug into coalition battlefield networks and be able to pass that picture on to all other players.”

The Joint Strike Fighter is due to take over front-line duties from the Harrier, both in the RAF and on the Royal Navy’s Aircraft Carriers in its navalised version. It promises to be a very important aircraft, not only with the capabilities that it will offer, but also in that it will be at forefront of RAF-Navy interoperability. In replacing the Harrier it will also play a key role in close air support, something that is proving instrumental in Afghanistan.

There are fears however that with looming defence cuts the UK will face real difficulties in purchasing the JSF. Not having an aircraft to replace the Harrier or to fly off of the new Aircraft Carriers would leave us at a severe disadvantage. The RAF has plenty of Typhoons for Air Defence, but it also needs ground attack craft too. Typhoons can act as multi-role platforms but that is essentially a compromise and hardly ideal, they have been largely multi-roled as an afterthought.

I’m no expert on the high performance of fast jets, and my opinion probably counts for very little. But… Will the JSF prove to be more important to UK Defence than the Tyhoon? I have a feeling that it will be. My impression is that the JSF will be able to act in air defence better than the Typhoon can in ground attack. There are historical parallels – look at how the Harrier performed far beyond anyones expectations in 1982, against technically superior aircraft.

The JSF is likely to have a tough time in the upcoming Defence Review, however.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, defence, Navy, News, Royal Air Force

Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, historiography, Iraq

Defence Green Paper predicts tough choices and big changes

The Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth today published a Green Paper ahead of the upcoming Strategic Defence Review. It can be read in full here.

Titled ”Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review’, the paper sets the terms of reference for the tough review on Defence spending and policy that is due to take place after the next General Election.

Obviously, the more discussion, debate and thinking that goes into shaping the review, the better. I do question how worthwhile Defence-based discussion will be, as the review is bound to be driven by Treasury policy. None the less, It is important for the Government, the MOD and the services to take a serious look at the issues involved.

Key Questions outlined are:

  • What contribution can the Armed Forces make to internal security within the UK?
  • How can the Armed Forces be more effective in supporting conflict prevention?
  • Do our international relationships need rethinking?
  • How closely should our armed forces integrate with allies?

The paper seems to conclude that the Armed Forces will have to become leaner and meaner, and to not become too focussed on specific threats but be able to react to new ones. The paper also underlines firmly that the days of the UK acting alone are long gone, and that in future all operations will be in partnership with allies. This will involve building closer links with the US and Europe in particular. This represents a huge change in sovereignty as we know it – the UK is no longer able to defend itself alone. Is this a reflection of changing international circumstances? Clearly, however, some big changes will have to take place.

The most perplexing conclusion of the review is that foreign policy, defence and international development should be more closely integrated. Why has this been dreamt up all of a sudden? The Iraq Inquiry has shown just how disparate these Government Departments have been. Especially when dealing with asymetric threats that require civil and military co-operation. This is especially sad, as the UK had long led the field in low-intensity warfare.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: “There is no more important function for Government than Defence. This Green Paper will stimulate debate about the future of Britain’s defence ahead of a Strategic Defence Review in the next Parliament. Afghanistan is the top priority today but we must also ensure that our Armed Forces are ready to confront the challenges of tomorrow. The current and emerging threats we face are characterised by uncertainty and will require a more flexible response from an adaptable Armed Forces.”

Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, said: “I welcome this Green Paper. It is a first and a significant step on the road to the forthcoming Defence Review that will shape our security in the years ahead. The issues the Green Paper raises are of fundamental importance to all citizens of this country, and I look forward to a vigorous and widespread debate on them in the coming months.”

One does wonder, however, just how much input Sideshow Bob and His Airship Sir Jock will have into the review – for one, the Defence Secretary after May will probably be Tory. Will the Treasury simply hand the MOD cuts and expect them to make them? Probably. It is particularly galling for Ainsworth to talk about Defence as the most important function for the Government – this is not borne out in spending or decision making.

All the same, there will probably be some sharp debates over the next few months. Given the tribal nature of British armed forces expect to see the heads of the Navy, Army and Air Force to attempt to outdo each other. While this loyalty is admirable, it comes at the expense of a broader ‘UK Defence’ thinking. Loyalty should not come before objectivity. Units such as the RAF Regiment, for example, should not escape just because the RAF stamps its feet to keep it. Current expectations are that the RAF and Navy will bear the brunt of the cuts, but who knows what clever lobying may bring about?

11 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force

Fierce debate over UK Defence spending

The Prime Minister had denied that he ‘guillotined’ the Defence budget while British forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ex-MOD civil servant had earlier made the claim while giving evidence at the Iraq Inquiry.

Conservative Leader David Cameron said: “Isn’t it becoming clear from the Chilcot inquiry that the government in general, and you in particular, made a series of bad decisions that meant our armed forces were not equipped properly when they were sent into harm’s way?”

Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit called the £1bn cut “arbitrary”, and that “I think it’s fair to say that the Treasury as a whole didn’t want us to get as much as we got.” It would seem increasingly that the Government was willing to make huge commitments, but not to fund the armed forces to carry them out.

It is also broadly accepted that Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, had more control over public spending than any of his predecessors. Not only was he able to control spending, but Government policy by default. Gordon Brown’s denials come after a stream of witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry have stated that preparation for the war was severely hampered and inadequate.

It would not be in the Prime ministers interests to admit that he did not fund the armed forces properly: politicians are rarely blessed with honesty over such matters. But why ignore the clear findings of an Inquiry, that he ordered, before it has even finished?

15 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, defence, Iraq, News, politics

Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.

Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.

The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.

The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.

But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.

Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.

5 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, Iraq, politics