Category Archives: Afghanistan

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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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