It was a coordinated assault; a PR blitz meant to shame the British public into backing the continued commitment of British forces to a tragically unwinnable military campaign. Thursday, the Head of UK Armed Forces, Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup and British Army Head General, Sir David Richards, both claimed that the public’s increasingly sour view of the war in Afghanistan is undermining the morale of troops on the ground.
The suggestion that support for our men and women in uniform is inextricably tied to support for the Afghan campaign is disgraceful in my view. As an ex-soldier, I have the utmost respect for the British Army. They are the best fighting force in the world. The fact they have sustained themselves in Helmund for so long with insufficient numbers and equipment and without competent backing from their leaders at the top is testament to their incredible professionalism.
Sadly, this latest round of politicking – especially by General Richards, is not surprising. After all, General Richards was in charge of ISAF (NATO) forces in Afghanistan from July 2006 to February 2007; when British troops were deployed to Helmund under the pretence of overseeing reconstruction efforts. At the time, it was very clear to anyone with even a tacit knowledge of the situation on the ground that the Taliban had effectively regrouped in Helmund and that rooting them out would require a significantly larger fighting force. Even if General Richards wasn’t aware of the facts (inexcusable, but we must allow the possibility) , the mounting causalities among British forces throughout 2006 left little doubt that major reinforcements were needed in Helmund.
In his position as NATO commander, General Richards could have taken a stand. He could have demanded that more NATO countries in Afghanistan step up to the plate and send their forces to fight alongside British troops in the dangerous South (instead of hiding behind caveats restricting deployments to soft areas). He could have resigned from his position and come clean to the British public about NATO’s failures in Afghanistan. He didn’t do either. Instead, General Richards stood back, allowed British troops to get stretched to the limit, and wound up presiding over more coalition deaths than his predecessor.
I believe strongly that if General Richards had acted more like a military leader and less like a politician, the Afghan strategy would have had a serious rethink much sooner – perhaps even in time to salvage the situation. Now, instead of owing up to his own failures as a military commander, General Richards has the audacity to blame the British public for demoralizing British soldiers on the ground.
In his statement Thursday, General Richards said ‘…my soldiers are an intelligent lot.’ British troops are intelligent and so are the people they are sworn to defend; hence why more and more members of the British public believe our troops should come home now.
Thanks to the politicking of some British military leaders, the historical Great Game in Afghanistan has degenerated into ‘the shame game’. Sadly, many excellent junior and middle ranking officers will not be in a position to right this sad, sad state of affairs because they’ve resigned over the way the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have been fought. If I were in charge of the British Army, I would be far more concerned about this trend than what the public thinks.
As for the morale of troops on the ground, I can only speak from personal experience. I fought my first war at 17 years old and fought many more over a military career spanning 23 years. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die. When I was on the ground, my mind as well as those of the soldiers serving with me was totally focused on the task at hand – not on public opinion. That’s a concern for politicians; not professional soldiers.