After four years, the British media have finally got it. This week, The Times published a two month investigation into who was responsible for the disastrous decision to deploy British forces to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in insufficient numbers back in 2006. The answer was in the headline: The Officer’s Mess.
Of course, today it is obvious to a blind man that the Helmand mission was poorly planned and woefully undermanned. Nearly three hundred brave British soldiers have lost their lives in Southern Afghanistan and many have sustained horrific, life-altering wounds. But as far back as 2004 and certainly by 2005, it was clear to anyone who visited the province that it would never be pacified by a token occupying force.
In spring 2004, I escorted a media client to Helmand. We didn’t fly. We drove from Kabul to Lashkar Gah. Travelling unilaterally outside the security bubble of a military embed was a real eye opener. We found a poppy field growing outside the Governor’s mansion and Taliban frolicking on a nearby riverbank. It was no mystery who had the run of the place. In my conversations with locals, the disdain for foreign forces in Afghanistan was palpable. They warned that Helmand would put up fierce resistance if the coalition stepped up its campaign. I knew then that Helmand would be no walk-over.
The outrageous thing is I wasn’t alone in my thinking. The Times investigation detailed how senior military chiefs and civil servants ignored multiple warnings that Britain was grossly underestimating the challenges it would face in Helmand. As one ‘senior serving officer who asked not to be named’ told The Times, ‘We who had bothered to put a bit of work in and had done the estimate realized that we needed much more than we were being given.’
The Times suggests that some military chiefs were putting politics ahead of sound military planning. I can’t say I’m surprised. Back in 2005 and early 2006, the prevailing mood was that all was going swimmingly in Afghanistan; a view I challenged frequently in conversations with military based there. Helmand was a particularly volatile subject. My argument that it was a mistake for British troops to deploy to the province was usually greeted with a mixture of denial, caution and/or veiled anger. Team players, it seemed, didn’t express such opinions.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating now: generals who drop their pants for politicians don’t win military campaigns. The senior brass who signed off on the Helmand mission and those who remained silent after it was abundantly clear mistakes had been made should be held accountable. It is inconceivable to me that former Army Heads General Sir Mike Jackson and General Sir Richard Dannatt retired to lucrative consulting careers with chests full of medals and strings of letters after their names. I for one would like to see them stripped of their titles and medals which is generous considering that two hundred years ago, their tenures may well have ended with blindfolds and shots fired at dawn.
It’s too late for retired military brass to make amends as far as I’m concerned. But senior serving officers can still stand up and be counted — and that doesn’t include giving anonymous quotes to the press. If a senior officer believes that the soldiers he commands are being sacrificed to poor planning, he can and should resign on the spot. During the Falklands campaign, my squadron commander resigned in protest over a scenario that would have killed his men needlessly. The scenario was corrected and the squadron lived to fight another day. In 23 years of military service, it was the only instance I can recall in which a Rupert put his men before his career. He didn’t get an official title for his troubles, but his men awarded him one: HERO.