Frank Ledwidge has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is a very angry man. His book, Losing Small Wars, is a savage indictment of the military leadership that got British soldiers into one impossible situation after another in Iraq and Afghanistan. His conclusion is stark: “The reputation of the British army has been seriously damaged. The British were at sea in both places, devoid of viable doctrine, without awareness of their environment, lacking adequate forces and minus any coherent strategy to pursue. All this was coupled with a hubris which attracted its inevitable riposte – nemesis.”
Ledwidge, a former military intelligence officer, admires the ordinary British soldier and his junior officers, their courage, competence and unflinching willingness to do whatever is demanded of them. “It is the soldier who closes with and kills the enemy, and who faces the kind of dilemma that is never encountered or even considered in civilian life,” he writes. His scorn is reserved for the generals and their failure to produce a convincing strategy for fighting Britain’s latest small wars.
The failure, he argues, is above all intellectual. That is not because the generals are stupid. Most now start their careers with a degree. But thereafter they are driven by the “can do” principle; that it is always better to do something, usually something violent, rather than to do nothing. Unlike their American counterparts, they are not encouraged to express unorthodox views, nor given time off to think seriously about the challenges their profession faces in a changing world.
The British came to Basra in Iraq and Helmand in Afghanistan puffed up by their earlier successes in countering terrorism in Malaya and Northern Ireland. But in those places they were wholly in charge. They controlled the government, they did not have to work with fractious allies, they deployed large numbers of soldiers and substantial and well-trained police force, and they had a great deal of relevant and accurate intelligence built up over many years of local experience. In Ireland, they spoke the language. None of this was true in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As Ledwidge tells it, irritated by British claims of superior expertise and always willing to learn, the Americans developed their own counterinsurgency doctrine for fighting a “war amongst the people”. This states that the main aims are to give the people the security they need to develop their lives in peace and to ensure that, thereafter, they are honestly governed and policed. By undermining the terrorists rather than killing them, you can divide them from the people and the insurgency will fizzle out. The Americans recruited anthropologists to help them understand the concerns of the people among whom they were fighting, to acquire the deep knowledge with which history had endowed the British in Ireland and Malaya. Despite the hype, these ideas are not all that different from British theory and practice at its best. And you do not need to be an anthropologist to understand that, like people anywhere, ordinary Afghans do not take kindly to foreign soldiers breaking into their homes at night, insulting their women, turning everything upside down and taking their men away to unknown destinations. When their families are killed by foreign bombs, they are not mollified by the argument that even more civilians are killed by the Taliban. Instead of being divided from the terrorists, they join them part-time. Soldiers may hand out sweets to village children and assure their parents that they come with the best intentions. But hearts and minds are not won.
It is not only the British who have failed. The French failed for similar reasons in Algeria. So did the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan. So did earlier British counterinsurgency campaigns in Yemen and Palestine. This time it was our politicians, not our generals, who set one inconsistent and unattainable objective after another and made a coherent strategy impossible. They talked of nation-building, of bringing a new democracy to Afghanistan. They told the public that British soldiers were fighting to smash the Taliban in Helmand because most terrorist plots against Britain were hatched on the borders of Pakistan: a startling non sequitur. Their ambitions have crashed to earth. Their modest aim is now to get out with the minimum loss of prestige, leaving behind an Afghan government that is capable of defending itself. Even that will not be easy.
The generals can be blamed, as Ledwidge says, for not insisting that they were given objectives that were clear, consistent, adequately resourced, and achievable within a reasonable time. Instead, they assured ministers that they could do whatever was asked of them, in a misguided desire to show off their prowess and secure their future budgets. They acquiesced, may even have believed, in the dubious proposition that we needed to follow the Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan to pay, in Tony Blair’s distasteful phrase, “a ‘blood price’ to secure [Britain’s] special relationship with America”. No wonder they failed to produce a convincing military plan. It was, however, a failure of moral fibre rather than strategic thinking.
The real problem, however, goes far beyond two failed wars and it is not only the politicians and generals who are to blame. The British public, too, seems to want the country to have aircraft carrier and missile submarines so that we can “punch above our weight”, sending military expeditions hither and yon, provided the price in blood and treasure is not too high. That will not change until Britain finally works out what sort of country it is – a floundering former empire still dreaming of a global reach, or a serious medium-sized power with a realistic view of its national interests. Then it can decide what kind of armed forces it really needs and is prepared to pay for. Meanwhile, Britain will have no coherent strategy and its foreign and defence policy will remain in its present sad muddle.
Rodric Braithwaite is author of ‘Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989’ (Profile) and former chairman of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee
Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, by Frank Ledwidge, Yale University Press, RRP£20, 304 pages