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Maj-Gen (ret.) Christopher Elliot CB, MBE
Author of “High Command – British Military Leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan”
Dr Mike Martin
Author of “An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict”
Research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society
1 – 2pm, Tuesday 18th August 2015
Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you very much for coming out today to this Henry Jackson Society event on Britain’s nine eleven wars. I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating discussion, and we have two absolutely excellent panellist with us today.
My name is Robin Simcox, I’m a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. We have with us on my left Christopher Elliot CB, MBE, who was commissioned into the Royal Engineer’s and retired as a Major General from the British army in 2002, having been latterly the Director of Military Operations, Commander of the sixth Armoured Brigade, Director of the High Command and Staff Course, Director General of Army Training and Recruiting, and the Director General of Doctrine and Development. He is currently a visiting professor of Cranfield University and an associate fellow of RUSI here in London. He has just published, “High Command: British Military Leadership during the Iraq and Afghan Wars”, which was written while a research fellow at the universities of Oxford and Reading.
On my right we have Dr Mike Martin, who spent almost two years in Helmand as a British Army Officer, during which time he worked as an advisor to several senior British officers, and pioneered the British military’s human terrain and cultural capability – a means of understanding the Helmandi population and influencing it. He also worked as an advisor to several British commanders of Task Force Helmand. Dr Martin is the author of “An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict”, and holds a doctorate in war studies from King’s College London.
Both books are going to be on sale after the event, normally twenty five pounds but twenty pounds each for those of us here today, and come highly recommended.
We are going to pass over to each speaker who is going to talk for around seven minutes, and then we will have what I’m sure will be a fascinating Q&A.
So without any further ado I shall pass over to my first speaker.
Thank you very much Robin, and thank you very much for inviting me, and thank you very much to everybody else for turning up to hear me talk about my miserable manuscript.
In my book I tried to unravel the conundrum about why good, able, well intentioned, public servants, military, civil servant, and politicians were not rewarded with greater success in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was based on my own experience, and I was of course in a unique position because I knew all the people who had been in control of those operations, I left just before the thing started in 2001. So I had a relationship with them, and they were very open in telling me what they felt. I had to make sure in my book that I respected that privileged position.
So I have been criticised in not going far enough and not nailing the guilty bastards, but that I thought would have been unfair. Very early on I came across a fundamental truth, which was that actually I would have done no better, and that there was something greater than the individuals that was at play here.
As a starting point, or within three months of getting into it, I listed the military mistakes that would have got you sacked from Sandhurst as a cadet that were made by the British High Command during this period. If you have the patience I will just go through them with you, there are about eight of them.
The first military mistake, was the United Kingdom High Command never sent enough troops for their field commanders to grasp the initiative from cleaver enemies. They allowed a cap on numbers to be imposed based on political whim, what the politicians thought the market would bare, not military necessity. So they were told its nine thousand troops or a brigade or something. They didn’t start from the other end, and say how many are required to do this? So they left the commanders too often only reacting to events, even though British forces throughout fought superbly.
The result of this was that in Basra, towards the end, five hundred soldiers on the street at any one time were supposed to dominate a violent insurgency in a city of two million people. Which was three times the size of Belfast, where within ten years previously we had used thirteen battalions of infantry, and two police aid patrols for peace. High Command new this, it was in their recent history. Likewise how were six hundred combat troops in Helmand expected to pacify it when Helmand is bigger than the county of Wales, or the principality of Wales, and far more populous?
So the charge here was that political whim had been allowed to distort military necessity. By not expressing the requirement firmly enough the military themselves prevented themselves from having sufficient resources to be successful.
Do you want me to pause?
For those who’ve just arrived I’m Christopher Elliot. I wrote the book underneath here, and I’m talking about the High Command of the British Forces in Iraq and I said how pleased I am to be here. There is nothing else in-between of relevance.
I’m just going through the eight military mistakes that the High Command made in prosecuting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I speculated that if a cadet at Sandhurst made the same mistakes he would have been back turned or thrown out. So there is a reason for that.
Secondly the UK High Command broke the rules for successful combat by not having sufficient reserves. Reserves are very important. If you suddenly come under pressure you have something to deal with the situation, if you’re suddenly presented with an opportunity you have something to exploit the opportunity with. By not having any nominated reserves or ready reserves at all both of those things were taken away from the field commanders.
It also had a pernicious effect, because in Helmand we discovered we were suddenly being over faced by a much larger force of Taliban than we expected. So when our platoon houses came under attack our only recourse was to use heavy weapons, because of course we couldn’t allow our soldiers to be over run, and because we didn’t have the reserves to go bolster them up. So we used attack helicopters, artillery, bombs, missiles, etcetera, etcetera. In doing so we killed many civilians that got in the way, and so the act of not sending enough soldiers had that effect as well.
Reserves also allow you take advantage of a tactical opportunity when it appears. In operation Sinbad, initiated by Major General Richard Sherriff in Basra, it just ground to a halt although it was succeeding, because he didn’t have the reserves to see it through.
So although the UK set out to win hearts and minds, the forces sent meant that the UK also, unthinking and unintentionally, killed or displaced too many civilians, or disrupted their lives. Whose emotions we wanted to win over, and whose families we wished to persuade. Complete contradiction there.
Fourth the High Command didn’t make cultural issues or gaining intelligence a high enough priority. So soldiers too often were operating too blind to local situations. Yet good cultural understanding and excellent intelligence are the bed rock of successful counterinsurgency, and the UK knew that, it was in its DNA that, that was a fact of life. Mike Martin’s book, which he is going to talk about after me, illustrates that in spades. A properly functioning strategy machine in the Ministry of Defence should have pointed this out, this basic contradiction, at a very early stage.
Fifth the United Kingdom preached the rule of law as a mature democracy itself. At the same time it tolerated or colluded with highly corrupted officials and policemen who prayed on their citizens who were rather hoping for fairness, justice, and pact Britannica instead. It didn’t happen, and the UK of course was seen as no better. We were seen to be conniving with them and supporting them.
Six, the High Command agreed to the MAD arrangement, of being agents of economic destruction in Helmand, the poppy crop. That’s fair enough, but at the same time they agreed to provide the military force to go there, that was going to promote stability and development. These two things were completely incompatible, and it meant that if you go and destroy a farmer’s field he’s not going to be receptive at all to the idea that you could have come here to make his life better. That should have been shown up in the strategic planning before they went, and they should have gone somewhere else. Indeed it was highlighted in the military Reccy report that was done before hand, but the High Command did not follow that.
Lastly, and this is rather emotive thing to say. The High Command knew they had responsibility beforehand for the citizens of Basra under international law, Coffey Anan had told them on the eve of war if you invade Iraq I have no comment about that, but if you invade Iraq just remember in international law you are responsible for the citizens of Iraq thereafter. Yet the UK, keen on withdrawing and cutting its losses did a deal with the murderess Jaish al Mahdi militia. Handed over the city and the citizens to that militia on the pretence that things were improving. Causing great distress to those citizens and some deaths. Until President Malakai, sometimes for the right or the wrong reasons, then had operation charge the knights, reoccupied and got rid of the Cham. For us to do that was a disgrace. The result was in both theatres the UK had bitten of more than it could chew.
Well how could that happen? Well what I’m going to do now, in the last one minute is just put up the headlines, and then I’ll ask you in questions if you have an interest in it, to follow up my thoughts on that.
At the root of the problem was that Britain has struggled, for a long time, to work out its proper place in the modern world. So the High Command were never quite sure what they were supposed to be achieving. Britain had been a great power and even today she’s one of the top seven economies in the world. She’s culturally dominate in a number of areas, and the use of the English language has been one of the cradles of democratic traditions. But how did those vague notions translate into instructions for the High Command in the absence of others?
What was clear was the special relationship with the United States was an important, preeminent, even a policy objective of the British government at the time. So if the US went to war, we would go to war as well, if the US was fighting we would be fighting. Well that had two problems. First we would be the junior partner in a collation, and largely following the hymn sheet of the collation leader. Second to be fighting as an instruction is not very useful as a mission statement given to tactical Brigade Commanders. As a result very Brigade Commander tried something different, often very different, and there was a huge change in approach.
Why did that happen? Well the MOD was hugely talented, but was an institution set against itself, and I can talk about that in some more detail.
The three services fought endlessly over the budget, and the chiefs’ loyalties were split. The civil servants wished for greater authority, but were uncertain once they got it, under centralisation, how to use it. There was insufficient transparency about who was proposing what. There was a looping of ideas between Number Ten, and the Cabinet Office, back to the Ministry of Defence. It was never quite clear who actually had asked for what.
The military staff were dealing with matters as they rose, day by day, by day, they solved today’s problem. They were insufficient in thinking strategically about where they were trying to get to, and working back from there to provide day to day actions.
How could they go on for seven years preparing the troops so inadequately in cultural and intelligence matters? But they did. The CDS who was the strategic commander didn’t involve his chief of staff’s sufficiently in what he was doing. The chief’s and the CDS were poorly educated in strategy, it wasn’t really part of their job, they were operators. The CDS and the chiefs had poor understanding of the government process in Whitehall, they were often outflanked by people who’d been there for longer.
Finally, this is a rather technical point. The operational level of command, and the operational commanders, the man who can sniff the battles, see what’s going on, and yet is sufficiently far remote that he’s not involved in battle, but he’s there within the political frame work of theatre that’s being operated in. The operational command cruelly and tragically for our British forces, until very late in the day, was back in Northwood three thousand miles away.
Well that’s an impossibly brief skim over it, but I’ve eight minutes.
Fantastic, Dr Mike Martin over to you.
Dr Mike Martin
Thank you General Chris, it was good of you to paint such a rosy picture of what happened.
So where General Chris looked at the top looking down if you like, I’m going to look at the bottom looking up. I’m really going to gloss over the three main points in my seven or eight minutes.
Firstly I’m going to describe the problem as I saw it, which was one of understanding. Then I’m going to talk about some of the reasons I think that occurred. What’s interesting actually, listening to General Chris, is that many of those reasons are actually quite similar at the top as they are at the bottom. Finally I’m going to ask are we making the same mistakes. Because violent extremism hasn’t gone anywhere, the Taliban are out of fashion, but ISIS is in fashion, and in ideological movements in tribal societies, this is unlikely to be something that goes away over the next fifty years.
So firstly the problem. We basically defined the war as a good bad, government Taliban thing. We just heard we were overrun by hordes of Taliban, it’s a short hand you’ll all recognise it from the media. The legitimate government of Afghanistan supported by NATO and the West, and they are facing an Islamic movement that’s bent on destroying women’s rights, and growing poppy, and throwing acid in girls faces. That is a dichotomous, binary description of the conflict.
If you speak to Helmandie’s, or in fact any Afghan, what you’ll find is what’s going on is the extension of a tribal civil war, mostly started over two hundred years ago. Particularly kicked off in 1978 when the communist overthrow happened, and in 1979 when the Russian’s came. Rather than seeing it as, and I’m simplifying here, democracy versus violent extremism, actually what you have is, village A versus village B, or tribe A versus tribe B, and they take on these ideological cloaks if you like in order to gain resources.
What that means is these different villages, or clans, or groupings, or military entrepreneurs, manipulate our understanding, which is simplistic, and say, “ah yes we are true democrats now, and we need to go deal with the Taliban in that village”. What they’re actually saying is that other village stole some of our poppy fifty years ago and we’re using you to get back at them.
So why did this happen? Well I think actually many of the reasons are the ones that General Chris identified. The military is excellent at many things, and ones of things it is best at is group think, it’s so good at it. There simply isn’t a culture where good ideas can also come from the bottom. Mostly the good ideas come from the top, and people follow those ideas as they pass down the chain of command. That’s problematic if at the very top, the first link in the chain of command if you like, is that between elected politicians, and General’s, and officials. That gap in between those two, that’s were strategy is formed.
I recommend all of you if you haven’t already done so, to read Lord Allan Brooke’s diaries on the Second World War. He was Churchill’s chief military adviser and he wrote a day by day account of the Second World War where he explained, through example, how strategy was formed, and that simply didn’t happen.
From the American’s through our politician’s a set of unrealistic expectations was set and they were not challenged by senior people in the military, by senior people in the FTO, and senior people in the Department of Development. As General Chris said they were too busy fighting for their budgets, and one way to fight for our budget is to say yes I can do this. Rather than what they should have been saying, which was yes well if you’re telling us to go win people’s hearts and minds at the same time that you’re telling us to go burn down their poppy crop that will not work. A small child would tell you that will not work.
We were also quiet careless, and it’s hard to know what comes first the carelessness, or the absence of strategy and following what the people above you tell you what to do. We were very careless, most of our intelligence came from secrets, either we listened to people’s phones or we ran agents, a lot of those agents we paid. Again in a highly fractured society such as Helmand it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you start paying people for information they will start to tell you what you want to hear. That is another mechanism through which we were continuously manipulated.
We were also carless at this end. Part of my research, I went to the British Library and dug out the old India Office records, many of which related to Helmand, including journeys of political officers who had travelled through Helmand in the seventeen hundreds and had described how the economy worked. For instance how land rights worked, how land mortgaging worked. Casually as they were coming up from the stacks I asked when they’d last been pulled, and they’d last come up in 1992. This was 2011, which meant we’d been in Afghanistan for a decade without having gone to the British Library and looked at our own records.
You laugh but it’s incredibly careless.
So are we making the same mistakes? Bluntly yes we are, I’ll talk first about Libya. When Libya kicked off in the beginning of 2011, and various agreements were made, and responsibility to protect, and so on and so forth. It didn’t seem to me that people were talking about the divisions that were inherent within Libyan society. Whether they are tribal, or are they rural urban, or are they those groups Gadhafi favoured or didn’t favour. If you look at the history through the Italian occupation, through the Second World War, through early independence you will see that resistance and internal conflict in Libya fractures along those lines. Come forward four years and we see that the country has fractured along those lines, this was not a surprise in 2011.
Moving on to Syria, again this is a conflict, when you read about it in the newspapers, it is described in ideological terms. People talk about Jabhat al Nusra, people talk about Daeash, there’s a whole flavour of different groups in Syria. Yet the distinctions between them, apart from the Kurds there slightly separate, but the distinctions between most of the Jihadi groups are painted in ideological terms. I would argue that if you’ve been fighting for five years, and your town has been destroyed and your family killed ideology is not what is driving you, revenge, protection, security, survival, these are the things that are driving you. So to still describe what may have start out as an ideological uprising, to use ideology to describe those divisions now I think again is careless.
Finally, my final point brings it back home, ISIS in Afghanistan. This has been painted as many commanders in Afghanistan have joined ISIS because they feel that the Taliban is not sufficiently extreme, or that the Taliban is signing a deal with the government in Kabul and so therefore a bunch of commanders are no longer able to do that so they must work with ISIS.
I was interested in this because it seems to refute almost all of my experiences and all of my research in Afghanistan, and I was looking for a way to understand it better. Luckily the Americans provided it by killing a guy called Rauf in Helmand, whom they depicted as a senior ISIS commander for the South of Afghanistan. One who, as I said, felt that the ideology of the Taliban wasn’t sufficiently extreme and that Daeash offered a suitable outpouring for his views on extremism, Jihadi, and democracy.
Unfortunately Rauf’s got a bit of a history, and you can track his life history in my book. He originally started out as being mentored by a guy who was an ex-communist, as in many of these societies patronage, patron client relationships form, and he followed his patron through several ideological shifts. They actually went through three or four different Jihadi groups until they ended up in Helmand in charge of the town of Girishk in 1994. Then they sold out the Taliban because they had an argument with the people who were running the province from Lashkar, so they just switched sides and went whole sale over the Taliban.
Then Rauf, by this point he had been through about four or five different ideologies, he then ends up fighting in the north and gets picked up by the Americans, and spends sometime in Guantanamo. He tells the Americans that he is a bread deliverer rather than a serious commander. Of course the Americans didn’t have a clue who they had in Guantanamo, so they eventually realised him 2007.
He then immediately went over and became an operational commander in the Nasaan insurgency operating in Quetta. Fast forward slightly further, still working with his patron who by this point had reconciled with the Afghan government, at the same time as financing groups in the north of Helmand to attack the Kajaki dam. We now find out that the Afghan government are denouncing Rauf as being a senior ISIS commander.
Why are they doing that? Well the Taliban are out of favour, ISIS are in favour, so we need to enhance the links between commanders in Afghanistan and ISIS cause that’s the way to keep foreign governments, particularly the American’s, interested. It comes full circle, after a long and illustrious career of fighting almost everyone, and believing in almost everything, Rauf got killed by a drone in February this year in Helmand.
On that point I’d like to finish.
Fantastic stuff, terrific introduction remarks. We’ve got plenty of time for Q and A, I’d just ask if when asking questions that you give any affiliation you may have, and you keep it to a question as opposed to a statement please.
I’ll take the first three if we have…The gentleman there, the gentleman next to him, anybody else?
We’ll just start with two, please go ahead sir
My name is Hassan Al-Damluji of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
It’s tough to choose between my two questions, but I’ll follow your instructions and keep just the one. Which is, clearly there is the politicians and they’re important to public as the first link in the chain. The public are very, very clear on this, they want you to solve all the problems without killing any foreigners, or any Brits, or firing any shots, but keeping us completely safe. So that’s the instruction.
I suppose there are sensible people then wonder do you go in in these situations or not? After all your thinking about specific conflicts that you’ve looked at I’d love to hear your conclusions, because that’s the big question for us isn’t as a nation. Do you go in or not? Or probably more accurately when would you, and when wouldn’t you?
The name’s Euan Grant, I’m a former customs and excise intelligence analyst who’s worked in Pakistan and in ex-soviet central Asian states.
My question is, following on from the very personal points you both raised, relating to speed loss of institutional memory. Do you have any comment on that? Who is listening to you within the armed forces, within the MOD? More widely within government, and I would define government rather broadly.
Perhaps equally important, still the same question, who is not listening to you?
Okay so, to go in or not, and institutional memory.
If you’d like to kick off, two great questions.
I’m going to leave the second one I think to Mike, but to Hassan do military solve the problems? No of course they don’t. Do we go in, or don’t we go in?
One of the clauses in justice war, and I’m not saying you should follow a religious description on this, and they go through, is it right, etc. etc., but one of them is you shouldn’t go to war if you can’t achieve a victory. Because it recognises there so much destruction in war that it’s not even worth starting if you don’t have a clear idea, or think you can do it.
When you look at the destruction that has resulted in our entry into Afghanistan, by the west, and our entry in Iraq, and on the balance sheet in hindsight must be it wasn’t.
Now where would I lay a blame there? Well I’m pretty generous with people that didn’t know that was going to happen and that sort of thing. I’m not generous to the fact that they should have worked out that the post kenotic stage in Iraq was going to be a thing. They all believed Chalabi, go in there and people will be putting coronations in the end of your rifles, and you’ll be welcomed. He was completely wrong, he was obviously self-serving, and might even have been an Iranian agent, you don’t know.
Do you know the block I mean, Chalabi?
I know the block you mean, I don’t think he is an Iranian agent.
Okay, fine throw away comment, but he promised things that didn’t go. I think that the depth of analysis about his status and that sort of thing, wasn’t sufficient. My principle point in my book is that you can’t do this casually, you just can’t say can we do something? Because the military are going to reply looking at their funding next year and say well we will have a look at it, looks difficult, but I think we can do something. That’s completely illiterate.
What somebody should say is our policy objective is this, can you deliver something to deliver that policy in a military strategy? What are the risks? What are the time scales? What are the likelihood of it going wrong? What is the likelihood of success? So I think that the whole decision to go to war is far too lose, by good well intentioned people.
The speed of the loss of, by Euan, institutional memory. I spoke to one officer in the Ministry of Defence. I’d be quiet curious as whether they think I’m a turn pitch, or some sort of fifth columnist, or something. Universally there’s been great support, thank god somebody’s written about this, but the serving people at the top, one very, very senior chap, I said have you read my book? I knew him very well, and he said “most unhelpful, we’re going through the STSR at the moment and criticism is not welcome”. I thought god what planet are you on?
I spoke to another chap, another very senior officer I’d known when he was a youngster, when he was a Lieutenant Colonel, I was Major General, and the master servant relationship, he was totally courteous to me. He said “It’s a marvellous book and I very much enjoyed reading it, but it simply couldn’t happen now”.
Dr Mike Martin
Hassan, public expectation and then not willing to pay the price, that’s the same as health or anything else. The public simply doesn’t understand that government is probably quite difficult.
So I think I agree with Chris, the most thing is, is it possible? That’s what strategy is about. When the politicians say these are our aims, well that’s fine, we’ve all got lots of aims. The question is are they realistic aims? That’s where that discourse between senior officials, and commanders, and politicians, must occur.
I’d summarise all of that and say only if it’s absolutely critical should you go to war. Not because it’s only worth gambling and taking those risks if it is critical, but actually when it’s critical it sharpens people’s minds, and they get it right. The reason we won the Second World War was because it was vital, and everything went into it. This was not vital, this was not vital to us. It was vital to the people of Iraq, and the people of Afghanistan, but it wasn’t vital to the people who served there. It was interesting where it was a career stepping stone. I don’t think you should gamble with something like that, that isn’t absolutely critical to people.
Institutional memory? One of my favourite stories about this, obviously the Brigades change over every six months in Helmand. It became clear it on about the eleventh rotation that every six months the IT people took the hold hard drive out and put it in a cupboard and then put a new one it because we were running out of space. So we actually plugged them all into a server and we suddenly found we had this wonderful mass of data that we didn’t have before.
The army’s not interested, the reaction to my book which they funded, when they tried to ban it, the army is simply not interested in learning. No matter what they say it’s not true.
Grim. Wow lot’s more questions. I’ll take another three, gentleman at the front, gentleman at the back on the right there, and there’s a hand right at the very back that I will go to. Yes, yes you as well.
Fred Douglas contributor to the BBC, writing blogs.
If you were to compare your diagnoses of what fighting mistakes that the Brits made, and look at the ones the Americans made, are they roughly the same? Is that because one’s tracking the other because of the relationship to the power, special relationship, or is it just to do with the constraints of western war making in an environment like we were in?
The second is, if we have places within the bureaucracy like Doctorate Shrivenham, which is meant to take the lessons from Telic seven and plug them into Telic eight. Is it not doing that job, or are people not listening? How would you diagnose the mistakes being made in an institutional setting that should be sorted out?
Nick Bosing merits professor of health policy at Imperial College.
Obviously many of the causalities were caused by mines and the various explosives. Why was it that the Royal Engineers who after all had three hundred years of experience dealing with these things were not really able to use technology and expertise to minimise the level of casualties? Wasn’t that there role?
Finally the lady right at the back.
My name is Dina, I’m a political analyst.
My question is, how would you evaluate Britain’s intervention in Libya? Do you think that went well? Given the existentialism, given the divisions, the inherent division’s in society there.
How do you evaluate the lack on intervention, if you see that way, in Syria? Whether Britain has any policies, strategies, to gain from any intervention?
Not related I know to Britain at all, but given that we’re talking about the region, how would you evaluate the war in Yemen, the ongoing war in Yemen? Is there a strategy, and where is it going?
Libya, and Syria, and Yemen may keep you busy.
Dr Mike Martin
Age before beauty?
I just want to come back to something Mike said, I was talking to David Berness earlier, and he would agree with Mike. I don’t think the army is quiet so blind to institutionally blind to learning as has been suggested. I think there are pockets of it, I think that the military mind tends to template things, and doesn’t look under the stones, and all that sort of thing. But I think they are quiet eager, very eager, to try and found out the lessons, because it’s so painful for them when things go wrong. You have to ask why the lessons of years of history then failed to emerge, and that’s a deeper question. But I don’t think that they are either stupid, or negligent in that, there’s a deeper reason going into that.
Was the war fighting by the US and the UK the same? Yes and no, I mean in general they had similar approaches. The US was definitely much quicker at learning how things have changed, and the UK probably had a less muscle bound army to begin with or forces. Which meant that it was easier for it to adapt for the counter-insurgency, or whatever you like to call, it phase. The Americans used fire power a lot to begin with, but they learnt very quickly.
I think there’s a big difference between the top commanders of the Americans and the British. In as much as that the American commanders have posts which allow them sort of vice regal authority, this educates them into thinking about the thing as a hole. Whereas, for obvious reasons, the British never have those sort of posts. So I think the American commanders have an impressive ability to think more strategically then us, and it’s no fault of the UK, but the UK must repair that damage. The US are defiantly better educated in higher strategic studies, than the British.
I only hope that one of the things that comes out of this, is that the British get their act together and stop thinking that operational skills are a substitute for strategic thinking, it simply isn’t.
Professor Bosingcret, why did the Royal Engineers not do better with mine clearance? I think they did brilliantly, the problem was bigger than them. But you believe there were technologies that they didn’t use?
Well the Royal Engineers, as you know, have got a tremendous record over the years, and here was the problem which was not solved.
No it wasn’t solved because the problem was so great, why did they use these bombs and things? It was the asymmetric way to overcome the might and power of the occupying force of British. But there as a very, very, active, strong, diligent, approach in trying to solve this. But if you’re putting in bombs with no mental trace to them, your setting them off with mobile phones and other bits and pieces, there is a limit to what you can do.
In fact I was surprised how far they managed to limit the problem of bombs, to the degree they did. Cause we were absolutely on the back foot and as soon as we got some radio device that stopped them doing that they’d come up with another idea. It was exactly the same with the IRA, there was a continual technological war between the two sides. Who can think of a better way of doing this, because it was our one vulnerability and all the other strengths we had couldn’t be applied to it. As far as I know I don’t think that the problem was too great.
Dina you and I must go out to lunch or something because that’s a huge question. I think its Mike area more than mine.
I just want to recount a discussion I had with General Lord Richards as he is now, who was the CDS, slightly younger than me, I knew him extremely well, so we had a free conversation about this. He told me with the national Security Council things had got very much better. He also told me in the next sentence that when they went into Libya he told the Prime Minister, “Prime Minister we must have a strategy”. He then said again, it’s in his book Taking Command, he recounts this, that we must have a strategy. The Prime Minister’s Secretary at some stage said, sent a note back to the CDS saying, CDS you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking. You might remember that note. He was switching him off saying, I’ve heard what you’re going to say but it’s not your business.
Following on from what Mike said, what happened after that was it took an operational level decision, which was getting rid of Gadhafi with this huge vacuum of what to do next, and they didn’t fill in there, and they didn’t have a whole of government approach. That shows the National Security Council, this brave new world that’s going to solve everything, has made exactly the same mistakes as their predecessors. They’ve done a military operation, limited, which was successful without thinking how they will fill the military, security spaces that they created, and what it means further downstream.
I would use Syria as another example, and I hypothesise here. So we threatened President Assad with bombing him because he’d gasses his people. What happens if the House of Commons had not stopped that, and we’d gone ahead and bombed, surgically, the gas plant? President Assad would have probably have said well fine, well I’m taking no notice and he’d gone on and done another gas attack if that’s what he wanted to do. What would we have done then? What was our strategy?
Well our strategy ran out after the first thing, which was just to bomb, and it wasn’t a strategy at all. So we would have then been double or quits, place cards on the table. So either we would have had to admit defeat, it would have been a failure, or we’d have had to bomb more. In bombing more, if Assad said well I’m hunkering down, as he’s shown himself very able to do, and I’m going to accept this punishment. What would have done then? Where would our strategy have led us to? We would have then invaded wouldn’t we?
Now I’m not making any comment as to whether invasion would have been good and bad, but if you’re going to invade a country you have to have a strategy that leads you to that. You don’t get into invasion simply because you took one action here, which led to all the others. Because you’re reacting to his events.
I’m afraid that’s rather a long answer. On Yemen no comment.
Dr Mike Martin
US verses UK mistakes, are they the same? Are they tracking each other? Yes. In Helmand we were a brigade operating under an American division, we were literally following their orders. They came into Helmand later than we did, we went in 2006, and they came in conventionally in 2009-10. By that point we were starting to grips with some of the tribes, and the land use, and we took all that to them, said “it’s becoming more Nuance this picture”, they just told us to piss off. There’s the Taliban and they’re the bad guys, and there’s the government and they’re the good guys and we’re going to support them.
They just sort of blundered in, went up into Northern Helmand and killed lots of people. By 2012 they were going we’ve got this really good tribal understanding of what’s going on in Helmand, it was tragic.
Institutional setting of learning. I don’t really know.
Engineers versus IED’s. The one comment I would make is it’s not just down to engineers, there’s a whole sort of process where you’re trying to disrupt the network of bomb makers. So that relies on intelligence, and you’re also trying to do your technological thing, you’re trying to find them and defeat them in the ground, and all kinds of stuff.
My experience having served in Helmand including on the ground is that I don’t think they could have put more of a focus from protecting us from IED’s, it consumed everything. Everything was about counter IED. So much so that it actually stop us, where previously we used to use our Special Forces team to strike senior commanders in the Taliban because we were trying to exacerbate their feuds, and splits, and trying to get this very subtle nuance targeting strategy. As soon as the IED targeting phase came in, which was about 2008-2009, we stopped doing all of that, which requires a huge intelligence effort to understand all the splits and the shifts in the movement based out of Pakistan. Instead we just kept on hitting people who were anything to with IED’s. We worked lower, and lower, and lower, so by the end we were basically killing people who were holding the electrical tape for the guy who was doing up the IED.
I think that had a huge effect on protecting British soldiers lives, but it was winning the battle to lose the war because it was totally un-strategic all you were doing was strategically defensive.
Dina, I’m not going to comment on Yemen because I don’t know anything about it. How would I evaluate the interaction in Libya versus non-intervention in Syria? I think it probably comes back to two comments I would make. How possible is it to stabilise Syria versus how possible is it to stabilise Libya? Probably easier to stabilize Libya, long coastline so on and so forth, not so big.
I think the more pertinent question is, and this is a bit harsh but I think it’s true, has the west got bigger fish to fry? I suspect they look at Syria and go, I’d really like to solve that, but I suspect Obama is worrying about other things, so he doesn’t want to get dragged in. It’s too difficult, it’s probably not possible, particularly now, it’s very unfortunate, but I think that’s what’s going on.
Gentleman there, and gentleman there, and the lady there finally. I know it’s a lot of questions, I’ll try to get to everyone as best as I can.
David Page, the Small Wars Journal.
I’m very curious with what’s gone on today. First of all the Unites States has actually been on the ground, in the Middle East, for twenty five years now. We were on the ground in Afghanistan shortly after 2001, all be it not in Helmand until 2006.
My concern in actual fact like you said, it’s absolutely essential for us to be involved when it’s vital to our interests. The one thing that drives the United Kingdom’s involvement in both places is retaining the relationship with the United States.
So in that case we haven’t appreciated that the American’s are now more weary, and thinking themselves is this actually worth the candle? How do you see the future? Because unfortunately I see a lot of what America does as not political but as revenge, and we just happen to follow them along as they go there.
Nick Harris, member of Chatham House.
We’ve got one hundred, two hundred years history of involvement in various places in that kind of arch, from Afghanistan over to North Africa. We follow different strategies at different times depending on what seems to be in fashion but nothing actually seems to make an improvement. Is it time to accept there really isn’t a solution to a lot of these problems? Like the two hundred year old tribal conflict in Afghanistan, and just say get on with it.
My name is Di’Natalia I’m also a member of Chatham house. I’m an Iraqi been living here for thirty odd years. My main concern is Iraq.
The campaign there, the initial campaign in 2003 was highly successful because there was no Iraqi army, no high cover, no air cover, they went into three wars within ten years. The Iraqi army was not very difficult to defat.
The problem is not holding the ground, we can see now with ISIS the small Iraqi army that has been trained to take over the town of Baiji where the refinery is. They spent many weeks to take that refinery, and then they lose it on Thursday, is there a lack of training of holding the grounds? Because they didn’t hold the grounds or the borders in 2003, and now they’re not holding the grounds, when they are freeing a town or an area.
Dr Mike Martin
Okay so certain Small Wars Journal. It’s interesting you’re right we did go into the most recent adventures because our primary concern was to maintain our relationship with the US, but we acquitted ourselves so badly that we failed in our primary aims.
So this is where it all gets a bit confused because I think probably that was the reason Mr Blair thought this US relation is important so that’s why we’re going to do this. That wasn’t necessarily communicated, this is where you start believing your own rhetoric. So that’s what you’re really doing, but you tell everyone that what you’re doing is removing a tyrant, or saving the children, or whatever it is that you’re doing but people don’t realise that what it’s actually about is the US. There’s a bit of a confusion.
Are they silly? Are they revengeful? I don’t know, Obama’s pivot to Asia seems fairly sensible from the American point of view. Are we going to follow them to Asia? Nope we haven’t had any interest over in that part of the world in a long time.
Do we just let, for example Afghanistan, get on with it because with two hundred years civil war? Arguably British strategy in the eighteen hundred’s visa vie British India and keeping Afghanistan as a buffer state against the Russian’s, arguably that was a very successful period of strategy actually. We tend to get hooked up on the defeats, Maiwand’s, also in the 1840’s the retreat from Kabul. Actually they were probably small prices to pay to keep the enemy, who we saw at that time, several hundred miles beyond our frontier. Of course it was about defending British India, all strategy then was about defending British India. So arguably that was quite successful.
Rather than just letting them get on with it, because Britain does have interests, the Falkland Islands in an interest, Gibraltar is an interest, and I’m sure there are interest’s around the Mediterranean basin as well. They just need to be clearly defined, then need to have a discussion about whether we are able to put sufficient resources in to defend those interest’s, or influence those we need to influence.
The Iraqi army, of which I am no expert at all. Is not the problem that it’s not necessarily an Iraqi army, but it’s a Shia army, and is that a problem? Because there’s a significant Sunni minority in Iraq.
Very briefly if we’re going to follow as Gurkha, that’s fair enough, as a junior member of a collation, and I’m not arguing as whether that’s the right policy or not. But I think we have to much better articulate to ourselves what’s needed of us. Have a sub strategy which address our own concerns simply rather then turning up on the parade square as the Gurkha. So it’s laziness what we’ve done so far, we haven’t actually worked out what we want to do.
The second thing is that two hundred years of history we’ve been demonstrating yet again that in wars that are not of national survival fire power has limited effect. That simply bombing people is not going to produce a solution. It might produce a temporary change of direction, and it’s the will of the people that’s far more important. We seem to be very un-sophisticated in our policy approach and sometimes in our military approach at understanding that.
Then lastly the very pertinent question about the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army fought of course to a standstill against the Iranian army with huge causalities on both sides. So there is no doubt that the Iraqi army is capable of fighting extremely well, but the policy of Saddam Hussain was once the American’s had defiantly committed themselves he would just melt away. As far as I remember he let his whole air force go to his arch enemy Iran on the first day of the war. So he gave away his air cover and also he clearly left instructions to his brigades to fight a bit and then to melt away themselves. So it isn’t a lesson to the relative fighting prowess of the Iraqi army.
The point that Mike has made is very important, is that if you want an army to fight, and they’re now coming forward to the actions around Mosul, and Ramadi, and the other ones, then they have to have a will to fight, and that is based upon a national identity that this is worth it. That may be missing in the present Iraqi army. The national cohesion to fight for the state of Iraq seems to be less than is necessary for people to stand and fight as well.
What is not being given the right publicity is that a number of Iraqi divisions in recent times have fought extremely well, and have fought themselves almost to a standstill. But because they were fighting in an envelope where nobody was going to support them they were not successful.
Dr Mike Martin
Think if I could pick up on just one point that you said about wars of national survival and bombing. This is a theoretical point but I think it’s very important. Violence is just a method of communication in warfare, the same as in a political debate, rhetorical devices are a method of communication. It sounds a bit glib to say that, but when you kill something, or bomb someone what message are you trying to send?
Too often we think about violence, bombing, cruise missiles, as being an end in themselves. Look at the response, it’s always disgust, we’re going to send cruise missiles because they used poison gas or whatever. Nobody was discussing actually what realistic message are we sending? Because there not listening to the words anymore, so what message are we sending? Then you think about the means of how you’re going to do it, and that’s the bombs and so on and so forth.
Okay, I’ll make sure we get one last round in. Sir there, yes, gentleman at the front, and the lady at the back there who’s had her hand up a few times.
Sir please go ahead.
Andrew Brookes, former RAF pilot, and associate fellow at RUSI.
General you said some time ago that the British army, Richard Daners etcetera, volunteered almost to go to Afghanistan. Great sponge to that fact they were driven out of Basra with their tale between their legs. Did you find any evidence that, that sort of conversation had taken place?
Two how did we get stuck in at Helmand anyway with such inadequate resources, when our wily French cousin’s took a much softer option?
Michael Levine, The Henry Jackson Society.
Following on from what the General opened up with, twice in his opening comments he spoke about the tremendous number of civilian casualties because of the heavy handed way, whether there was any other I don’t know. I don’t how many people we are talking about, but I do know a colleague of both of yours whom I’m sure you both know very well, Colonel Richard Kemp. Often takes a very positive stance on coming to the support of Israel when it is attacked, because of civilian causalities which arise in Gaza, which is not a million miles away from the arena we are talking about.
Now he I believe was the commander of the British army in Afghanistan for a period. He speaks at the UN, he speaks to any number of audiences because he believes that it’s very untruthful of the way Israel is pillared in view of what it attempts to do to protect civilian and human life. I think he said it’s done more than any other army in the history of warfare in this particular area.
I don’t hear of any other, because maybe you have no interest in flying the flag for the benefit of Israel, but I think with friends that are coming along like Mr Corbyn, or whatever, we’re going to need a lot of people who are prepared to tell the truth, let’s put it that way, which I believe it is. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m graduating and I’m going to go to Oxford University.
Colonial wars referring to how they’re fought now, involve a large numbers of knowledgeable of local soldiers and officials. How, if it all are we going today provide knowledge for such a wide range of arenas where we might intervene in future?
Great, okay I shall leave it to you to tuck into those varied and tricky questions.
Right Andrew, were they too keen to volunteer go to Basra to expunge Iraq? I don’t think there’s any truth in that, but they were not, not keen to go to Afghanistan. The British intension was to try and bolster NATO, and give NATO a new strength and relevance. NATO taking over in Afghanistan seemed to be a very good idea.
So the Ministry of Defence produced a mathematical calculation that said if everything was going alright we would be down to three men and a dog in Basra and we will be able to send a brigade to Afghanistan. That was never seriously challenged, because the time scale went wrong, and there was an overlap between the two it meant that they were both under resourced.
Again I didn’t in my, and this is a very important point, I’ve been very critical in my book of various things, but I felt on marline intention in anything that anyone was doing, and I found no lack of responsibility with anything that anyone was doing. The idea that Seraha Coper Cole has suggested that we went to Afghanistan so that the Generals could military games and exercise their things, and appear attractive to the treasury. I think its complete rubbish, and it’s also a bit underhand. These were well intentioned people making some bad mistakes, that’s my hypothesis, I may be wrong.
How did we get stuck into Helmand? I’m not going to answer it. The great phrase is Debora Haze, the Times correspondent, who managed to ask Mike Jackson who was then the CGS, the same question, how did we get into Helmand? He said “searched me gov”. That’s a phrase that was said loosely, but it illustrates that it was extremely opaque as to why we went into Helmand. I believe myself that the deal was done In Naples two years previously where Tony Blair under pressure from the Americans to reinforce in Iraq, and said well we’re trying to get out of Iraq but if you reinforce in Afghanistan we will go with you there.
Again that illustrates that this commitment was made without the proper military strategic analysis. I’m not saying that is should be completely bound up in one huge document like that, but a throw away phrase like that, or a throw away decision like that is irresponsible when you’re going to war. War has such a long term consequence. For one thing it will span more than one parliament so the Prime Minister making that decision will not be the only person overseeing it in its most bloody phase.
I can’t answer your question, expect that civilians in wars are the key indicators of success or failure. So they’re terribly important, and I think the Israeli’s both from an ethical point of view and with their image within the world have been extremely careful of making sure they do the least damage to civilians as possible, that is there intention. Whether that is the actuality is another question. In the last Gaza incursion a lot of casualties were caused, but the Israeli’s no more than anyone the damage that does to their cause. So there very, very careful about doing that.
Lidia, how to get knowledge in other areas. One of my supervisors in Oxford was an expert like Mike on Afghanistan, a chap called Rob Johnson, and he said that it was astonishing that nobody asked about his advice until 2009 three years after he’d committed to Helmand. So there is a big problem, as Mike indicated with the India Office records as well, of the institutional memory not being consulted sufficiently, I would agree with you completely.
Dr Mike Martin
I think you dealt with the first question fine.
Actually going into Helmand, they worked out that there were only a few countries willing to go to the south because that was the most violent, and that was the Canadians, the British, the American’s, and the Dutch. The Canadian’s said we want Kandahar, and then the Dutch said we want Nuristan, and so that left us with Helmand, and this has been documented it was that casual.
Helmand, Kandahar and probably Jalalabad are the three worst provinces you could possible choose from for a historical reason because they were all where the British fought very heavy battles in the 1800’s. Usually want went with Imperial battles was afterwards we would burn down a few villages and execute a few rebel leaders, and that’s well remembered. In fact if you look at the regiments of the British battle honours there are plenty of them from Afghanistan.
Israel and civilian casualties, it’s a bit of topic and I’m no expert. I think I would echo Chris’s comments that they realise that the damage it does to them and I think I’ll leave it at.
How to provide local cultural knowledge? This is what we tried to do in Afghanistan, and the difficultly is you need to teach people the language first and that takes a long period of time. I guess the way you do it is the way you allocate resources elsewhere in the military. You decide where your priorities are, either strategic priorities, or intelligence priorities, and then you allocate your resources to those priorities.
For the British forces Arabic is probably going to be quite useful for the next fifty years. Well done good choice, and French probably because of Africa. So you could probably do a lot with those languages, maybe Urdu if you’re worried about Pakistan imploding. The defence intelligence clearly has priorities are looking into and that determines for example how much signals intelligence goes into it.
How do you maintain that, because I think you need a specialist carda? But I think you also need to raise the general levels of this type of knowledge within the military. So I think what they are starting to do now is where you might go in to be a specialist for three years, you go an learn Arabic, live in Cairo, and then you’ll go back and do a normal army job for a few years, and then you’ll be attached to an embassy in Libya for example. So you will dip in and out, so you maintain your regional specialisation, which I think is quiet sensible.
Although I have heard recently because of resourcing reasons they have de-prioritized the amount of money they have for language training. So the whole thing might yet not get of the ground, but that’s in theory how you might do it.
Okay that’s all we’ve got time for, I’m so sorry if I didn’t get to everyone who had their hand’s up. I think you’ll agree a really wonderful fascinating conversation. The books are all for sale up here at the front. After hearing these presentations today I’m sure you’ll all agree that there definitely worth getting.
Please can we thank the speakers?