A Soldier Responds to a Commons Report on Afghanistan

The reports come up before. Thought this deserved a thread of its own, pretty devastating.

From KoW A Soldier Responds to a Commons Report on Afghanistan by PATRICK BURY
The Defence Select Committee Report on Operations in Afghanistan, which was released on Sunday, catalogues an array of political, strategic and tactical mistakes and negligence on the part of ministers, military commanders and the Ministry of Defence.

The report has not got the attention it deserves from the media, and the fact that there have been few ramifications to its publication thus far is an insult to the soldiers and Afghan civilians who died in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008, when the Helmand operation was woefully under-resourced and under-manned.

The depth of arrogance, ineptitude and negligence revealed in the report is astonishing, and much of its content points the blame at the top military commanders at the time. It seems the decision to deploy to Helmand was not thought through strategically, barely even operationally and, to some extent, was taken by commanders in order to bolster the British army’s reputation after its defeat in Basra.

In doing so, army chiefs were likely trying to safeguard their army from cuts vis a vis the other services. That the ensuing commitment would last over 8 years, cost an estimated £20 billion by its end, and leave the army far smaller than it was before, shows the fallacy of such a judgment.

Not only was the decision to move into Helmand a poor one, the report also finds that the intelligence to support such a decision was inadequate. Both military intelligence and the SIS had insufficient knowledge of Helmand, its tribal structure, economy and level of support for the insurgency to efficiently support decision makers. When one FCO official questioned some of the assumptions underlying policymakers unrealistic vision for Helmand, one SIS member reportedly replied: “We know all we need to know”.

Such a level of arrogance in a national intelligence service, one that should be acutely aware of its constant quest for intelligence and of the Socratic nature of its knowledge, is incredibly worrying. I would think it reasonable to hope that the individual who made this assessment would lose their job.

Once the decision to enter Helmand was taken, the report finds that operations there took on a dynamic of their own: one that no-one had planned for. Here, failures must be laid at the operational planners in Joint Headquarters. Quite why the Chief of Joint Operations, Air Marshall Sir Glenn Torpy was not questioned by the Committee remains a mystery, as he was the military commander responsible for contingency planning and resourcing the operation.

The effect of this lack of intelligence, planning and resourcing, and the climate of “making do”, was that the commanders on the ground in 2006 – Brigadier Ed Butler and Colonel Stuart Tootal, were essentially reacting to events rather than shaping them.

In military parlance they had lost the initiative. The net result was a string of stranded outposts/inkspots along the Helmand valley that took over 100 killed and countless more injured and maimed over the next 3 years fighting the Taliban. Both commanders left the army soon after their return, probably in large part due to the lack of planning support and resources they had been given to conduct the disjointed campaign.

Put simply, those that made the decisions to move into Helmand and those that failed to plan for contingencies and properly resource the operation, therefore neglecting their duties, should be brought to account. For those commanders who have left or have been knighted, the historical record should reflect their neglect. For those that still serve, careers should stop. The same applies to civil servants and ministers. Here, one suspects that the Commons report could have placed the lion’s share of the failures at the feet of the military, for obvious reasons.

The media and us soldiers alike always understood that we were undermanned and under resourced in Afghanistan. We knew Land Rovers were inadequate, we knew there were too few helicopters. We knew we were surrounded and we knew IEDs were dangerous. But we kept going, because we trusted in our abilities, trusted in each other, and most of all we trusted in our top-level commanders and their political masters’ decisions.

I have friends who paid for this misplaced trust with their lives.

I owe it to them to say how deeply angry and mistreated I feel at the failings this report has shown and how angry I am that so few people seem to care about them.
My bold, sweet Jesus what were they thinking. A bit of phone hacking really pales beside this.


Book Reviewer
Bury's book, Callsign Hades, makes for very depressing reading when taken in conjunction with this.

It would be good if someone in the responsible press (I know, where TF do you start looking) picked this up and ran with it. Perhaps Bury should meet up with Maggie O'Kane and see where they can go with this.
To be positive it's a good sign that they are making this commendably frank report public at all and I hope for a change some heads roll. What's happened here is wrong in so many ways not least that it will have exactly reverse affect to that intended on DC, they are not stupid and this is no way to score points with them.
The British establishment has been burying similar reports since the aftermath of the Crimean war.
The reputation of the British Army was built largely on the abilities of it's NCOs and men. There has been a lack of real intellectual vigour, flair and character amongst senior officers for a couple of generations. They were arrogant and complacent to a degree, falling into the comfortable trap of believing their own propaganda about being the best in the world. Taking 30 years to force the IRA to a stalemate and routing an appalling badly led South American army (in a campaign that hung on the edge of failure) were much of the basis for that belief.
Platoon for platoon the British Army probably was (and might still be) amongst the best on the planet, but that ability isn't translating into sustained brigade and divisional sized ops. Courage and tactical acumen are worthless without sound strategic direction.

The British army was under equipped and under resourced years before the 2nd Gulf War. Rather than show some backbone and hold the politicians to account, senior officers made a virtue of improvisation and doing more with less. I can remember all kinds of snide digs about the Americans having too much kit and being 'dependent' on it. 'All the gear and no idea' was a regular snotty little quip. The American approach to equipment and resources has certainly proved its worth over the last decade. The British approach has seen good men die for nothing.

The British army is top heavy in senior ranks; I think it's time the spotlight was shined on the Brigadiers and Generals and some searching questions asked about their abilities and characters. I can think of at least one Brigadier who (based on his performance as an Infantry CO) isn't fit to dig latrines or stag on the gate in Catterick. We also need to look long and hard at the system that trains and promotes officers (my gut feeling is that too many good officers quit at the rank of Captain).
One of our cultural challenges is the 'Daddy Knows Best Attitude' from our senior officers, couple this with a healthy dose of "don't bother me with the facts, i've made up my mind already" and a drop of "the quality of the advice is directly proportional to the status of that of the giver" and you have the perfect storm for institutional incompetence. Mix in stifled 'old school' thinking, dangerous groupthink and a home-grown senior management system its hardly surprising that we're in the state we're in.

A macro example of this is the explosive growth of H4H versus ABF over the past 4 years. Both thoroughly decent causes: one gripped the nation with a dynamic, imaginative, exciting and interactive influence campaign. The other, although managed by honourable, decent and distinguished retired senior officer stalled as the world passed them by trying to turn profit from Christmas cards, regimental slippers and advent calenders relying on their A5 glossy brochure for publicity as the didn't have a webmaster at that time...


Book Reviewer
Sadly, UK industry is like that too, so perhaps it is endemic in the British psyche. I used to call it Mahogany Panelling Syndrome. Erk comes in to boss with presentation. Boss sits politely through it, thinking all the timne: "I am a grand chap, I have a mahogany panelled office. This man lives in an open plan pig-pen. Therefore, although a specialist, he cannot see the bigger picture and cannot be as wise as I am. Therefore I have made up my mind, before he ever came through the door, to be my usual affable self but to ignore anything he says."

The other industrial catch in large companies is cash frittered away at all levels in cross-divisional paper warfare. the only cure for this is leadership but if the leaders f off in the middle ranks, what eventually rises to the top?


Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Reviews Editor
What a depressing thread.

Still, this is the British way, have the issues out in the open, discuss until everyone is thoroughly fed up and then start the discussion again. Once that has been done we can say, "Look, we have discussed this and will take note of what has been said" - then crack on as before, no change!!!

Very sad but symptomatic of the demise of Great Britain.


One of our cultural challenges is the 'Daddy Knows Best Attitude' from our senior officers, couple this with a healthy dose of "don't bother me with the facts, i've made up my mind already" and a drop of "the quality of the advice is directly proportional to the status of that of the giver" and you have the perfect storm for institutional incompetence. Mix in stifled 'old school' thinking, dangerous groupthink and a home-grown senior management system its hardly surprising that we're in the state we're in.
Danny, wise words and describing behavours that I see on a daily basis. It has been decided, that irrespective of the facts of HERRICK, it will be represented as a win. This sort of mentality does not bode well for the future. Hopefully the forthcoming cull of senior officers will get rid of the right ones and reduce the groupthink.


Book Reviewer
I meant to add a gem from the late Rear Admiral John Templeton-Cotill. One long-ago day I was trying to get him (as Executive Officer) to beard the Captain about something. He patiently heard me out and came out with "But, Seaweed, you don't really expect me to tell the King his crown's on crooked?"

Curiously, not only was he promoted soon after serving in that ship but so were two officers I personally heard answering back, in fairly unmistakeable terms, to said Captain. One such exchange: Captain: "What is the delay?" Reply: "Just you f.cking well wait. SIR."

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