When war in Afghanistan comes to Whitehall

#1
When war in Afghanistan comes to Whitehall: The Government's dithering is having a drastic effect on the morale of our troops in Afghanistan – and on their chance of success, says Con Coughlin.

By Con Coughlin
(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/concoughlin/)
Published: 7:14AM BST 07 Oct 2009

For the past four weeks the officers and men of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards have been waiting nervously at their Aldershot barracks for the order to deploy to Afghanistan.
They have undergone months of training in preparation for one of the toughest challenges in the regiment's illustrious 400-year history – taking on the Taliban in the killing fields of southern Afghanistan.

When it was announced in the spring that the Coldstreamers were heading off for their second tour of duty in Helmand, they were told to be ready to depart for Afghanistan in mid-September. In several cases, young Guardsmen cut short their honeymoons to be back in Aldershot ready to deploy; like most soldiers, they want to get on with the job they have been trained for. But September has come and gone and the Guards are still kicking their heels in Aldershot because Downing Street cannot make up its mind whether to go ahead with the deployment.

In the meantime, it was announced yesterday that the Light Dragoons, who have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting against the Taliban since British forces deployed to Helmand three years ago, have been ordered to stay a month longer than was originally planned while Gordon Brown decides what troop levels he is prepared to sanction in the months to come.

While the politicians dither, their inability to demonstrate clear and incisive leadership on the conduct of the Afghan campaign is having a disastrous, and totally avoidable, impact on the morale of the soldiers and their families. Wives, mothers, girlfriends and close relatives of those who are prepared to risk their lives in defence of their country have been steeling themselves for the day their loved ones will set off on their hazardous mission.

"We feel we are left in a psychological no-man's land," says one young officer. "Every night we think it might be our last with those we hold dearest, and then we discover that we are not leaving after all. For the families, the strain of not knowing what is going on is unbearable."

The mounting tension between military and political leaders over Afghanistan is well-documented. What is less well-known is the impact this is having on the men and women who have volunteered to serve their country.

Major General Arthur Denaro, who commanded a tank regiment during the first Gulf war in 1991, believes this is because the Brown Government has no idea of the effects its decisions might have on the lives of ordinary soldiers.

"Serving men and women are prepared to put up with a lot," he says. "It is what soldiering is all about. But it is another matter when their families and loved ones are subjected to this sort of torment."
It is the Government's cavalier attitude towards our Armed Forces, as well as its failure to provide sufficient quantities of combat troops and equipment, that lies at the root of what is becoming the most rancorous falling-out between the military and political classes in living memory.

Politicians and generals have a long history of not seeing eye to eye over how best to prosecute wartime operations. During the First World War, the heated disputes between politicians such as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George and the military commanders became known as "frocks versus brasshats".

Lloyd George was so horrified by the loss of life during the inconclusive First Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, and the slaughter that occurred the following year at Passchendaele, that he sought a replacement for General Sir Douglas Haig, the Western Front commander. Haig only survived in office because, as Lloyd George conceded in his memoirs, he just couldn't find anyone better suited to the job.

Churchill, who boasted a distinguished military career of his own, was constantly fighting with his senior commanders over strategy, in particular with Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At one point during the war, tensions between the two men became so bad that Churchill confided to another officer that Brooke hated him. When this was reported to Brooke, he replied: "I don't hate him. I love him. But the first time I tell him I agree with him when I don't will be the time to get rid of me, for then I can be no more use to him."

To judge by the comments made yesterday by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the recently retired head of the British Army, there is nothing remotely like love between Gordon Brown and his senior military commanders. During his three-year tenure, Sir Richard frequently criticised the Government for not doing enough to ensure that seriously wounded soldiers received proper care when they returned home. Mr Brown was also stung when Sir Richard pointed out that frontline soldiers in Afghanistan earned less than traffic wardens.

But rather than listen to Sir Richard's criticisms, Downing Street reacted by arranging for him to take early retirement. It is a tactic that has backfired spectacularly. Rather than settling down to run the family farm in Norfolk, Sir Richard, who has just taken up his new post as constable of the Tower of London, has resumed his assault on Mr Brown, accusing him of ignoring his recommendation last February to send an extra 2,000 troops to Afghanistan. As a result, the Army was having to fight the Taliban with "at least part of one arm" tied behind its back.

"The military advice has been for an uplift since the beginning of 2009," Sir Richard points out. "If the military says we need more troops and we can supply them, then frankly they should take that advice and deploy up to the level we recommend."

To judge by Sir Richard's comments, it is quite clear whom he would like to see as his first inmate at the Tower. Nor is he the only member of the top brass who is at odds with the Government over its refusal to commit more troops to Afghanistan. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the head of Britain's Armed Forces, is also reported to be seething over Mr Brown's refusal to heed his advice on strengthening British troop numbers in Helmand.

Senior military sources say that, since Mr Brown ruled out sending extra troops last February, Sir Jock has declined to make any public statement in support of the Government's Afghan strategy. Consequently, Downing Street is now looking at ways to force Sir Jock, like Sir Richard, into early retirement.

While squabbling between politicians and senior officers over strategy has become a commonplace of modern warfare, what distinguishes the current situation from past disputes is the defeatism that appears to characterise the Government's attitude to the Afghan campaign. In case the politicians have forgotten, the reason we are fighting in Afghanistan, as General Sir David Richards, the new Army chief, stated so eloquently at the weekend, is to prevent southern Afghanistan once again becoming a training ground for Islamist terrorists, where there would be nothing to prevent them from launching further deadly attacks against the West.

To achieve that goal, Nato commanders need more combat troops so that they can inflict a decisive defeat on the Taliban, thereby enabling the Afghan government to begin the painful process of reconstruction after three decades of conflict. So far as Britain is concerned, all that is required is another 2,000 troops and the equipment they need to complete the mission. Is that really too much of an ask for the faint hearts in Downing Street?

A negative state of mind appears to be taking hold on the other side of the Atlantic, too, where the Obama administration is expressing similar frustration with the advice it is receiving from its most senior military commanders.

After General Stanley McChrystal, the head of Nato's military mission to Afghanistan, warned last week that the operation was in serious difficulty, he was quickly subjected to a public rebuke by Robert Gates, the American Defence Secretary, who said Gen McChrystal would be well advised to keep his recommendations private.

Gen McChrystal is no doubt feeling as sore as Sir Richard. After all, it was only five months ago that the counterinsurgency specialist was hand-picked by Barack Obama to rescue the Nato mission. Now, after he has been hung out to dry by Washington's ungrateful political elite, it seems that Gen McChrystal is the one who needs rescuing.
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009
Buy this journalist a pint.
 
#2
Simple question; Why hasn't a war cabinet been set up?
If 'war cabinet' sounds a bit too unPC then they could always call it a conflict negotiation panel or something that'll apease Harman. They could meet once or twice a week, listen to the people that know and make the relevant decisions.
Basics!!
 
#3
Hmm, what we need is some sort of cross-governmental organisation which has the authority to hold individual ministries to account and with a senior minister in charge.... hmm.

Also, maybe some sort of doctrine which we could follow whereby the different ministries involved could put their shoulders to the wheel and approach the problem in a somewhat comprehensive manner.

Aha, here is the flaw: we already have a Cabinet Office, and we already have a Comprehensive Approach. What the government lacks is the political capital to make the Cabinet Office work properly and the political will to actually implement the Comprehensive Approach.
 
#4
barbs said:
Hmm, what we need is some sort of cross-governmental organisation which has the authority to hold individual ministries to account and with a senior minister in charge.... hmm.

Also, maybe some sort of doctrine which we could follow whereby the different ministries involved could put their shoulders to the wheel and approach the problem in a somewhat comprehensive manner.

Aha, here is the flaw: we already have a Cabinet Office, and we already have a Comprehensive Approach. What the government lacks is the political capital to make the Cabinet Office work properly and the political will to actually implement the Comprehensive Approach.
Correct. :)
 
#5
It is a good article.

I've been fortunate, as an armchair observer, to hear two senior officers speak over the past weeks and found their honest appraisal of the current situation and acknowledgment of past mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan encouraging. Moreover, their lectures also laid out a realistic and achievable doctrine for the next phase of operations which I'm certain, would give the general population confidence if they heard it spelled out. However, there is a contingency on the plan and that is the requirement for more troops and this indecision could destabalise the opportunity for success at best and at worst cost lives.

Why might the goverment be ridden with apparent indecision? Our politicians are clearly concerned about the death toll and may be sceptical of the Army's arguments that more men equals fewer casualties. However, there might be another reason.

Obama's reputation amongst world leaders is not very high at the moment and he is perceived to be weak. This is as true of European leaders as it is the Taliban. Foreign leaders will not commit to more troops because they are not sure of Obama's own intentions and there may be signs that the ground is being laid to consider withdrawal, either wholly or partially as a serious option.

Stratfor sum it up thus:


"PREPARING FOR A PULLBACK?

ON MONDAY, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES called on all those advising President Barack Obama over the appropriate strategy for Afghanistan to do so "candidly but privately." It is hard to imagine that this admonishment is not directed at Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, whose draft assessment of the mission in Afghanistan (one of several perspectives being considered within the White House), as well as his proposals for the mission, were leaked to the press last month. McChrystal also spoke to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London on that very subject late last week.

Gates' statement followed National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones' CNN interview on Sunday that appeared, among other things, to present a very different perspective on the urgency of the situation in Afghanistan. On the surface, a dispute appears to be emerging between a triumvirate of key senior military officers -- McChrystal's plan has been endorsed by U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen -- seeking to broaden the scope of the war, and Obama's secretary of defense and national security adviser, who very clearly do not agree.

"If al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- the political and military reason the United States went into the country in the first place -- is no longer a threat, what is the U.S. role and mission in Afghanistan?"

The crux of the issue is buried within this emerging dispute. More important than the fact that he was giving a starkly different perspective on Afghanistan than the senior commanding officer there, Jones effectively declared al Qaeda -- as it existed in 2001 – to be dead and defeated. He explicitly said that al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan had no ability to launch attacks on the United States or its allies.

In other words, the question that no senior official in Washington has asked now has been raised: If al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- the political and military reason the United States went into the country in the first place -- is no longer a threat, what is the U.S. role and mission in Afghanistan? What, exactly, are the 68,000 American troops currently on the ground there doing?

There are many answers to that question. On one hand, the Taliban supported al Qaeda, and the United States is engaged not only with al Qaeda but with a radical Islamist ideology. Indeed, the Taliban have already replaced al Qaeda in almost every mention of combat involving U.S., NATO or Afghan forces. But if the United States and NATO are fighting the Taliban, to what end? Many answers to that question -- like "sanctuary denial" and "counterterrorism"-- not only require a very different force structure than is currently in place (read: considerably smaller) but are also global missions – global missions for which having so many troops committed to Afghanistan can represent considerable opportunity costs elsewhere.

By most accounts, McChrystal is a sharp and capable military leader. It is not only his prerogative as senior commander in Afghanistan but his job to turn the tide against any and all opposition there -- to seek as long-term and lasting a solution as possible to problems like internal security. To do that, he has outlined a long-term operational strategy and asked for what appears to be essentially as many troops as the Pentagon conceivably might give him.

But the White House has a different role: American grand strategy. It is the executive that is responsible not only for Afghanistan but for balancing American resources across a series of geopolitical challenges, from a resurgent Russia to Iran. The president must decide what he wants to accomplish in Afghanistan, given the spectrum of challenges and what resources can be allocated to that mission.

It should be no surprise that the role and perspective of the senior military commander in Afghanistan and the president of the United States might produce different answers to the question of the appropriate American strategy. Afghanistan is a war that the Obama administration inherited, and the circumstances there have gone from bad to worse to worse yet in only a year's time. Some of the president's closest advisers now appear to be laying the groundwork for a White House decision on the Afghan strategy that does not match with McChrystal's request."
 

Similar threads

New Posts

Latest Threads

Top