Despite our early success in toppling the Taliban, almost everything we did afterwards undermined the massive amount of good will we had across the Muslim world after 9/11. Today, al-Qaeda are no longer seen as a bunch of extremist crazies; they are, to some extent, seen as heroes fighting against what they perceive to be an arrogant west. I fully accept that—with the possible exception of Iraq—our Government has acted in good faith and realised the seriousness of our situation, but I also believe the way we have executed this operation has been incompetent and half-cocked.
Where are we ?
An awful expression that does the rounds in Whitehall these days is, “We are where we are”. So, where are we now in Helmand province? There are 102 British dead and hundreds have been grievously wounded, many of whom would also be dead were it not for modern protective equipment. That is why so many people survive but lose limbs. No one knows how many Afghan civilians have been killed and some say that 7,000 Taliban are dead. We should remember that those people are mostly local people with extended families. The Taliban’s in-country command and control is in bits and we have killed many of their experienced commanders and tribal leaders. We might think that that is a good thing, but a newer, younger, more radical group of leaders might be emerging who are less likely to negotiate. That means we are facing more asymmetric attacks.
Despite gigantic spending by the UK, minute amounts of reconstruction have taken place. Last year, there were only 57 doctors in Helmand for a population of more than 1 million people. We have been there for three years, so that has happened on our watch.
Where is the security?
To the Afghan population, the most visible sign of the Afghan Government is the Afghan national police. We must do more to get the police under control, because at the moment we are not doing anywhere near enough. The roads and security infrastructure that we have built are often used to make it easier for the police to rob people. The other day, I spoke to an interpreter I used 18 months ago in Lashkar Gah: he told me that a teenager was recently abducted from his small settlement and returned in the most awful physical condition, having been repeatedly raped over three days.
Although the UK has taken the lead on narcotics, heroin production has massively increased. Many millions of small arms, well over 30,000 artillery rounds and probably 100,000 Apache rounds have been fired, but to what effect? I have not been to Helmand for more than a year, but I think I am the only person in the House who has been to Helmand outside the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and DFID envelope. I have been there a couple of times at my own expense to talk to and spend time with ordinary Afghans. Before we arrived in 2006, Helmand was a pretty quiet place. There were 40 US troops in the base at Lashkar Gah, and at that time I wandered around the town and asked people whether they welcomed the arrival of the British. They said, “If the British bring security and reconstruction, they are welcome, but if you cannot bring peace and development, you should go home.”
Consent of the Civilian Population
The Afghans themselves will decide who wins in Helmand and whether that will be the corrupt and frankly remote Afghan Government backed by the international community or the Taliban. It is incredibly important to focus on the needs of the ordinary Afghan, because the consent of the people is, in military terms, our vital ground. Three years after the arrival of UK forces, the Afghan civilian population can quite reasonably be disappointed. We still have their consent, but it has declined rapidly and markedly in the past three years. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban back, but that does not mean they will support us.
The Original Plan 2006
On the military, when British Colonels Worsley and Messenger were busy setting up the provincial reconstruction team and Camp Bastion, others were busy—mainly in Kandahar—writing a joint plan for Helmand province. When 3 Para and Stuart Tootal arrived they were accompanied by a huge logistical chain. People were pretty confident that there would be enough troops to secure the area around Lashkar Gah and implement the plan—the ink-spot strategy—whereby development could take place and reconstruction would slowly spread across the province.
General Omar Bradley said that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics. At the weekend, a modern British general said to me that he would change that comment: he would say that professionals talk command and control. That was a problem we faced in summer 2006, when there was a massive deviation from what sounded like a pretty reasonable plan. That deviation has set the whole tone for Helmand ever since and has resulted in massive violence. Partly because of that, reconstruction and development have been minuscule.
Summer 2006 – dumping the original plan
In summer 2006, we found ourselves with an extremely confused command and control structure. There was the Government here, the chiefs of staff, the NATO command chain, a Canadian brigadier general in charge in Kandahar, a British 3-star in Kabul, a commander of the Helmand taskforce, and the commander of the British forces—the brigade commander for the Paras, who was in an ill-defined and difficult position. At the same time, there were a load of Afghan district governors around Helmand, the governor of Helmand himself, and President Karzai. Those were all conflicting interest groups.
The result of the lack of clear command and control was the decision to dump the Afghan development zone plan and move relatively small numbers of troops to remote locations in the Government district centres in northern Helmand. That turned what should have been a slowly spreading ink-spot strategy into a violently flicked ink splatter. The result of what is now known as the platoon house strategy has been the deaths of dozens of British servicemen and hundreds of civilians.
Inevitably, any thought of development was a low priority when the British were dealing with that very difficult military situation. At the time and since, a number of British officers have complained that although there were things that they could have been doing in those areas, they simply did not have the budget to do them. The number of troops that we had in the new situation was just too low to make them anything more than self-defending targets for the Taliban. Thousands of refugees were created, and the towns sustained large amounts of damage and ceased to function properly. That was hardly the security and reconstruction that the Afghan population had expected.
Later, the military realised that after the platoon house strategy, there was an urgent need to get on with the hearts and minds effort. That was an unintended consequence of the platoon houses. Perhaps not unreasonably, the civilian agencies, including DFID, considered development activity far too dangerous because of the violence. Over time, that has become a problem, born of the military’s view, which is still held, that the civilian effort in Helmand, particularly that of DFID, has failed them.
What of DFID? –
Even if the military had stayed with the plan and got everything right, there would still have been the difficulty that military personnel could never on their own solve the problem. NATO and our Government understand that all that the military can do is to provide the secure environment in which other things can happen and take effect. We talk an awful lot about the comprehensive approach—security, governance and reconstruction—and it sounds great, but a villager in Helmand could be forgiven for asking where that is and what the British were talking about.
Where is the reconstruction in Helmand? The British effort falls largely to the UK Government Department for International Development, but that is not an organisation charged with supporting the military effect. It likes to remind us that it is charged by law with the higher purpose of poverty reduction. Its whole philosophy and method of operation means that it is simply not geared to support military operations. As one senior officer put it,
“the military secure areas, but the civilians are way behind the military effort… we are lagging behind the rhetoric…. The problem is that DFID do not see themselves as part of our foreign policy.”
That statement came from a very senior serving general.
DFID believes that the best way to help a country is to support it with long-term initiatives. As one senior DFID official put it to a friend of mine,
DFID is not there for such initiatives; instead, it wants to undertake long-term projects working with Government Ministries. That is fine in theory, but in Helmand we do not have the time for that. DFID is simply not configured to do what the major on the ground needs to be done before, during or after military operations. It is not configured to help that major to regain hearts and minds.
Anyway, even if we have carried out a gazillion projects successfully in Helmand, what does that really matter if ordinary Afghans do not feel that we have made a difference to their lives?
Why have we not pumped money into the Afghan and international non-governmental organisations that do exist? Why have we not stepped up the cash-for-work schemes? Why have we not made more use of the local village shuras and got stuff in at ground level? What about the national development programme or the unused capacity of the Bangladeshi charity? Perhaps that is why the Minister is going to Bangladesh later today; I do not know. The Central Asia Development Group has just finished a major project for USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—and has bags of capacity right across the province; why are we not paying it to do some of the work? Why are we not using private companies that will take the risk? I am talking not about men with gun trucks, but about people who can get out a little further. They can be directed by DFID staff inside the PRT. The Germans are doing very well in this respect. Why can we not try to persuade the Germans to get down there and do some of the work?
Current attempts to re-focus / Shake-up in Whitehall
The new brigade commander in Helmand, the razor-sharp and remarkable Mark Carleton-Smith, went out to Helmand a few months ago, determined to change the focus from dealing with the Taliban to dealing with the needs of the Afghan people..
It may be against Conservative party policy, but I believe that it is time for DFID to come back under the control of the Foreign Office, becoming once again an arm of British foreign policy. The lessons of history tell us that we need unity of command for counter-insurgency. The NATO set-up lacks coherence, and even in Britain people have often not been conducting a single policy. It is time to adopt the Templar model from Malaysia. We need an overarching boss to be in charge, and a committee system. Even in Whitehall, no one is in charge. It could be argued that we have Cabinet Government.
Fine, but where is the War Cabinet? As I shall say later, this policy has potentially catastrophic effects for people in Britain.
Let us not kid ourselves. We have been there for three years, but an awful lot of people in Helmand are disappointed, and some of them are pretty angry with us. One of our commanders described it as a
“declining glide path of consent”.
It is like an aeroplane, but we need to watch out or the plane will land. Does the Minister agree?
What should we do?
I have focused on Helmand province, but I fully acknowledge that the picture is not gloomy everywhere, that large areas of Afghanistan are at relative peace and that reconstruction development is taking place – for example the US are spending gigantic amounts of money.
Are AQ and the Taleban the same thing?
I want to shoot a sacred cow. Whenever people talk about Afghanistan, they say, “It is vital that we remain in Afghanistan; we are there to stop al-Qaeda regrouping and returning to threaten us.” That is nonsense on several fronts. First, the effects of our over-ambitious and ill-resourced plan has been further to radicalise large numbers of people across the Muslim world.
We often talk about al-Qaeda and the Taliban as if they are the same thing. There is a significant difference. The Taliban are largely Pathan tribesmen with a traditional and nationalist agenda and no foreign policy. On the other hand, al-Qaeda is a loose international nihilist movement with a highly developed foreign policy and the intent, and, regrettably, sometimes the capability, to conduct mass casualty attacks across the globe. They are two completely things.
Mullah Omar himself is reported in the late ’90s to have been perturbed at the internationalist agenda of the Arabs that Abdul Haq had invited into the country earlier. Indeed, in 1998 Prince Turki, the internal security Minister for Saudi Arabia, and later the Saudi ambassador to London, landed his jet at Kandahar in order to take bin Laden away. Mullah Omar was going to hand him over. Only after a shura to discuss the matter was it decided that they would not hand him over.
Some people who know these things better than I do swear blind, although it is surprising to me, with my western point of view, that the only reason Mullah Omar and the shura decided to let bin Laden stay was because of the pashtunwali code under which guests are protected.
Return of AQ to Afghanistan?
To assert boldly that al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan in a meaningful way is almost ridiculous. It is not the same situation as in the 1990s, when we ignored the place. Whatever we do in future, we shall still have an interest there. Since the 1990s, we have huge signals intelligence, with huge overhead assets and loitering military assets in the sky. Almost every square centimetre of the country has been mapped. If they began to return—I cannot believe that the Afghans would wish to wreak the same disaster on themselves as happened in 2003—we would be able to deal with them.
While we pour life and resources into Afghanistan, that contributes to al-Qaeda successes in the Pashtun tribal belt in Pakistan itself. Pakistan is important to the United Kingdom, as many of our citizens have one foot there and one in the UK. It is helping radicalisation in the “-stans”, in the Maghreb, in east Africa and across the towns and cities of the Muslim world, including some of our own cities.
Linking AQ and nationalist causes
The trouble is that by making the link between al-Qaeda and nationalist causes around the globe, we help al-Qaeda. Last week, my friend the Leader of the Opposition David Cameron made the following observation, although he was not directly referring to Afghanistan. He said that we need to understand that
“we’re not engaged in a single struggle against a single protagonist. We’re not engaged in a clash of civilisations, and suggestions that we are can too easily have the opposite effect to the one that you intend—it makes extremists more attractive to the uncommitted. Yes of course there are connections between terrorist activity in different parts of the world, but we have be to a little smarter in how we handle those connections. Our aim should be to dismantle the processes, separating each component part rather than just sort of amalgamating them into a single global jihad that just becomes a call to arms.
Need for a new policy
We need a realistic long-term policy for Afghanistan. Does anyone seriously believe that Britain and the West will be able to continue with this relatively large-scale loss of life and spending billions and billions of pounds for many years to come? I cannot see it happening. We know that some NATO countries are wobbling because of the cost and the lives lost. It is time to scale down from what we would like to do to what we are able to do.
I do not pretend to be a great expert, but I have spoken to a lot of people who are—I am talking about people who have been there for longer than a six-month tour or a nine-month tour or through the changeover and reshuffles and so on. The consensus among them is something like this: we need to accept that large numbers of people in Helmand province are deeply traditional, xenophobic and resistant to change, and that most Afghans hate the Feringhi—the foreigner—especially if they pitch up in armoured vehicles and attack helicopters. We cannot impose democracy at the point of a gun, so we need to play the great game in a new century and urgently bring the Taliban into the process with a national programme of local arrangements for different areas.
To the UK Government’s credit, some of that is happening behind the scenes and through various other initiatives that I shall not raise now. However, such a strategy should be brought centre stage, regardless, frankly, of what President Karzai says. We need a sort of “You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone” approach and a bit of pragmatism. At the same time, we need to support intensively development zones and areas of the country that are at relative peace, reduce troop numbers to those that can be supported in the long term and focus our efforts massively on training the Afghan army and police.
I am not saying that we should disengage militarily. We should have small groups of troops on the ground, working with the Afghans; but it must be their show, and we must accept that it might not be very pretty. We should also be ready, at the drop of a hat, to send in helicopter-borne men with unseasonal suntans at dead of night, and to use missiles or bombs or whatever else at the slightest whiff of resurgent al-Qaeda.
It is time to stop seeing the Afghan Government as the key channel of development. We need development at local level and to let people locally decide what they want. We should let them start to feel some benefit from the presence of all those foreigners in their provinces. I am sorry to say this, and it may not be popular, but important aspirations such as women’s rights and opium production will just have to wait until the reality on the ground catches up. We are there either to fight and defeat an insurgency and reduce poverty or we are not. In short, it is time to get a little bit of peace through reality—we could describe it as the great game crossed with ballistic missile, submarine and special-forces diplomacy, underwritten by massive development spending.
I spoke at the beginning of my speech about the drivers of radicalisation. Three years ago, no one outside Helmand had heard of places such as Sangin, Gereshk, Nowzad and Musa Qala. Today, they are clearly on the map and internet sites of the global jihad. I again assert that we are in Afghanistan for well-intentioned reasons, but how does the Minister think that TV news footage of war fighting plays among impressionable Muslims even in this country?
The primary purpose of going to war in Afghanistan was to deny al-Qaeda a safe operating base. We achieved that aim a long time ago. Our secondary objective was the destruction of the Taliban. However, frankly—let us have some real politik—that appears to be beyond our means. Commanders can tell us that we are winning until they are blue in the face, and that increasing numbers of suicide and roadside bombings prove that, but, at some point, as in every other insurgency historically, we will have to make a deal with the Taliban. I have some sympathy with the argument that we must beat them to some extent and make them realise that they cannot win before we can make such a deal. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for a deal?
The big strategic challenge for our generation is to win back the good will of all those people who were with us on 11 September 2001. We must do that over the next six months, or over 10 or 30 years. We must take al-Qaeda back to where it was in terms of popular support across the world in 2001, which was frankly nowhere. At the same time, in parallel, we must reduce its residual capacity.
What we have been doing in Afghanistan is a long-term liability for the UK. It has been ill thought out and is counter-productive, and it is a further driver of radicalisation around the world and in this country, all of which contribute to our wider strategic failure.
We have lost immeasurable amounts of good will since 11 September 2001 and it continues to haemorrhage away across the Muslim world and Pakistan in particular.
It is time to free up resources to deal with the much more serious strategic threats that we will face in the coming months and decades. We need to win back that good will and fight the battles that really matter. When we do those things, we might be doing something to make our people safer.