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Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars. British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

Read this book and you will likely want immediately to confine British forces to barracks and base. It's not safe to let them go anywhere or do anything.

Lieutenant Commander Ledwidge spent fifteen years as a Naval Reserve military intelligence officer and served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now retired. He begins rather uncertainly, as if unsure that he should be writing this kind of book at all, but as he gets into his stride, he delivers page after page of understated, but to an outsider like me, seemingly withering critique.

His book is not about the politicians who, out of weakness or ignorance or vainglory, despatched British forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is concerned with how the armed forces - and principally the army - handled the missions they were assigned or, in default of proper political direction, invented for themselves.

At the very top, Ledwidge rebukes the top brass for having failed to "speak truth to power": "generals, ill-trained and inadequately educated in the basic elements of strategy, failed in their role as speakers of truth to power" (p 262). In thrall to bluff and hearty notions - Can Do, Cracking On - they failed to demand a clear mission brief, failed to say that - as they understood the brief - it could not be delivered with the resources available, failed to raises issues about what might be legitimate in the circumstances, and so on.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the invading and occupying British forces actually did very little - except kill and antagonise local civilians.

In southern Iraq (Basra), they were initially welcomed but squandered goodwill by aligning themselves with militias and gangsters posing as the local administration. They simply lacked the on-the-ground intelligence to realise that this is what they were doing. In the end, they ended up largely confined to base. When they did venture out, in very small numbers, local civilians were quite often terrorised and occasionally tortured and killed.

Ledwidge makes some scathing remarks around this subject. We are frequently told that problems arise when we don't understand the local culture. Nonsense, says Ledwidge, culture is the same in Basra as in Basingstoke: in neither place do people want their doors kicked in at night by heavily armed soldiers speaking a foreign language and uncertain about their reasons for being in your living room.

In Afghanistan, it was insane for the top brass to agree to deployment in Helmand - a province where the British have been hated ever since they were last there.

It was insane to suppose that you could separate the "people" from the "insurgents" (Taliban) when you actually had less to offer the people by way of provision of security and available justice than did the insurgents and when your orders were to ally yourselves with prime sources of local unhappiness - a criminal police and judiciary.

As in Basra, the Brits ended up confined to base with occasional adventures into the occupied territory. Tragically, in Afghanistan, such adventures were often enough backed up with heavy weaponry and missile attacks. Many civilians dead, many more "hearts and minds" lost. What makes us think that it is even legitimate to be firing these missiles, as if Helmand is some kind of battlefield in which we face an enemy threatening our very existence?

Ledwidge goes after these failures with chilling anecdotes, sharp thumbnail analyses, detailed critique of the Army's military culture, and occasionally open exasperation. He rejects the notion that it was all the American's fault, or NATO's fault. These were British mistakes.This is how he sums up:

"The defeats - let us not mince words - in the civil wars - the "counter-insurgencies" - in Helmand and Basra need not have been so comprehensive; indeed, they need not have happened at all... in Basra, the British started with a "winning hand" and played it poorly. In Helmand, they managed to ignore several factors to which any Afghan could (and would) have drawn their attention (and to which several soldeirs did) - this was the single worst possible province into which the British could crash" (p 259)

Lt Cdr Ledwidge is too polite to add, the politicians and the top brass even thought that Helmand would be a good place to deploy one of our spare princelings, Prince Harry.

There is one topic which Ledwidge does not address but which complicates the picture. The wars he discusses have been fought for domestic political consumption. That is why there are so many VIPs on the ground (see Cowper-Coles' Cables from Kabul for examples). That is why there have to be Photo Ops involving bullets and missiles, when really - as Ledwidge several times observes in a discussion of "courageous restraint" - the real military challenge is to manage things so that you don't fire many bullets - and certainly don't fire any missiles.

I can't see the PR man installed as Prime Minister in Downing Street reading this book - which is one reason why I say: Read This Book!

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