I reviewed Frank Ledwidge's previous book Losing Small Wars, about the British defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find the Review in the June 2012 listing. When I saw this new book I didn't need any recommendation to buy it. Ledwidge is a heavyweight. He brings a background in military intelligence (the UKs military intelligence) to a critical analysis of the UKs disastrous failures in Basra and Helmand.
This time he looks at the costs of Britain's latest Afghan War, modelling himself on Stiglitz and Bilmes' Three Trillion Dollar War (2008), an economist's costing of the US invasion of Iraq. But he goes beyond that in continuing his critique of the political, strategic, and tactical failings of our political and military "policy" in Afghanistan.
Though he does not dwell on it (page 20), the Big New Mistake in the second phase of the Afghan War was the one made by Tony Blair in 2005 when he decided that in a fresh allocation of invading forces' responsibilities, the UK would take on Helmand province, centre of Afghan opium production then and bigger centre of opium production now: 40% of all Afghan opium output in 2006 and 49% in 2012 (page 180). There were two very good reasons for not taking on Helmand: (1) it's a very big place and we didn't actually have enough troops to occupy it ; (2) the Helmandis have a specific hatred of the British, dating back to the previous Afghan Wars we have launched against them.
But even bigger than this mistake was the overall mistake of giving both political and military backing to Karzai and his gang of war lords and kleptocrats. Official UK aid to Afghanistan does not trickle down much farther than their pockets. We know this. Transparency International ranks 183 countries on its scale of governmental corruption; Afghanistan is down there in position 180, far worse than say Azerbaijan (at 143) where Mr Blair likes to hang out these days. Only North Korea and Somalia (which has recently acquired a government to corrupt) are behind Afghanistan; Myanamar is equal 180th. (pages 146 - 48)
This known fact about what we are backing in Afghanistan is one reason why the British political class and its compliant civil servants (not many whistleblowers here) are determined to withhold as much information as possible on the costs of our prolonged Afghan adventure. Ledwidge repeatedly has to resort to best guesses, estimates and extrapolations from bits of known evidence. This is true for costs of military hardware and troop deployment; insurance and medical treatment costs associated with deaths, injuries, trauma both now and recurrent in the future; costs to the Afghan economy of our presence; costs of Afghan deaths, injuries and trauma.
It's an honest and unsparing book. There are two things missing.
First, recognition of the fact (stressed by Sherard Cowper-Coles in Cables from Kabul) that Afghanistan has neighbours: not just Pakistan but Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, China and India. This is not a very encouraging list. But these countries have all paid a price for American-led adventurism in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its former Imperial power's occupation of Helmand. Ledwidge does briefly discuss the consequences for British homeland security of the damage we have done in Helmand (pages 208 - 211). This line of thinking is one that urgently needs to be pursued.
Second, a link needs to be made to the analysis offered in David Keen's book Useful Enemies which argues that many wars drag on for years because there are stakeholders who have an interest in their continuation. Ledwidge does mention, more than once (pages 20 - 21 and elsewhere), the "use them or lose them" remark attributed to General Sir Richard Dannatt when Chief of the General Staff (2007) suggesting that if troops did not deploy from Iraq to Afghanistan then they would be declared redundant in some round of defence cuts.
But it is more than that. There are stakeholders everywhere: Karzai and his chums trousering aid money; the Taliban taking bribes not to attack enemy convoys; drug lords providing income in an economy which cannot be normal while fighting continues; British politicians basically channeling tax money to the arms manufacturers on whom we rely to keep the unemployment figures down; the military trying to defend its turf; Prince Harry needing photo ops ... the list goes on. And now we have Britain's answer to Donald Rumsfeld, our Foreign Secretary William Hague, casting around - almost desperately - for some new war to lose when the troops become free from Afghanistan. It's not the winning that matters; it's the taking part.
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