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The Army Is Making the Same Old Mistakes in Afghanistan: British Soldiers

by Michael Evans
Britain is failing to learn from the “military mistakes” made in Iraq in developing ways to defeat the Taleban in Afghanistan, according to a series of critical articles published in an internal army journal.

One devastating contribution, from a former sergeant-major in The Parachute Regiment who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, also paints an alarming picture of soldiers and their families under huge stress from repeated tours.

A British soldier during a patrol on the outskirts of Kabul in 2008. (AFP/File/Shah Marai) The articles appear in the British Army Review, which is often used as a platform for controversial comments and opinions about the way that the Armed Forces conduct operations.

The latest edition, published yesterday for internal consumption in the Army, focuses on the perceived failures of Britain’s campaign in Iraq and the risk of repeating errors in counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

Some of the most critical comments come from Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former American commander who worked closely with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq until a year ago, and an academic who lectured at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

However, other insights into the military campaigns and the consequences for the soldiers, and for the way the missions are being run, are provided by a reservist major, formerly a company sergeant-major in the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment, and a Territorial Army trooper.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, who has just retired as Chief of the General Staff, admits in a foreword in the journal that the articles “make uncomfortable reading” but he welcomes the debate.

“The events discussed [in the journal] were set against a backdrop of concurrent and challenging operations in two theatres where our forces were operating and fighting with bravery and distinction, but which inevitably had an impact on some key issues, not least of which was the availability of resources,” General Dannatt says.

He reveals that a review of doctrine applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation Entirety, has already helped “to focus the Army on the enduring campaign in Afghanistan”. The review will be published soon.

Condemnation in the journal of Britain’s strategy in Iraq, particularly the decision to withdraw troops from Basra in September 2007, leaving the city to be taken over by extremist Shia militia, echoes criticisms made by senior American commanders at the time, which were rejected by the Government.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, admitted in January that Britain had been “smug and complacent” in the early days of the Iraq campaign.

What the experts think

The Major: Gerry Long

The stress on families of repeated tours has yet to be properly assessed. The higher echelons of the Army, the civilian and political overseers, have never encountered this kind of stress and do not understand that the smallest mistake, the minor penny-pinching process, can have repercussions out of all proportion to the original measure; the death of a thousand cuts is an everyday event in the British Army.

“On return [from Iraq and Afghanistan], what welcomes the Army after the homecoming parade and the memorial service? Health and safety inspections and the Human Rights Act, with the necessary paperwork to go with it.

“Both operations have been almost totally based on land; the greatest burden has been carried by the Army, Royal Marines and RAF support helicopter force in cost not only to personnel and families, but equipment — wearing out as fast as the soldiers suffer burn-out. The effect of repeated tours, stress of battle, suicide and divorce continue to mount, often out of view of the greater population or the political elite.”

Major Gerry Long served with the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment in Iraq, and in Afghanistan


The military lecturer: Daniel Marston

"Observers expected that the British forces going into Afghanistan and Iraq, given their history of success in counter-insurgency, would automatically be better suited to waging wars among the people than their American counterparts. The British Army, in practice, appeared to be losing its way in terms of practical application of key facets of COIN [counter-insurgency].

“Many officers and NCOs ... were apparently unaware of important operational and strategic aspects of COIN. The British Army cannot turn its back on a difficult campaign and disregard lessons, some of which are admittedly very tough to swallow ... The British campaign in [Iraq] was not a glowing success, as some within Whitehall and PJHQ [the MoD’s Permanent Joint Headquarters] may try to claim.”

Daniel Marston is a former senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst


The trooper: David Maddock

"British forces in Afghanistan today are fighting an asymmetric war, a war we have fought many times before in Arabia, Malaya, Northern Ireland and Iraq ... If we have such a vast amount of experience, why are we not implementing the lessons learnt by those who have fought and died before us? Developing and improving concepts, tactics and doctrine will lack impact and effectiveness if the commanders who are expected to implement them are singing off a different song sheet every six months [when the brigade is rotated]. I don’t believe compromise with the Taleban is possible.

“We will have to break the back of the Taleban ... taking away their ability to plan and execute complex operations, disabling their ability to procure new and more devastating weapons and, most importantly, destroying their influence over the civilian population.”

Trooper David Maddock, of the Territorial Army’s Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, served in Afghanistan in late 2007 and early 2008


The US Colonel: Peter Mansoor

"Only through a thorough appreciation of the mistakes it made in Iraq can the British Army turn defeat into victory as it fights the untidy wars of the early 21st century. It should not ... gloss over its recent experience in Iraq ... Although the conditions [in Afghanistan] are different, the lessons of Iraq are still relevant.

“The British failure in Basra was not due to the conduct of British troops, which was exemplary. It was, rather, a failure by senior British civilian and military leaders to understand the political dynamics ... in Iraq, compounded by arrogance that led to an unwillingness to learn and adapt, along with increasing reluctance to risk blood and treasure to conduct effective counter-insurgency warfare . . .

“British commanders attempted to cut deals with local Shia leaders to maintain the peace in southern Iraq, an accommodation that was doomed to failure since the British negotiated from a position of weakness.”

Retired US Colonel Peter Mansoor served two tours in Iraq and was executive officer to General Petraeus in Iraq

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