OROn the morning of March 14, 1757, one of the Royal Navy’s top serving admirals, John Byng, was brought to the deck of the warship HMS Monarch, forced to kneel and shot by firing squad of marines. At that time, during the Seven Years’ War, the execution divided the establishment and the country. But he had not “done everything possible” to comply with his instructions for take the island of menorca in the Mediterranean, and during a global war that wasn’t good enough.
The commanders of our recent wars, by contrast, who have failed every campaign since 2001, have good reason to expect well-upholstered jobs like non-executive directors, positions like presidents of august charities, or extremely well-rewarded positions in ” Private security”. companies “, or as” advisers “in strategy to the slave states of the Middle East.
The conduct and outcome of the UK’s last Afghan war were far more damaging in all respects than Iraq. In the last 20 years, 457 members of the armed forces have been killed in afghanistan – and thousands more ruined for life. We do not count the suicides. We killed thousands of non-combatants in Helmand and many more insurgents. The financial cost has been conservatively estimated at over £ 37bn. We were basically defeated at Helmand in 2008 and we knew it, but we left the troops in place for six bloody and useless years until the army left in 2014. Sir Nicholas Kay, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, last week called for an investigation into the lessons learned to take a look at how we lost our strategic patience to do what was necessary, whatever that means. Some may argue that strategic competition might be a more appropriate topic.
Eventually there will be an investigation. We don’t know who will run it, but we hope our prime minister will soon find a “safe pair of hands” among our cadre of officials and judges to carry it out, and some tall grass to kick it off. When it happens, waves of generals, most of them well known to each other, will describe their “successes” and “challenges” in the long military campaign. Politicians will justify themselves without problems. There will be a severe, long-awaited report with the final judgment of “what a mess.”
We have already had a query like that, of course. In their 2016 report on the Iraq war, John Chilcot and his team gave us a wonderful historical resource. However, much of the long, long process of the investigation had the ruminant quality of a quiet day on a dairy farm; their procedures resembled the Oxbridge seminars. Yes, there were “results” in addition to the vast report itself: the brochure Good operation it emerged as a result and is beginning to gain traction among military planners. There is now an awareness of the need for a culture that allows military planners to challenge assumptions and excessive optimism, a process called “Red Team”. Lessons were identified, as the old adage goes, but it is too early to tell if they have been learned. Given what we know about the inter-ministerial mess in recent weeks and last Wednesday’s testing disaster at the foreign affairs committee, we can be forgiven for the doubt.
The architects of the Iraq war, military and civil, navigate smoothly. To be fair, Chilcot was not expected to blame. He went as far as his mandate allowed; no one should be held accountable. This is the crux. Lessons must be learned from Afghanistan, yes, but Boris Johnson and his crew will be condemned if someone in a position of responsibility is to be held responsible.
For states that are really serious about defense and national security as an existential issue, the focus is much more ruthless. In 2006, the Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon with little preparation, poor planning, and chaotic results. Israel and the Israelis really do care about defense and they have very good reason to be concerned about defeat. So in a few weeks a the commission was established – composed of a judge, two professors and two generals. That reported in 18 months that “great failure surpassed the military operation.” The approach taken by the committee was that “rhetorical praise of the troops should not interfere an honest assessment of your abilities”.
The consequence was the end of the careers of the prime minister and the chief of defense staff, among others, and a total reform of the way the Israel Defense Forces conduct their operations. There were few illusions that senior military officers were somehow more inherently capable than leaders of other professions.
After 20 years of relentless strategic and operational defeat of British forces in Afghanistan, one could be forgiven for thinking that military defeat, indeed relentless strategic disaster, has nothing to do with those whose only vital role is to be strategic advisers. . It is senior officials who define the nature and scale of campaigns and advise politicians on their conduct. However, the truth is, as Simon Akam has pointed out, that there will be no responsibility for men (there is only 25 high-ranking female officers, with 430 men) that have been crucial in bringing us the most damaging strategic defeat for many decades. We can talk about cultures of impunity, the slanders of politicians. All of that is true. It is also true that the country does not really care. It just isn’t important enough.
Frank Ledwidge is Senior Lecturer in Strategy at the University of Portsmouth. He served as a military officer and advisor in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism