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Breaking rank

Years of timidity from politicians have left our military commanders dangerously overconfident

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

Nearly five years ago, a friend in the diplomatic service was hovering outside the permanent under-secretary’s room in the Foreign Office. Through the open door, he overheard the senior official telling ‘Jock’ not to worry, the FO would be sending a ‘big hitter’ as ambassador to Kabul. They would make sure that the surge of British military forces into Helmand was matched by a diplomatic surge into Kabul.

‘Jock’ was the then chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, and the ‘big hitter’ was — though I didn’t yet know it — me, sitting in blissful ignorance in Riyadh, starting my final year as ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

When the call came, I enthusiastically accepted — in no small part because I had always admired our military, and had always enjoyed working with them. One of my favourite jobs in the Foreign Office had been covering defence policy as Nato tried to reinvent itself after the Berlin Wall came down. Like so many people in Britain, I had all sorts of family and personal links with our armed forces. I saw them as a cherished part of the national fabric.

But what I then saw over the next three-and-a-half years was deeply worrying. A trend has set in where an overconfident and under-managed military machine fills a vacuum left by politicians, civil servants and diplomats unable or unwilling to provide firm strategic direction. The military is not just doing the fighting, but increasingly it is allowed to decide the overall direction of the campaign. Now that Barack Obama wishes to hasten the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with obvious implications for Britain, the military is protesting. In my view, this is a sign of a deep imbalance in the relationship between the military and the state.

The British military is deeply conservative. But, as I argued in a paper written in 1994, ‘This is a not wholly undesirable by-product of the methods Britain uses to build a warrior class of unparalleled excellence, in which loyalty and tribalism are two sides of the same richly minted coin.’ Having seen the men and women of our armed forces making war in, over and around Afghanistan, I can only confirm that they are indeed unmatched in their professional excellence. And courage. Not so much the adrenalin-fuelled courage of a special forces task force leaping out of their Chinooks in the dead of night on a ‘kill or capture’ mission — though they are very brave indeed. The courage that sticks in my mind is the extraordinary steadiness of the poor bloody infantry, walking out on foot patrol in the fields and lanes of the Helmand Valley, accompanying Afghan soldiers high on dope or worse, not knowing when and where the next booby trap will explode. And the courage of the air crew and of those who man the armoured personnel carriers, the medical teams that deploy forward and — the bravest of the brave — those who find and disarm the bombs that have become the baneful leitmotif of the ground war.

Dealing with some of the senior officers who directed the Afghan war was, however, less uplifting. The first hint of difficulty came in early 2007 when the MoD’s in-house intelligence service questioned the judgment — held by almost every objective observer — that security in Afghanistan was steadily deteriorating. In the comfortable surroundings of Ditchley Park, a senior general warned me that my embassy in Kabul had ‘lost the plot’ — simply by reporting what we saw as the truth about the challenges we faced in Afghanistan.


This was only the start. As the Afghan situation went from bad to worse, senior officers applied remorseless pressure to ministers to send more British troops to Helmand. They did so knowing that any serious counter-insurgency strategy must be, as General Petraeus’s famous field manual suggests, ‘mostly politics’. Such a strategy must also address the sanctuaries into which the insurgents withdraw when threatened (in our case, mainly across the Pakistan border). A successful campaign needed to be able to provide enough troops to cover the whole of the infected area for a very long time. Britain’s Afghanistan ‘strategy’ breached all those principles.

But as the troops came back from Iraq, Ireland and the Rhine, our generals were glad that the Army had — at long last — some ‘proper soldiering’ to do in Afghanistan. With defence cuts looming after the 2010 election, every actual or prospective withdrawal from Iraq was matched by a proposal for a similarly sized uplift in Helmand. One general told me, ‘It’s use them or lose them, Sherard.’

Ministers nervously questioned how such troop increases suited Britain’s strategy in Afghanistan. For its part, the Treasury would point to the rapidly rising cost of our Afghan operations — now getting on for £6 billion a year. But civil servants and diplomats who asked such questions were told they were ‘undermining’ the campaign. Leaks started to appear accusing ministers of ‘not backing Our Boys’ and of working to a narrowly political timetable. The opposition piled in very effectively. And the Prime Minister, rather than camping on strategic high ground worthy of his office, became bogged down in helicopter hours and mine-resistant vehicle numbers.

Quite aside from anything else, this was bad politics. Gordon Brown somehow allowed himself to be blamed for software failures in a Chinook fleet ordered a decade earlier. The same officers who were complaining to the press about lack of helicopters were riding around Afghanistan on them. In the summer of 2007, an RAF movements officer showed me a pie chart of British helicopter usage in southern Afghanistan: 27 per cent of the hours were for VIP flights, mostly for senior British military visitors from London.

Nato told the Allies that the one category of weapons system of which it had enough in Afghanistan was fast ground-attack jets. But the MoD still pressed for the Tornados to be sent, at a cost of some £70 million just for new taxiways in Kandahar. I once suggested to a Cabinet minister that he might want to question the military about this. His reply summed up the problem. ‘Sherard,’ he said, ‘I don’t know the difference between a tornado and a torpedo. I can’t possibly question the Chief of the Defence Staff on this.’ A year or so later a minister who had been directing the war for over three years sidled up to me in the mess tent in Lashkar Gah, and asked me quietly to remind him of the difference between a battalion and a brigade.

This is what was happening in Afghanistan. Politicians with little or no military experience were being pushed by a confident and enthusiastic military lobby into doing things against their better judgment. War-winning armies need to be incurably optimistic, unquenchably enthusiastic, institutionally loyal, and — to some extent — susceptible to groupthink. The problem comes when the politicians, and the civil servants who advise them, don’t have the courage, knowledge or confidence to push back against pressure from one of the most effective special-interest lobbies of them all.

The power of the British military is reinforced by its providing much of the MoD’s staff. If this sounds logical, it shouldn’t. It is as if the British Medical Association ran the Department of Health, or the National Farmers’ Union staffed Defra. The civil servants in the MoD are clever and courageous, but have great difficulty asserting themselves over their professionally and personally confident colleagues in the uniform branch. The military now have much better academic qualifications than they did in the past. Gone are the days when a Michael Quinlan or a Frank Cooper could dominate the mi
nistry. This imbalance is one reason why the MoD finds it so difficult to count.

In the days of National Service, virtually the whole population had experience of the forces, warts and all. Nowadays, only a minority of politicians have any real military knowledge — and then only through short-service commissions or time in the school CCF. The result has been that attitudes to the military are more deferential and less balanced. The military are fighting our first war in a generation. For obvious and proper reasons, the media — particularly the red-top tabloids — treat the men and women of the armed forces as heroes. This attitude is strengthened in a war by the media’s need for copy, both visual and written, that can be obtained only by embedding with a military machine. As the row over Toby Harnden’s book about the Welsh Guards showed, it then becomes awkward and unpatriotic to criticise that machine. The kind of mockery of military pomposity seen in films such as Norman Wisdom’s 1959 The Square Peg is almost unthinkable. Audiences almost wholly ignorant of the military wouldn’t even find it funny.

Little wonder the British military are so assertive. They have the media and public on their side, they control the MoD and they are facing a political class that stands in bewildered awe of men in uniform. But with time and money running out, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are at last starting to take charge, and give the military the firm strategic direction they need — in their own interests — in a democracy. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron are applying in different ways the lessons in Eliot A. Cohen’s magisterial study Supreme Command: that it is a myth that generals should just be given the resources they need, and left to get on with fighting wars. Success comes most often when there is a proper equilibrium between political direction of strategy and military delivery of tactics.

Both sides would do well to recall the words of a great political leader who was also an accomplished soldier, faced with a far more serious military challenge to democratic political authority than we are ever likely to encounter. In 1959, at the end of his tour of French army units across Algeria, President de Gaulle told the senior officers there:

As for yourselves, mark my words! You are not an army for its own sake. You are the army of France. You exist only through her, for her, and in her service. This is your raison d’être… It is I who, in view of my position, must be obeyed by the army in order that France should survive. I am confident of your obedience, and I thank you, gentlemen. Vive la France!

As the Delphic Oracle would have said, in life there are only two rules: ‘Know thyself’, and ‘Nothing in excess’.


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