Alex Massie

A Nice Little War for Slow Learners: Is the Army Fit for Purpose?

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Most arguments about Afghanistan this summer quickly became another opporturnity to bash the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Defence. No surprise there and, of course, a good deal of the criticism about the shortage of helicopters and other equipment has some merit to it. But the government's failures, manifold as they are, ought not to be the sole focus of attention. They matter, but so too does the actual performance of the armed forces.

Is the Army doing enough with what it's got? And can it legitimately be expected to do better? The political leadership in London matters, but that doesn't mean the Army top brass can deftly shift all responsibility for failure onto Ministers and civil servants. I'm only an interested amateur in these matters, but the new issue of British Army Review suggests that the Amy needs to sharpen its act just as much as the MoD needs a throough overhaul. As the Times reports:

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.

"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?

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.”

From Colonel David Marston, US Army and former Executive Officer under General David Petreaus:

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.


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.

I believe that translates as: This is damning and uncomfortably close to the bone.

As I say, I'm not an expert in these matters, but all this seems more significant than helicopters and land rovers. The army's civilian leadership may not be "fit for purpose" but what about its military leadership? And if we keep coming on in the same old style isn't there the rather worrying possiblity that we'll be met in the same old style?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsafghanistaniraq