• Simon Olsen

The Undoing of Care: Afghanistan and The Military Covenant

Speaking aboard the HMS Albion, on a cold December morning in Plymouth, 2007, then Prime Minister Tony Blair declared to attendees that Britain’s role on the global stage was that of peacekeepers and war fighters, underlining his interventionist foreign policy that had seen tens of thousands of British personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. During the same lecture, Blair outlined his belief that Britain should not seek to intervene in conflicts all around the globe, and that intervention must be tempered with restraint. The prime minister also declared his intention to see the armed forces given the financial support they had clamoured for, whilst warning the public that Afghanistan would be a war of attrition.

Blair’s pronouncements also included an implied promise to uphold the military covenant, just as Britain’s fortunes in Iraq had begun to turn and the war in Afghanistan was becoming a festering sore. This covenant, mere policy at the outbreak of the war, would only be enshrined in law by 2011 once Britain had expended her fill of treasure and blood. Despite Blair’s promises of greater support and his commitment to efforts overseas, the cauldron of Afghanistan certainly demanded that greater attention be paid to soldier welfare.

Inconsistencies and contradictions seem endemic to the British experience in Afghanistan. Indeed, the dominant narrative portrays a war effort beset by political limitations and material shortcomings, meaning that even the self-appointed ‘masters’ of counterinsurgency warfare could not prevail. Yet, the dominant official narrative during the war was that it was a difficult conflict against a determined enemy, but British grit and ingenuity would persevere. The political machinations of those at home have been an all too easy target for those overseeing and managing the Afghanistan war. Beleaguered by decades of cuts and the downsizing of the British Army over successive decades since the 1950s, generals found traction in accusations of a lack of financial support.

However, this narrative is not without challenge. Senior officials within the Army, worried by the de-escalation of British involvement in Iraq after 2007, and the need to justify recent purchases of expensive apache helicopters, pushed for greater involvement in Helmand, seeing it as an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of reward in the form of increased budgets. Furthermore, this pro-Helmand cabal of generals abdicated their own responsibility of abiding by the military covenant of soldiering welfare, instead shifting the blame onto Whitehall via accusations of failing to provide the necessary materials for the job. Such manipulation was complimented by a systematic failure to communicate effectively with political leaders for greater manpower and resources – helicopters being the notorious example – that one cannot fail to see this as an intentional ploy by senior generals to ensure that their desires for inflated budgets proved justified by events. Moreover, the narrative pushed by these generals, that they had been hamstrung by politicians, casts an ominous and dangerous shadow over their own conduct. Such a ‘stab in the back’ has dangerous connotations and precedents in recent history.

Such manipulation of narrative and neglect of individuals certainly seems to contradict Mr Blair’s stated intent to support service personnel. Indeed, this lack of communication between political and military leaders predictably left soldiers in the middle, pulled between two horses. Such neglect was further exacerbated by the strategic preparation afforded to soldiers before arriving in Afghanistan, and the operational management of them once in theatre. Cast as the perennial experts of counterinsurgency, the British army was deployed to Afghanistan having long forgotten the lessons learned from earlier deployments to Malaya, Dhofar, and Northern Ireland. Indeed, the focus throughout the 1990s had been on conventional war and the technology needed to dominate it, not the subtlety and cultural sensitivity needed to win over hearts and minds. Exacerbating this, was the fact that by the mid-2000s, not many of those who had served in earlier peacekeeping operations were on hand to share their wisdom, and the hard lessons learned from such operations had not been institutionalised.

As a result, soldiers were thrown into a foreign civil war amongst a people who did not trust or respect them, against an ideologically united and determined enemy, and under a leadership that was convinced it needed to prove the war was difficult from the outset. Furthermore, the gradual decrease in the size of the British Army was dramatically exposed during Afghanistan, as the covenant was systematically contravened. A 2008 RAND study found that the army was 3290 personnel short of its manpower requirements, up to 20% of its required strength, and that the Ministry of Defence’s Harmony Guidelines were consistently broken, meaning over 20% of personnel were being deployed with less than 24 months of downtime. Such strains were exacerbated tenfold by the increased intensity of Afghanistan on a significantly reduced force. No wonder British personnel were left feeling isolated and undercut by their own leadership.

This failure to apply previous institutional learning was evident in the overstretch of deployed manpower from the earliest stages of the war. The British in selecting Helmand as their area of influence in Afghanistan, had deliberately chosen the most challenging, largest, and most insurgent-heavy region of the country. Seen as a job only the British were cut out for, Helmand proved the undoing of British hubris. The army was deployed over a geographically large area initially in ‘platoon houses’ and sought to draw insurgents out to them. However, this approach only served to politically isolate British troops from the Afghan people they were supposed to be winning over, as combats with insurgents were fought over and in civilian properties, resulting in substantial collateral damage. Moreover, understanding of the ‘inkspot’ strategy so famously deployed in Malaya, has been challenged in recent work as being far more coercive than traditionally remembered, a nuance lost on the British planners in Afghanistan. Thus, the strategic and tactical environment soldiers were forced to operate within, further undermined their trust in their own leadership and had a detrimental effect on the very relationships that were supposed to be being forged with the civilian population. The strategic shift that occurred in 2011 away from body counts and seek and destroy, to a state-building approach, only further undermined confidence in military leadership, as the military gains made through blood were cast aside in favour of a more restrained policy. Such a dramatic shift in strategy came with a military cost, as attacks spiked across Helmand after 2012, rendering the sacrifice of soldiers inconsequential.

Eventually, the military covenant was enshrined in law in 2011, through the Armed Forces Act, and it might be argued that it was about time. Clearly, despite the protestations otherwise, the welfare of soldiers in Afghanistan was often overlooked by those charged to safeguard it. Big ideas within circles of elites were encouraged by inflated egos and the pursuit of personal agendas, all at the expense of those they were charged to safeguard. Whilst the Afghanistan conflict has not yet produced a cataclysmic wave of combat stress related diagnoses, the rate of neurotic disorders and subsequent PTSD among service personnel deployed, is proportionately higher than among those deployed to Iraq. Such a correlation points to Afghanistan as having been particularly challenging for soldiers. Hopefully, the establishment of the military covenant in law, will go some way to reducing the chances of such neglect in future wars.

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