Friday, November 14, 2008

Hutton and Afghanistan: To surge or not to surge?

John Hutton chose Remembrance Day to deliver his maiden speech as Defence Secretary, and as the subject, a conflict described only just over a year ago as Britain’s ‘forgotten war’: the conflict in Afghanistan. In an address titled ‘Afghanistan – Worth the Sacrifice,’ Mr Hutton asserted that the war may yet become the ‘defining conflict of this century.’
The situation that British servicemen and women find themselves in in Afghanistan can no longer be described as ‘forgotten’. The conflict has increasingly found itself in the headlines, and the subject of numerous documentaries, debates and public discussions, and not necessarily (although not exclusively), for the right reasons. This has been in part due to the decrease in size and prominence of British operations in Iraq, but also due to the number of British lives that have been lost in Afghanistan, and the increasing frequency with which they seem to be being lost.

124 British troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001, including two Royal Marines in Helmand Province this week. Just over 8,000 British troops are currently serving in Afghanistan, compared to half that number – around 4,000 – in Iraq. The number of British lives lost in recent times as a result of the conflict was no doubt uppermost in Mr Hutton’s mind as he prepared to speak on 11 November to justify the ‘sacrifices’ Britain has made thus far in pursuit of her political and military aims in Afghanistan.

As one might have expected then, at least half of Mr Hutton’s speech constituted a detailed explanation of the UK national security imperative driving the political objectives which keep British troops in Afghanistan; in short that, should the Taliban be allowed to regain power of the country, it would once again provide a ‘secure refuge’ which would allow Al Qaeda to re-group there and to plan and implement terrorist acts upon countries including the UK.

While this argument is compelling and undoubtedly persuasive when justifying why British troops remain in Afghanistan seven years almost to the day after the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, and why the government intends for them to stay ‘until their job is complete’, those that were hoping for a more detailed exposition of how the sacrifices that have already been made will not be in vain, and how future sacrifices might be avoided, or at least minimised, were disappointed.

General Petraeus’ review and predicted overhaul of US operations in Afghanistan is widely regarded as acceptance that something needs to change strategically in order for quicker progress to be made. However, the Defence Secretary did not mention in his speech an issue that could prove to be key; the suggestion of a 30,000-strong troop surge, 5,000 of which would be made up of British forces. The idea has recently been linked with high profile figures including President-elect Barack Obama, and General Sir David Richards, the incoming Head of the British Army. Both of them, if recent reports are true, believe that a change in military strategy, in the form of a massive troop surge will be key to achieving military and political objectives and precipitating the eventual withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan.

Mr Hutton has indicated that he believes the role of Ministers to be to take the advice of their generals on issues of military strategy and act on it, rather than formulating such strategies themselves. While this is surely something to be welcomed, it appears that strategic advice on a surge has yet to be sought, and much less received. But, unless General Sir David Richards changes his mind, or is ‘uninstalled’ by the Ministry of Defence between now and next August, this seems likely to be his advice to the Defence Secretary, and Mr Hutton, it appears, might be wise to take it. Indeed, there were already reports emerging at the time of writing, that a request for a further 2,000 British troops was being anticipated by the Prime Minister from President-elect Obama’s new administration, but the exact number and timing of their deployment, would be dependent on the draw down in Iraq.

It is well known that the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, does not believe that British troops returning from Iraq should be sent straight on to operations in Afghanistan, and for good reason. This perhaps provides an indication as to the division of opinion amongst the generals, which Mr Hutton will find himself facing when he does seek their advice on the future of British military strategy in Afghanistan. It will no doubt prove infinitely more complex than simply seeking and acting upon advice – there will be stark and difficult choices to be made, as one would expect in matters of war and peace. And, given the backdrop of the approaching general election, which must take place before the summer of 2010, making those choices could prove even more difficult. Yet, as Nick Clegg, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, has pointed out, ‘…the worst option is to do nothing, because at the moment we have too few troops fighting an enemy that cannot be defeated by military means alone.’

The Defence Secretary freely admitted in his speech that ‘it would be a huge mistake for any politician to take [public] consent for the deployment of our armed forces for granted. Politicians have to earn and re-earn that consent.’ And yet, in a poll of just over 1,000 members of the British public conducted by ICM and released by the BBC this week, more than two-thirds of those questioned (68%) believed that British troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan within the next year, and less than one quarter (24%) believed troops should stay. This is perhaps no surprise given the increased profile of the conflict itself and of the deaths which it has brought about. Whether the respondents believed that a troop surge was likely to take place in the next year, and that troops would therefore be able to withdraw more easily afterwards, is unknown, but that would perhaps have been a more useful, if less ‘poll-friendly’ question. The Ministry of Defence rebutted this, quoting their most recent MORI poll which indicated that over 50% of the public supports the UK armed forces’ presence in Afghanistan, and that a recent Chatham House survey found only 37% of people favoured a withdrawal. Despite this, the MoD admitted that they do ‘need to do more to explain to the UK public why it’s so important that the UK continues to support the Government… and the international presence in Afghanistan.’ It seems Mr Hutton would do well to keep his own words at the forefront as he seeks strategic advice from his generals and decides whose advice to take, should he face a difference of opinion. The old adage that, in the midst of war, winning hearts and minds at home is as important as winning those abroad has never been truer.

Even if a surge were to be advised, the advice taken, acted upon, and successfully sold to the British public, opinion will still need to be convinced that the government is honouring the Military Covenant, or duty of care, that it owes to the armed forces. The British public needs to be reassured that British troops are adequately prepared, equipped, renumerated, supported and rested both before, during and after their deployment on operations, not least those in Afghanistan. Though Mr Hutton confirmed in an earlier interview, that he was happy that all equipment now being used by British forces in Afghanistan was up to the job in the majority of cases, he did concede that mistakes had been made in the past. The Ministry of Defence has indeed made much progress in terms of both equipment provision and reforming defence procurement procedures to enable ‘off the shelf’ emergency purchases to be made, now categorised as Urgent Operational Requirements or UORs. And while no-one would deny that unforeseen equipment malfunctions do occur in the heat of battle, and that such occurrences are an unfortunate fact of war, the number and extent of avoidable equipment inadequacies – both in terms of the availability, quantity and quality of equipment – has been borne out recently by a high profile catalogue of testimonies from serving and ex-service people, as well as coroners’ conclusions identifying preventable deaths and injuries suffered by British servicemen and women. These will have no doubt done nothing to instil the public with confidence in the government’s ability to properly prepare and equip British troops for the job it is asking them to do. Admittedly, inquests follow actual events with a considerable time lag, so if Mr Hutton’s optimism is to be believed, one might expect the number of preventable deaths and injuries to drop considerably in the future.

To properly address the equipment and other Covenant-related issues, Mr Hutton needs to be open about the overarching issue of government funding for the armed forces. The level of funding that may or may not be available, given the government’s current economic commitments in other areas, needs to be, if not debated publicly, then certainly taken into consideration in any strategic choices and that consideration needs to be articulated to the British public effectively. Furthermore, the fundamental and related issues of recruitment and retention, especially as they affect the British Army, also need to be addressed, and be seen to be addressed, as a matter of urgency.

To ensure that past and future British sacrifices in Afghanistan will not have been in vain therefore, and to enable public support for the operation to be re-established and maintained, Mr Hutton and the government will need to move decisively. They must be seen to be tackling the conflict itself directly and efficiently, both in terms of lives lost, and from an economic point of view. Avoiding an ever-longer, more drawn-out, bogged down, expensive and bloody conflict than has already occurred is imperative. The effectiveness of the operation, in all senses, will now be publicly scrutinised as never before, and this against the backdrop of an unprecedented global economic crisis. Furthermore, what might be considered as issues slightly outside the scope of the conflict, but nonetheless integral to it, must also be addressed, and be seen to be being addressed, as a matter of urgency – equipment, retention, rest and recuperation, etc. It would perhaps be prudent for Mr Hutton to adopt a more holistic approach in his justification of the British presence in Afghanistan in the future. As well as providing a thorough outline of the national security imperative behind the operation, which is no doubt important, addressing the wider issues outlined above, as well as tackling head-on the issue of whether to ‘surge’ or not, will undoubtedly help to improve the public’s perception of the value of a more sustained British effort in Afghanistan, and perhaps of the accompanying sacrifices that such an effort might entail.

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