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SATURDAY ESSAY: British troops have paid a high price for partial success in Afghanistan

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 12, 2014

By Dr Jamie Gaskarth

  • Truro schoolboy Olaf Schmid, who died defusing a bomb in 2009

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Last week, Christina Schmid revealed her reservations about the human cost of the War in Afghanistan. The widow of former Truro schoolboy Olaf Schmid, who died defusing a bomb in 2009, said she believed it had become Britain’s version of the Vietnam War. Here, Dr Jamie Gaskarth assesses the legacy of Afghanistan


As Britain’s military mission in Afghanistan draws to an end, there are continuing questions over why we entered the conflict and whether it was worth the financial and human cost.

Christina Schmid, the widow of Olaf Schmid, the Cornish-born bomb disposal expert killed in 2009, has called it “our version of the Vietnam War”.

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To understand why British troops were there, and if the sacrifice was worthwhile, we need to go back over the details of the war stage by stage.

Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan came in three phases.

When the terrorist attacks on the United States occurred on September 11, 2001, 67 British people perished along with 2,910 others.

The group responsible, labelled Al Qaeda, had partly planned the operation in Afghanistan, run training camps in the country, and were living there at the invitation of the Taliban government. NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington treaty, declaring 9/11 an attack on all its members. The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling the attacks a “threat to international peace and security”.

An ultimatum was issued to the Taliban to surrender those responsible. They refused to comply fully and so the US and UK launched military operations on October 7, 2001, citing self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

At first, British involvement was small. The Royal Navy fired off a few Tomahawk missiles and the RAF helped with reconnaissance and refuelling.

British troops were deployed in November 2001 to secure Bagram airfield.

Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance, with heavy US air support and coalition special forces, drove the Taliban from Kabul and chased them into Pakistan.

In December 2001, the Bonn conference set up an Afghan Transitional Authority, the fledgling Afghan government under Hamid Karzai, as well as an International Stabilisation and Assistance Force (ISAF) and in 2002 the UN launched an assistance mission (UNAMA) to help with reconstruction and development.

Britain played a key role in support of these initiatives, with troop numbers rising to 2,100, before handing over control of ISAF to Turkey.

In 2002, Royal Marines from 45 Commando participated in counter-terrorism operations in eastern Afghanistan under Taskforce Jacana. These were withdrawn in July.

This first phase had limited objectives and was largely successful. Al Qaeda was driven into hiding. The total military financial cost between 2001 and 2005 was £645 million, most of this spent in the first two years, and only ten British casualties were reported.

It is important to note the strong legal basis for these actions.

Unlike Iraq in 2003, the Afghanistan campaign received broad international support and UN backing. If anyone was to ask what the UK was doing there, it was acting in self-defence via counter-terrorist operations.

However, ISAF also aspired to encourage development and expand its remit beyond Kabul to the whole country.

This led to a more problematic second phase of British involvement.

In the absence of other volunteers, the UK agreed to deploy to Helmand province in 2006 as part of ISAF’s push into southern Afghanistan.

This would have the more ambitious aim of bringing development to the region as well as leading on the counter-narcotics effort.

Although Britain had become embroiled in Iraq in 2003, the assumption made by planners, according to the head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, was that by 2006 the UK “would be either out of Iraq or down to a training team”.

In reality, it faced increasing attacks from Iraqi militia and insurgents.

Then-British Defence Secretary John Reid famously stressed the peaceful nature of the Afghan deployment by saying: “We would be perfectly happy to leave again in three years’ time without firing one shot.”

In the meantime, the Taliban had crept back into Afghanistan.

Between 2004 and 2006, Taliban fighters infiltrated villages in Helmand, first in pairs or threes, then lately in the hundreds.

They stoked resentment

of foreign occupation and threatened or coerced the local population into supporting an insurgency.

The British Government’s lack of intelligence on how the political climate had changed is shocking.

The British took responsibility for Helmand province in April 2006 as part of Operation Herrick 4. It did so with only 600 combat troops trying to control a population of 1.5 million.

According to counter-insurgency expert Jeffrey A. Friedman, a rough rule of thumb of such operations is to try to have a ratio of one soldier to every ten or 15 civilians. This was a ratio of 1 to 2,500.

Despite their sparse numbers, the British were persuaded to garrison northern towns such as Sangin, Musa Qaleh and Now Zad.

The result was some of the fiercest fighting since the Korean War. Trapped in compounds, they came dangerously close to being overrun.

One soldier, Dean Fisher of the Royal Fusiliers, was reported to have fired some 40,000 rounds of ammunition.

At the end of this deployment, almost no development activity had taken place and by February 2007 Musa Qaleh had fallen to the Taliban.

There then followed two further deployments, by 3 Commando Brigade and 12 Mechanised Brigade. Each tried different tactics based on their particular skill sets.

However, the number of engagements with the enemy increased and development activity continued to stall.

It was not until 2008 that troop numbers began to reach a point where they might hold ground they had gained.

52 Brigade tried to engage more with the local population and learn from US strategy in Iraq.

When UK involvement in Iraq ended in 2009 and the US introduced a “surge” of troops into Helmand, development and security began to improve.

The third phase of British involvement saw it maintain a high level of deployment (up to 9,500 troops) and significantly increase its spending. The financial cost of military operations reached a peak of £3.82billion in 2009, (current annual aid runs at £190 million).

Casualties mounted also, with 108 killed in 2009 alone, many of them Westcountry-based servicemen.

A poll in that year saw only 22% of the public approving of the operation, with 51% against.

The Coalition Government revised the rationale for British troops in Afghanistan, stating: “We are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason – to protect our national security by helping the Afghans take control of their own”, the aim being to “prevent the return of international terrorists, such as Al-Qaeda, to Afghanistan”.

Thus the public justification moved away from grand schemes to bring democracy or liberal values to the country and back to counter-terrorism.

Yet, many commentators and commanders on the ground insist that significant improvements have been made in the security situation of Afghanistan and the quality of life of its people.

Life expectancy for Afghans has increased, the economy has seen substantial growth and the number of children in school has trebled, a third of whom are girls previously denied an education.

After eight years, the British task force in Helmand was finally disbanded on April 1, 2014.

Identifying legacies from the Afghanistan war is hard because of the shadow of Iraq.

In both cases, there were arguments over equipment and tactics, politicians failed to articulate a convincing reason for British involvement, and public support waned as casualties mounted.

But there are significant differences.

Afghanistan had stronger legitimacy under international law and a clearer basis in self-defence.

Given the success of the early phases of intervention, it is tempting to believe that the UK should have stopped there.

The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in 2011 that the aim of eradicating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan had been achieved some time ago and questioned what more could be done.

However, there is a strong element of hindsight to such criticism. The UK arguably could not have known the Taliban would launch a counter-offensive in 2006.

Refusing to redeploy to Afghanistan would have hurt relations with the US and perhaps allowed Al Qaeda to return.

Promising to develop the country and spread democracy seemed like a good way to “win hearts and minds”.

The military experienced its share of failures, but it learnt and improved with each deployment.

Afghanistan has many of the hallmarks of what social scientists call a “wicked problem”.

This is one that has unique challenges, with no agreed definition of the problem itself, and where all responses have important consequences, meaning there is little chance for trial and error without costly results.

The difficulty is that such problems do not play well in the media.

Governments get blamed for equipment problems even though these may be the result of decisions made years ago.

Armchair generals criticise the military, ignoring the fact that opponents like the Taliban can learn and adapt and may prove difficult adversaries.

Policymakers often see the public as ill-informed about foreign and defence policy.

However, it may be that they understand the Government’s arguments, they just don’t agree with them.

One of the most important legacies for the UK is the human cost of families bereaved and minds and bodies shattered by the experience of war.

In addition to 448 deaths, the latest military casualty figures list 2,173 wounded in action.

On top of that, there will be countless veterans returning with psychological trauma from their experiences.

Frank Ledwidge estimates the financial cost of these legacies at over £40 billion but the human cost is incalculable.

On a more optimistic note, public support for the military and efforts to improve the lot of veterans have perhaps never been stronger.

The Help for Heroes campaign launched in 2007 raised more than £100 million in its first four years and public awareness of the sacrifices made by service personnel is high.

The performance of the armed forces improved considerably and the challenge will be to ensure that lessons learned are not forgotten in the future.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the Afghan campaign comes down to whether it has made the British people safer.

The counter-narcotics effort did not make Britain’s streets free of heroin and alienated the Afghan population.

The Iraq war continues to have a dangerous legacy which is now influencing the Syria conflict.

But Afghanistan is no longer a place where terrorists can freely prepare attacks against the UK and its allies.

That is a qualified achievement.

- Dr Jamie Gaskarth is senior lecturer in International Relations at the School of Government, Plymouth University. He has written a number of books on British foreign policy.

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