Danger Close: Commanding 3 PARA in Afghanistan by Stuart Tootal, and, Losing Small Wars: British military failure in Iraq & Afghanistan by Frank Ledwidge
Constant conflict from the first Gulf War to the rise of Al Qaeda (culminating in 9/11) to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has in many ways been the story of my generation. Unlike the earlier metanarratives of the long stand off of the Cold War or the Second World War, this conflict has felt much more morally ambiguous and indeterminate.
These two contrasting books offer interesting analysis of British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Published in 2009, Colonel Tootal’s book was one of the first ‘herographies’ describing the conflict in Afghanistan, while Lt Commander Ledwidge’s (just published) book is among the first of what will surely be a mountain of literature critiquing British strategy in these wars.
Tootal tells a soldier’s story – of being in command of a battalion of paratroopers desperate to prove themselves in combat, and the often bitter reality of what that experience was like. Tootal seems to have been clear sighted about the complexities of being the first significant deployment of British troops into Helmand. How, he asks his Whitehall bosses, will he gain the support of the local population if he destroys their livelihood – the production of opium poppies? No answers are forthcoming.
Tootal also describes the complexity and confusion of the command structure within which he had to work, “In essence it meant that I had three bosses to work to.” This was a recipe for disaster in a theatre of operations like Helmand.
The political and military complexities of Helmand meant that the Paras were put in no win situations, for example, when they were tasked with rescuing a police chief who had been captured by the Taliban. This police chief was corrupt and a threat to the general population, yet to not rescue him would be seen to undermine the governor of Helmand who represented the Afghan government and so had to be supported.
Ledwidge is a barrister and military reservist who has served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, and brings a forensic eye to British military strategy. Losing Small Wars is replete with eye watering facts and figures. For instance:
- It costs £400,000 to keep each British soldier in Afghanistan for a year
- The campaign in Afghanistan costs £6 billion each year
- Of 7,000 British soldiers in Basra in 2006 only 200 were actually available for patrolling
- In Helmand, from a Brigade of 3,500 men, there were only a maximum of 168 men able to conduct combat operations
- “There are, proportionately eight times more generals in the UK armed forces that there are in the US Marine Corp, four times as many as in the US army, and as astonishing ten times as many as the Israelis have.”
- Javelin rockets (costing £70,000 each) were routinely fired at sniper positions; and “Until early 2010 it was common to call in an air strike and drop 1,000 kilogramme bombs (cost £250,000 plus £35,000 an hour fuel for the constantly patrolling jets) on the position
Tootal recognizes the way his unit’s presence inflamed the situation in Helmand:
There is no doubt in my mind that our arrival had stirred up a hornet’s nest in a province that many had considered quiet until then. But it was only quiet because the Taliban and the drug warlords had been allowed to hold the ascendency there. There was no rule of law, no government authority and any ‘peace’ was due to the ruling tyranny and corruption of bandits and insurgents. Although no one ever said it to my face, some safe at home in the bureaucratic corridors of Whitehall later suggested that 3 PARA might have been overly aggressive in its approach. But they were not the ones shedding blood, sweat and tears in the service of their country.
In contrast, Ledwidge argues that the Paras were overly aggressive and it might well have been better to leave some of the ‘bandits’ in position. Ledwidge plots the mess that 3 PARA were going to find themselves in. An SAS team had been operating in Helmand and warned against a number of decisions that Whitehall was to take. “The mess that the British were about to find themselves in was rooted in their meddling with local governance that they neither understood nor had the capacity to control.”
Ledwidge is also good on the history of British military entanglements in Afghanistan, and reflects the fact that while the British may not have any cultural memory of our previous Afghan wars, the Afghans certainly do. Three times previously we had entered Afghanistan, and each time received a good whipping; for the Afghans, this was simply going to be the next instalment in a series of engagements stretching back to 1839.
Throughout, Ledwidge is critical of British arrogance and sense of superiority over the Americans in fighting counter-insurgency warfare, when it has actually been the Americans who have been faster to learn and displayed greater competence. Senior British officers continually harped on about the lessons of Malaya and Northern Ireland, when these were entirely different conflicts from those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ledwidge is also critical of the decision to make 16 Air Assault Brigade (of which 3 PARA is a part) the first British troops to enter Helmand. As the most aggressive element of the British Army, they were an unlikely choice for what was a peacekeeping mission, and while commending Tootal’s professionalism, Ledwidge questions his lack of engagement with the ‘human terrain’ – that is, having an understanding of what a ‘war among the people’ might actually mean.
The Paras were isolated in ‘platoon houses’ and used overwhelming force and heavy weaponry to defend themselves, that destroyed town centres, with the result that, as Ledwidge records it, “the British had fulfilled exactly their historic role as most Helmandis saw it – that of aggressive and destructive invaders.”
Ledwidge makes the shocking point that the British have now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were, and have achieved less than the Soviets did. There was a chronic shortage of Pashtu speakers attached to the military, and an apparent blindness to the fact that a group of heavily tooled up foreigners patrolling the streets of Helmand might be perceived as threatening by the natives.
Ledwidge sums up his criticisms like this:
The form of ‘expeditionary warfare’ on which Britain’s armed forces staked their future has proved to be beyond their commanders’ capabilities. A failure to adapt, antediluvian structures and intelligence systems, deployment schedules that ensures a lack of continuity, a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to excessive readiness to use extreme violence, an attachment to archaic traditions and imagined histories – all of these factors played their part. Inadequate equipment and a dearth of personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure that was proportionately eight times the size of that of the US marines.
Having read a number of reviews of Losing Small Wars by serving military personnel it appears that most soldiers agree with Ledwidge’s analysis. But against the backdrop of the dreadful strategic failures of the military high command must be measured the bloody reality of the cost to British troops. The most harrowing chapter of Danger Close is the account of a patrol that stumbled into a minefield on Kajaki Ridge which resulted in the death of one man, and several others losing legs. The subsequent poor treatment of the injured men, and the penny-pinching approach to their families (especially in light of the overall costs of the campaign) is shocking.
Reading these books left me with a sense of admiration for the bravery and courage of individual men, but something approaching outrage at the overall picture of our recent military adventures. We have made colossal mistakes.