Time for a new British defence policy?

Overstretched. Undermanned. Unloved. And given silly things to do. Sensible people are saying this of the British military. Isn’t it time the politicians explained why they think the sacrifice is worthwhile – and at least spent the money which might help?

The Economist has a sobering account of British military affairs. (Losing its way? The British army suffers from lack of soldiers, lack of money and lack of conviction.) It chimes with the views of Paddy Ashdown about British lives being wasted in Afghanistan.

Building on this and other reading, and recalling conversations with young officers, one can put together an account which suggests that our political class is way overdue with a defence of its policy in Afghanistan and the kind of resources which might make it work.

In a bit more detail…..

The British have always liked the idea that we are a nation which is not militaristic or expansionist (not any more we aren’t) but we have tough and clever soldiers who like a scrap in a good cause. We think war is a noble occupation for energetic young men (and women) provided the battles are winnable and do good.

In the past few decades we have fancied that our military can punch above its weight, not least because our experience in Malaysia and North Ireland taught us about assymetrical warfare – the kind which largely replaced the set-piece or highly mobile conventional wars armies have historically been geared-up to fight.

Recent experience in Iraq has robbed us of this special narrative, this exceptionalism. We used to think the Americans ungallant in their helmeted, long-range shock and awe approach. But now Iraq has taught the Americans the kind of lessons we learned before them, whilst our own role has at times been ambiguous. In Afghanistan, both the Americans and British have their stories of heroism, but one hears from some that it is the British who are inclined to call in airpower in a way which wins few local friends. (Granted, the old style British complaints continue.)

I don’t know exactly what to make of it, but I gather that the American soldier is expected to do 12 month tours, and do them often. The British soldier does six month tours with longer gaps between them.

So what’s this? Let’s say that the American soldier is now well-equipped, battle-hardened, canny and led by a commander-in-chief who is very serious about prosecuting the War Against Terror in Afghanistan.

The British soldier is as brave as ever, but he is under-equipped, under-appreciated and under-motivated. Much of this is because he knows his commanders don’t really believe in the missions the army undertakes. The commanders don’t seem to believe that the British political class cares for the military or its current work. Even the most senior commander, Sir Jock Stirrup, whilst being diplomatic, seems too honest to be bullish or even ordinarily confident.

Surely they are right? What half-informed observer (that would be me) believes the present British administration gives a damn about Afghanistan? That may be because the politicians believe the war in Afghanistan can’t be “won” or that even if it were “won” it would make very little difference to the world’s security or lack of it.

I am not happy writing this and I would welcome finding material anywhere which disproved it.

In the meantime, the thing is circular. The Army will do its job as well as possible and with a good deal of heroism. But its courage and sacrifice will risk being wasted because and if:

(a) there is no serious possibility of success in Afghanistan;

(b) the military aren’t resourced to pack a big enough punch;

(c) the politicians remain half-hearted.

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Publication date

31 January 2009