Afghanistan: it will be tougher than we think

President Obama’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke visits Afghanistan this week believing that the new Administration has inherited a “mess… like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq”.

At his inauguration the President spoke of forging “a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”. The British Army has been trying to cope with that mess for three years, and knows how hard-earned peace will be.

When Gordon Brown visited Afghanistan late last year he told the troops: “There is a line of terror that leads from the Pakistan and Afghanistan mountains to the streets of our capital city and our towns if we allow the Taleban and al-Qaeda to flourish.” Holding the line in the mountains means that the Army will be there for a long time; senior officers believe it will be for as long as troops were in Northern Ireland.

The comparison is healthy. The Army’s 38-year commitment to Northern Ireland shows that without a coherent strategy even the best tactics are futile: casualties just mount. But there is no getting round it: strategy needs troops on the ground.

Getting strategy right in Northern Ireland took a long time. As a young company commander in a newly arrived battalion in the early 1980s I listened to a briefing on the overall concept of operations. “The trouble is,” the staff officer said, “the Chief Constable thinks it is a law-and-order situation, while the General Officer Commanding knows it is counter-insurgency.”

An infantry battalion in South Armagh “bandit country” could expect six fatalities in a four-month tour of duty, so this struck me as unhelpful. A few weeks later a visiting general asked what my mission was. I told him of our plans to kill the Queen’s enemies. “No, your mission is not to take any casualties,” he replied: the IRA’s strategic gain in killing one British soldier was greater than ours in killing the IRA.

We will not have so long to get strategy right in Afghanistanas we had in Northern Ireland, but although the “line of terror” is infinitely longer from Helmand to the streets of London than it was from across the water, al-Qaeda’s lethality is much greater than was the IRA’s. For a start, it doesn’t do telephone warnings.

Yet the differences of opinion between the GOC and the chief constable look insignificant beside the questions of sovereignty and unity of effort in Afghanistan. There, command is divided geographically between the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, with no overarching headquarters; and the slowness of reconstruction of Afghanistan’s civil administration and infrastructure makes the military presence in places just look like foreign occupation.

Only Mr Obama can get in place a coherent strategy and persuade other countries to provide troops. But only our MoD and Treasury can get the British Army ready for a long campaign. To begin with, it is just too small. The Chief of General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has said that he intends to reorganise the Army so that it is in better shape for the long haul. This much is welcome. Not long before the invasion of Iraq the MoD was still talking about the Army of the future being “fast in, fast out”, British troops doing the fighting, others doing the consolidating. “Fast in” is a technical challenge; “fast out” depends on the enemy, who might refuse to fight on our terms, and on allies who might not want to be handed a bawling baby.

This model for the future might not have mattered much if Mr Brown, then the Chancellor, had not been squeezing the defence budget, demanding a “peace dividend” from the imminent settlement in Northern Ireland of 10,000 men, 15 per cent of the Army’s deployable strength. This assumed that there was a discrete force carrying out operations in the Province, and that the Army had enough troops to cope with even its existing commitments. Both assumptions were wrong, as every soldier knew. Yet four infantry battalions were axed. We have been struggling ever since in Iraq, where the job of consolidating was far bigger than expected and where other nations shirked, and in Afghanistan where John Reid, then the Defence Secretary, thought that the mission might be accomplished without firing a single shot.

It is not just the numbers to maintain day-to-day force levels that we need, but the ability to reinforce hugely when necessary.

The US Army in Iraq, caught seriously off balance by the Sunni insurgency, recovered the situation in large part by the surge in troop numbers. In Basra, faced with a similar problem, the British Army had no spare capacity. In Northern Ireland in July 1972 troop levels surged to 30,000 for Operation Motorman which ended the republican “no-go” areas. The Army will need surge capacity in future.

Then there is the question of casualties. In the 38 years of Northern Ireland, 763 servicemen, mainly from the Army, were killed, and 6,116 wounded out of the 300,000 who served there. In South Armagh the threat of the improvised explosive devices drove both military vehicles and foot patrols from the roads, so that all movement had to be on foot across country or by helicopter. The IRA was left free to use the roads, and everyone knew it.

If the same happens in Helmand the consequences will be worse. The answer is not simply to withdraw Snatch Land Rovers, for there are places where no other type of vehicle is suitable, but for more troops to dominate the ground.

A start must be made in rebuilding the Army’s numbers. The present Defence Secretary, John Hutton, having written a book about the Kitchener battalions drawn from his constituency in the Great War, knows the terrible cost of hastily improvising an army. He will probably know, too, what Thomas-Robert Bugeaud said after fighting Wellington’s army in Spain: “The British infantry is the most formidable in Europe; fortunately there aren’t many of them.”

The Taleban must never be allowed to say the same thing.

Allan Mallinson, a military historian, novelist and former soldier.