At the sharp end of war

By Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s security affairs editor (THE GUARDIAN, 15/02/07):

Not since the second world war have Britain’s forces been under such sustained pressure. They are the ones fighting Britain’s new enemies. They are at the sharp end, facing the consequences of Tony Blair’s interventionist policies.In Iraq, British soldiers are acting as police officers, politicians, diplomats and providers of aid. They were sent to Afghanistan last year, as the then defence secretary John Reid famously said, to rebuild the country, not to seek and destroy the enemy. Their role has expanded exponentially as that of ambassadors and diplomats has declined, yet never before have senior military figures been so shut out of policy making. They have been unhappy about Iraq ever since the then chief of defence staff’s instruction to encourage Iraqi officers to negotiate with the invaders to help maintain order was torn up by Washington – without a peep from the government. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the new head of the army, made his views clear last year when he said that Britain’s presence was “exacerbating the security problems” in Iraq.

“We would be perfectly happy,” said Reid, announcing the dispatch of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, “to leave in three years’ time without firing a shot, because our job is to protect the reconstruction”. Inadequately prepared British troops soon found themselves fighting pitched battles with the Taliban. And while British commanders warn of the serious dangers of eradicating Afghanistan’s opium crop, Washington sends its chief anti-drugs adviser to Kabul. The poppy fields are to be sprayed, whatever the consequences, and despite the views of Britain’s military.

Some argue that military chiefs are suffering from a culture shock as the army comes under unprecedented scrutiny. They must get over this. Yesterday’s decision to clear Colonel Jorge Mendonca and four of his men may appear a vindication of those who argued that the charges were misconceived. Senior commanders “need to have more courage in connecting the high expectations of government in deploying armed forces with the realities of the missions they are asked to undertake”, Professor Anthony Forster, of Durham University, has said. It is now commonplace for politicians, he wrote in the magazine International Affairs, to see “the deployment of troops as a means of achieving both security and democracy”.

Hew Strachan, Chichele professor of the history of war at Oxford University, delivers a powerful critique of the way the military’s political representatives – in the US as well as Britain – have abandoned any concept of strategy. In Iraq, he writes in the journal Survival, “strategy was driven out by the wishful thinking of their political masters, convinced that the US would be welcomed as liberators”. Strachan refers to those here who bemoan the readiness to militarise foreign policy rather than to use patient diplomacy. But, he notes, “the fault is not that of the military. It is the responsibility of their political masters. They have used the armed forces as their agents in peace as well as in war”.

Blair is about to announce a shake-up of Whitehall in an attempt to make the government’s counter-terrorist strategy more effective. He must give a role to the military, with a mandate to tell ministers about life and death in the real world. And it is time the military hierarchy abandoned its sensitivities to New Labour always projecting British troops as purveyors of “soft power” – MoD publications are dominated by photos of soldiers performing good work; bonding with children in Pakistan in the wake of last year’s earthquake. That may be fine. But they are doing much much more. Such images may be comforting. But they can also be misleading.