Our men can’t fight a war on Treasury rules — it’s time to pay up or pull out

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 04/09/06):

THE LOSS of 14 men in the Nimrod crash in southern Afghanistan is a tragedy for their families and for the nation. It is the heaviest loss our forces have suffered in a single engagement since the Falklands war. It follows a similar level of earlier casualties in Helmand province: 13 British soldiers have been killed supporting the Nato operation since the beginning of May.

In January, John Reid, who was then Secretary of State for Defence, told the House of Commons that additional troops were being sent to Afghanistan to help to provide the security conditions in which reconstruction could take place. They were not being sent “with the purpose of waging war” and would not be “seeking out and destroying terrorists”.

According to a report in The Sunday Telegraph, the rules of engagement have recently been changed to permit commanders to mount “offensive strike operations” against the Taleban, using every weapon at their disposal. Before this leak occurred there was no government statement, although it altered the basis of engagement to one of war against the Taleban. There had, however, been an earlier government admission that Mr Reid had understated the dangers that would be faced by British troops.

Our troops are fighting in hellish conditions, in temperatures of about 50C. Even the most skilful and well-trained units are liable to suffer physical breakdowns, as well as the breakdown of equipment and machinery. There are frequent complaints about the quality of the equipment. In particular the “snatch” Land Rovers, which were used in Northern Ireland, are said not to give adequate protection against roadside bombs. One soldier is quoted as saying: “The snatch is good for stopping bricks and petrol bombs in Londonderry. That’s about it.”

Colonel Tim Collins, who commanded a regiment in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, says that the Land Rovers are “not fit for purpose”. He also argues: “It all boils down to money and pride. The Government has not spent enough money on the Afghanistan operation, but doesn’t want to admit it. But there is an alternative. They have to find more funds or pull out. They seem to be more concerned about their reputations and their jobs than with the servicemen and women who are putting their lives at risk for their country.” This view seems to be confirmed by the press reports of comments from the troops; a House of Commons committee recently visited Afghanistan and found significant deficiencies in the equipment. You cannot fight a war on Treasury rules.

Afghanistan has historically been a very dangerous theatre of war. In the 19th century its tribesmen defeated two big British expeditions, annihilating one of them; in the late 20th century, Mujahidin defeated the military power of the Soviet Army — that defeat led to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Field Marshal Lord Montgomery once lectured the Staff College on the principles of military strategy. His opening words were: “Gentlemen, there are only two principles of strategy. The first is: Do not march on Moscow. The second is: Do not fight a land war in South East Asia.” He might have added a third: Do not invade Afghanistan.

However, Britain is now stuck in Afghanistan and has been there for almost five years. The Prime Minister may well be right to think that British forces are engaged in “a vital mission” there. Yet, one would welcome greater strategic clarity. There are three questions to which every strategy should be subjected. What is the objective? What resources will be required? What will be the exit? Unfortunately Afghanistan has been one of those issues on which the three main parties in the House of Commons have agreed. That always inhibits parliamentary scrutiny. The Labour Government took the original action in conjunction with the United States. As the Taleban were then protecting al-Qaeda, the policy of overthrowing the Taleban was generally accepted and had UN backing.

One or two backbench Conservatives, such as Sir Peter Tapsell, raised the right strategic questions, but they did not extract many answers. I suspect there is now a split developing between the parliamentary parties and public opinion. My impression is that the public have become suspicious of the Afghan project on two grounds. They doubt whether enough resources have been given to the protection of our troops and are not willing to take many more British casualties in order to prevent Afghan peasants growing poppies. They also doubt whether we shall ever get out.

There are, of course, answers to these strategic questions, some of them convincing. America and Britain are in difficulties in Iraq; the US is close to conflict with Iran; Israel has recently invaded Lebanon; Pakistan is a crucial swing state; and Islamic terrorism is an immediate reality, particularly in Britain. Defeat or withdrawal in Afghanistan would have a disastrous effect on the whole precarious balance between Islam and the West. That is why no one dares to contemplate it. Well, then, we should give our soldiers the numbers and resources they need for the job. But we should first be given a coherent strategy. At present British policy seems to be drifting towards disaster with no strategic objective in Afghanistan at all.

The strongest argument for the Government’s policy in Afghanistan is that the costs of defeat would be even greater than the costs required for victory, or even to sustain Nato’s position. The Government has never faced the implications of that. Britain has been involved in several wars, or peace, operations since 1997, yet the defence budget has been cut to the bone. If our forces are to tackle jobs as difficult as Afghanistan, they must have the best equipment and sufficient men. That will cost money. Colonel Collins is quite right, the choice in Afghanistan is pay up or pull out.