The generals finally share the blame
On Monday, while most of the British media were caught up in the ongoing soap opera of ‘hackgate’, another British soldier was killed in Afghanistan. The death of Corporal Mark Palin of the 1st Battalion the Rifles has taken the number of deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 to 377 (he is the 39th soldier to have died while David Cameron has been Prime Minister). Two days before another soldier was killed while on patrol with reports suggesting he was shot by a man dressed in Afghan Army uniform.
Both soldiers were part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which, this week, has started the process of handing over security to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Seven areas have come under ANSF control including Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand. To mark the occasion military and political figures from NATO and Kabul attended a low-key handover ceremony in the city.
The handover of seven areas over the past week has coincided with a new report published by the UK Parliamentary Defence Select Committee. Released last Monday, the report is a detailed look at not only current operations but also the deployment of British personnel in Helmand from 2006 onwards. The committee is clear that the decision to go south was not ‘fully thought through’ especially in assessing potential risks. Worryingly it also found that senior military staff told Defence Ministers that commanders in theatre were satisfied with the support being given, when the opposite was the case.
Some newspapers had enough time to take their eye off the hacking media circus and comment on the report. Michael White of the Guardian called it ‘a powerful condemnation’ of the mission in Helmand and especially of senior military figures at the time. An editorial in Monday’s Daily Telegraph said the inquiry had been a ‘shocking exposé’ into the failings of the campaign. In last Sunday’s Observer, Mark Townshend chimed with other journalists by calling the findings ‘damning’.
The journalists are correct; the report is shocking, damning and powerful. The only problem is that everything that is found in the Defence Committee report is not new (by any stretch). By 2009, if not earlier, it was becoming clear that Britain was heading for a military disaster. The criticism that is levelled at senior military figures may come as a surprise to some but in the words of one defence expert: ‘anyone with half a brain and a little inside knowledge could work it out’.
For the media the usual narrative has been to blame the politicians for our military follies; they, not the soldier, are the reason for ‘underfunding’ ‘overstretch’ and ‘lack of equipment’. Politicians have also been all too willing to follow this flawed reasoning. The academic/soldier Paul Robinson wrote an insightful piece in the Spectator in 2009 addressing this myth. He believed that:
…when things go wrong, the natural tendency of many in uniform, especially the generals, is to blame the politicians rather than to look in the mirror. The combination of this self-satisfied culture and the moral elevation of the soldier in the popular imagination has led to a modern version of the infamous dolchstosslegende, the stab-in-the-back theory which encouraged Germans to believe that they had not really been defeated in the first world war.
Richard North, the author of ‘Ministry of Defeat’ and independent blogger, has passionately written that the Committee report, more than the hacking scandal, has highlighted the flaws of both Parliament and the media. James Arbuthnot and the members of the Defence Committee should have been aware of these issues long ago but they repeatedly failed to address them until now. North has also accused Arbuthnot of maintaining the myth of ‘ministerial responsibility’, the equivalent of Robinson’s modern day ‘stab-in-the-back’.
The media for all its interest in Afghanistan also failed to understand what was happening especially in terms of strategic questions and civil-military relations. Newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail chose to vilify Gordon Brown while making Generals like Sir Richard Dannatt the honourable soldier. The Sun as well as the Mail have both been oddly quiet on reporting the Committee’s findings, no surprise. The Sun’s sister paper The Times, to its credit, did publish this article last year which mirrored this week’s committee findings.
The cold reality is that the US has stepped in twice, both in Basra and Helmand, where the British have failed to bring stability. David Cameron has shown that he is determined to bring UK soldiers home from Afghanistan by 2015 whatever the security situation may be. But if security does deteriorate and the US chooses to stay and take over Britain’s role then it will only mean more embarrassment for the British army. Not since the withdrawal from Aden in 1967 has the British army been faced with the humiliation of defeat on the battlefield.
This is what both the media and politicians, including the Defence Committee, are really missing. No emergency sitting of the Commons has been held. No rolling news coverage of the early transition of power. Although serious in itself the hacking scandal has distracted journalists and politicians to other issues that are just as important, if not more. In other parts of the world, areas across Somalia are now officially experiencing famine and the European Union is slowly beginning to unravel under a debt mountain. Understandably journalists like stories in their own field but there are times to leave vanity aside.
Over 500 young men and women have died over the last decade, a lot unnecessarily. If the phone hacking scandal bears any fruit then it should be that accountability through the select committee system is strengthened. The Defence Select Committee has constantly suffered from the non-cooperation of the MOD. But also that media scrutiny is much more effective and thorough in highlighting severe deficiencies in policy especially in our military ventures. Only then will the disproportionate attention that hacking has received be worth it.
Posted on July 24, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Foreign Affairs, Looking Forward and tagged Afghanistan, Cameron, defence committee, generals, Helmand, MOD, richard north. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.