Sunday, 8 March 2009

Afghanistan – History repeats itself

Great Britain first started waging war in Afghanistan 170 years ago. There were three Anglo-Afghan Wars, from 1839 to 1842, 1878 to 1881 and in 1919. In 1885 a military skirmish, the Panjdeh Incident, occurred when Russian forces seized Afghan territory, threatening war between Great Britain and Russia; this was averted through the diplomatic intervention of Lord Dufferin. There was Civil War briefly in 1929 followed by the current Civil War which started in 1978 and continues to the present day. A Soviet War was fought for ten years, from 1979 to 1989. The Afghan Government collapsed in the Civil War of 1989 to 1992 and was followed by a period of Anarchy and further Civil War from 1992 to 1996. From 1996 the Taliban oversaw Civil War until 2001 when NATO became involved and engaged in War in Afghanistan where it remains to the present.

In November 2008 Major Sebastian Morley, a former SAS commander in Helmand Province, resigned his commission in protest at the apparent inability of the British Government to equip its troops adequately. Principally his complaint was that Snatch Land Rovers were not being withdrawn, even though it had been widely recognised that they were inadequate for the job and provided little or no protection for troops travelling in them. With typical gallows humour soldiers dubbed the Snatch 'the mobile coffin.' The lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers have been implicated in the deaths of thirty-four British troops. They are not equipped to withstand rounds and cannot travel off-road.

'... the MoD said: "Equipping our personnel is a clear priority and we are absolutely focused on providing them with a range of vehicles that will protect them from the ever-shifting threats posed by the enemy."'

Major Morley declares that the Government has blood on its hands, there is chronic underinvestment in equipment and argues that UK presence in Afghanistan is 'useless.' Meanwhile the Government steadfastly maintains that the troops are 'making progress.'

The following is taken from the MOD site on expenditure.

Defence Spending

Information about key areas of the Defence Budget. '

The Government plans departmental spending through the process of the spending reviews. As part of most recent settlement, the Defence Budget is set to increase from a baseline of £32.6Bn in 2007/08 to £36.9Bn in 2010/11 in Total Departmental Expenditure Limit (Total DEL). In real terms (i.e. after inflation) it represents average annual growth of 1.5%. By 2010/11 the Budget will be some 11% higher in real terms than in 1997, and represents the longest period of sustained growth since the 1980s.

Operations

The additional net costs incurred on operations (for example in Afghanistan and Iraq) are not paid for from the Defence Budget, but rather by the Treasury Reserve. Since 2001, the Reserve has provided an additional £9.5Bn on top of the Defence Budget to cover operational costs. This reflects over £3.6Bn that has been approved for Urgent Operational Requirements. This is a process designed to provide commanders on the ground with the equipment they need quickly.

'...Urgent Operational Requirements... is a process designed to provide commanders on the ground with the equipment they need quickly.'

Patently, the needs of the commanders have not been met.

'...the men were aghast when they were told during pre-deployment training that only Snatch Land Rovers – designed to withstand rioters in Northern Ireland – were available.'

'Emails were sent to Whitehall planners in the MoD, but they were told to "get on with it".'

'... soldiers also arrived in Afghanistan with a "desperate shortage" of night vision sights ...'

In any event, UOR are really a patch-up process when what is really required is a speeding-up of the procurement process. There appears to be an overriding inability to provide equipment quickly, as failures in the past have proved – in the case of Chinook helicopters, for example, or night vision sights. There is a shortage of radios so that even communications are compromised. Al-Qaeda does not seem to suffer the same sort of long procurement cycles.

How much longer can we expect our over-stretched troops to 'make do' with outdated equipment? What faith have they that they will receive efficient support when in December 2008 Defence Secretary John Hutton dismissed adverse criticism of Snatch Land Rovers; he declared that the military commanders believed them to be essential even though they have caused the death of dozens of troops. He later confirmed that Snatch would be replaced on operational manoeuvres by the better-armoured Snatch Vixen. Some of these vehicles are already deployed in Afghanistan and the number will be increased in 2009.

We have been sucked into this war with no apparent exit strategy and while our troops are performing very well even while limited by poor/insufficient/inadequate supplies, the politicians don't seem to have agreed a plan for the endgame. Do we continue to exert force without considering how to help the benighted civilians in this sorry affair? Are we just to destroy and depart and not help to rebuild? Worse yet, will we ever be able to withdraw?

Yet still the troops fight, are wounded or killed. Still the survivors return to Blighty where they must fight a different war; they must find a means of surviving in the face of the Government's indifference to their plight while charities – so many charities – help them as they attempt to heal their shattered minds and bodies and adjust to an altered life.

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