Afghanistan and the forever war

An Afghan boy looks at a British Royal Marine with Lima Company, 42 Commando, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, December of 2009.
Photo: John Scott Rafos (CC BY 2.0)

Paul Dixon puts the spotlight on the military elite’s warmongering

The Chilcot Inquiry (2009-16) into the Iraq war took over seven years and cost £13m but it appears to have already been ‘forgotten’. While the inquiry was highly critical of Tony Blair, the media’s focus on the former prime minister meant that the Chilcot Report’s highly critical, but perhaps understated, findings on the military elite were largely ignored.

Chilcot found that the military elite had not only lobbied but also manipulated the Labour government to secure ‘beyond maximum’ involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This was ‘beyond maximum’ because even before the Iraq invasion the military were overstretched and breaking the harmony guidelines. These guidelines were supposed to limit the frequency of deployment of military personnel to protect their mental health.

President Bush required only symbolic British military involvement in the invasion, but the British military saw that a major military commitment would help to reverse post-Cold War cuts in spending.

Within six months or so of the Iraq invasion, there were some in the military elite who were already looking for the next war in Afghanistan. As the Iraq invasion turned into occupation, the military were looking to extricate themselves from the ‘bad war’ and engage in ‘real soldiering’ in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Blair had been a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion and also supported a ‘peacebuilding’, or humanitarian, mission to Afghanistan. But the government had reservations: would it be possible to commit to a new mission to Afghanistan in 2006 while also committed to the Iraq war?

A pivotal moment in the Chilcot Inquiry was when the chief of defence staff, General Sir Michael Walker, confirmed that the government were following military advice in deploying to southern Afghanistan. Even though the Iraq war continued to escalate, the generals went ahead with their ‘peacebuilding’ deployment to Helmand in 2006.

On arriving in Helmand, however, the military changed the ‘mission’ from peacebuilding and reconstruction in central Helmand to warfighting in the ‘Platoon Houses’ of the north. These were surrounded and the soldiers called in airstrikes, leading to the destruction, rather than reconstruction, of these towns and most likely alienating the local population.

Government approval for the change of mission from peacebuilding to warfighting was not sought by the military.

By 2006, the military were now overstretched and in crisis, fighting escalating wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paradoxically, the military elite, who bore considerable blame for the crisis, turned this to their advantage by simply deflecting responsibility for the military’s predicament onto the government.

In 2006, General Dannatt, then the new head of the British army, broke constitutional convention and publicly attacked the Labour government for the military’s crisis. Tony Blair considered sacking Dannatt but was probably correct in assuming that the general’s popularity was such that this would be too damaging to the government.

From 2006-09, General Dannatt, supported by the Conservative opposition and the media, mounted a sustained attacked on the Labour government. In Brown in No. 10 (2011), Antony Seldon and Guy Lodge conclude of Gordon Brown’s Afghan policy: “It was a moot point whether Brown was shaping British policy or merely managing pressure from the services, and public opinion whipped up by the media.”

In opposition, David Cameron had exploited the military elite’s attacks on the government. But as prime minister he claimed to have been alarmed at the way the army chiefs ran rings around Gordon Brown, colluding with The Sun to whip up support for the troops “to gain financial leverage for more equipment and more men”. He had his own problems with the military and claimed that the military elite wanted to be in Afghanistan “almost indefinitely”.

British, US and other NATO militaries kept claiming that victory was just around the next corner to put pressure on governments to fight a ‘forever war’ and prevent withdrawal. Their public optimism contrasted with more pessimistic ‘ground truth’.

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan may well have been influenced by his bruising experiences with the US military and their allies in 2009. Then, President Obama was engaged in a review of Afghan policy and came under severe pressure – both private and public – from the US military, who were arguing for an Iraq-style surge of troops.

By 2014, and after witness testimony to Chilcot, General Dannatt appeared to concede the military elite’s responsibility for the decision to deploy to Helmand. He suggested that “we” and “maybe I” should have reconsidered committing the military to two operations when they only had the organisation and manpower for one.

Since then, Dannatt has ignored Chilcot’s findings and reverted to his original strategy of deflecting any responsibility for failure onto the Labour government. Recently he has called for a Chilcot-style inquiry into the Afghan war, but this should include consideration of how governments can exert democratic control over their militaries.

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