The 20th anniversary of 9/11 will see the final farewell of US troops from Afghanistan and with their departure, the NATO mission will collapse. This replicates the situation in Iraq at the end of 2011, when NATO members pulled their troops out after President Obama announced the withdrawal of US troops.
Twenty years ago, I was part of the strategic planning team that wrote the UK response to the suicide attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in America, including 75 British citizens. This work, announced by the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons on 16th October 2001, set out how to reintegrate Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community and highlighted four options to end its self-imposed isolation.
We always envisaged that it would take decades of assistance and billions of dollars of aid to repair the damage caused by 23 years of civil war. The NATO mission that was established by the United Nations (International Security Assistance Force) was seen as a useful vehicle for non-member states like Australia and South Korea to help meet prevent Afghanistan being a haven for international terrorism, by building the Afghan security forces from scratch. It is worth noting that no British troops deployed as part of this force were killed in Afghanistan before the US invasion of Iraq.
The Afghan mission has succeeded in improving mortality rates, children’s education and gender equality, but it has also created an unsustainable dependency culture. The dilemma for the US leadership today is how to wean Kabul off international aid, while avoiding malevolent regimes from filling the vacuum. The effect of the US withdrawal could go two ways; one can easily envisage the Taliban taking retribution on those who benefited from American money and cancelling all the policies that have promoted women in society. My prognosis is that if we don’t want Russia and Iran to increase their influence as they have in Syria, we will have to redeploy British and American troops within three years, just like we did in Iraq when ISIS took hold of the northern part of the country.
The testimony of the Prime Minister’s former Chief Adviser to the Health and Science and Technology Committees painted a dire picture of the Department of Health and Social Care, which he described as a “smoking ruin”.
What he didn’t do is admit that it was Britain’s military that yet again stepped into the breach to bale out a failing government department. Just as they rescued DEFRA during the Foot and Mouth Crisis and the Home Office when it failed to prepare properly for the London Olympic Games, British soldiers, sailors and air personnel have responded magnificently to the Covid Pandemic.
However, what is particularly infuriating for those of us who seek proper recognition for the work of the armed forces is how little coverage they have received from the national media. At this time when government budgets are being contested , the fantastic work at test and vaccination centres, 24 hour assistance to keep freight moving into Europe, help at schools and universities and stand-in ambulance drivers should be highlighted every week, otherwise we might skew our support towards less deserving cases and reward failure rather than success.
One of the gloomiest updates at the RUSI conference last week was about the replacement for the Scimitar light tanks that have been in service for 50 years. I operated a fleet of them (known as Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance) in Norway, Denmark, Germany and Bosnia when they had a Jaguar 4.2 litre petrol engine, but this was replaced with a Cummins diesel after my return from Bosnia. They have been extended beyond their out of service date several times, but are now effectively obsolescent vehicles.
The long wait for the Ajax tanks, which seems to have gone on forever and will stretch way beyond the date that we were promised by the contractor when it was awarded the project. The first tanks should have arrived in 2017, but reliability and safety issues continue to delay this £3.5 Billion project and the failings this year have led the House of Commons Defence Select Committee to comment that it was “yet another example of chronic mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence”.
The history of this flawed project from the cancellation of the over-elaborate FRES programme, to the removal of reliability engineers from Abbey Wood, would make a fascinating, but depressing read. The delay of this project is seriously undermining the British Army’s transformation, but more importantly, we must think of the soldiers who are operating obsolescent equipment in the Baltic and West Africa and make them the top priority for the delivery of the first tanks, not the troops in administrative garrisons.
Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) of B Squadron 17th/21st Lancers in the Arctic Circle, 1980
On the 77th anniversary of the D Day landings, the British Normandy Memorial has been unveiled in the town of Ver-sur-Mer. Liam O’Connor’s elegant design is a fitting tribute, but why has it taken so long for the country to recognize the sacrifice of these 22,442 men and women with a permanent monument?
For my latest book, I have been allowed to quote from the private papers of Colonel Patrick McCraith, whose regiment, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry landed with all its battle tanks on D Day. In the previous year, they had fought all the way from El Alamein through Libya to Tunisia where their commanding officer, Colonel Flash Kellett (the MP for Birmingham Aston), had sadly been killed in action.
Pat McCraith, who had also commanded the Yeomanry Patrol in the Long Range Desert Group, was wounded for the third time on 10th June 1944. He was in regimental headquarters in a farmhouse, near to Tilly-sur-Seulles, when a German shell exploded among the officers, killing Major Michael Laycock (acting commanding officer), Captain George Jones (adjutant) and Lieutenant Lawrence Head (intelligence officer). It’s no wonder, Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks wrote about the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry in World War II “no armoured regiment can show a finer record of hard fighting.”