Afghan Regrets

In 1972, I was at school with Mir Wais Zahir of Afghanistan, which was a country like Nepal with low development, but high happiness. A year later, my father had to close his office in Kabul after the bloodless coup that ended two centuries of royal rule and I said farewell to the prince whose father went into exile in Italy. Little did I know then that I would write the UK government’s strategic concept for the reintegration of Afghanistan into the international community after decades of civil-war in 2001.

Twenty years later, the country has made so much progress and is no longer in the bottom 20 developed countries in world. Improvements to the child mortality rate, village water supplies and women’s education have been dramatic. Social justice, political freedoms and sporting achievements have followed the hard-fought stabilisation of the country by NATO.

All this progress towards the goal set out in 2001 is now being unravelled and in the blink of an eye Afghanistan seems to be reverting to the forbidding country that existed under the repressive Taliban regime of the 1990s. Time will tell whether this iteration is the same as the last, but in the meantime my thoughts are with the thousands of terrified citizens who are now living in fear of their lives as the West abandons them again. Even if Washington feels no remorse now, the key question is whether America will regret their Afghan retreat in the future?

The Khyber Pass looking east at daybreak in September 1972

What good is our Aircraft Carrier now?

The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Defence Policy has been exposed as a paper tiger in the past few days. By prioritising spending on the aircraft carriers, cyber warfare and drones, the government has allowed the British Army to deteriorate so much that we can no longer play a significant role in the World. What good is an aircraft carrier when the key decisions about whether people live or die are taken on land? What message does the government send to its enemies by evacuating its people from Kabul? Where is the international stabilization force and the battle-ready British fighting division that was promised as part of “Army 2020”?

The Taliban have already declared they will re-establish their brutal system of governance that demeans women, rewards criminals and promotes international terrorism. There is no doubt in my mind that they will collaborate with other repressive regimes and create a refugee crisis that will increase the strain on the global humanitarian sector. We need to act quickly if we are not to repeat the mistakes from Syria and Libya.

Kabul Airport 2005

Afghan U Turn

This week, a raft of veterans who served in Afghanistan described the shame they felt about the way the West has abandoned the country in the past six weeks. In turn, the anti-interventionist campaigners put forward a grieving mother, whose son, Jake Hartley, was killed while on patrol 25 miles north of Lashkar Gah in 2012.

These two reactions to the recent Taliban military conquests in Afghanistan summarise the current divide in the British government. An increasing number of MPs are focused on domestic issues and don’t care about helping those who live in fear around the world.

This “arm’s length” foreign policy is short sighted because it has not prevented attacks in Britain and it is only a matter of time before those who are profiting from violence, export their terrorism to the United Kingdom… again.

Time is short and we need to get moving if we are to prevent Afghanistan falling into the abyss.

Kandahar 2005

The Return of Ghadafi

Reports that Colonel Ghadafi’s son, Saif al-Islam is alive and re-entering the political arena in Libya have added interest to the planned elections later this year.

The tenth anniversary of the death of his father in Sirte on 20th October is one of several commemorations leading up to the 70th anniversary of independence and the December elections.

Saif is a controversial figure in Libya. Although he was responsible for the rapprochement with the West after his father agreed to give up his nuclear weapons programme, he will always be associated with the government repression after his “rivers of blood” speech at the beginning of the 2011 revolution.

He will certainly have some support among those who wish Libya to be a strong country again, but he will only be considered a viable candidate if he unites with Field Marshal Haftar, who is currently backed by the Russian security company Wagner. If that happens, the West will lose one of the most important countries in Africa that is key to solving the migration crisis.

There is much more on Saif’s role in Libya and the current crisis in my forthcoming book, Liberating Libya which is launched just before the anniversary of Colonel Gadhafi’s death.

Libyan elders outside the prison in Zintan where Saif was held in November 2011

The Tragedy of Ajax

When the British Army named its replacement tank for the outdated Scimitar that should have been replaced 20 years ago, it focused on the story of Ajax’s epic fights at Troy, when he was undefeated by Hector and earned a reputation for his strength and spear and shield.

Two weeks ago I watched a troop of prototype Ajax tanks on their way back from Castlemartin Ranges after all tests were halted when the crews complained of excessive noise and vibration problems. Regardless of those who comment that the pollution soldiers experienced on Chieftain tanks in the 1980s was much worse, this project is becoming something of a farce.

The noise can be solved by throwing money at the issue and buying better headsets for all the crews. The problem of vehicle vibration is not so easy to answer as it has been sourced to poor design and quality control in the manufacturing of the steel hulls (they were made in Spain). One can lament the way the government abandoned the British tank manufacturers fifteen years ago and looked to foreign companies, or one can decry the way the MoD cut their in-house technical directorate, which kept a handle on the quality, safety and reliability of a project throughout its procurement cycle, but the bottom line is that this vehicle is no longer fit for purpose.

The tragedy of Ajax at Troy is that he committed suicide because the Greek leadership favoured Odysseus in the vote for Achilles’ armour. Unfortunately, it looks like the Ajax tank is going the same way because the hulls are so full of defects and the British Army is less interested in the sort of high intensity land operations that were envisaged for this capability. Then there is the question of accountability…

A worn out Scimitar on UN operations in Bosnia 1995

Liberating Libya

Since the copy editor has completed her work on my next book, it is probably time that I mentioned it on this blog.

The story traces the British diplomatic and military work in this poorly-understood Mediterranean country that is geographically nearer to Britain than many European member states (London is closer to Tripoli than it is to Athens). It pays tribute to the 10,000 service personnel, who are buried in Commonwealth cemeteries and the dozens of regiments that laboured up Hellfire Pass and fought valiantly at Tobruk, Gazala, El Alamein and during the advance to Tripoli. It brings the reader right up to date with the situation today and with a significant contribution from David Cameron reveals the truth about what happened in 2011.

My publishers have set 15 October as the release date (just before the two important anniversaries of the Relief of Tobruk and the death of Gadhafi), but I am hoping to take a few advance copies to the Early Early Christmas Fair at Tedworth Polo Park on 28-29 September. This brilliantly organised event, which supports the Soldiers’ Charity (ABF) hosts more than a hundred stalls full of fabulous ideas for presents. Hopefully, there will not be another lockdown to spoil the fun.

The Sad Case of Lance Corporal Bernard Mongan

I intended to write about the British retreat from Kabul this week, but the shocking news about Bernie Mongan has to take precedent.

This heart-rending case is difficult to accept on so many levels. Bullying in the Army is a really complicated issue, which stems from the fundamental aspect of training men and women to cope with enemy bombs and bullets when the natural human instinct is to run away from danger.

However, the bullying in this case was nothing to do with “training hard to fight easy”. This was more to do with victimization and the challenge of dealing with someone who was suffering from PTSD. It is an appalling indictment of the leadership in 1st Military Intelligence Battalion that no one was punished for breaking Bernie’s eye socket before he died and that his body was not discovered in his room at Gaza barracks for three weeks.

There is a further disgrace that makes my blood boil and that is the neglect of his family. Every officer is taught the basic tenets of welfare, which includes ensuring soldiers’ families are looked after by the system. Bernie’s headquarters in Catterick did not even have his Next of Kin details, let alone provide his wife and three children with appropriate support. This is one of the most distressing cases I have heard about and brings to mind the failings that dragged the Army’s reputation through the dirt in 2005.

Twenty five years ago, the Army instructed all its units to improve their people management through the Investors in People accreditation process. The standards rose dramatically, but it was seen by some as too burdensome on operations. Now that the Army is no longer deployed so frequently, it should bring back IiP to ensure the sad case of Lance Corporal Bernard Mongan is not repeated.

Northern Ireland Prosecutions End

The collapse of the final cases against veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the early part of The Troubles is to be welcomed by impartial observers.

Whether or not the individuals who were killed were innocent of supporting terrorists at the time, it was an extraordinary piece of political duplicity for the Government to allow its soldiers, who were attempting to maintain law and order to the best of their ability, to be charged when known murderers are protected from prosecutions by the Good Friday Agreement.

There will always be non-negotiable, hard-liners, who think otherwise, but reconciliation has to be fair to all sides to work properly. It is a pity that it took the resignation of a Government minister to drive the message home.

Afghan Dilemma

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.

Kabul December 2012

Dominc Cummings Got It Half Right

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.

Armed Forces Covid Assistance in Bolton – Crown Copyright image