Worse than a Defeat
December 11, 2014 2:35 PM   Subscribe

The British army is back in Warminster and its other bases around the country. Its eight-year venture in southern Afghanistan is over. The extent of the military and political catastrophe it represents is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money. How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it. (SLLRB)
posted by Jakey (47 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Afghanistan is interesting to me because it was an clear failure… even though our involvement ( well "supporting actor credit") was supported unambiguously - unlike iraq - at the start of the conflict. We failed essentially because we underestimated how evil ad embedded the Taliban were (pretty unacceptable!) and because our political leaders were not willing to either authorise the kind of tactics or spending/timeframe that would be necessary to actually change a country like that.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:11 PM on December 11, 2014


Is poppy seed the only thing thing that grows in that country? Was there no way, using subsidies or some such, to influence in a positive way a path away from ingrained radicalism economics? Is there any way to curb the entrenched graft at the highest levels of these governments?
posted by sammyo at 3:28 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


It is supremely ironic to me that Britain got roped into what looked a lot like colonial foreign service on behalf of one of their own former colonies.
posted by boubelium at 3:38 PM on December 11, 2014 [20 favorites]


We failed essentially because we underestimated how evil nad embedded the Taliban were (pretty unacceptable!) and because our political leaders were not willing to either authorise the kind of tactics or spending/timeframe that would be necessary to actually change a country like that.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 6:11 PM on December 11


eponysterical? rereading Iain Banks it's hard not to see how much of a war nerd he was and how convinced he was that violence could be used to impose "liberality" on the unwilling or, to quote TFA:
to stamp out opium production and provide security for the transformation of Helmand into a modern, gender-neutral, democratic, tolerant, enlightened land where terrorists would find no nesting place

"Look To Windward" is dedicated to the injured British Gulf War veterans and features the "Culture" civilizingyet another planet of blood-thirsty religious fanatics. Which is all just to say that your opinion expressed is something which is manufactured and promoted from every side in the culture you come from and has very little to do with the methods and aims of the use of british and american weapons.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:47 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


or to also quote TFA:
the war the British and the Americans fought in Helmand wasn’t a counter-insurgency at all. I’ve avoided using the word ‘Taliban’ up till now. That isn’t because they don’t exist, or didn’t play a role in attacking British troops in Afghanistan. They do; they did. But Mike Martin’s extraordinary book, based on interviews with 250 people, almost all of them Helmandis, lays out the wrong-headedness of the mainstream Western characterisation of the situation in Helmand from 2006 to the present day as a ‘Taliban insurgency’ against a ‘legitimate government’, which the British were helping stand up after a long, tyrannical deviation from civilised norms.

Martin, a Pashto speaker, a British officer who served in Helmand in the late 2000s and a protégé of both Alderson and Newton, argues that ‘insurgency is a pejorative term, one that is useful to governments in establishing their legitimacy or that of their allies and in defining their enemies.’ Martin believes that the conflict in Helmand should be seen as ‘a continuing civil war’. Because the British were ignorant of what was really going on – due, in large part, to their short six-month tours of duty and lack of linguists – they were manipulated into becoming pawns in long-running conflicts over land, water, drugs and power between local leaders.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:54 PM on December 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


Hubris. Arrogance. Ahistorical ignorance. Waste.

An effective demonstration of what war is good for.

They couldn't even speak the local language after 13 years. There is no way that an invading army can sustain a lasting impact if they don't have the trust and respect of the locals, other than genocide. I wonder how much money was spent on appeasing the warlords with cash gifts, paying them to collect their local enemies and then torturing the unfortunates at black sites?

The familiar American habit of funding the biggest gangster on the block, rather than trying to create stability through nurturing and empowering those trying to bring about social change for the better.

All so utterly predictable and indeed predicted. Funnily enough the rich Saudis remain unmolested while the poor Afghans get shafted and we foot the bill for the entire disaster.

That's pomegranates you are thinking of sammyo.

Pomegranate in one hand, opium in the other. Which one are you going to get the best return for?
posted by asok at 3:57 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Eponysterical and proud! There is a big difference (as I have said in the past) between banks political views and the politics of his novels. What you get when super intelligent AI manufacture and control civilisational development stunningly turns out to be different from what you get when you put G.W. Bush in charge of the same job. I
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 4:07 PM on December 11, 2014


Errr, were we reading the same novel? _Look to Windward_ was at least partially about the blowback that occurs after a failed Culture intervention exploded into a terrible civil war. And the backdrop to the whole story is the funeral for an entire star that got blown up in an earlier Culture war of choice. It's hard to read that as support for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anyway, nice article!
posted by Balna Watya at 4:29 PM on December 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


Is poppy seed the only thing thing that grows in that country?

Plenty of things grow there, but what else gets the price that opium does, with its ease of transport and storage?
posted by Dip Flash at 4:36 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yes, and in those books the one unrelenting certainty is that the culture was right, that it was doing the right thing and everyone smart agreed with them. (even the mind in LtW who commits suicide does so because of the horrors of war not because they changed their moral position). And even when they got it wrong, they were right to try anyway because the successes saved many more lives than the failures cost. Banks novels don't take place in our grey world but some magical future where intervention works and the financial costs do not arise. Anyway as you say - good article.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 4:36 PM on December 11, 2014


The opium production spiked because the Taliban needed it to pay for the war, is what I heard.
posted by thelonius at 4:52 PM on December 11, 2014


Thanks for sharing, perfect that SLLRB should be a MeFi acronym.
posted by Joeruckus at 5:00 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Surely they were always making as much opium as they could grow and sell. If production spiked it's because that changed. I suspect that the arrival of thousands of troops and NGO workers provided new markets and new smuggling routes out of the country. It may even have been done on a wholesale level: those planes used for "rendition" of prisoners, what else may they have carried?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:03 PM on December 11, 2014


Quite a good essay, with a treasure trove of future reading material.
posted by Nevin at 5:06 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is poppy seed the only thing thing that grows in that country? Was there no way, using subsidies or some such, to influence in a positive way a path away from ingrained radicalism economics? Is there any way to curb the entrenched graft at the highest levels of these governments?

Yes! And then everyone will live happily ever after.
posted by telstar at 5:12 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Afghanistan also grows more cannabis then any other country.
posted by clavdivs at 5:58 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


That was an extraordinarily enlightening article; many thanks for posting it.
posted by languagehat at 5:59 PM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


Don't worry, everyone else is going home with their tail tucked between their legs on this one too...
posted by jim in austin at 6:10 PM on December 11, 2014


My cousin was a Royal Marine killed in Afghanistan. Such a complete waste of his life, and those he may have killed, and all the soldiers of all nations on all sides and all the countless civilians. All for nothing, or even to make the world a worse place.
posted by Rumple at 6:17 PM on December 11, 2014 [7 favorites]


Poppies are not the only crop in Afghanistan. It is also one of the world's major growers of cannibus. The infrastructure and instability in the country make these crops more reliable income producers than wheat, grapes, saffron and other crops that farmers might choose to plant. Half of Afghanistan's available agricultural land is idle because of the country's many problems.
posted by humanfont at 6:24 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Don't worry, everyone else is going home with their tail tucked between their legs on this one too...

Except Afghanis, many of whom don't even have legs to tuck their tails between, let alone a home to go back to..
posted by salishsea at 6:49 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was struck by this early bit:
In 2012, when Frank Ledwidge was researching his book, which tallies the personal and financial cost of Britain’s Helmand campaign, he approached all six ministers who had held the defence portfolio since the start of the operation to ask what they thought its legacy would be. Not one – not Labour’s John Reid, now Baron Reid of Cardowan, or Des Browne, now Baron Browne of Ladyton, or John Hutton, now Baron Hutton of Furness, or Bob Ainsworth, or the Conservatives’ Philip Hammond or Liam Fox – was prepared to answer.
No one was prepared to answer, but the first three became lords regardless.

Also, WRT Banks' actual political views, why don't we go to his final interview for that?
As for the war on terror, there is palpable fury when he discusses "the great lie that our boys are fighting, killing and dying in Afghanistan to keep us safe. It's 180 degrees off the truth. They're dying worse than needlessly; they're dying to save political face, and for every grieving or just aggrieved Afghan family we create the conditions for further atrocities to be visited on us."
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:59 PM on December 11, 2014 [14 favorites]


The Culture also a) has analytic capabilities we can at best imagine having the perspective to imagine and b) in virtually all cases prefers diplomatic engagement to violence, so infrequently resorting to war that the Idiran War caused a massive split in the Culture. And even then, they still fuck up and cause massive disasters like the Chelgrian civil war. It would take a weird and almost willful misreading of the Culture to suggest that Banks supported military interventionism, on the scale of those half-assed contrarians who insist that if you look at "Shooting an Elephant" in just the right way while ignoring literally the rest of Orwell's work and life, it proves that Orwell believed that British imperialism was necessary and righteous.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:16 PM on December 11, 2014 [7 favorites]


Hubris. Arrogance. Ahistorical ignorance. Waste.

The Brits are ignoring the inconvenient historical fact that they screwed up Afghanistan in the first place. Let's just call this The Fourth Anglo-Afghan War.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:33 PM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was just getting out the Callwell.
posted by clavdivs at 8:43 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


What the heck does an Iain Banks sci fi series have to do with a discussion about Afghanistan? One would think that all of the required reading is included in the LRB link, and not in the fantasy section of the bookstore.
posted by Nevin at 9:03 PM on December 11, 2014 [10 favorites]


It was similar to the House Harkonnen theory of modular warfare and the spice raiding techniques at Varmin-lien.
posted by clavdivs at 9:57 PM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


Great article.

Tons of money was dumped into Afghanistan during the war. Probably the opium trade has expanded because Afghan entrepreneurs invested this capital where they felt they could get the highest return: growing more poppy.

I thought this interview with Mattheiu Aikins was pretty good: Reporter In Kabul Wins Award For Courage In Journalism

Heh. During the harvest, the police and Taliban all work together on the farms to make extra cash. Then a month later the fighting starts back up again.

Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State

Hostile Climate: ‘No Good Men Among the Living,’ by Anand Gopal
Gopal shows how the Americans messed things up from the beginning. Civilian casualties and night raids bred resentment. The United States also backed the same warlords responsible for atrocities during the ’90s. In the war’s early years, there was no rehabilitation for a former Talib, no re-entry program, no probation, no real way to join the new government. For leaders of the Taliban, unlike other Afghans with a bloody past, there was no way out — except to run or hide.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:02 PM on December 11, 2014


453 killed, 2600 wounded, nearly 270 amputations, and that is just in Helmand province, and that's just British casualties. And 500 civilian deaths. A staggering cost.
posted by Nevin at 11:19 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


. I suspect that the arrival of thousands of troops and NGO workers provided new markets and new smuggling routes out of the country.

I suppose it's entirely possible that the war was all about control of the drug supply. The CIA has been known to fund itself through the drug trade. Perhaps Iraq's oil was a sideshow distraction. The CIA has really proven itself capable of putting any horrific idea into action. Owning the production of opium, pot, and cocaine? Why not!
posted by five fresh fish at 11:24 PM on December 11, 2014


> The Brits are ignoring the inconvenient historical fact that they screwed up Afghanistan in the first place. Let's just call this The Fourth Anglo-Afghan War.

That wasn't us, that was those other Brits. The ones in books who did things like invade other countries and flap about in red.
posted by vbfg at 11:24 PM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


I always thought about both these "interventions", Iraq and Afghanistan, both had the potential to go right but would require massive commitment on the part of the British and American peoples that they had no real intent of giving. If we look at the biggest war recovery success stories in recent years the obvious examples are Germany and Japan. But both were populations with better educated and more resource rich populaces going in. Iraq had been crippled by sanctions and mis-management, and I'm not sure Afghanistan had ever approached prosperity.

There was also the problem of mission creep. The invasion of Afghanistan was supposedly to remove the Taliban and catch Bin Laden. The invasion of Iraq was to remove Hussein and remove the fictional WMD. Neither invasion was designed with post-war peace in mind, and the American tactic of shock and awe, while stunningly effective at taking territory with very few American lives lost, accomplished

a)The destruction of vital infrastructure
b)Not an actual defeat of the army, meaning an "insurgency" existed ready-made.

I know many well intentioned liberals who defended, and still defend the invasions of these countries. They cling to the ideal of millitary intervention being sometimes necessary to remove vile dictators. But the reality is never that simple, because to get the public to go along with an invasion these days you have to

a)establish that we will be the heroes
b)establish that it will be cheap and short
c)establish that very few soldiers lives will be spent.

I mean the idea that a tiny British army could both make Afghanistan more modern, secure and safe AND replace the opium crop with something else is just absurd.

The irony of Blair's war fetishism was that it did not come with an accompanying boost to UK military forces. Again and again UK prime ministers insist in courting public opinion by pretending the UK is still an Imperial power. You simply don't see other European forces deployed the way ours our, because we have this fantasy in our heads that our soliders are the best, and can solve every problem. Realistically we have the power and funding to take part in short, well targeted operations. We simply do not have the money to engage in the kind of operations Afghanistan and Iraq were, although I suppose going in we could shut our eyes and pretend that the conflicts would be over in a year.

I think what's interesting about the article is how much generals indulged politician's fantasies to encourage them to spend more money. The more you read, the more it comes across as a complete FUBAR. Realistically we need to restructure our armed force and our ambitions towards supporting what we are actually willing to pay. Of course, no politician is going to have the guts to argue that, and it seems no millitary chief can afford to be realistic enough to point out what the army can actually accomplish.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:22 AM on December 12, 2014


Thanks for posting. A fascinating read, if thoroughly dispiriting.
posted by ZipRibbons at 12:38 AM on December 12, 2014


[It] would be wrong to suggest Afghanistan is at some pre-set historical ‘stage’ which it would be better enduring in isolation. Afghanistan needs help, encouragement, advice, money. It’s just that next time we think about military intervention in a foreign country that hasn’t attacked us, it might be worth running a thought experiment to work out at exactly which moment, in the many internecine conflicts that have afflicted the British Isles, our forebears would have most benefited from the arrival of 3500 troops and eight helicopters, and for which ‘side’ those troops would have fought.
...
According to Martin, Helmandis believed deeply in the natural cunning of the British, so much so that the former chief (actual) Taliban commander in Helmand, the late Mullah Dadullah, was known as ‘the lame Englishman’ on account of his one leg and his extreme deviousness. For this reason people found it hard to account for Britain’s conduct in Helmand. There were two possibilities: the less likely was that the British were naive and ignorant. The favourite explanation, widely and sincerely believed, was that, secretly continuing to exercise imperial control over Pakistan, they were working hand in hand with the (actual) Taliban to punish Helmand, and that the Americans were trying to stop them.

Martin tells the story of one ‘Taliban’ commander who believed he’d been recruited by the British because, not knowing he was ‘Taliban’, they’d given him a card allowing him to claim compensation for damage to his house. His conviction was strengthened when his house happened to be searched by courteous British troops who somehow failed to find his hidden Kalashnikov. While he was waiting for what he imagined to be the first contact from his new British employers, he was killed by British special forces. Proof that the conspiracy theory was wrong? No, said his men; he was killed by the Americans, because he was on the books of their enemy, the British. The British and the Helmandis lived side by side for eight years, but didn’t get to know each other.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 1:26 AM on December 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


The goal of the British military establishment became to ingratiate itself with its US counterpart not for the sake of British interests but for the sake of British military prestige.

This is what everybody should take away from this article. It's not news, but it does explain why the Brits keep walking into these things time and again. (The same, to a lesser extent also goes for the Dutch, always keen to be NATO's star pupil after the troubles of the early eighties.)

The other thing to take away from this is that everything discussed in the article, was known *before* the UK followed America into Iraq and Afghanistan, was in fact part of the argument put forward by the anti-war movement against these wars.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:32 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


I will also put good money on the next movement to war not being in any way slowed down by the apparent disaster this war ended in.
posted by Harald74 at 3:16 AM on December 12, 2014


Re: The War Prayer by Mark Twain.
posted by Harald74 at 3:17 AM on December 12, 2014


The goal of the British military establishment became to ingratiate itself with its US counterpart not for the sake of British interests but for the sake of British military prestige.

My pet conspiracy theory is that the British repayments for the Marshall Plan include a secret clause promising military support for the next century or two. I'm sure it's not actually true, but it sometimes feels like the only sane explanation for British governments' habit of unquestioningly following the US into stupid wars.
posted by metaBugs at 8:39 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


In the Falklands War in 1982, the Royal Navy, supposedly capable of going head to head with Soviet forces in the North Atlantic, was exposed as lacking the US navy’s multi-layered air defences, and was able to stop its aircraft carriers being sunk only by sacrificing smaller warships.

People often dismiss the Falklands War as a relatively minor, low-risk conflict for Britain. What is striking about the Falklands War was that how what should have been a minor, low-stakes war nearly ended in defeat for Britain, and that victory was enormously costly.

It's actually quite chilling to think about, actually, because it demonstrates that modern industrial states can no longer engage in conventional warfare. The ships and tanks and aircraft and missiles would last about a week, and then what?

And if this expensive gear doesn't really work in terms of meeting political objectives, why purchase them at all?

The answer of course, is to keep up with the Americans, and how can any nation do that?
posted by Nevin at 3:10 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


>In the Falklands War in 1982, the Royal Navy, supposedly capable of going head to head with Soviet forces in the North Atlantic, was exposed as lacking the US navy’s multi-layered air defences, and was able to stop its aircraft carriers being sunk only by sacrificing smaller warships.

That is how it's supposed to work. The combatants were both modern armies with one shot-one kill capabilities. You sacrifice your escorts to protect your capital ships like carriers.

People often dismiss the Falklands War as a relatively minor, low-risk conflict for Britain.

How many nuclear weapons does Argentina have?

The Brits always had funny ideas about war. They could have gone nuclear, but that wasn't cricket. They wanted to do what they always do, march into battle in coordinated rows of Redcoats with bayonets fixed.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:28 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nevin
The U.S. is in the process of reducing the armed forces to near "pre-world war II" levels.

Hope that helps.
posted by clavdivs at 3:43 PM on December 12, 2014


That is how it's supposed to work. The combatants were both modern armies with one shot-one kill capabilities. You sacrifice your escorts to protect your capital ships like carriers.

Yeah, but over the Falkland Islands? I can't recall exactly, but I believe 22 British ships were attacked, and 9 were sunk.

To say nothing of the human toll, even in 1980 a frigate is expensive and difficult to replace. And my point is that a war between two advanced industrial nations would be over very very quickly. If one or both of those countries possesses nuclear weapons, there will be (literally) hell to pay.

It really is like that TV movie Threads: modern industrial/post-industrial society is fragile and is not resilient.
posted by Nevin at 3:58 PM on December 12, 2014


The Brits always had funny ideas about war. They could have gone nuclear, but that wasn't cricket.

Not wanting to drop a nuclear bomb on people, whether or not you have one, isn't an unusual position. Wanting to is. A number of countries have such weapons. Only one, so far, has actually used one in a war.
posted by Grangousier at 4:04 PM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


"By God's mercy, Britain and American science outpaced all German efforts. These were on a considerable scale, but far behind. The possession of these powers by the Germans at any time might have altered the result of the war."

-Attlee.
August 1945.
posted by clavdivs at 4:53 PM on December 12, 2014


Yeah, but over the Falkland Islands? I can't recall exactly, but I believe 22 British ships were attacked, and 9 were sunk.

There is always plenty of money to spend on replacements. The military-industrial complex must go on.

And besides, British carriers in the Falklands war were light carriers for VSTOL aircraft like Sea Harriers, they were more like Jeep Carriers than the big US Nimitz Class supercarriers. Carriers are considered "force projection" because you can assert air power at a distance. But just how much force do you really need to project at the Falklands?
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:32 PM on December 12, 2014


Well that's the thing - the carriers played a critical role covering the task force from aerial attack. That's the force projection. The Argentians couldn't do that which is why so *few* British ships were sunk.

This is a little off-topic, but I will say that I found Weeks' description of the paucity of British forces to be quite interesting to consider, since Canada has the same pressures as Britain when it comes to defense policy. Our armed forces are structured almost entirely in consideration of American geopolitical interests, rather than to deter or respond to actual military threats (if there are any). A waste of money when 20% of Canadian children live in poverty, and a waste of lives when we bomb whatever town in Iraq just so we can have a seat at the table... Whatever the table is.
posted by Nevin at 11:30 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Cost of Afghanistan War nears $1T

That's half the GDP of Russia. Afghanistan's GDP: $34B
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:49 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


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