A new generation of soldiers is as questioning of its role in Afghanistan as the society from which it is recruited
“Has anyone here ever been shot at?” God, is it already 21 years since that thawing Cold War afternoon of drizzle and cloud on Salisbury Plain? Standing around with a few dozen fellow platoon commanders on a training course, I was waiting to be reminded just how to identify an enemy firing position when the instructor sparked a moment of sudden interest with his question. Yet despite many of us there having already served for two years or more, only one man raised his hand in response. His experience had involved a few bullets, a few seconds of shock and an unseen gunman in South Armagh.
That short event, though, had him marked out as remarkable among us. The army that I had joined was still training for a conventional conflict in Europe. Northern Ireland, by then a theatre where the prospect of getting shot at was anyway fading by the month, was very much a secondary priority.
So until 2001, aside from a few veterans of the anomalous 1982 Falklands War, those involved with the five-day charge through surrendering Iraqis in 1991 and a small number of special forces troops, a whole generation of British army officers, from top to bottom, remained unblooded, their true leadership abilities untested.
I don’t remember much else of that lesson. A few years later, I know that I recalled thinking, shot-at-a-lot while reporting in Bosnia, that the instructor had concentrated too much on explaining the “crack” and “thump” acoustics of bullets, and never once mentioned the “zip” and “zing” that they make when they are truly close. But then probably he had never been shot at either.
However, during many assignments in Helmand province over the past couple of years I have often thought about that afternoon. It isn’t merely the naivety of a past era of untried leadership that contrasts with the experience of British commanders in Afghanistan now. “War” as we knew it does not exist any more. “Getting shot at” is quite unremarkable (and anyway preferable to “being IED’d” – that is, blown up by a road-side device). And killing and dying have very new implications.
Britain’s relationship with dead soldiers has been revolutionised over the past 90 years. In a stinging criticism of British commanders in the First World War witnessed and recorded by General Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Colonel Max Hoffmann described British troops as “lions led by donkeys”. In one regard, at least, the remark was plaintively inaccurate: the casualty rate of British generals during that conflict, killed leading their men, was the highest of any army on the Western Front. When it came to physical courage and leadership by example, British commanders were no donkeys.
But in terms of their obstinate refusal to adapt to changing warfare, the comment had more resonance. It took more than three years and hundreds of thousands of dead for British First World War commanders to evolve their tactics. The toll was faced with apparent callous disregard by the generals planning the operations.
“The nation must be taught to bear losses,” wrote General Douglas Haig in 1916, shortly before committing his men to the battle of the Somme, where there were 60,000 casualties on the first day.
Public support for that war did endure, but only on credit. By the start of the Second World War, British commanders and politicians both knew that their people would never accept a similar expenditure in soldiers’ lives and a more cautious and sophisticated command hierarchy evolved accordingly. To some extent, the Somme still echoes today in the subconsciousness of a British society that is anyway now more sensitive to death. As a result, the pressure to avoid casualties in Helmand, despite the occasional intensity of the fighting, has never been so great on British commanders as now.
“The perennial stresses of command haven’t changed,” admitted Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Borton, 38, sent to command the 5 Scots battle group in Musa Qala last June after his predecessor was wounded in action. “Using your professional experience and judgement to make battlefield decisions that keep your men alive: that’s the real stress, the rest are frustrations.
“It’s the hardest thing to do,” he added. “Send a patrol out – a young man gets killed. I ask, ‘What has that achieved? They went out three kilometres to a village and came back with one man dead.’ If you thought about it too much, you’d never actually do this job.”
The potential loss of a group of soldiers in a single incident in Helmand, for example the downing of a Chinook helicopter carrying troops, is regarded as having such a cataclysmic effect on public support as to cause the army a strategic reverse. Some operations are called off altogether if weather conditions are judged too poor to allow helicopters to fly casualty evacuation missions.
“They didn’t worry about the wind and cloud on D-Day, did they?” a Royal Marine remarked to me in Helmand last year after a battle group operation was aborted minutes before H-Hour due to poor visibility. This caution has further complicated killing the Taliban, an act already beset by paradox. Commanders wishing to preserve the lives of British troops engaged in firefights make frequent use of artillery and air power to destroy the enemy. Indeed, the expenditure of ammunition by British units in Afghanistan is massive compared to past conflicts. But shelling and air strikes raise the likelihood of civilian deaths, inflaming local opinion and at home undermining support for the military’s deployment.
Furthermore, the insurgent may be only a “Tier 3” fighter, a local Pashtun farmer lacking militant ideology or commitment. Under the tribal code of Pashtunwali, killing him will ensure that the men of his family are obliged to take up arms against the British. The removal of one fighter will have resulted in the creation of several more.
“I would far prefer a Tier 3 Taliban to run away and come back to till the fields in the summer than have him killed and his family turned against us,” Major Chris Bell, Scots Guards, briefed his men before an operation last January, using words that are now a familiar refrain among commanders who want their troops to “de-escalate” and “disengage” from unnecessary firefights with the Taliban.
16 Air Assault Brigade, regarded as one of the army’s most prestigious units, finished its latest six-month tour of Helmand at the beginning of October. Their first tour in the province two years ago, “Herrick 4”, became infamous not because British units were ever beaten in the fighting but because of the number of Taliban they killed in areas where fighting was of little relevance to the bigger picture. Out-of-step elements of the army crowed over the triumph of British grit and steel in remote outstations such as Naw Zad and Musa Qala, failing to notice the self-defeating nature of the action, which alienated Pashtun tribes throughout Helmand. Support for the British died in the rubble along with the insurgents.
Noting, eventually, that the Taliban were seemingly inured to casualties and able to recreate their shattered command chains with frightening alacrity, by the time 16 Air Assault returned to Helmand this year a new campaign strategy had emerged.
“This is a campaign of influence, fighting an election, fighting for what the population think, believe and feel,” explained 16 Air Assault’s commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, in July. “It is not a campaign about decisive military action. The decision here lies with the Afghans. They are the future and end state. The utilisation of military force is purely to allow local Afghan solutions to emerge.”
A holistic package, the “Helmand Road Map”, involving economic, political and security development, was seen as the way forward. The use of force was just one strand in the weave of a plan which hoped to marginalise, dilute and ultimately defeat the Taliban by empowering local Afghans towards their own mechanisms for peace and stability.
The concept is modern, but not original, and still has a long way to go if the current levels of fear and hostility in Helmand can be reversed. In his book The Utility of Force, the British General Sir Rupert Smith postulated the change of modern warfare away from conventional, industrial, nation-state conflicts to the new era of “war amongst the people”. Sharing many of the same tenets, the American General David Petraeus applied his own doctrine at first hand in Iraq, having rewritten the US Army’s manual of counter-insurgency.
Both noted the inadequacies of old-school conventional thought, weapons, strategy and tactics in conflict areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the emotions and beliefs of the local population – “the people” – are the decisive currency to be won or lost. As significant to the theory of war as the writings of Clausewitz and Jomini were in the 19th century, though not without critics, Smith’s and Petraeus’s work shifted the emphasis of modern military theory away from the traditional physical application of force. In this new interpretation, which far outstrips older concepts of winning “hearts and minds”, the use of force is regarded as just one of several elements that can be used in conjunction to persuade perception and emotion, thereby governing will.
“Soldiering now is much less about physics and much more about philosophy and social anthropology,”
Carleton-Smith expanded. “It’s all about people, cultural empathy and emotional intelligence. The issues here are based around blood and soil, not institutions.”
Indicative of just how little the concept was understood outside Afghanistan was the reaction to Carleton-Smith’s remarks in an interview that appeared in the Sunday Times in October, in which he made the rational observation that the war was “unwinnable” in purely military terms.
Within hours of publication, amid an international furore, his comments had been reinterpreted to suggest that the Taliban were “unbeatable” – a very different conclusion to the one he had suggested.
Yet, even within the British army the embrace of the concept remains partial and flawed at base level. British units remain under-manned and ill-resourced beside the scale of the geography and complexity of the insurgency in Helmand, ensuring that they remain over-reliant on the use of force to defend themselves and project their influence.
It is ironic that as their last units left Helmand for a second time, 16 Air Assault’s most recent tour would probably be best remembered for the audacious and complex transfer of 220 tonnes of turbine machinery through 75 miles of Taliban territory to the power plant in Kajaki, without the loss of a single man.
Despite its brilliant execution, the operation was a conventional, if hugely complicated, manoeuvre more akin to armoured operations in the desert during the Second World War than today’s war among the people. It was an “absolute” act, rooted in the need to safeguard US development funds that may ultimately have less impact on the campaign than the more subliminal influences Carleton-Smith sought to exert on Helmand’s mood.
“We live in a world where too many believe in science and not enough in art,” he told me a few weeks before the operation. “There is a hunger for absolutes and that is not the domain of the operational commander. Tangible empirical metrics, for which there is an insatiable appetite, undermine the key metrics for progress.”
And therein lies the rub. For this opaque yardstick for progress strains the delicate relationship between Britain’s government, military and society. The campaign in Afghanistan cannot be long continued without the support of the British population. But, as Carleton-Smith noted, society and government hunger for absolutes, for operations like the Kajaki dam convoy. They are impatient at having their soldiery killed, far from home, for the less tangible “victories” symptomatic of success in war among the people. The current generation of soldiers are as questioning as the society from which they are recruited when it comes to judging the value of their own life against the demands made upon them in Afghanistan for this seemingly ethereal gain.
“Soldiers are an intrusive breed,” said Captain Paul Martin, 1 Royal Irish, in Sangin last summer, on his second tour of Helmand. “They’ll always ask questions – ‘Why are we doing this?'”
Two years ago, Martin’s rangers were pulled out of Musa Qala despite having suffered heavy casualties defending it. He was himself wounded there and still has shrapnel near his heart and in one lung. The Taliban quickly reoccupied the town.
“Under my command there I lost four guys and seven injured,” he reflected on the Musa Qala fight. “For the guys to have fought hammer, tooth and nail and at the end of it all to have found the bitterness that we’d handed it back… What was it all for?
“My age helps,” he added, old at 30. “The men respond to me. But you are still a young commander, struggling to answer big questions.”
Most of these questions will never have satisfactory answer beyond the old soldier’s epithet “we’re ‘ere because we’re ‘ere because we’re ‘ere”. Risk and bullshit were ever part of the deal. Stuck for answers, most commanders in Helmand use a contrived display of cold-bloodedness to inspire their troops in adversity. Borton emphasised the need to “wear command lightly”.
At its further extreme, I met a Royal Marine Captain who always refused to run under fire, to the abject terror of his radio operator. Captain Martin offered a more poignant example when he spoke of the death of one of his men in 2006. The man’s wounds were horrific. It appeared that a bullet had entered his leg and come out through his eye. In the wake of the shooting, as they patrolled back across the desert, Martin started vomiting. Each time he made the driver stop his vehicle so that he could walk away and throw up out of sight of his men. Appearances, he said, were all-important.
There is no escaping death as a soldier in Helmand. The small print has not changed and at the lower end of the command chain the soldiers’ traditional contract with death, so necessary to bind them to the concept of military honour, remains intact. Without it, troops prepared to kill but not to die become simple killers, stripped of soldierly status. It remains the junior commander’s task to inspire the soldier to reaccept these terms in every action they take.
Under fire, the fulcrum between a soldier’s instinctive reaction and individual decision is that at which he turns to his commander for a reaffirmation of this deal. It is a unique moment that is described with remarkably few variations by junior commanders.
“You are under contact from guys in several positions,” explained Sgt Daniel Carter, aged 28, 5 Scots, of the average Helmand fire fight. “Their fire is accurate. The rounds are pinging around your feet. There’s a million things on your brain. Do I peel out now or stay, do I try to get around and assault from another angle? Those few minutes feel like hours, they go on for ever and ever… and you see your subordinates looking at you with puppy-dog eyes, waiting for you to make that decision.”
Whatever the complexities of skilled command and the contemporary nuances of war amongst the people, more than being intelligent, tough, trustworthy or compassionate, physical example seems to transcend every other leadership quality at this moment.
One soldier, Private David Poderis, a 37-year-old reservist with 5 Scots, related a multitude of reasons to me for crawling away from a firefight near Musa Qala last summer. Stuck on a flat roof, Poderis was being shot at by many insurgents.
They wanted especially to kill him because he was a machine-gunner. Their fire was heavy, accurate and enduring. Bullets were kicking dust and stone chips into his face. Incoming rocket and machine gun fire cut the air above him. He was frightened.
Then he was shot in the head. A bullet hit his helmet dead centre on his forehead, curling through the interior lining and exiting out of the back, leaving his night-vision straps dangling beside his eyes.
“I had a bout of fear,” he admitted. “But I looked around and saw the captain dodging about, changing position, firing back. Like a cat on a hot tin roof he was. And seeing him still at it gave me a boost. Not that I would have stopped firing anyway. But the feelings of fear left me.”
So he did not crawl away. He accepted “the contract”, stayed where he was and kept on firing back.
“If you see strength in other people it gives you strength in yourself as well,” he explained quietly, capturing the most ancient and indivisible essence of leadership in war.
“Has anyone here ever been shot at?” I hear the words again and can only wonder at how little we knew.