Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

A decade of misadventure in Afghanistan.

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan
Frank Ledwidge
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20

Lieutenant Commander Frank Ledwidge, RNR (retired), has written one of the most upsetting books I have read about Britain's part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyone who wants to understand what happened should read it. Yet this extended, occasionally emotional indictment of the British army should be approached with steady nerves - and taken with the occasional pinch of salt.

Ledwige once practised as a criminal barrister, but has since become an expert on counter-insurgency, as well as a specialist in "stabilisation" . His writing reflects all that professional experience. He served as "justice adviser" to Britain's provincial reconstruction team in Helmand when I was ambassador in Kabul. Reading his book, I wish that our paths had crossed more often than they did. Before serving in Lashkar Gah, Ledwidge fulfilled similar roles in Basra, southern Iraq, and, much earlier, in the Balkans.

His book consists of two distinct parts. The first half is a detailed account of what, in his view, went wrong at the tactical and operational levels in Basra. Ledwidge explains in unsparing terms what a mess the British army made of Basra, and how our initial hubris - believing that Britons do counter-insurgency better than the Americans - met its nemesis, first in our withdrawal to barracks, and then through the locally organised "Charge of the Knights", which cleared the militias out of Iraq's second city.

Ledwidge then looks at Helmand. He explains why Britain went in there - partly to erase the stain of Basra - and how an overenthusiastic and ignorant military misread the situation in the province from the start. He catalogues, in scholarly fashion, the mistakes that were made, and are still being made, in executing the theory of counter-insurgency in ways that breached so many of our own precepts. Once again, Britain was out of its depth and needed to be rescued by the far better-resourced Americans.

But it is not until the second half of the book that Ledwidge really gets going, describing everything that he thinks is wrong with one of Britain's most hallowed institutions. He focuses on the complacency of senior officers and the culture of conformism that sustains them. He paints a convincing picture of a military insulated from external realities, analysing the self-referential smugness that keeps the machine "cracking on" in the face of evidence that all is not quite as well as its spokesmen claim.

The author has read widely on stabilisation and counter-insurgency, and, unusually for someone doing the jobs he has done, he cares deeply. Losing Small Wars contains much evidence to support his assertions, carefully excavated from secondary sources and from his own bitter experience of trying to make things better in Basra and Helmand. The book ends with three suggestions for improving the British army: first, a cull of senior officers; second, better education in strategic thinking and in the civil environment for those who remain; and, third, a review of how the army functions in low-intensity operations.

Everything Ledwidge writes is largely true, and yet I put the book down thinking that it was not the whole truth. I worry that it misses the point. Even if the army had not made all the mistakes he so deftly catalogues, even if it did not suffer from all the faults he takes such pains to describe, it would still have lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More depressingly, even if all the reforms Ledwidge suggests were implemented (and they won't be), it would probably continue losing such wars. In fact, by making the army more civilian, his reforms might do more harm than good to what is still a world-class institution.

The point is that it has always been beyond the power of even the mightiest nation on earth to win the wars on which, with British support, America has embarked in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a profound delusion to think that, in five or ten or 15 years, any external power could stabilise a country in the condition Iraq and Afghanistan were in when our troops entered. Britain might do everything right in Helmand, and America might do everything it can across other parts of southern Afghanistan, yet we would still be some way from stabilising the country in any enduring way.

Afghanistan's problems are political, not military. All the soldiers and stabilisation experts in the world will make no lasting difference unless and until the US and the UN make a serious and sustained effort to help the internal and regional parties to the conflict forge a political settlement. This should be one in which the Taliban play their proper part, together with the other Pashtuns as well as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, in addition to Afghanistan's neighbours and near neighbours, starting with Pakistan and India.

As Ledwidge suggests, the military are guilty of groupthink, excessive enthusiasm, overoptimism, misplaced loyalty to each other and
to their institutions and a lack of imagination. Each of these shortcomings, however, is the flip side of qualities that make men and, increasingly, women willing to fight and die for their country, and to spend years, often of great tedium, preparing to do so.

It is probable that the senior generals are at fault for not having given their civilian masters more balanced advice. They are certainly at fault for pronouncing on subjects of which they know little. But, to be fair, they have often done so in order to fill a vacuum created by weak political leadership, a weakness fed by timorous advice from officials and diplomats who usually know better, but choose not to say so.

On both sides of the Atlantic, every politician of any calibre now knows - as the press and the public know - that the military campaign in Afghanistan is going nowhere, and can go nowhere unless it is integrated into a clear political strategy. Unfortunately, that strategy is still missing in inaction, yet that doesn't stop western politicians from popping up in Kabul or Kandahar to mouth the same old platitudes about progress being made, though the challenges remain. They still subscribe to the big lie that the Afghans will be ready to secure and govern their country to a timetable dictated neither by conditions on the ground nor by progress towards a Afghan settlement, but by the unforgiving calendar of western elections.

That is why I conclude that Ledwidge's book may be telling the truth, but not the whole truth, about why we are losing these wars. It is unfair to blame soldiers for being soldiers. In a democracy, those responsible for such mistakes are the political leaders and their advisers, who decide to do not what they know to be right in Afghanistan, but what they believe to be expedient; leaders who have too often chosen to go along with military advice that they know to be overoptimistic and self-serving.

Afghanistan is great blood and treasure - getting on for £6bn a year for Britain alone. Sooner or later the account must be settled. Ledwidge's well-aimed missiles hit the secondary targets - the foot soldiers in this Afghan march of folly - but not the political high command. It is to the latter that the invoice for a decade of expeditionary excess should properly be addressed.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. His memoir "Cables from Kabul" is published by HarperPress (£25)

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.