Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99
Frank Ledwidge was a “justice adviser” in Britain’s para-colonial administration in Helmand. As well as spending 15 years as a naval reserve officer, he once practised as a barrister – and it shows. In a closely argued book, he produces a devastating indictment of the utter, unanswerable folly of Britain’s military intervention in southern Afghanistan. If those of us complicit in the error were ever brought to justice, this would be the case for our prosecution.
Ledwidge begins by putting the campaign in Helmand in context, before describing British casualties in terms of those killed and those whose bodies or minds have been broken in the fighting. More of our soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in any other counter-insurgency campaign overseas since the Boer war. Ledwidge exhibits sympathy for our casualties, while reminding us that they were all volunteers, doing a job most loved.
The same cannot be said of the unnumbered Afghan civilians caught up in the conflict. As Ledwidge points out, Britain makes no serious effort to count, let alone identify, the thousands of Pashtun people killed, maimed or displaced by the fighting.
The second part of the book looks at what the campaign will continue to cost the British taxpayer, even after the last C-17 lifts off from Camp Bastion. In 2010, the Treasury representative on the Whitehall committee overseeing the war said that it was costing “getting on for £6bn a year”. Looking at the military costs (some £31.1bn), the future care of veterans (£3.8bn) and the money Britain is spending on civilian development in Afghanistan (a relatively puny £2.1bn), Ledwidge calculates a campaign cost by 2020 of some £40bn – enough to run 1,000 primary schools for 40 years or to recruit 1,000 nurses and pay for their entire careers. By contrast, he reckons that the Taliban’s war in Helmand has cost it £16m – truly asymmetric warfare.
These are merely the softening-up salvos before Ledwidge delivers his most crushing political ordnance by asking what this vast expenditure of British blood and treasure will have achieved. At his forensic best, he tears through the tissue of wishful thinking, wilful deception and worse that politicians, generals, diplomats and civil servants have used to justify the war to a sceptical but surprisingly complaisant British public. Ledwidge argues that – as at least one former head of MI5 has said and as the horrific attack in Woolwich suggested – we are, if anything, less secure as a result of making war without good cause on Muslims in distant Asian countries. Like many Afghans, he wonders how successful we will be in leaving behind a better country than the one we entered in 2001. He asks if Britain has been right – unlike France, Canada or the Netherlands – to go along so meekly with a US military-heavy “strategy” that few serious policymakers in Whitehall or in Washington privately believed could work. And he points out that the British army’s success in using the Afghan war to secure scarce resources has been the Royal Navy’s – and the national interest’s – loss.
This book is a masterpiece in miniature. Had the canvas been larger, I would have liked to have read more about the shaky pillars on which our plan for securing Afghanistan after we leave is supposed to rest: the Afghan army, police and their auxiliaries. I would have saluted their courage, while questioning the capacity and commitment of forces supposed, improbably, to continue countering an insurgency that has succeeded so far this year in initiating 47 per cent more attacks than last year. And I would have said more about how our armed forces have been enthusiastic dupes in the whole exercise: not surprisingly, professional soldiers have preferred a small war to serious boredom on Salisbury Plain.
All of us responsible for the west’s eye wateringly expensive exercise in military futility should read this book before we dare again to mouth – or tweet – the sentiment behind what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie”: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Ledwidge offers no help for heroes; no one would want to inflict this book on the grieving widows or fatherless children of those sent to Helmand to die without good reason.
Nearly 250 years ago, Edmund Burke warned the Commons against repressing the American insurgency by force: “The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered . . . An armament is not a victory.” His words, like Ledwidge’s book, remind us how hard man finds it to resist the siren song of military adventurism; and how high the bill can be for such colossal strategic error.
Sherard Cowper-Coles served as Britain’s Afghan envoy between 2007 and 2010