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