Have The British Learned Nothing?
The British are having a tough time in Afghanistan.
That’s the observation of Stephen Grey, a foreign correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, someone who has traveled to Afghanistan numerous times for the paper and a man who just recently put out a new book about the Afghan conflict last year. In fact, Grey is so compassionate about his conclusion that he’s scheduled to give a talk (at the New America Foundation) today about the British experience in the Afghan theater; an experience, he says, that has been mired by miscalculation, a lack of resources, weak troop strength, and confusion in the British command.
Now keep in mind that this is not really a groundbreaking discovery. Washington is facing many of the same challenges today, despite the fact that the U.S. Military has been fighting inside Afghanistan for close to a decade. The latest blunder for the United States came last March and April, when the Taliban re-established a presence in Helmand after they were driven out by coalition forces a few weeks earlier. The Taliban, by the way, is still very much alive in that area, made abundantly clear by the insurgency’s relentless intimidation campaign against the local population (targeted assassinations included).
So the charge that the British Government is having problems in southern Afghanistan is not a breaking-news story. Rather, what could be considered highly consequential is the slow pace with which the British Army has adapted to the war’s changing environment. And according to Grey, this conventional mindset is not going to go away anytime soon.
This quote really jumped out at me:
“The charge then against British commanders is that despite the sacrifice and heroism of their troops, they failed to alter their strategy and their people fast both from conventional war to counterinsurgency”.
Gee, doesn’t this sound a bit similar to the U.S. experience in Iraq from 2003-2006? Apparently, the British have learned nothing from Bush’s troubled campaign in Iraq seven years earlier.
So in order to prevent a terrible instance of déjà-vu, here are a few pointers for the British (or anyone else for that matter):
1) Don’t “paint a rosy-picture” to your citizens when the war effort is going horribly. This is the equivalent of a police commissioner claiming that police brutality is nonexistent, despite the existence of video footage showing officers blatantly pummeling unarmed civilians (Rodney King reference).
2) Don’t pretend that events on the ground will quickly evolve to your war plan. I’m afraid that this is exactly what happened to the Bush administration during Iraq’s bloodiest days, and apparently what is happening today to the British. Bush & Company waited too long for a change in policy, instead sitting on their heels and hoping for the best (to their credit, they did eventually embrace counterinsurgency, thanks to General Petreaus). The Brits still have time to avoid making a similar mistake, just in time for the upcoming offensive in Kandahar this summer.
3) Be honest with yourself and admit when the war is going badly. This is a hard step to take, because it may not be politically acceptable in the short-term. Your party may lose a few seats during election time, and you may take a big hit credibility wise for a few weeks, which seems like an eternity in political life. But such a step could reap enormous benefits by jump-starting a process of getting the war plan right. The sooner you admit failure, the quicker you’ll be able to fix that failure. It worked relatively well for the United States back in 2007, and it could be promising for the British as well.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Stephen Grey at the AfPak Channel**