Afghanistan – after the anger subsides…
As the last US troops withdraw from the now Taliban-controlled country, Afghanistan veteran Colin Vaudin reflects on what went wrong and the lessons we can learn from it...
I SERVED in Afghanistan. I know friends and comrades whose lives were lost or irreversibly changed and I remain proud of what we were asked to do and how we went about our duties. Our country called and we answered, and I had the huge privilege to command my Regiment on Operation Herrick 17 from October 2012 to May 2013.
I served with the best we as a nation had to offer. Drawn from the council estates of the north of England to the foothills of Nepal, they were ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
It is almost impossible to explain to those who weren’t there what we were asking these young men and women to do, the risks we were asking them to take and the utter professionalism and good humour with which they went about their duties.
It was, and is, humbling to be among such people and we owe them better than this…
After news broke of the decision to fully withdraw from Afghanistan, I was angry, I felt betrayed, I felt ashamed, I was heartbroken for the Afghan people and I felt like I failed. But now that the rawness of that anger has subsided, I am left to ask myself was it worth it? Was this defeat inevitable? And who is to blame?
These are major strategic issues, and I offer this commentary not just as a combat veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and other campaigns during a 23-year military career, but as the senior officer who wrote the Military Doctrine on Strategy and Planning for Nato and the UK MoD.
For two years I was paid to think about how we link political intent with operational planning and then into tactical actions. In military terminology, I was the SO1 J5 SME at Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre; the military does love abbreviations, but what this means was that I was lead strategist in the MoD’s in-house think tank.
In 2011, 10 years ago, I raised the issue of ‘campaign continuity’ with the head of DCDC. I made the point that we didn’t have a coherent plan for Afghanistan and were lurching from one brigade rotation to another.
One brigade would adopt a war-fighting footing, the next might be more focused on hearts and minds but neither – and despite every good intention and despite the bravery of our soldiers – was aligned against an over-arching plan.
The need for doctrine on this was agreed and was subsequently published in Joint Doctrine Publication 5-00 Campaign Planning. Some parts provide an insight into why I believe it all went wrong – and it wasn’t inevitable.
I wrote: ‘Selection and maintenance of the aim, the cardinal principle of war, provides the focus for coordinated effort and a reference point against which to gauge progress. The single aim selected should deliver unity of purpose across subordinate operations’ and ‘In practice, uncertainty, inadequate understanding of a situation, politics, individual personalities, force structures and equipment, tour rotations and staff turnover all generate risk against these principles. This risk is further exacerbated in multinational and multi-agency operations by different national and departmental ambitions and perspectives.’
Further I wrote: ‘Commanders must provide clear military advice that informs the political decisions regarding the conditions on the ground and the feasibility of achieving the political aim given the military means available.’
And finally that: ‘Successful command in an enduring campaign should be judged in the longer term, and a degree of humility, collective rather than self-interest, and an understanding of the purpose and context for individual contributions is required.’
Despite the published doctrine, the direction we received substantially did the opposite. We had a lack of strategy, a lack of political will, no strategic longevity and, at the senior levels, we were arrogant and allowed short-term domestic or departmental self-interest to make the final outcome inevitable. These issues are the remit of political and senior commanders and that is solely where the blame must lie.
As the military strategist Clausewitz stated, ‘war is an extension of politics by other means’. The wars we fight are at the will of our democratic government and while going to war is not a decision to be taken lightly it is incumbent of those who commit us to go war to equally commit to seeing it through to its end; however long and difficult that path may be.
This is the failure of Afghanistan. We entered a war for good and honourable reasons, we promised a better future, but we did not stay the course.
The tragedy, and waste of 20 years of fighting, is that we could have withdrawn after a year if, as is now being argued by those who wish to rewrite history, we were only there to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Northern Alliance who we put in power would have provided security of a type.
But Afghanistan was seen as the ‘good war’ as opposed to the ‘bad war’ in Iraq. In Afghanistan we defeated Al Qaeda and were building a better tomorrow for the people of that tragic country. In Iraq we went to war on the lie of weapons of mass destruction.
It is disingenuous, at best, for political leaders to reframe the reasons we were there; at worst it is a betrayal of our soldiers who fought and breaking the promise for those we were there to help. Perhaps what is worse is the cynical approach to the withdrawal.
The prevailing view was that it would just take longer for the Taliban to take over. It was believed that this wouldn’t happen until the next fighting season, in spring next year. Enough time would have passed so that the two events couldn’t be inextricably linked and we could argue that what happened after wasn’t our fault. Unfortunately, the enemy didn’t play to our timeframe…
In a few weeks this failure may have passed from the public consciousness; I do not blame the public as we have problems enough of our own as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. But unless we learn from the past we are destined to repeat it.
So what lessons do I draw?
First, we need a more honest relationship between political leaders and their advisors based on trust, competence and impartiality. We cannot commit to a war we cannot, or aren’t prepared, to fight and win.
Second, we, the public, must demand a clear exit strategy and definition of what our government is trying to achieve.
Third, we must treat our wounded soldiers, veterans and those who helped us better. We owe a debt of honour to our interpreters and those wounded in our service and this must be paid every day, not just on Remembrance Sunday.
So back to my original questions: was it worth it, was this defeat inevitable, and who is to blame? I firmly believe it was worth trying to bring a better future to Afghanistan. I would try again and I would serve again. We provided a light in a dark land and that light, while dimmed, will not go out.
Defeat wasn’t inevitable but our politicians lost their will to fight, to see the job done, and that made the end as predictable as it is tragic. For the last I do blame the short-termism of political decision-making, opinion polls and advisors; we must be better than this.
Finally, what does this mean for Guernsey? It wasn’t our decision to go to war or to leave but we, for good or ill, live under the protection of, and are part of, the community of democracies that went to war in Afghanistan. I know that Deputy Le Tocq is working with the UK government on supporting Afghan refugees and I fully support this approach rather than any ad-hoc approach from some well-meaning charitable bodies; that will inevitably lack longevity.
If they do come, we must welcome them as friends. We also have a large number, many more than you may think, of veterans from these recent wars; some are old like me, some are only in their early to mid 20s. Are they working for you? Are they your neighbour? Do you play sport with them? What can you do, in whatever way possible, to help pay this debt of honour? Some need more practical help than others, some will have mental and physical scars but often a handshake or a hug, a thank you or a listening ear is all that is needed.
My anger may have just about subsided enough for me to commit these thoughts to paper, but I, like many others, will continue to care deeply about the people of Afghanistan and our men and women who fought for the better future they were promised.