Lessons of the war in Afghanistan

Keith Simpson leads a Parliamentary debate on the importance of examining the lessons to be learned from British involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to see an interesting cross-section of colleagues present at what I hope will be a good debate about the lessons from the war in Afghanistan.

Over the past week I have had to put up with a number of colleagues rather facetiously asking, “Lessons from which Afghan war?”—with the assumption that my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) might come along and talk about the first Afghan war and his own personal experiences. However, there is a serious element to this, because of course we, the British, were directly involved, more or less on our own, in three wars in Afghanistan—the 1839 to ’42 war, the 1878 to ’81 war, and in 1919—and then as part of a wider coalition from 2003 to ’14. That is part of the background for the Afghan people and what they think about the British—even if that is thoughts in the most benign way.

The second point to make is that I do not have military experience. I was a soldier manqué and taught military history at Sandhurst and the Army staff college, as well as for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy—a few of my former students who slept through my lectures are sitting here in the Chamber. My point, however, is that we tend to forget—perhaps not colleagues in the Chamber now, but often journalists and many times the public—that if we decide to initiate military action, two things are consequences. First, no military plan normally conforms to immediate contact with the enemy, so it is usually incredibly difficult to see how military action will develop. Secondly, such action will inevitably result in casualties.

We know that, for example, in both Iraq and Afghanistan the British suffered heavy casualties—not as many as the Americans or, indeed, as the Iraqis and the Afghan people. For example, in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, we lost 179 people, with several hundred wounded. In Afghanistan, between 2003—or, if we count Helmand, 2006—to the end of last year, 453 were killed and about 2,000 wounded. Without degrading that loss, that is probably about two days’ casualties suffered by the British Commonwealth armies in the 1944 Normandy campaign. The difference, of course, is that in 1944 it was total war—a war for national existence—so the public, while not welcoming the casualties, were more than prepared to tolerate them. With Iraq and Afghanistan, however, a sizeable proportion of British public opinion never supported either intervention.

Why do I wish to debate the lessons from the war in Afghanistan? I think that to do so is crucial. In a debate we had the other week on the Chilcot inquiry, I said that we are in fact talking about a two-act play. Iraq is the first act and overlapping with it is Afghanistan. In many respects, Afghanistan is as important, if not more so. The Chilcot inquiry is looking into the reasons why we went to war in Iraq and the lessons to be learned. That inquiry will tell us certain things, but Afghanistan is a black hole into which, as far as I can see, the Ministry of Defence, other Departments and the Cabinet Office are not as yet prepared to look for strategic lessons that should be learned.

A vast amount of evidence, ironically, is in the public domain. We have the evidence of many witnesses at the Chilcot inquiry who touched on the war in Afghanistan—the military, the intelligence and the politicians overlap. We also have a whole series of memoirs of one kind or another. The great lacuna is of course the memoirs of politicians and Ministers. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, spent a considerable amount of time in his memoir on Iraq, but only about a dozen pages on Afghanistan. Perhaps for obvious reasons, we do not have any memoirs of former Foreign or Defence Ministers—perhaps constrained by the Chilcot inquiry—but we have the memoirs of the military, mainly the Army, ranking from non-commissioned officers, through middle-ranking officers to a whole series of senior officers and generals, some of which have said more about their personal ambitions and their desire to get retaliation in first, rather than giving us an overview and an insight into what went on.

I want not only to get down into the weeds, looking at the lessons from the war in Afghanistan, but to address some fundamental points that are crucial to understanding the war and to our foreign policy and security posture.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The good news is that I will not be present for all of it, because I have a union group to attend—which I am sure he would like to be at too. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of history and I am fascinated by his historical references, which are important, but does he not also think that there is another narrative: the stories of the ordinary people of Afghanistan who have been through the war, are still going through it and are still living in poverty? Sadly, tens of thousands of them are ending up as refugees well away from Afghanistan. Is that not a failure of the whole operation?

Mr Simpson: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. That is the law of unintended consequences. I do not think that we, the Americans or our allies wanted things to turn out in that way in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but he is correct: that story is continuing and should concern all of us.

Were the policy and strategy outlined by the British Government at the time correct? Were they well thought through? Was the intervention considered calmly and rationally, taking into account the best advice of Whitehall, the Departments—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development —and the intelligence services?

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I have enjoyed the first eight minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. A thesis gaining ground is that after the British Army’s failure in Basra, the top of the Ministry of Defence wanted to increase our involvement in Afghanistan in order to prevent greater cuts in the Army and to prove itself after not being as successful as it had wished in Basra. Does he agree with that thesis of a direct connection between Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr Simpson: There is a direct connection, although I do not necessarily completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s logic. If he will bear with me, I shall come on to that.

The basis of British foreign and security policy is twofold: first, absolutely to hang on to and stand by the special relationship with the United States of America; and, secondly, to play a leading role in NATO. Those two elements merge in our participation in the operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to think seriously about the first, our special relationship with the United States of America. Crucial to it, and part of our mythology, is the way in which Winston Churchill persuaded the Americans to come into the war when we were on our knees. That, however, is of course a myth, because the United States of America eventually came into the war because Hitler declared war on it after the Japanese attack.

The special relationship, in many respects, has been more important to us than to the Americans, because of the decline of empire and because we want to participate with and influence a superpower with which we had much in common. However, by the time of our participation in Iraq in the 1990s, it seems to me that there was a serious problem with the ability of a British Prime Minister to influence the United States of America and make certain that Britain’s national interests were addressed.

At a military level, our problem is increasingly that we cannot will the military resources to the promissory notes we write to the Americans. Sustainability of political and military effort then becomes very crucial indeed, and we are found wanting—not because the military are incompetent or because the men and women in our armed forces are not courageous, but because we are punching above our weight. We need to look seriously at what we can and cannot do as a powerful regional power with global interests and commitments.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he not think that there is a case to be made for saying that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were in our national interest, in keeping our streets safe and maintaining our homeland security?

Mr Simpson: The problem with our participation in the Iraq campaign and our military commitment in Afghanistan, which then expanded, was that the policy aims changed, and widened out. There is an argument—I do not actually stand by it but there are many who believe it, including perhaps some hon. Members present—that, through our participation in Iraq and Afghanistan, we made our streets less secure. But that comes back to the issue that we and the Government should be considering: the lessons learned.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. My point in a way reinforces his key earlier message. Is not the key error that we made in Afghanistan that, on succeeding in our initial objective of ridding the country of al-Qaeda, we allowed the mission to morph into one of nation building—a mission that we have struggled to resource properly?

Mr Simpson: I agree with my hon. Friend. That was the problem.

The material in the public domain—official records and the memoirs of civil servants and senior military officers—shows that it is difficult to establish how, for example, our commitment to Helmand came about. Helmand province was irrelevant in terms of the overall security picture in Afghanistan, and we did not want to go there. The logic stated that we should go to Kandahar, but unfortunately the Canadians were already there.

Loose political-military thinking bedevilled our military mission, coupled with the fact that, as my hon. Friend rightly said, we then glued on to our original policy things such as poppy eradication. At the time, many experts said that all we would do with that was drive impoverished farmers into the hands of the Taliban—we now know that was the case. That was a problem not just for the British but for the United States of America and many of our partners as well.

Coming back to the business of willing the means, I should say that there is no doubt in my mind that a crucial element in all this was what was perceived by the Iraqi Government and the Americans as our failure in Basra. It appeared that we had abandoned Basra. I am simplifying—there was a big argument at the time made by successive military commanders on the ground—but there was a sense that we were unable to cope with the situation in southern Iraq. At the same time, there was the feeling—and I have heard contradictory views about this, which is why, in terms of lessons learned, it would be nice to hear the truth—that there were elements in the Ministry of Defence who wanted to get out of Iraq because it was costly and not going anywhere, we had achieved our original objective and it seemed that Afghanistan was going to be an easier policy to explain to the British public. I am open to persuasion on that.

The interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan were predicated on the idea that they were part of the war against terror, but, as I have said, the objectives kept changing. Many of us who participated in debates on the interventions at the time were horrified by the inability not just of the British and American Governments but of our allies to show any understanding of the history and culture of both those countries—and, indeed, previous military operations in them. There were many voices attempting to explain that the interventions would be more difficult than people thought. Naturally, given a mission, the military were prepared to get stuck in and to think about the consequences later.

There is a real need to look at the policy-making machinery of the Government in Whitehall. To use the words of Lord Reid when he was at the Home Office, I am beginning to wonder whether that machinery is partly dysfunctional when it comes to complex operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no lead Minister or Department for either Iraq or Afghanistan. Ultimately, decisions were made by the Prime Minister. There was no National Security Council then to at least try to co-ordinate policy. Individual Ministers attempted to take a lead, but I can remember going to briefings with officials in the Foreign Office, laid on in 2004 and 2005 by the Labour Government; after the second one, several of us said, “Perhaps it would be a good idea to have officials from the MOD and DFID along.” It took some time to get them to appear.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I accept that the National Security Council did not come into being until 2010, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, when I was a Minister, a cross-departmental body, including the MOD, DFID and other Departments, met about Afghanistan on a weekly basis at least.

Mr Simpson: As we all know, that kind of co-ordination is helpful, but it is not the same as having a proper machine, with minutes, allocation of clear objectives and a full-time National Security Adviser.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought forward this debate and I am listening to him carefully. This is absolutely the sort of thing we should be doing much more frequently. In his research, did he find any evidence of serious conversations with those who know the history of the region even better than us—those who are there?

In my work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over recent years, I was struck by how much was known by those in the region, who gave warnings to us about what we might have done, and how little that knowledge seemed to have been fed into the processes. Is that something else that he thinks should be looked at further?

Mr Simpson: It is indeed. My right hon. Friend, who is very experienced, has touched on a problem that occurred not only with the Foreign Office but with DFID and the Ministry of Defence. Often in life, there is the feeling that once an overall decision has been made to do something, the phrase, “I hear what you say,” comes out, but people are not prepared to factor in what they have heard because it complicates the situation.

It also seems to me that, under successive Governments, we have stripped out large parts of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office to make savings, to make Government smaller, and the like, and have therefore got rid of a lot of the specialist expertise that was there 20 years ago but is not there now. We have probably reduced the knowledge base in the Foreign Office and we have reduced the size of the armed forces, so that now there is only a limited critical mass that can provide that kind of expertise, or—if we think of the armed forces, for example—sufficient people for the special forces, which are not recruited separately as some people think but are taken from the broad mass of our armed forces. It is increasingly difficult to provide expertise in languages and intelligence. In my opinion, the situation is worse now than it was 10 years ago.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): We are all grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his expertise here. I am worried that the contraction in our armed forces and everything else he has talked about will diminish Britain’s influence in the world. Earlier, he made a point about the special relationship, which I think is critically important. Does he agree that there are concerns in America, which were expressed today by President Obama—it was in The Daily Telegraph, so it must be true—about the fact that Britain is considering further reducing our spending on defence, which will further diminish our ability to influence a turbulent world?

Mr Simpson: There is no doubt that the Americans have viewed with a degree of dismay what they see as the decline in the critical mass of our foreign policy and defence, because they value that. However, they have often been disappointed in our ability to deliver what we promise.

We suffer, and have suffered in the past, from what I call “Montgomery syndrome”—a snobbery, particularly among the armed forces, towards the Americans. Macmillan also had it; he said that we were like Greek slaves in the Roman empire. There has been a view that they were awful, rather vulgar people who did not know how to hold a knife and fork properly and did not have the kind of experience we had. Unfortunately, they had all the money and resources, but we would teach and train them. That view was particularly apparent before the operation in Basra in southern Iraq, when the Americans got the impression that we could teach them about counter-insurgency. They thought that our experience from Malaya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland meant that we knew how to do it. However, not only did we perhaps not know how to do it, but we did not have the resources either. We suffered and have suffered badly since then.

I will make only two or three more points because I am conscious of the time, and other colleagues want to speak. There is a serious issue about the Ministry of Defence’s ability to practise the kind of operations that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ministers frequently arrive with no experience of the military or the complex jungle of the Ministry of Defence. There has been a high turnover of Ministers under both Governments. There is tension among the Chief of the Defence Staff, the chiefs of staff and the senior civil servants. The Ministry of Defence, as my colleagues know, is both a Department and a command post, and the Permanent Joint Headquarters is out in the sticks. All the things we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan show that there was considerable tension among the forward combat commanders, PJHQ and the Ministry of Defence. Frequently, people did not know who was in charge, which was complicated by the fact that we were also a member of a NATO alliance.

It is often Buggins’s turn to take the post of Chief of the Defence Staff, but the gene pool—I mean this in the nicest possible sense—is getting smaller. One of the Army generals’ criticisms is that when the CDS was from the Air Force or the Navy, he had difficulty understanding the mainly land operations. There are serious questions to ask about that.

The Army is now on a learning curve. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that during these operations the Army learned many lessons from combat analysis. My problem is that, although the Army learned many lessons, the Minister, in an answer to a parliamentary question on 3 February, told the House that at the moment the Ministry of Defence has no plans to study the lessons of the war in Afghanistan. The Cabinet Office also has no plans to look overall at the lessons, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that the strategic defence and security review, which will be carried out in the autumn, needs only a light touch. I am just a humble Back Bencher, but I think he is wrong. I think the strategic defence and security review needs not a light touch but a fundamental reassessment based on all the things that I have set out.

Sir Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend is making an important point. I was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence, and when I had some responsibility for the strategic defence and security review it was Treasury-driven. It had to be so, because of the catastrophic state of the public finances. Strategy took second place. Does my hon. Friend agree that there can now be no excuse—I am looking at the Minister when I say this—for not taking a proper, strategic look at our armed forces, particularly given the extraordinary events that have taken place since 2010?

Mr Simpson: None of us is naive enough not to think that the view of the Treasury is paramount, but there has to be a balance. It is not about Ministers versus the military. I would draw into the National Security Council not only the CDS but the chiefs of staff. I would put their fingers in the mangle, because we know that they leak like sieves.

The Times recently ran a front-page story about the fact that the Chief of the General Staff is thinking of cutting senior ranks by a third. It came as a surprise to Ministers, as they did not realise that that policy would be put into the public domain. I do not expect the Minister to comment or even raise an eyebrow about that. That story made no mention of the Navy or the Air Force. The military must be gripped on this, in the best possible sense.

Finally, we in Parliament need a greater say on this issue—and not only for our amour propre. If we are going to persuade the electorate, who do not rate spending on foreign policy and defence as one of their highest priorities, we have to show that we are investigating this issue and have good arguments about why it is necessary for us to continue our close special relationship with the United States of America and why we need to spend money on the armed forces. I hope the Minister will be able to address at least some of the points I have raised.

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