The UK's Foreign Policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan

Supplementary written evidence from Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO

One of the problems which the war in Afghanistan has thrown up is that of the management of military machines in democracies where few if any politicians or civilian officials have much or any military experience.

Almost by definition, good soldiers are irrepressibly enthusiastic, unquenchably optimistic, fiercely loyal to their service and to their own units within that service, and not especially imaginative. Nor, until relatively recently, did many senior officers have intellectual pretensions.

The war in Afghanistan has given the British Army a raison d’être it has lacked for many years, and new resources on an unprecedented scale. In the eyes of the Army, Afghanistan has also given our forces the chance to redeem themselves, in the eyes of the Americans, in the wake of negative perceptions, whether or not they were justified, of the British Army’s performance in Basra. Not surprisingly, in a profession paid to fight, most have been enjoying the campaign.

Against that background, the then Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, told me in the summer of 2007 that, if he didn’t use in Afghanistan the battle groups then starting to come free from Iraq, he would lose them in a future defence review. "It’s use them, or lose them", he said. In my view, the Army’s "strategy" in Helmand was driven at least as much by the level of resources available to the British Army as by an objective assessment of the needs of a proper counter-insurgency campaign in the province. Time and again, Ministers were pressed to send more troops to Helmand, as they became available from Iraq.

This "supply-side strategy" was also reflected in the Army’s policy of rotating entire brigades through Helmand every six months. This policy was based on the spurious argument that the brigades were fighting as brigades, and that the Army generated its forces through brigades, even though several of the brigades were specially formed for the Afghan campaign, and then disbanded on return to the United Kingdom. Similar arguments were used at the start of the Northern Ireland campaign. But by the end we would never have dreamt of rotating the General Officer Commanding (GOC) or the Brigade commanders and their key staff in Ulster every six months.

The result of this policy in Helmand was to have brigades re-inventing the wheel every six months. Brigade after brigade would spend months or years training up for its deployment, involving lectures from Afghan "experts" such as the Hon Member for Penrith and the Border and brigade study days of various kinds. Each brigadier would say that he understood the "comprehensive approach", and planned to work with DFID and the FCO, as well as with the Afghan authorities. But each brigadier would launch one kinetic operation, before returning with his brigade to Britain after the best six months of his professional life. And then the whole cycle would start again.

Personally, I would rotate the troops fighting in the front line more often than every six months, perhaps doing away with the very expensive and inefficient mid-tour R&R break. But I would keep the senior staff, and key intelligence officers and others, in Helmand for longer, while putting them on new terms which would enable them regularly to see their families, perhaps in Oman or back in the UK. Interestingly, both the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of Joint Operations advocated such an approach, but it was blocked by the Army, and never put to Ministers, either formally or informally.

In my experience, Ministers were reluctant to question the military advice put to them, for fear of leaks to the press suggesting that they weren’t supportive enough of the troops. Thus, I remember the Royal Air Force producing a paper arguing for Tornado bombers to be sent to Afghanistan, even when NATO’s Joint Statement of Operational Requirements made clear that the one category of weapons system ISAF did not need more of was ground attack jets. The original draft paper for Ministers argued that the RAF aircraft were necessary for the morale of British forces on the ground-not an argument that carried much weight with anyone familiar with the average British squaddie’s view of the Royal Air Force, and one which was dropped from later versions of the paper. When I suggested to a Cabinet Minister that he might like gently to probe whether it made sense to spend £70m just on extra taxiways at Kandahar for the deployment, he remarked that he couldn’t possibly ask the Chief of the Defence Staff about this, as he didn’t know the difference between a Tornado and a torpedo. The same Minister asked me, after three years of seeing papers on the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, to remind him of the difference between a brigade and a platoon.

I am not blaming the military for being optimistic, or for constantly lobbying for more resources for Helmand. But I do think some of the advice they put to Ministers was misleadingly optimistic, and that Ministers’ professional advisers, both military and civilian, sometimes did not spell out for Ministers the costs and risks of engagement in Helmand. I well remember a brave young officer in a Footguards regiment asking for a private word with me on a visit to Helmand. He confided in me that he was very doubtful about the "strategy" of training up the Afghan police to secure Helmand after Western forces withdrew. He claimed to have warned his superiors of the dangers and difficulties in such an approach. But he said that his advice had been repeatedly rejected on the grounds that it was too defeatist, and it had therefore been re-written to put a more positive spin on what was happening.

I also thought that the military blamed Ministers unfairly for the shortages of equipment in Helmand, when those Ministers could not possibly have been reasonably expected to have known the details of logistics needs associated with a particular deployment. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was particularly unwise to have allowed the military and the Opposition to criticise him over helicopter availability-a very technical subject which requires years of planning. I cannot help remembering an RAF movements officer in Helmand showing me a pie chart of British helicopter movements in southern Afghanistan in my first year there: 27% of the helicopter movements were for moving VIPs around theatre. And most of those VIPs were senior military tourists from London!

23 December 2010