Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 597-668)

  Q597 Chair: Good afternoon, and thank you very much for coming. We are thin on the ground, partly because some of us didn't get to bed until 5 o'clock in the morning, and partly because some of us are traipsing around constituencies doing local election stuff, but as we have already agreed among ourselves, you have the quality here.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: What a shame you can't say the same about my side of the table.

  Q598 Chair: The deal is this, and I hope it has been put to you in roughly these terms: we're asking you to give evidence in private, but we expect to publish what we all say, subject to the Committee staff and you going through what you say for any redactions that are thought necessary. After the negotiation on that, our military advisers will consider whether anything needs to be cut out in the national interest, in terms of confidentiality or restricted material, but I hope you will consider that as well in the redaction process. It will then be published as part of our report.

  What we're trying to get to is this: the story seems to be emerging that in 2006, the Armed Forces went to Helmand with a certain configuration and with a certain resource level that was geared to cope with a relatively low-key, low-profile operation in Helmand. At some stage during the early summer of 2006, the operation changed, and perhaps the strategy changed, and our Armed Forces found themselves in places such as Musa Qala and Sangin, having previously been limited to places such as Lashkar Gah. The question we want to get to, and it will take us a bit of time during the next hour or so—I don't think it should take longer than that—is: what consideration was given to that change, and was any consideration given to whether the resources and the configuration of our armed forces in Helmand were appropriate for the new mission? You had just recently come into position as CDS, I think. Do you remember when that was exactly?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It was 28 April, I think. The last Friday was the day that I actually walked into the office, so essentially it was from the beginning of May.

  Q599 Chair: Can you tell us what you remember of the background to the deployment of UK Forces into Southern Afghanistan in 2006? Before that, you were Chief of the Air Staff, weren't you?

    Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I was. Clearly, we debated those issues in the Chiefs of Staff Committee, although I was not directly involved in the planning. The concern was that development in Afghanistan—by development, I don't just mean reconstruction, because I am talking in particular about the development of governance—was occurring in Kabul and around Mazar-e-Sharif, where the UK was deployed at the time, but not in many other places. Governance was seen then, as it is today, to be the key to long-term success in Helmand. The question was how to spread governance to other parts of the country.

  In late 2001 or early 2002—thinking back to my time at CENTCOM after 9/11—the concern had been how to manage the various warlords who were scattered around the country, and how to ensure that Afghanistan did not degenerate into a series of feuding warlord-led states. It was much more about Ismail Khan, Fahim Khan and Dostum. The assumption was made that Karzai, being a Southern Pashtun, could pretty much be relied on to deliver that constituency. That, as it turned out, was an inaccurate judgment. Concern was growing throughout 2004 and 2005, as I recollect.

  There was also the problem of a split mission, which went right back to the earliest days. I recollect from my time in CENTCOM at the end of 2001 that the UK in particular, along with others, was pushing for an international stabilisation and assistance force to help get Afghanistan on its feet, but there was no real interest in that at all at CENTCOM or, as far as I could determine, from up the chain of command in Washington. From my perspective, the final arrangement was, "Well, if you want to do that, fine. Just don't get in our way of chasing al-Qaeda." I think you can see the aftermath of that in 2004 and 2005, where you have Operation Enduring Freedom, which is still very much an anti-terrorist operation, and you have a small NATO-led international stabilisation and assistance force, essentially around Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. The other issue was how to fuse those two missions as much as was possible, and have unified command and control throughout Afghanistan—one team and one mission.

  A decision was taken, and I'm afraid I don't have the details of all the debates that went on within NATO on how it reached the decision. However, the decision was made in principle that NATO would expand its mission from Kabul and the North to encompass the whole of Afghanistan. Then, of course, a process followed of looking for NATO contributors to take up various roles within that expanded mission. The UK was asked to take up a mission in the South. It wasn't the first time that the notion of the UK going to the South had been raised; I can recollect that some within our Foreign Office would have preferred us to go to the South in the first place, rather than Mazar-e-Sharif, which is where our PRT ended up after 2001. Again, I am afraid that I was not party to the conversations and dynamics that led to the decision that it should be Helmand for the UK. I recollect that there was some debate about Helmand and Kandahar.

  Around 2005, when the thinking was crystallising in that regard, the UK was focusing on Helmand as its contribution to the overall NATO expansion, plus the intention had emerged, at that stage, that the headquarters of the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps would form the first deployed headquarters for the expanded ISAF mission. that would be another key UK contribution at that stage.

  There have been a number of propositions put forward saying that we didn't really know what we were getting into—that we thought that we were going for a peacekeeping operation and it didn't turn out like that. I can say quite categorically that that is absolutely not the case. I can recollect a number of discussions around the Chiefs of Staff Committee table that essentially were along these lines—I have used these very words myself, so I can recollect them well—"We don't know much about the South, but what we do know is that it's not the North. It's real bandit country." We had a number of intelligence briefings, of course, from the Chief of Defence Intelligence and the Defence Intelligence Staff, but one must remember that the international presence in the South, particularly in Helmand, had been very thin on the ground right up until the deployment of British troops. There were something like 100 members of the US special forces, for example.

  The development of a suitable intelligence base in Helmand was not very far advanced, so we recognised that, in essence, we would need to have something of a break-in battle with Helmand, develop the intelligence base and then see where the mission went from that particular point.

  That is my recollection of the debates that led up to the deployment. As I say, there were two issues in particular. The first was that a number of us were very cautious indeed about this deployment because of the lack of knowledge and the uncertainty. I also recollect that at one stage the Dutch went a bit wobbly on their deployment in Oruzgan and I personally said, "We need to call a halt to our planning. We cannot possibly deploy UK Forces when we don't know what the environment is going to be like and we don't know who will be in the adjoining provinces, so we don't know what the total picture will look like." We did halt for a time, but then concern grew within NATO, the Dutch resolved their difficulties and then at that stage we were seen by NATO as holding up the whole process. We were asked to step forward again, which we consequently did.

  Q600 Chair: Sorry, you said "we consequently did"?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: We resumed our planning for a UK deployment to Helmand.

  Q601 Chair: And that was because NATO regarded us as holding up the whole process?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The Dutch had been holding things up, but they resolved their issues and decided what they were going to deploy. At that stage, because we had stopped our planning, we were seen as holding back the process, so we restarted our planning. I give that as an example of the caution that was felt by a number of people, certainly around the Chiefs of Staff Committee table, about the operation.

  Q602 Chair: What was the mission?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The mission was pretty much the same as it is now, frankly. I haven't got the piece of paper with me, so I cannot quote from it, but if you look at the draft mission statement—the objective in the draft OPLAN—that NATO drew up in 2005, it looks remarkably similar to what we are doing today. Essentially, it is about helping the Afghan Government spread governance to the parts of the country that have been without it for far too long, in order to militate against the spread of terrorism. From the start, it was essentially all about governance.

  Q603 Chair: What you just said implies that once we got there and saw what things looked like on the ground, the mission would develop in a way that was not entirely possible to predict.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, of course the objective of the mission was to help the Afghans to spread governance, but how you achieve that is a very complex question and depends very much on the circumstances that you encounter. There has been a lot of talk over the years about changing strategies in Afghanistan. My own view is that the strategy, in the way that we define it, in Afghanistan has not really changed very much, but the operationalisation of that strategy—the ways and means that you employ to achieve the objectives—has changed quite significantly.

  Q604 Chair: I just want to confirm one thing. You said that the Americans' attitude really was: "Well, if you want to do that, fine. Just don't get in the way of our chasing al-Qaeda."

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: That was at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002. By the time we get to 2006, you're in a situation where the Americans are heavily engaged in Iraq, and Iraq is not looking too good. As far as I could see, what the Americans really wanted at that stage was for somebody to hold the ring in Afghanistan so that they could focus on Iraq. Indeed, my own experience was that it was almost impossible to have a sensible conversation with anyone in Washington about Afghanistan until the beginning of 2008.

  Q605 Chair: 2008?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: 2008. If you think back, 2007 was the year of the surge in Iraq. Iraq was burning all the political oxygen. By the beginning of 2008, the Bush Administration were beginning to turn their attention to transition. At that stage, Iraq looked like it was on a much more promising vector, but the Bush Administration became aware that that was certainly not the case in Afghanistan. Washington started to become politically concerned about the handling of the mission in Afghanistan.

  I recollect that at the beginning of 2008—January or February, I cannot remember the exact date—Hillary Clinton came to London to pick up David Miliband, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, for a joint visit to Afghanistan to assess the situation. We had about two hours over lunch in Lancaster House to discuss those particular issues. That was my first serious engagement on Afghanistan with members of the Administration in Washington.

  Q606 Chair: This is my last question in this little lot. There was a realisation in Iraq that nation-building is a valuable thing to do in a country that you've gone into. Was there any sense that that realisation translated to Afghanistan?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: In what time scale?

  Chair: That realisation arrived just before the surge in 2007, so maybe in 2006. Was there a sense in 2006 that nation-building could be useful in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: From my perspective, in that time scale, people in Washington weren't really thinking about Afghanistan; they were so focused on Iraq.

  Q607 Ms Stuart: I just want to confirm our ambitions. The mission of al-Qaeda was, in four words, to bleed them dry. The Americans had their response, and our response was to focus on governance. Was there a meeting of the various mission statements? Did we respond to al-Qaeda's mission—"to bleed them dry"? That seems to be much more forceful than what we were trying to do.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: First of all, from the outset, certainly in my engagement with the discussions on Afghanistan—the same is true of Iraq—we recognised that we couldn't solve the problems ourselves. Only the indigenous people could solve their own problems. What we had to do, essentially, was get them to the starting line in decent condition. We couldn't run the race for them.

  Secondly, we recognised that when you are in somebody else's country, you are going to be seen by some people—a smaller or greater number depending on the circumstances—as something of an occupying force. Even those who welcome you do so reluctantly. They would rather you didn't have to be there. The tolerance for your presence and the tolerance for your activity declines over time, so it's always a race against time. Can you get the indigenous people, particularly their security forces, to a suitable level before the tolerance of your presence there and your contribution gets too low to be sustained?

  Q608 Ms Stuart: The thing I'm trying to get at is that if al-Qaeda says, "We want to bleed them dry," the Americans say, "We only want to deal with bin Laden and the al-Qaeda threat," and we come in wanting to deal with governance, was there any convergence?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes. Helping to build governance and getting the Afghans to do it themselves as quickly as possible is clearly a rational response to your opponents' intention to bleed you dry, because you get out as quickly as you can. "As quickly as you can" may not be for quite a long time, but nevertheless you are always focused on that. You always know that you have limited time. Time is limited because of the tolerance of the people in the country, but that applies equally to the other side's strategy of trying to bleed you dry.

  Q609 Bob Stewart: Hello, Lord Stirrup. It is nice to see you again.

  You have already talked about the decision-making process on going into Helmand, but would you kindly outline what you saw as your role as Chief of the Air Staff in the decision-making process within the Chiefs of Staff Committee?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: First, to bring any specialist expertise that I might have because of my background. That certainly applied. The command and control arrangements for air operations that I saw at the end of 2005 and in early 2006 were pretty poor. I went along and made representations to the then CDS about that, and there were therefore a number of discussions on that point. Secondly, as part of the collective wisdom, such as it is, of the Chiefs of Staff, to contribute to discussions about specific issues that were presented within the Chiefs of Staff Committee—not to participate in the planning and not to make the decisions about operational points and all the rest of it, but to give views and to contribute to the debate, which is what I and my colleagues did.

  Q610 Bob Stewart: I might be pre-empting, but the Chairman will stop me. Does that include discussion on mission?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It certainly includes discussion on the strategic objective. I use those different words because you will recognise very clearly that people are talking about missions sometimes to mean very different things at different levels. Certainly, in terms of the strategic objective, yes.

  Bob Stewart: Sure. I'll shut up, sir.

  Q611 Ms Stuart: On military intelligence, whoever we talk to, the common response seems to be, "We didn't quite realise just how difficult the terrain would be and just how the tribal structures were." What is your assessment as to whether the intelligence available to the military was limited? Was it limited and, if so, to what extent did it impact on our operations?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: First, it is not true to say that we didn't realise it was going to be difficult. As I tried to indicate earlier, we knew that the South was, in my terms, bandit country and that this was going to be a tough mission. But clearly, we were pretty hazy about the extent and nature of the challenge.

  We knew that Afghanistan was a very tribal society, and that there were a lot of tribes in Helmand, but we didn't understand the dynamics. That is one of the problems: in such a situation, the only way you can develop usable intelligence is to be there on the ground—to talk to people, to see how they interact and to get a sense of the tribal dynamics of who does what to whom and who has power in the various villages and districts. You don't get that from satellites or from other sensors; you get it only by being there.

  There were very few people on the ground from the international community and those who were, particularly the Americans, were focused on chasing terrorists. There had been people from international aid agencies in Helmand at various times, but, first, they are not terribly keen on having protracted conversations with the military for understandable reasons—they like to be at arm's length from the military—and, secondly, they weren't necessarily looking at the same issues that we were concerned about.

  There was, of course, a governance structure in Helmand before we went in, and you could ask, "Why couldn't we tap into that?" But one has to remember that the governance structure was under Governor Sher Mohammed Akhundzada. People did ask him questions, but his answers were all about protecting his own base and his own particular sources of income. Even when we went in there in 2006 and started to get people on the ground, we didn't immediately get a clear picture. It took us a very long time, a lot of hard work and a lot of painstaking effort to build it up.

  Q612 Ms Stuart: Given that it takes about 18 months to do the language training, for example, and that we realised that we did not have enough people with the language skills when we went in, in 2005 and 2006 we still had not caught up with that, had we?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: No. Unfortunately, languages are one of our vulnerable areas, not because—

  Q613 Ms Stuart: And a key component of intelligence, I would have thought.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Absolutely. But not because we don't think that they're important and not because we don't train people, but because, exactly as you have said, it takes a very long time to make someone competent in a language. I can pretty much guarantee that by the time we have everyone fluent in Dari and other dialects, we will be somewhere else entirely. That's the problem—you don't know which languages you are going to need in the future. We weren't able to tell that we were going to need those particular languages, so we didn't have a structure and a process set up for generating those kinds of people. We switched as soon as we realised, but it takes years of lead time to build up that core of expertise, so it's a real challenge for the military.

  Q614 Ms Stuart: Forgive me, but just remind me—when did we go in?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: We went in in 2006.

  Q615 Ms Stuart: No, when did we first go into Afghanistan?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: We first went into Afghanistan at the end of 2001, but that was a very limited mission.

  Q616 Ms Stuart: But nobody would have thought in 2001 that we would be in and out within 18 months. Given the length, would you not say that it might have been prudent to assume that this was a place you would be for more than 18 months and therefore you could have done some work on the languages?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Clearly, with hindsight, that would have been prudent. In late 2001 and into 2002, the Government and those who were involved had much more of a Bosnia model in mind than what turned out to be Afghanistan.

  Q617 John Glen: Can I just take you back? I am quite intrigued by what you said about engagement with the Americans. You referred to a meeting with Hillary Clinton. When did you say that was?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: That was at the beginning of 2008. It was in January or February, but I cannot remember the precise date.

  Q618 John Glen: Hillary Clinton was an aspiring presidential candidate then. She was not Secretary of State, was she?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Sorry, you're quite right. I misspoke. Condoleezza Rice is what I meant to say.

  John Glen: Fine, I just needed to be clear.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Hillary Clinton has been Secretary of State for so long, I tend to think that she has always been there. Thank you for correcting me. It was indeed Condoleezza Rice.

  Q619 Penny Mordaunt: Were relevant lessons from Iraq considered when going into Helmand in 2006?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: In the sense that there are certain principles that apply to any such operation. I have mentioned one of them—the level of tolerance of the local population for what they see as an occupying force and how that declines over time—and there is the fact that you are trying to build up indigenous security forces so that they can take on the role. There were very many similarities in principle, but the way that it was to be done was very different in the two countries, because the two countries are very different. In Iraq, there was a long history of a structured military force. That was not the case in Afghanistan. It had not had a structured military force for some considerable time. The challenges are very different, even though the ends that you seek to reach are the same.

  I come back to this central point: it may seem to be splitting hairs, but the issue in Afghanistan, frankly, has always been how to give effect to your strategic intent, how to operationalise the strategy and how to develop the specific ways and means to reach the end you're aiming for, rather than the end itself.

  Q620 Penny Mordaunt: During the planning process, was there anything formal that you can recall that was looking at drawing comparisons with Iraq?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There is an ongoing lessons-learned process in the Ministry of Defence, in PJHQ and down through the command chain that, particularly on a long campaign, on a rolling basis updates the lessons that have been learned from the campaign and looks at how those apply across the board. That would include, of course, Afghanistan.

  Q621 Chair: You have said that you were not involved in the planning process for going into Helmand because you were Chief of the Air Staff. You have also said that your role as Chief of the Air Staff was to bring your expertise to bear in the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Do you think there is a problem with Chiefs of Staff not being directly involved in the chain of command?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Not if you ensure that they are involved in the consideration at the strategic level. It is hard to see how you can have all the Chiefs of Staff in the chain of command. For a start, when one talks about the chain of command of an operation, one has to be careful to define what one is talking about.

  There remains a great deal of confusion in many people's minds about Afghanistan. The chain of command for the mission in Afghanistan did not and does not come to London. The chain of command in Afghanistan, when we went into Helmand in the first place, was Central Command to General Karl Eikenberry, who was commanding Operation Enduring Freedom in Kabul, down to a one-star Canadian called Fraser in Kandahar, down to a Colonel Knaggs, who was running the PRT in Lashkar Gah.

  Once the transition had taken place to ISAF, which, as I recollect, was around July 2006, it went SACEUR to COMISAF, General Richards in Kabul, then down to Fraser again in Kandahar and down this time to Ed Butler in Helmand. So, as far as the UK chain of command is concerned, it is there to take care of the strategic issues, make sure that there is consonance between the Government's strategic intent and what's actually happening in theatre, make sure that the resources and tasks are balanced as well as they can be on the national side, and, of course, to deploy the national red card if that ever becomes necessary. The UK chain of command, if you like, is rather different from the chain of command that is actually conducting the operation.

  Q622 Chair: But what is the link, then, between the UK chain of command and the chain of command that comes through ISAF?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The link is essentially through the national representative in theatre, the national contingent commander. When I took over as CDS, just about the first thing I did was to go out to Iraq and Afghanistan to see the situation on the ground for myself in both theatres. What I found in Afghanistan in terms of command and control was a little disturbing. There were two real problems. The first was that Brigadier Butler, who was out there as the UK front man, if you like—the man who would wield the red card—was not actually in the mission chain of command. As I said, the chain of command went from Colonel Knaggs in Lashkar Gah to Brigadier-General Fraser in Kandahar. This seemed to me odd.

  One of the first things I did when I came back was to make sure that Brigadier Butler was put into the chain of command. I know that there had been some concern because the Canadian was a one-star and Ed Butler was a one-star, so you'd have a one-star on a one-star, but that's entirely workable, so we put Ed Butler into the chain of command.

  The second thing that concerned me was that the command in the South under Brigadier-General Fraser was wholly under-gunned. This is a very complex mission. Although the force levels were not that high at that stage, it was a very complex mission, and that one-star headquarters was wholly incapable of running such a complex mission effectively. One of the first things I did when I came back was to go round to our partners in what became RC South and try to persuade them that we had to get a serious two-star headquarters with a two-star commander in there, which we subsequently did a bit further down the line.

  Q623 Chair: When did you make that assessment?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: On my first visit.

  Q624 Chair: Which was when?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: In May 2006. The formal connection was through Ed Butler, the national contingent commander at that particular time, but of course I talked to my American opposite number. PJHQ and the operations director in the MoD talked to their American opposite numbers while the operation was under Operation Enduring Freedom, and of course talked to NATO opposite numbers once it transferred to ISAF command. So there is a lot of interaction, but it is not formal chain of command stuff. It's about making sure that everyone stays on the same page. The formal chain of command goes through the national contingent commander in theatre.

  Q625 Mr Brazier: Before coming out with my own question—forgive me; this is an obscure point that I've raised several times, and I still can't fully get my head round it—looking at the UK parallel chain of command as opposed to the definitive one, I'm still a little confused by the fact that there seem to be two separate strands to it. On one hand, there's the chain that goes through PJHQ; on the other, there's the chain that goes through the commitment staff in the MoD. Which one is, so to speak, the UK owner of, in this case, Ed Butler and his headquarters?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The chain of command goes from the operations staff in MoD through PJHQ to the national contingent commander. That is the UK chain. Do people relay every message through every link in that chain? No, of course not. When I was CDS, I would quite often speak to the brigade commander in Helmand, but not to issue formal orders. That was, in terms of the national chain, done through PJHQ in the normal way. But you'd talk to people up and down the chain of command, rather than having everything move up through every link in it. Otherwise, the process becomes too slow and sclerotic. But the formal chain of command is the operations director in the MoD—which is, after all, the staff supporting the Chief of the Defence Staff—through the Permanent Joint Headquarters to the man in theatre.

  Q626 Mr Brazier: From an outsider's angle, it does look terribly complicated. I understand why you need a logistic focus in PJHQ, but it does look terribly cumbersome, and there have been some quite public criticisms that you have effectively got a one-on-one arrangement there before you get down to the individual operations.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: That isn't the case. There is, inevitably, a degree of overlap, as there is in any organisational boundary. You can never have an absolutely neat division. But, for example, PJHQ is the organisation that will carry out the periodic force level review. Every six months, it would have teams of its people—its experts—go out to theatre, talk to the commanders on the ground, look at the missions they were having to conduct, assess what was with them and what sort of forces would be required over the coming six months. It would then put together that force level review and send it up to London.

  London did not repeat all that work. London, of course, looked at the resource and political implications of all this—how it was to be done and how the forces were to be generated and so on—but they were absolutely distinct tasks. But of course, in any organisation, at the boundary there is a grey area, and you can never get away from that. So the answer is not to say, "Let's delineate that boundary more clearly," or, "Let's do away with this level." The answer is to make sure that people are working effectively across that boundary. In that particular sense, it is crucial that the director of operations, the DCDS(Ops), the MoD and the chief of joint operations in PJHQ are joined at the hip.

  Q627 John Glen: I would like to focus on what appears to me to be a disconnect between the operational perceptions of Brigadier Butler and the strategic view higher up, and your experience in recognising that Brigadier Butler was somehow somewhat disconnected from that chain of command. Do you think there was a difference between the perception that you had talking to Brigadier Butler and the general view that was held by the strategic players in the other conversations that you were having at a higher level, detached from operations? That is the key issue here—whether there was an emerging discrepancy between that strategic perception and what you were hearing in your bilateral conversations with Brigadier Butler in operations.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There was never a discrepancy up and down the chain about the strategic objective, but—I come back to my central point—how is that objective to be achieved? How, in detail, do you do it on the ground? That has to be the challenge for the person on the ground. You can't do that from London. The person on the ground sees difficulties before people back in London see them, and quite often will say, "Well, you may think that's a wonderful idea, but let me tell you, it isn't going to work because".

  Q628 John Glen: Forgive me, Lord Stirrup, but what I am driving at is that at this point it seems that that strategic objective and that conversation—that aspiration, in terms of the allocation of resources and the end goal we were aiming for—had become disconnected with the reality of the operational experience. Obviously, the feedback mechanism between the theatre and the strategic decision makers is going to influence the direction of that strategy. The strategy cannot be taken in isolation. I suppose my question is, do you feel that it was becoming a bit isolated from the reality on the ground, and therefore the strategic direction was needing to be tweaked and changed in consideration of that reality?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I don't think it was becoming disconnected, but what quickly became apparent was that it was going to take a long time and a lot more effort than we were putting in at the beginning to get close to that strategic objective. It's a question of pace and scale. [Interruption.]

  Chair: We were just about to get on to the meat of it and I am afraid that we now have to go away and vote. I am sorry about that. Talk quietly among yourselves. We will be back as quickly as possible.

  Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

  On resuming—

  Q629 Mr Brazier: Lord Stirrup, General Messenger told us that we did not have enough UK Forces personnel to carry out the tasks asked of them in Helmand from 2006. It was pretty clear from the tenor of Brigadier Butler's evidence how overstretched we were. Were you involved in the decisions about the shape and size of the force required in 2006?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I was not involved in the planning to put the force together. Clearly, the Chiefs were briefed that this was the force level. One has to understand from the outset that we were, and continued to be for a long time, heavily engaged in Iraq. In the early stages of 2006, we sent what we could manage. Throughout our engagement in Afghanistan, until we got to our current forces of 10,500, we sent as many people as we could to the mission as quickly as we could generate them, as Iraq ran down.

  I recollect, when I was CAS, a discussion of chiefs about that and how we could manage two campaigns. The proposition that was put to us was, as we ramped down in Iraq, we would be ramping up in Afghanistan. I and a number of my colleagues said, "Let's remember that nothing ever works out according to plan. We have ideas about the rate at which we might be able to draw down our forces in Iraq, but all our experience tells us that they will not come true and that things will be delayed. How will we cope?" We were reassured that we could cope if there was delay in running down in Iraq. Of course, we did run down more slowly in Iraq, we did cope, but it was at the cost of some significant stretch.

  Q630 Bob Stewart: Did that mean that the Chiefs of Staff felt that the troop levels were over-faced by the task that they had when they arrived in Helmand?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: When they arrived in Helmand, nobody had a really clear idea of the troops to tasks equation, because the tasks were so unclear. The environment, the challenges and the levels of violence were unclear. It is important to remember that throughout 2006, we were in the early stages, if you like, of a resurgent Taliban. So, in 2005 and the beginning of 2006, when this plan was going on, there were relatively low levels of violence, but they continued to climb through 2006. That was in part because of our presence, but also in part because the resurgence was taking place at that time.

  Q631 Bob Stewart: So the initial planning on force levels was for a lesser threat than, obviously, we found.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: For a lesser threat, but also to establish a presence and a secure area around the capital of Lashkar Gah. What might then be required subsequently in other parts of Helmand was far from clear. Certainly, nobody was in any position to do a troops to task analysis of that.

  Q632 Mr Brazier: Before we move on to some of my colleagues' questions about the change in the nation, Brigadier Butler told us that the situation in Helmand had changed, by the time they arrived, from a permissive situation to, at best, a semi-permissive one. Is that a situation that you recognise?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes. There were a number of factors. First, I referred to the resurgence of the Taliban. Secondly, the Governor had been replaced—forgive me, I cannot remember the exact date. Sher Muhammad Akhunzada was replaced, very much at the behest of the UK, by Engineer Daoud. Sher Muhammad Akhunzada did not take kindly to that. I do not have any specific evidence to put before you to show that, because of that situation, levels of violence increased, but I think that one can draw not unreasonable conclusions from what has gone on subsequently. So there was considerable unrest, which was growing throughout 2006. Undoubtedly, in May 2006, the situation was different from that in January 2006, and it was different again by the end of that year.

  Q633 Mr Brazier: You have explained the reason for the shortage of troops to cope with the rapidly changing situation, but that must have been a factor in the mission getting off to a poor start.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The shortage of troops arose from a number of factors. In considering numbers of troops, you must look at the tasks that you are asking them to carry out. If you have fewer troops, you could still have an adequate number, but you would have to reduce the tasks. The initial plan was to establish a secure area around Lashkar Gah. As everyone knows, those tasks quickly expanded to encompass platoon houses in the mid to Northern part of Helmand, which was never originally envisaged.

  I know that you have questioned witnesses on the rationale for that, and they will have said to you what was explained to me when I went out there for the first time. I was told that the Governor was on the verge of implosion, that the whole mission was about governance and that we had to do something to stabilise the Governor's position, bearing in mind that not only did he face challenges in various towns and villages, but his political rival/rivals were working to undermine him in the eyes of the President at the same time.

  The decision was taken to deploy troops to try and stabilise the situation in the outlying areas, which were not originally envisaged as being part of the tasks. So the tasks grew, for very understandable reasons, connected to the strategy and the object of the mission. But now, suddenly, there weren't enough troops to cover all the bases.

  Q634 Chair: You said that the decision to deploy what troops there were available, essentially, was done at the cost of some considerable stretch.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: No. The force deployed initially was judged adequate to establish a secure area around Lashkar Gah to begin the development of governance, and was judged to be manageable within the overall forces available, given the commitment in Iraq. The increase that was required in troops in Afghanistan, allied to a slower draw-down of troops in Iraq, was what then contributed to the stretch.

  Chair: I see.

  Q635 Ms Stuart: So now we don't have sufficient troops as we expand from just securing the area around Lashkar Gah. Can we look at whether we had enough support? In particular, could you say a bit about whether we had sufficient helicopters? Pre-empting your answer and assuming that the support wasn't sufficient, to what extent did it prevent you from doing all the things that you thought you needed to do?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Clearly, if you deploy to more dispersed locations, your logistic challenge becomes greater. Helicopters are an important part of the logistic line of communication within theatre. Automatically, by adopting that posture, you are going to put more strain on your logistic support, including your support helicopters, than you originally envisaged. That's the first point.

  Secondly, it's very hard for any commander ever to admit that he has enough helicopters—actually, it's hard to admit that he has enough of anything—because we can always do more with more. In a sense, support helicopters and other specialist assets are an unbounded demand, and they are nearly always bounded by supply. The issue is to make sure that you don't have so many tasks over such an area that you just cannot sustain them with the force that you currently have.

  Throughout the first three years of our engagement in Helmand, it was a constant struggle, not just because of support helicopters, but because of Apache availability. Afghanistan was really the first operational deployment of Apache. It was the first time that people had used it, and they developed concepts for its use as they went along, as you would expect. It quite quickly became a "Don't leave home without it" asset, because it was so valuable. But of course, the Apache force was still forming in the UK when we deployed it. So the resource base, the logistic base, and the base of pilots to fly them and engineers to maintain them, were strictly limited. So the Apaches themselves became a limiting factor. All the way through the next three years, we were constantly trying to increase the supply of these critical resources, and those in theatre were trying to juggle them to cover the task as best they could.

  Q636 Ms Stuart: May I press you just a little bit more? The Russian experience was that they needed helicopters, and they had realised that helicopters, at high altitude, with high heat and a lot of sand, were quite demanding, so we shouldn't have been surprised. What in particular did you find you weren't able to do, but which you thought you ought to have done within the wider strategic framework, because of the limitations on equipment?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: On the Russian experience, my own view, and that of a number of other commentators, is that the Russians over-relied on helicopters. In this kind of mission, what you need are people on the ground, not in helicopters or in vehicles, but in their boots. People talk about boots on the ground, and they are critical in this kind of human terrain in which we are seeking to operate. Nevertheless, they have to be moved from place to place as safely as possible, and that requires a mixture of protected mobility and helicopters. The less protected mobility and the fewer helicopters you have, the less you are able to manoeuvre, so the less flexibility a commander has. In a sense, in the middle of 2006, it was not as big an issue as it became subsequently because the mere fact of deploying to places like Musa Qala meant that the majority of the force became fixed so the issue was resupplying it rather than manoeuvring it. When more forces were deployed, more were available for manoeuvre, but limitations with support helicopters will always restrict you in that manoeuvre. It will slow down the pace at which the commander on the ground can create movement towards the strategic objective. It will limit his options on the ground.

  Q637 Chair: Is there a sense that you can do things and you can do things with overwhelming force, but unless you do things with overwhelming force, you are likely to suffer more casualties?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes.

  Q638 Chair: You have said that the process in Helmand was to secure the area around Lashkar Gah. It then changed. To what did it change, and when did it change?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The military mission throughout was two-fold. It was first to train the Afghan Security Forces so that they could provide their own security and then to help hold the security ring until they were ready to take over in order to allow governance to spread. That was very important. It was not about just providing security. There are areas in Helmand for which we still do not provide security because they are not critical in spreading governance. It is all about allowing governance to spread.

  The initial concept was very understandably and rightly focused on the capital, Lashkar Gah—get governance established there and spread it outwards. As I explained, the decision was taken that troops would have to be put into more outlying locations to sustain the governor, because without the governor there would not be governance. The means of delivering security and the areas in which that delivery was to take place changed, but the rationale for the delivery of that security did not change. When did it change? It changed about the back end of April, when it was clear that Governor Daoud was on the verge of implosion. When I went out at the beginning of May to Afghanistan, we were already in the process of doing that and there had already been some discussions between theatre and London about it.

  Q639 Chair: Do you know what the process of that decision to change was? Was it an increasingly concerned set of communications from Governor Daoud?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: That was before I took over, so I am giving hearsay rather than direct evidence from my personal knowledge. It was Governor Daoud, our PRT in Lashkar Gah, which was working with him, and it was also to a degree from President Karzai in Kabul. Of course, the difficulty with communications from Kabul was that President Karzai was still talking, as he did for a long time, to the previous governor and, of course, the previous governor would naturally have a stake in talking up the degree of instability occurring under his successor.

  Q640 Chair: So there is no question of it being a decision by Brigadier Butler to expand his role; it was a decision of the overall coalition deciding to reinforce Governor Daoud. Is that right?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There is certainly no question of Ed Butler just doing this off his own bat as a piece of private enterprise. There was a chain of command in theatre to which our forces were reporting. At that stage, it was Operation Enduring Freedom and, of course, any such significant shift in tactic would, as is always the case, be reported to London, not—I must add—so that London can control the tactics in theatre, which would be entirely wrong; no matter what goes on in theatre and no matter what criticisms people might have of it, I can pretty much guarantee that London would always do it worse. Naturally, however, the Government need to know how their forces are being used and what risks are being run with them, and they need to have the opportunity not to amend the tactics but, if they feel that nationally that is not where they want to go, to hold up a red card and say, "No, we are not up for that."

  Q641 Chair: Was this a decision that was made by Ministers or, if not, at what level was it made?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I was not there when the decisions were made, but certainly it would have been briefed to Chiefs of Staff and to Ministers.

  Q642 Chair: When did you become CDS?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: As I say, the last Friday in April. I went out to theatre right away at the beginning of the following week. When I was in theatre, I was briefed by Ed Butler on this whole process.

  Q643 Chair: Who was your first Secretary of State?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The first Secretary of State was John Reid. When I came back from theatre, I found I had a new one.

  Q644 Chair: This is interesting, because John Reid has expressed considerable surprise at discovering that, after he left the Secretaryship of State for Defence, the mission had suddenly changed. Do you think that his recollection is wrong?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: First, we may be using the term differently. The mission had not changed; the tactics had certainly changed. The tactical deployment had changed for the reasons that I have just described, but it was still to execute the same mission.

  Q645 Chair: It was to do so in places like platoon houses.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It was to do so in order to bolster confidence in and to ensure the survival of the governor, so that governance could continue. As it happened, the downstream consequence of that decision was that we ended up maldeployed, but that was inevitable if you were going to save the governor. Sometimes these things happen. You have to take tactical action on the ground to make sure that you retain the ability to achieve the mission in the long run but, having done that, you have to recover to a more balanced and different posture, which is essentially where we wound up in the second half of 2006. On the nub of your question, I am afraid that I had John Reid for literally a few hours, so I can't comment on any of the discussions he had.

  Q646 Chair: What I am trying to get to the bottom of is how you understand John Reid's astonishment that our troops ended up in Sangin and Musa Qala.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: As far as I am aware—again, this is only hearsay, because I was not there—these issues were briefed at the operational Ministers meeting that is held weekly in the Ministry of Defence.

  Q647 Bob Stewart: Lord Stirrup, the move to platoon houses was pretty crucial, and you mentioned earlier that Ed Butler would not have made that decision alone. How far up the chain of command do you think such a decision might have been made? You may have to speculate; if you don't want to, I would understand.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, Ed Butler would have made the proposal or would have said, as you will recognise, "This is what I am intending to do." But he would not have said, "I want your decision on this, London" or "PJHQ." He would have said, "This is what I intend to do." PJHQ or London then had the chance to say, "Hang on. That doesn't accord with what we understand you are out there to do." The decision would have been a decision for operational commanders in theatre but, as I say, they would not have done it as a piece of private enterprise, as you well recognise.

  Q648 Bob Stewart: So silence means tacit approval.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes.

  Q649 Chair: Okay, so the way of achieving the mission has changed. You've agreed that, in order to reduce casualties, the concept of overwhelming force requires you to have more troops—possibly more than you can ever afford to have. Nevertheless, you need a high degree of force level to bring in the concept of overwhelming force, which implies that there needed to be an immediate reassessment of the resources devoted to this operation. Do you agree?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, but can I just enter a couple of provisos? Overwhelming force does not mean you have wall-to-wall soldiers—soldiers everywhere.

  Chair: Of course not.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There are some places where tactically it's much better to have no visibility whatever.

  Chair: Yes.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The second point is that it must be force levels pertaining to the tasks that you are undertaking.

  Chair: Agreed.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: You can, of course, have higher force densities by reducing the tasks that you undertake. But certainly in the June-July 2006 time frame, when we had found our forces deployed to places we had not originally expected them to be going and, as I say, it was therefore becoming too fixed, clearly something had to be done. One option was for us to pull out of those places, which would have been very difficult, as the deployment had been successful in bolstering the confidence of the governor and helping him to survive that particular crisis. To pull out immediately would have had the reverse effect. That was going to be very difficult. The only other option, of course, was to increase the number of forces we had deployed.

  Q650 Chair: What happened?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The decision was taken that we would seek an increase in the force levels as quickly as we could generate it.

  Q651 Chair: From what to what?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I think it was an additional 900, but I'm thinking off the top of my head now, Chairman. The numbers will be in the records in the Ministry of Defence.

  Q652 Chair: But given the size of the change in the tactics employed, a mere extra 900—it was at about the 3,000 level at that stage, wasn't it?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, 3,200 or thereabouts.

  Q653 Chair: Yes. Surely a mere extra 900 would be a drop in the ocean compared with the hornets' nest—if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor—that we were stirring up.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, three points. First, that's actually quite a big percentage increase if you think about it. The second point is that these numbers, as you will understand, are not plucked out of the air. As I mentioned in reply to an earlier question, the PJHQ, along with commanders on the ground, would carry out a force level requirement study, doing a troops to tasks exercise to see exactly what numbers were required, what sorts of formation, what sorts of expertise and all the rest of it.

  The third point is that at that stage we were seeking to balance resources across two theatres, and of course one of the key tasks at the strategic level is to do precisely that. It's not to run detailed campaigns in theatre, but it is to try to balance ways, means and resources, although in our particular case across two theatres, not across one. The demands in Iraq were growing at that stage, and it became clear to me very soon after I took over that there was no way that we would be able to draw down our force levels in Iraq at the pace that had been previously assumed. That was one of my earliest pieces of advice to the Secretary of State—that we would not be able to do that. The UK was limited in terms of what it could force-generate, so the issue for us was to make sure that what we could generate was adequate for the new tasks that were being undertaken on the ground.

  Q654 Chair: Did you think it was?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, but if you look at the end state of where we are in Helmand, which is that there are 20,000 to 30,000 troops there, you can clearly see that from where we started to the end state in Helmand, there's a very long journey. Although we could fill some of that requirement, there's no way the UK could ever fill all of that requirement. This was a NATO mission. Although we had responsibility for Helmand at that stage, the overall mission was a NATO mission by July and therefore it was incumbent on the alliance to provide the appropriate force levels to conduct the mission properly and safely. It does not follow that just because it was Helmand, the UK should automatically have to increase its force levels, but what does follow is that as you have some success and create opportunities—as well as stirring up, as you say, some of the hornets and having to react to that—the overall requirement for the mission will grow over time.

  Q655 Chair: The impression being created is that Ministers are being advised, "Yes, you can go into Helmand; it's a pretty permissive environment", and suddenly we discover it's a semi-permissive environment, and then we, through our tactical decisions, turn it into a non-permissive environment. Is that fair?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, first of all, Chair, I am not aware of anyone—maybe they did, but I am not aware of anyone—at any stage ever saying that Helmand was a permissive environment. I come back to the evidence I gave earlier; I used these very words in the Chiefs of Staff Committee: "What we do know about the South is that it is not the North; it is real bandit country. It is going to be really difficult." I certainly never viewed Helmand as a permissive environment, and nobody in the discussions that I attended voiced that view.

  Q656 Chair: Would you accept, though, that what we did in moving to the platoon house strategy changed the environment from semi-permissive to non-permissive?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, we went into much less permissive areas of Helmand, if I can put it that way. I don't think that Musa Qala or Sangin were ever permissive environments. When you went into them, they were always going to be non-permissive. We went into them earlier than we had envisaged. I can recollect that in earlier discussions, no one was really clear in the initial planning stages about how we would get into places such as Sangin, in part because we had not developed the intelligence base, but it was always recognised that it was going to be incredibly difficult.

  Q657 Chair: There were problems that began to develop from this, weren't there? Do you think that it is fair to say that Ministers were kept involved with and aware of those problems, or would you say that they would inevitably accept the military advice that they were given?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: They usually wound up accepting the military advice that they were given. They rarely failed to question it, and rightly so. Every week we would have a Chiefs of Staff operational committee meeting, in which we would bring everyone up to date on the latest situation and the plans for operations around the world, but particularly focusing at that stage on Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, immediately after that, we would have an operational ministerial meeting, where they would receive exactly the same briefing and the advice that had been put together in the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

  Q658 Chair: If you could have had more than 900 extra troops, would you have done?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I can recollect saying at a very early stage of this operation that if I had my druthers, personally I would send two divisions into Helmand, so yes. Of course, we didn't have two divisions; nor did we have the equipment for them. But had we had more, I would absolutely have sent more, or at least I would have recommended that we send more.

  Q659 Chair: Was there any element at this stage of some of the decisions being affected by the fairly large changes in personnel that there were at the top of both the Ministry of Defence and the political level of the Ministry of Defence? We had a change of Secretary of State, a change of CDS and a change of CJO.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, although the CJO, General Houghton, had by that stage been in his job for a couple of months, and of course he had just come back from an operational deployment in Iraq. Before that, he had been Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, Operations, in the Ministry of Defence, so he was extremely current on Iraq. He had been involved in the early stages of Afghan planning. He was not as current when he took up his post, but he had been there for several weeks when I took over.

  The director of operations—the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Commitments, as he then was—was Vice-Admiral Style, who had been in post since January 2006, and the Vice-Chief had been in post for a year or more, so there was some continuity, but what I certainly did not expect was to lose my Secretary of State within days of taking over. Given that John Reid was immersed in this, and, as far as I could see, had exerted considerable leadership within the Cabinet on Afghanistan, there is no doubt that that was a significant transition to make at that particular stage, but I think that it was the nature and pace of events on the ground in Helmand that dictated what happened, rather than events back in London.

  Q660 Chair: Since we did not have the extra two divisions that you would have liked, do you think we had too few troops there to carry out the tasks that we were giving them to do?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: No. We worked very hard always to try to ensure that the balance between the troops and the tasks that they were undertaking was appropriate, but of course in every brigade deployment, they would open up new opportunities that they would seek to exploit, so the requirement was always growing. We faced a continual challenge in keeping that growth in requirement down to the same pace at which we could generate additional forces as they became available from Iraq as we drew down there. There was always a tension. We could always have used more troops faster, but the issue, of course, was to make sure that in theatre, we didn't overreach ourselves on the tasks that we were undertaking before the resources became available for them. It is always a very difficult balancing act, but every six months, PJHQ would go out with its experts on the ground, talk to commanders, carry out a formal force level review, come back and report on what was going to be required in the next deployment.

  Q661 Chair: When they talked to commanders on the ground, they were always told, weren't they, "We need more troops"?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Of course, but as I said before, no commander ever has enough. As we can see today, there were more tasks in Helmand in total than any force that we could ever have generated from within the UK could deal with. It was crucial that, from a UK perspective, we made sure that the tasks given to and undertaken by those troops were constrained by the resources that were available to meet them.

  Q662 Mr Brazier: This has been absolutely riveting. Forgive me, but I must go back to an earlier question from the Chair, because I just didn't understand the answer. You have been immensely frank with us, and have given us very detailed answers. The week that you were first in Afghanistan—your first week as CDS—was the week when John Reid was replaced as Secretary of State; that was a crucial transition. The minute that he wrote to us, as the Chair just said, we were crystal clear on his absolute opposition to moving into the dodgier parts of the Northern part of the Province—never mind tactics. It could not have been clearer; it was in black and white. Are you telling the Committee that during the week in which you were out there—this transitional week while he was in the process of moving—we had already started to move troops into the North of Helmand?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I can't recall the exact details of where the troops were on the ground at that stage, but Ed Butler briefed me on the platoon house concept and the rationale for it. I am pretty clear in my recollection that he had had discussions with PJHQ in London at that stage. Now, what involvement John Reid had in that, I am afraid I cannot answer.

  Q663 Mr Brazier: Understood. You are not certain whether people had actually moved, but certainly moves were in hand; they were discussed. Why is it that each successive brigadier out there seems to have been allowed to adopt a different intent and concept of operations? The Americans are rather dismissive of the fact that we replace our brigade every six months. They not only seem to do longer stints, but seem to have more continuity, in terms of their approach to the casual reader of the press. That seems to be the American view. Can you comment?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, I agree with everything you say up to the last bit. I have seen significant differences in approach from different American commanders in the same region.

  Q664 Mr Brazier: At brigade level?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes. We have a concept, as you know, called mission command. You don't tell commanders how to execute their mission, but you tell them what your intent is and what you want them to achieve. As they are the ones on the ground who see the circumstances, they have to judge for themselves how it is to be done. Of course, they report back to you on how they are going to do it and what their plans are, but you have to leave it to them. As I said earlier, people always make mistakes, but no matter what mistakes a commander on the ground makes, I can pretty much guarantee you that higher headquarters, especially London, will make far more, because they don't know the situation.

    It was my experience—I think I am right in saying that I had nine brigade commanders in my time as CDS—that everyone discovered counter-insurgency afresh all by himself, or at least that is the impression one got, going up there. It became a bit frustrating. The intent of the mission remained exactly the same, but the way they executed the mission varied from commander to commander, for a number of reasons; first, because the circumstances changed. As we have just discussed, 2006 was a dynamic year, as were 2007 and 2008. Each commander was faced with a somewhat different situation. His predecessor would have created opportunities which he could go on to exploit. He would also want to create his own opportunities, but the enemy always has a vote in these things, and they were doing things to which the commander had to react. All the commanders were absolutely clear that they were focused on counter-insurgency.

  As I have said, I always saw them before they went out, and I also went to see them in post, fairly soon after they arrived in theatre, and they would brief me. They were always clear that it was about counter-insurgency, but they always tended to give the impression that they had discovered that for themselves for the first time. Of course, it was not true, because every one of them was focused on the same outcome. They just approached it in different ways. Did that lead to a lack of continuity? Absolutely. I very much wanted to extend the tour of duty of brigade commanders in Helmand for that very reason. The clear advice from my Army advisers was that we could not do that, because the brigades were units that lived together, trained together, fought together and recovered together. That cohesion, particularly in the context of difficult combat operations with significant losses, was overridingly important. I accepted that advice and I accepted that we would have to deal with the consequences of shorter tours.

  One way of overcoming that would have been to deploy the entire brigade, not just the headquarters and commander, but that would have meant operational tours for troops on the ground of nine to 12 months, which was felt to be unsustainable given the pace of operations. The Americans, I know, take a different view, but people will then point to suicide rates and divorce rates among American military.

  This is still a live debate, but it was discussed at length when I was CDS, with all the Chiefs of Staff together. We would sit in my office and drag this one out and discuss it. The decision was that we would stick to six-month tours for all the reasons that have been advanced, and that we would therefore try to ameliorate the difficulties through other means. We had posts within the brigade headquarters—particularly the J2 posts and other important continuity posts—which stayed for nine to 12 months.

  Q665 Chair: Sorry, you had better translate "J2".

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Sorry. J2 is intelligence. Over time, we had posts that ran between brigade deployments to provide that additional degree of continuity. We, of course, also had very detailed handover processes. Staff from the incoming brigade would go out very early to make sure that they picked up as much knowledge and situational awareness as they could before they had to be up and running. All those were less than perfect, but there was no perfect answer.

  Q666 Ms Stuart: Forgive me if some of this sounds stupid, but I am one of the junior members of this Committee, so I may not be as familiar with some of the military decision-making processes. I am beginning to struggle. The brigadiers go in and think it is about counter-insurgency, but we started off this debate talking about governance. There we are out in Helmand and the mission changes. What I am trying to get to the bottom of is that the mission changes because we intend to save Governor Daoud, so am I right in thinking that we are suddenly going into areas we had not originally intended to go into? As a consequence of that, platoon houses emerge. We find ourselves with platoon houses, but not enough troops and probably not enough support. As you say, PJHQ goes out once every six months and looks at this, but clearly the situation on the ground is developing much more quickly. I find myself sitting here doing a terribly circular argument: I am on the ground, doing what I need to do, depending on the tasks and what I have. But who decides what particular tasks I pursue at this moment, given that there are more than I could pursue and that I never have enough means to do all the things that I want? Where does all this meet? Who makes the decision about tasks and what is needed? Who will, at some point, say, "Folks, we do not have enough people for the tasks that we must carry out in order to survive, so you need to change tack"? Take me through the platoon houses. I do not understand where it meets.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: First of all, I am sorry to have confused the issue by talking about counter-insurgency. I must come back to the point that this is not a military mission in Afghanistan; it is about a political resolution, which is governance, but the military does not do governance. I said, from my first day as CDS and all the way through my tenure: the military cannot deliver strategic success in Afghanistan. It cannot be delivered without them, but they cannot deliver it; it has to be a political solution.

  The military, as I tried to explain earlier, had two main tasks. The first was to train the Afghan Security Forces so that they could deliver security. The second was in conjunction with the Afghan Security Forces that exist to hold the security ring until the Afghans can take it over. Without a sufficient degree of security in the right places, that governance cannot flourish. Without it, you cannot get politicians and civilians doing the things that they need to establish that governance, which is a sort of unwritten contract with the people. So the military is about counter-insurgency, because it is an insurgency that is creating the insecurity, but the mission is about governance. Everything must be directed to that political end state, so I am sorry if I confused you.

  There is a simple answer to your question about who decides which tasks can be taken on and which cannot—the commander on the ground. He is the only person who can do that. If he believes a task is coming up for which he does not have adequate resources, he says, "Either I have more resources, or I can't do this task." You talked about the six-month cycle. It would be nice to think that we could constantly change the force levels out there to reflect the weekly or monthly situation, but the fact is that people have to be trained for Afghanistan. There has to be force generated. People go out not as individuals, particularly on the ground, but in formed units—as companies, as battalions, as brigades—and although there can be individual reinforcements or battle casualty replacements, all those people have to be trained and go through the appropriate cycle. We have to think a bit in advance about force generation. Okay, that makes you slightly less flexible, but your flexibility overall is improved because you have better trained and organised people.

  At the end of the day, the decision to take on the platoon houses did not put us in a situation where we could not protect Lashkar Gah and protect the platoon houses. It put us in a situation where, as we would say in military terms, we had culminated. There was nothing more we could do; we were stuck. We were fixed, and we could only move forward on the mission by putting in additional forces.

  Q667 John Glen: I welcome the clarity on the military and the governance—the understanding that those two work together, and that one cannot be achieved without the other. On the argument that task prioritisation decisions reside at brigadier-level on the ground, if the political governance challenges at some point, from a strategic perspective, overwhelm and take precedence over the operational decisions of the brigadier on the ground, clearly there is room for him to be influenced, when it comes to the allocation of resources, priorities and tactical decisions, by the governance issue, which you have said works alongside the military. In those circumstances, if it were decided that it was necessary politically, from a governance perspective, and from the perspective of the whole credibility of the political aspect of the operation, to change the configuration of resources, while the overall mission is to win the war—a great thing to hide behind—in reality, it is beyond that. There must have been some influence over those tactical decisions. If there were a governance change of priority, that could change the bearing.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, of course. Everything you say is absolutely right, except I do not think that I said governance works alongside the military. It works above it. It is all about delivering a political outcome. Most military operations are about delivering a political outcome. Sorry, I am a bit of a Clausewitzian. That is why we have the civilian-run civil-military mission in Helmand. It does not give orders to the military command.

  Q668 John Glen: But it would influence the governance.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: But the military commander must be conducting military operations to support the political outcomes; otherwise, there is no strategic point to what they are doing. You are absolutely right, but we have to remember that, in 2006, we did not have the civil-military mission. We did not have the Helmand road map and then the Helmand plan. All those things were still in early stages of development. Have I made that clear?

  John Glen: I think that it is my ignorance.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: If I may say so, you've absolutely got it. You are trying to deliver a political outcome to get strategic success. The military mission is about helping to deliver that strategic success. It must support the policy of the political line.

  Chair: I think that we have detained you long enough. I have to say that this went on far longer than I had expected it to, partly because you have been frank and extremely helpful to us. One thing that we shall not suggest in the Report that eventually comes out is that any of the decisions were simple or were taken without thought. We are very grateful indeed to you for your time in front of us this afternoon.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Thank you very much indeed.

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Prepared 17 July 2011