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Afghanistan: Impact of mission on UK forces' reputation

Royal Marine Commandos being extracted by an RAF helicopter following a successful operation in Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Image caption The Armed Forces' profile and popularity with much of the public have rarely been higher

British forces became involved in Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001. Few expected it to last this long.

The Armed Forces' reputation has paradoxically both suffered and been enhanced by its decade of experience in Afghanistan.

British special forces have more than proved their worth, and British personnel their bravery and willingness to fight, sometimes against overwhelming odds.

But their limits have also been made clear, not least in the size of force the UK has been able to deploy and sustain, or the strains on the RAF's airbridge - the supply route from the UK to Afghanistan - and its ageing transport fleet, or the lack of enough of the right armoured vehicles or transport helicopters in earlier years.

Tragedies such as the crash of Nimrod XV230, which killed all those on board, focused attention on years of cost-pressures and a culture of "making do". Questions have also been asked over politicians' and some of the senior military leadership's priorities and decisions.

Some commentators have asked whether senior officers and officials should have spoken hard truths unto power at an earlier stage, while others condemn the fitting of a force size to financial limits set down by the Treasury, and a disconnectedness in Whitehall which in turn played out on the ground, despite frequent references to the "comprehensive approach" in Helmand between the military and civilians from the Foreign Office and Department for International Development (DfID).

Rarely has a nation at peace with its neighbours had such battle-hardened young troops, some now returning to Helmand for a third, fourth or fifth tour of duty.

Yet the strains on their families and children back at home have been immense, with some service personnel happy to leave the forces in the current round of redundancies after multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Medically discharged

Meanwhile, welfare officers for some regiments sometimes struggle to cope with the demands of trying to assist the wounded, and bereaved and grieving families, as well as help children left fatherless and widows doing their best to bring up their children on their own.

Image caption Ben Parkinson had his compensation cut from just over £1m to £570,000 under new pay out guidelines

At the same time, the Army must deal with the cuts being made to its trained strength from 102,000 in 2010 down to 82,000 regulars in 2020, a level at which it cannot afford to keep on the most badly-injured soldiers and remain an effective fighting force.

Instead, it is trying to encourage some of those who have made a huge personal sacrifices to move on to a new life with dignity - a task conducted against a background of public outrage when well-known wounded soldiers such as Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson are to be medically discharged despite wishing to carry on serving.

On a practical level, the Army will also have to deal with the legacy of equipment bought specifically for Afghanistan at short notice, not least the heavy armoured vehicles - built to withstand home-made bombs, known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs - which now make up 22 different vehicle fleets, according to Jane's Defence Weekly editor Peter Felstead.

"Operating and maintaining so many different types is costly and weighs down logistics," Mr Felstead said.

"The Army now has to decide which fleets it will look to keep as part of its core equipment programme and which it simply has to leave behind."

Lack of money

Cuts to the MoD's budget also mean that financial allowances for servicemen and women are going down, while their pensions are also likely to diminish, at a time that thousands of personnel are being made redundant from the Royal Navy, the Army and the RAF.

All this is damaging morale as the three shrinking services are being asked to do more with less. The last survey of opinion in the Armed Forces made uncomfortable reading for those in charge.

It showed that while most believe the equipment for operations has improved, the majority of the men and women serving are unhappier than they were when the first such survey was conducted four years ago.

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Media captionMargaret Evison, who lost her son Lt Mark Evison: "They were basically unprotected"

And while the Armed Forces' profile and popularity with much of the public have rarely been higher, the growing number of headlines from 2006 onwards about a lack of money, kit or a joined-up strategy for Afghanistan damaged not only the MoD's reputation but also that of the previous government.

Such news stories also prompted a bitter public debate over who was to blame, as front-line forces bore the consequences of decisions made in far-off Whitehall and military headquarters.

Former Royal Navy reservist and intelligence officer Frank Ledwige takes a bluntly critical look at the UK's involvement in Helmand and Basra in his recent book, Losing Small Wars.

He said: "Unfortunately, there is a culture in the British army of cracking on and saying, 'Failure is not an option, success is inevitable.'

"And of course, this is not the case, especially in complex environments like southern Afghanistan, a tribal, intensely complex place where in any event the British were not welcome from the start."

'Strategic incoherence'

A former barrister, who has served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Ledwige pays tribute to Britain's servicemen as the best fighters in the world in terms of conventional warfare, but is scathing about what he perceives as the military failures and failures of strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The British army likes to talk, and a lot of what it says is sense. But it also likes what it hears when it talks - and it isn't very good at listening.

"They talk about influence operations, 'psy ops', getting in amongst the population and influencing views.

"But in order to do that you have to learn what their views of you are. You have to learn what their priorities are, and this was rarely done.

"The Army is a very closed institution and it needs to start opening its networks in the way the US Army has, to academics and thinkers, and people who actually know what is going on on the ground."

He cites the strategist Clausewitz, who said that no one enters a war without knowing what kind of war he is entering into and for what purpose.

"In Afghanistan, we didn't know what kind of war we were entering, and we didn't really know for what purpose we were doing it. We have a problem in this country of serious strategic incoherence.

"We don't know what we are for as a nation. The Army is going to find in 2015 that it is particularly well equipped for fighting peasants, but not set up for other operations we might need to face in the future, and that applies to the Royal Navy and RAF as well."

The other key challenge the MoD and the government now face after a decade of conflict in Afghanistan is how to construct a coherent narrative that avoids the impression that Nato is rushing towards the exits, and leaving behind a fragile Afghan state that may struggle to cope when its troops have gone: British combat forces are due to leave by the end of 2014 - a deadline set in Whitehall.

'Safe haven'

It is a deadline the government defends. "As we have made clear, UK forces will no longer be in a combat role or present in the sorts of numbers they are now by 2015 - but this doesn't mean abandoning the Afghan people. We will continue to have a very strong relationship based on trade, diplomacy, aid and development, and on developing the Afghan forces," said Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

Image caption Stories about the lack of a joined up strategy damaged the reputation of the previous government

This week, he restated the mission's goals: "The UK, along with 49 other countries, is helping to create a stable Afghanistan, able to maintain its own security, to prevent it once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

"We owe a deep debt of gratitude to our servicemen and women, 382 of whom have paid the ultimate price in protecting us at home in the UK."

Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, who commanded Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) forces in Afghanistan in 2006-7, also insists that over the past 10 years, British forces have made progress there.

"It has been uneven, but it has been significant and unquestionable.

"I have seen the changes in Helmand from the time when districts were impossible for the government to enter, to now when full markets and open schools demonstrate the effect our troops have had."

But if British forces have changed Afghanistan, it is also true that 10 years on, Afghanistan has changed them, irrevocably, and in ways that may not become clear for many years to come.