UK

Did MPs ask right questions over Helmand mission?

David Cameron talking to soldiers during a visit to Camp Bastion Image copyright PA
Image caption British soldiers first deployed to Helmand in March 2006

The BBC's John Ware analyses the Defence Select Committee's report into the British mission in Helmand province and poses some of the questions that MPs did not ask.

The sharp criticism that MPs on the select committee have given the British military's top brass in Parliament's latest inquiry into Afghanistan does not pull any punches.

The committee members say the armed services chiefs:

  • Did not warn ministers of just how unpredictable the reception might be when troops arrived in Helmand province in the spring of 2006.
  • Reassured then-Defence Secretary John Reid that commanders on the ground were content with the number of helicopters when "clearly they were not".
  • Appeared to have not told Lord Reid's successor, Des Browne, that once in Helmand, they decided to stretch the mission even further by setting up four extra bases - a move which General Sir Robert Fry said left them "fighting for their lives in a series of Alamos".

Tough though this report may be, it is by no means the full picture of the shortcomings in Britain's mission in Helmand.

'Unrealistic'

By the end of 2006, the death toll of British servicemen and women in Helmand was mounting. That number has now reached 325 with the latest death of a British soldier over the weekend.

Yet nearly five years later, there is still no definitive public account of who was responsible for mistakes that were made in both the planning and execution of the mission.

There are several areas that the MPs' inquiry report did not address.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The scope and ambition of the mission changed from civilian to counter-terrorism

While critical of the planning, they did not take evidence from the Chief of Joint Operations Air Marshall Sir Glenn Torpy even though, according to senior military sources, the Air Marshall "had the main responsibility for the size and shape of the force".

Helmand was intended as a civilian reconstruction mission. The idea was that protected by troops, civilians would build up the economy and the justice and education systems.

The strategic goal was to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans away from the Taliban who were setting up their own shadow local administrations.

Yet MPs did not take evidence from any of the civilian team of reconstruction experts involved in the planning whose warnings about the dangers have proved so prescient.

The planners included officials from the Foreign Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DfID) and the police.

When they went to Helmand to draw up a reconstruction plan, they told officials on Whitehall's Afghan Steering Committee that their vision for what was achievable was unrealistic.

Expanded mission

Yet some have told me that they were told by officials on the steering committee to get on with it despite the reservations they had raised.

The planners explained that Helmand was a complex web of tribal, ethnic, religious and "narco-mafia" type factions and that they did not yet know enough about Helmand to put together a workable reconstruction plan.

Yet one member of Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) reportedly replied: "We know all we need to know."

It is now clear SIS did not know enough.

The MPs criticised the MoD's failure to anticipate that the presence of troops might "stir up a hornet's nest, especially as much of the intelligence was contradictory".

However, the MPs make no mention in their report of SIS's role, even though, as in Iraq, SIS would have contributed to that flawed intelligence picture.

SIS were also influential in several other key aspects of the Helmand mission.

MPs did not also examine the role of senior Whitehall officials and the instructions they were giving to the reconstruction experts.

Chairing the Afghan Steering Committee was Sir Nigel Sheinwald, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, now ambassador in Washington.

Yet Sir Nigel did not give evidence to MPs, even though his steering committee was reporting back to Downing Street.

We still do not know whether Mr Blair was pushing the military to deploy to Helmand or if the military were pushing him.

The former prime minister did make an impassioned speech in 2004 to Nato about the importance of extending the Afghan mission into the south of the country.

In his autobiography, however, Mr Blair states that "military chiefs, dismayed at the limits of what we could do in Iraq were keen to switch emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan".

Since no evidence was taken from Mr Blair, his precise role in the Helmand mission remains another unresolved matter.

The MPs say the decision to expand the mission to four new bases in the north of Helmand that became such magnets for Taliban attacks, should have been referred to the Defence Secretary Des Browne and the cabinet.

The decision had an enormous strategic impact because it changed the mission from one of reconstruction to all-out war, killing not just many Taliban but also many Afghan civilians.

Mr Browne told MPs he had no recollection or record of being briefed.

This matters because if ministers are not informed of such decisions - or not given the full picture about the risk of overstretch - then the trust on which the military-political relations depends is eroded.

The head of the army General Sir Peter Wall has told me he finds it hard to imagine that Mr Browne was not briefed.

Again, this was not resolved. Minutes of the Chief of Staff Committee might have shed some light on the matter but the MoD withheld these from MPs even though they are more than five years old.

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