O n the morning of 14 March 1757, one of the Royal Navyâs most senior serving admirals, John Byng, was marched on to the deck of the warship HMS Monarch, forced to kneel and shot by a firing squad of marines. At the time, during the Seven Yearsâ War, the execution divided the establishment and the country. But he had failed âto do his utmostâ to comply with his instructions to take the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean, and during a global war that was not good enough.Was Afghanistan Britain's worst failure since Suez? It's a comforting fiction | Charlotte Lydia Riley Read more
The commanders in our recent wars, by contrast, who have failed in every campaign since 2001, have good reason to expect well-upholstered jobs as non-executive directors, posts as chairmen of august charities or extremely well-rewarded positions in âprivate security companiesâ, or as âadvisersâ on strategy to Middle Eastern slave-states.
The conduct and outcome of the UKâs latest Afghan war was far more damaging in every respect than Iraq. Over the past 20 years, 457 members of the armed forces have been killed in Afghanistan â and thousands more ruined for life. We donât count the suicides. We killed thousands of non-combatants in Helmand, and many more insurgents. The financial cost has conservatively been estimated at well over Â£37bn. We were essentially beaten in Helmand by 2008 and knew it, but left troops in place for six bloody, pointless years until the army left in 2014. Sir Nicholas Kay, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, last week called for a lessons-learned inquiry to take âa hard look at how we lost our strategic patience to do what was necessaryâ â whatever that means. Some may argue that strategic competence might be a more appropriate topic.
There will be an inquiry eventually. We donât know who will lead it, but expect our prime minister to soon be seeking a âsafe pair of handsâ among our cadre of civil servants and judges to conduct it â and some long grass into which to kick it. When it happens, streams of generals, most of them well acquainted with each other, will outline their âsuccessesâ and âchallengesâ in the long military campaign. Politicians will deliver smooth self-justifications. There will be a long-awaited, stern report, with the ultimate judgment of âwhat a messâ.
Weâve already had an inquiry like that, of course. In their 2016 report into the Iraq war, John Chilcot and his team gave us a wonderful historical resource. Much of the long, long process of the inquiry, though, had the ruminant quality of a quiet day on a dairy farm; its proceedings resembled Oxbridge seminars. Yes, there were âoutputsâ aside from the vast report itself: the pamphlet The Good Operation emerged as a result and it is beginning to get traction among military planners. There is now an awareness of the need for a culture enabling military planners to challenge assumptions and excessive optimism, a process called âred teamingâ. There were lessons identified, as the old adage puts it, but it is too early to know if they have been learned. Given what we know of the inter-ministerial mess of recent weeks and last Wednesdayâs train-wreck of evidence at the foreign affairs committee, we may be forgiven for doubt.
The Iraq warâs architects, military and civilian, sail smoothly on. Chilcot, in fairness, was not expected to apply blame. He went as far as his remit allowed; no one was to be held accountable. This is the crux. Lessons must be learned from Afghanistan, yes, but Boris Johnson and his crew will be damned if anyone holding a position of responsibility is going to be held responsible.
For states that take defence and national security really seriously as an existential issue, the approach is far more ruthless. In 2006 the Israeli Defence Forces invaded Lebanon with little preparation, poor planning and chaotic results. Israel and Israelis really care about defence and they have very good cause to be worried about defeat. So within weeks a commission was set up â made up of a judge, two professors and two generals. It reported within 18 months that âgreat failure overshowed the military operationâ. The approach taken by the committee was that ârhetorical praise for the troops must not interfere with an honest assessment of their abilitiesâ.
The consequence was the end of the careers of the prime minster and the chief of the defence staff, among others, and a wholesale reformation of the way the Israeli Defence Forces conducts its operations. There were few illusions about senior military officers being in some way more inherently capable than leaders in other professions.
After 20 years of relentless strategic and operational defeat for British forces in Afghanistan, one might be forgiven for thinking that military defeat â indeed relentless strategic disaster â has nothing to do with those whose single vital role is to be strategic advisers. It is senior officers who define the nature and scale of campaigns and advise politicians as to their conduct. Yet the truth is, as Simon Akam has pointed out, that there will be no accountability for the men (there are only about 25 very senior female officers, with 430 males) who have been crucial in bringing us the most damaging strategic defeat for many decades. We can talk about cultures of impunity, the calumnies of politicians. All that is true. Also true is that the country doesnât really care. Itâs just not important enough.
Frank Ledwidge is senior lecturer in strategy at the University of Portsmouth. He served as a military officer and adviser in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya