The Start of the Learning Process

In 2010 I published a post about the Wikileaks revelations and the relationship between the British, Afghans and United States in Helmand.

It made for uncomfortable reading and writing the post was actually quite difficult. (read it here)

I made the point that the British Army leadership had an over inflated opinion of itself, was unable to admit failure and that recognition of failure was the first step to learning;

Students of history will know the last time we had our arses handed to us was the Boer War, the Indian Mutiny and Crimea War. A measure of a truly world class organisation is the ability to recognise failure, after these conflicts that is exactly what we did. The resultant Haldane, Childers and Cardwell reforms all recognised the need for change and set about doing it with zeal. We might compare them with the woeful SDSR2010 and wonder why things are so bad.

Interestingly, all three of these reformers did not have a military background.

From calamity came reform, the problem today is that we are hopelessly delusional about our actual performance and refuse to believe that we are anything but ‘the best armed forces in the world’ so the first step, as they say, is to recognise we have a problem.

In the avalanche of post Afghanistan analysis one of the underlying themes has been the inability of the British Army to actually accept that fundamental errors were made.

In among the arguments about whether we could have ‘won’ in any case, whether we ‘lost’, the definitions of winning and losing and the kinds of lessons that should and have been learned the thing that struck me as the most glaring omission from those in the Army, Government and MoD was a simple inability to admit any kind of failure.

The positive was always accentuated and no hint of doubt or culpability for failure allowed to enter into the official vocabulary.

There was plenty of talk of learning lessons but no talk whatsoever of failure.

The Army cannot learn unless it faces up to some measure of failure.

Which brings me back to the Defence Select Committee evidence session this week, the video of which has been the catalyst for many discussions about the F35, maritime patrol and aircraft carriers; but what struck me as the most illustrative of the problem exchange was between General Sir Nicholas Carter and Gisella Stuart MP. I have watched Mrs Stuart at these evidence sessions before and think she is pretty good at skewering the unwary, so when she asked about the Libyan trainees she was bang on the money.

You can listen to it at the video on the previous post (or here) but the transcript is below;

Gisela Stuart; Would any of you care to just give us an update as to what has gone wrong, why has it gone wrong, and how we are putting it right

General Carter; The straight answer is all of the trainees at Bassignbourn are connected to what is going on at home and for them, seeing their country in the state it is now, and of course it has got worse it has got worse during the course of the last two or three months has been quite destabilising and so I think that trying to control them to focus entirely on training and all that we are asking of them has been quite challenging so I think that none if us are particularly surprised if a few of them have if you like have found it really difficult to do it.

What is encouraging though is the large majority that have embraced the training experience in a way that’s been really positive and they have proved to be good trainees.

We set out with the ambition of being a sort of battalion group of around 300 with three companies inside it of a hundred or so and some of that has been achieved, we have achieved all of the effect we have achieved all of the effect we expected to achieve but a few of them have found this challenging

Gisela Stuart; Leaving base and committing sexual offences is not my definition of finding things challenging

General Carter; No, I am sorry, I was talking about the training. I absolutely agree with you that those who have gone off and are alleged to have done what they have done is completely beyond the pale

Gisela Stuart; Would you reflect that the perimeter fences ought to have been controlled more effectively

General Carter; The Bassingbourn site is not a prison camp, it is extraordinarily difficult to control it in that sense and from our perspective we have done everything that we have tried to do to motivate them to be focused entirely on training and indeed we have run an extremely tough walking out policy in conjunction with the Home Office who have helped us with all of this and the upshot of it is that it is absolutely regrettable that this has occurred.

Gisela Stuart; On reflection you may wish to use slightly stronger wording than just regrettable however lets leave that for the moment. Given that training of Libyan forces on UK territory was part of one of the key elements of the Governments long term strategy where do we go from here?

General Carter; Well I think to be fair to me as a Service Chief who provides the trainers I was not involved in the making of the policy that suggested that Bassingbourn was the right solution to all of that and I suspect it would be more appropriate for that question perhaps to be directed at the central of defence rather me as the service chief.

Gisela Stuart; So if the Prime Minister rings you up and says this hasn’t quite worked what would you suggest now, what would you tell him?

General Carter; Well again, I don’t think I am that well qualified to advise, what I do is to provide troops for these sorts of tasks, I am not involved in the policy judgements and decisions that are made inside and about Libya.

Gisela Stuart; We have got the four service chiefs in front of us, a major decision has been made in terms of Britain’s foreign policy and how we respond, it involves the training of Libyan troops, we now have to send them back early, their training is not complete.

Who do I ask as to what we do next if its not you?

General Carter; Well the problem is Libya is essentially a political problem

Gisela Stuart; No no, these trainees come over to the UK, they are in a UK military base, they are supposed to be performing a training programme, some of them go AWOL and commit sexual offences, some of them are now seeking political asylum. Something has seriously gone wrong and may I suggest that given you are organising this it somehow happened under your watch.

General Carter; I don’t deny that and we are working very closely with the Police force up in Cambridge to try and get to the bottom of exactly what happened and the answer to all of that will be resolved quite soon I am sure

Gisela Stuart; Are you aware that some of them have sought political asylum

General Carter; Yes

Gisela Stuart; Do you think that would be appropriate

General Carter; No, probably not

Gisela Stuart; Just to clarify that 300 are going back early, how many are left or are all of them going and is that the end of it now. What as far as you are concerned are the next stages?

General Carter; As far as we are concerned we have done as much training as we can in the circumstances and we are sending people back to Libya who are better soldiers than they were when they started the training

<<< there followed a short exchange about timelines for return, omitted here>>>

Gisela Stuart; Have any of them completed their training

General Carter; Yes, insofar as we can achieve the outputs as we can see it at the moment, yes

Gisela Stuart; Out of the 2,000 who came how many have completed their training

General Carter; This is the first lot of what ideally going to be 2,000, we have only had 300 in that first go

Gisela Stuart; How many of those can you say have been trained as much as they could be

General Carter; I think that probably 80-90% of them have had a very good training experience and they will go back to Libya as better people and better soldiers

The transcript hints at but does not show the exasperation and DefCon 1 eyebrows of Gisela Stuart but the video clearly shows her annoyance with the evasive comments of General Carter

For those who have been on the Moon this week, a collection of headlines about the end of Op VOCATE, the final shitty icing on the whole shitty cake that was the UK’s misguided and strategically illiterate operations in Libya;

How one of the most peaceful corners of England was turned into a state of anarchy by Libyan cadets

Thursday night was riot night’ at Bassingbourn base

Peace at last for the village that got a taste of Libyan anarchy

Two Libyans ‘training’ at RAF base in Cambridgeshire charged with raping a man- three others charged with sexual offences against women

One of the most interesting comments came from macca7054 in an article from a local newspaper, the Comet, in April

Just how many will go AWOL & ask for Asylum ?

Give that man a job, pronto!

Compare the headlines to comments from General Carter, which seemed to veer between ‘other big boys made me do it’ to ‘nothing to see here move along’, the words Willful Institutional Optimism spring to mind.

Without wishing to in any way diminish or trivialise the personal impact on those involved, specially the assault and rape victims, the Libyan trainee issue has to be placed in a wider context.

Can one really learn if one remains in denial there is anything wrong?






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November 8, 2014 1:26 pm

The Military do seem to have a problem, the problem is that they don’t know how to say no when some politico asks for something. Be it some Afghan politico asking for ISAF help keeping his position( to line his pockets) or ‘training’ a foreign service , I point to the performance of the Iraqi Army and Afghan Army we help train in recent times. As you pointed out the last three times of note we got our arses handed to us an outsider was appointed to conduct a review, often those on the inside cannot see the problems ,this applies to all take the banking industry for instance . We agreed/ volunteered to train this officer cadre because the politicos saw future defence/commercial sales from this group of politically (in Libya) connected individuals who would rise in the future to positions of power and remember their good friends in Britain (in exchange for a well stuffed brown envelope)

November 8, 2014 2:16 pm

…and we were asking ourselves what sacred cows have to go…

surely a private organisation [packed full of former army/service personnel] could be contracted by HMG to provide this level//sort of training to our new found friends in Libya, Mali, where-ever-stan [in situ] and paid for out of Dfid, if not the governments benefiting …

November 8, 2014 2:35 pm

Can you pro-war people stop blaming DFID? It’s as if DFID is the only fault for all low military expenditure. Before DFID, do you gurus know there was the ODA, which also sent British money abroad? or that there’s the USAID, MCC, BMD, AFD all bilateral agencies in other NATO countries which also give out aid and the Nordic countries which also contributed to Afghanistan and Iraq also sent out aid and not directly to countries/govts as you people think they do?

Pay out from DFID? Why not Pay out from FCO? DFID did not ask for Libyans to be sent to the UK. And in any case, it’s also a Home Office matter. So why not blame those government departments?

November 8, 2014 2:54 pm


‘blaming’, Sir, I am not blaming anyone in my post.

I am suggesting an alternative to using a British Army, that is coming under increasingly tight budgets and decreasing numbers of personnel, to train a foreign nation’s armed forces. I welcome your idea of the FCO, frankly I don’t care who is paying for it – as long as its not the MoD.

I also take issue with your accusation that I am ‘pro-war’ – you know nothing about my politics.

I rather suspect the Home Office will be busy thanks to this debacle and won’t be keen to offer further invitations.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
November 8, 2014 4:15 pm

A couple of observations:

> If we decide that training potentially friendly overseas forces is in our interests then it needs to be adequately resourced, and in broad terms it doesn’t matter which budget head it is under provided that the overall allocation to the range of tasks covered by MoD, DfID and FCO is sufficient…and with an adequate contingency. With that done, there is no great benefit in using private contractors…in the long term, they are likely to be more expensive, and are not of course available for other tasks to increase overall resilience…the real issue is if the overall Budget for those sorts of tasks is sufficient…and if it is not why we agreed to do the work in the first place.

> As to the conduct of the recruits once here, there seems to me to be a really big issue with the societal norms of the West, as opposed to much of the rest…if we had for some reason decided to train Libyan troops in the UK at any point up to the Great War they would have been subject to corporal punishment for minor infractions, and hanged for major ones…and I suspect that might well be what would happen to them now if they got out of line in Libya. Standards as to what comprises a crime and how it is dealt with have diverged massively already and move a little further every year. We, rightly, take the absolute position that rape is rape whatever the circumstances, dress or conduct of the victim…they come from a society where the dress and public conduct of women is very severely constrained…and where in some cases victims of rape risk being forced to marry their assailant or punished for adultery in the aftermath.

In those circumstances bringing them here was perhaps not the smartest idea…why did we not set up a training facility there? Too expensive – or too dangerous to leave our own people there? And if the second, was training the right priority, or just a painless way to be seen to be doing something?

As I say, just a couple of thoughts…


November 8, 2014 4:42 pm

The comments that it is not a prison camp, inferring the perimeter cannot be secured. Is that not a worry in a military establishment ?

November 8, 2014 5:09 pm

Yes heaven forbid any of our military establishments might be secure. I mean it’s not as if there are nutters out there looking to randomly attack our soldiers……..

What utter utter bollocks on behalf of our military elite.

Still it is what we have come to expect.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
November 8, 2014 5:28 pm

“The Bassingbourn site is not a prison camp, it is extraordinarily difficult to control it in that sense and from our perspective we have done everything”

Oh dear.

Chris Werb
Chris Werb
November 8, 2014 7:04 pm

What PJS said at 2.16pm.

November 9, 2014 3:24 am

I would have expected the CGS to have been fully briefed by the CFDT, who is the 3* Commander responsible for training.

It seems unlikely that the Army would have initiated the offer of training to the Libyans, but were doubtless consulted. The selection of participants would have been by the Libyans. UK trains a lot of overseas military students. There is no obvious reason for the Army to have refused or claim there were unacceptable risks, I’d also assume the concept was put to other relevant govt depts as well (probably now trying to deny it!) . Senior officers need clear good reasons to refuse a task proposed by their political masters, and are generally not endowed with 20/20 foresight. They are also risk takers, it goes with being a soldier.

Presumably the Libyans were selected by Libya, while the CGS mentions it was an embryo battalion its not clear what the internal officering arrangements were. I can’t see anything in the quoted answers by the CGS that claims or implies that the entire battalion were officer candidates.

Training a battalion of recruits from scratch is an undoubted challenge, it’s usual that there is a trained cadre of at least some officers and NCOs. The last instance of 100% from scratch I can think of is USSF training a very few Cambodian battalions in Vietnam, and they had at least 2 years for the job.

UK barracks are not fortresses, last time I looked they mostly had a perimeter fence (PIRA caused that, in the ’60s many had no fences), but with a few exceptions the fence is not guarded, only the gates to control access. This is often a MoD Police role.

I’d guess Bassingbourne was selected because until fairly recently it was an ATR and hence has all the necessary facilities for basic training and sufficient accommodation.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
November 9, 2014 3:53 am

The Army dropped the ball hugely here. they should never have agreed to do this on UK soil and if they did they should have done it under their own terms. This should either have been done on Libya (too dangerous, I trained Yemenis in Yemen in civvies living in a safe house with non UK weapons, i am sure the army could have managed) we also trained stacks of Iraqis in Iraq, spent time there too. So if Libya was too dangerous for the precious trainers then we should have looked at a 3rd country. Someone’s head should roll and it is not often i agree with ixion.

November 9, 2014 8:09 am

20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. It ensures armchair pundits are always right.

The problem is that when you say NO you have to be able to justify it, provable facts are best but a good intelligence assessment might past muster, if it had sound basic facts and sensible and realistic interpretation. I’m not sure that saying ‘No Minister, because they are untrustworthy Arabs who do not subscribe to our cultural values, will seriously misbehave and don’t know how to use a Western toilet, we must find some other country to host our efforts’ would be an acceptable answer.

It’s the same as going into Helmand in 2006, if the CDS had said NO, what reasons would he have given? ‘It’s too risky Minister’ – on what was he going base this assessment? Now if he had advice from anthopologists from assorted universities, int service, FO, etc, saying ‘UK troops with be a Pushto magnet and will stir up a hornets nest’ then he might have had a chance, it’s interesting that no journo has found anyone to say it ever existed. I guess we can blame Robin Cook or someone for gutting the FO.

20/20 hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing. Even if journos and the commmentariat do make a living from it. Personally I advise engaging brain (if you have one) before regurgitating some of the media crap.

November 9, 2014 9:11 am


’20/20 hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing’

I think your missing the point. Is this another case of not allocating resources or changing the regime once the reports were coming back that things were not going to plan? Is there a culture where by junior officers do not like to be seen to be bringing bad news?

‘It’s the same as going into Helmand in 2006, if the CDS had said NO, what reasons would he have given? ‘It’s too risky Minister’’

The problem with Afghanistan is not that we went, it’s that we went knowing that we were under resourced and there was no plan B. With what happened in Bassingbourne, Iraq and Afghanistan are we no longer capable of adapting and just plan for success?

November 9, 2014 9:49 am

The problem here is there is a mindset that sees the poor put upon senior officers being forced to do inappropriate tastes with inadequate resources because the nasty politicians are forcing them to.

Sometimes that is true, Blair clearly signed up for Iraq early and for political reasons both wanted to delay preparations because he wanted to pretend the decision had not been taken but also to send a significant enough force to have an impact on decision making.

On other occasions and Helmand seems to have been one where the initiative was coming from the military more than the politicians.

Dannett denies telling Cowper-Coles that true reason for going was to justify to the politicians and the Treasury to justify the size of the Army, but they are arguing about which words were used not the sentiment.

Several of those who went on the original recce to Helmand were told to play down the problems as ‘otherwise they (the politicians) won’t let us go’.

In terms of training overseas military again it was an idea which has been pushed by the army themselves to justify their existence, if we can’t send enough men to occupy a country ourselves we can use our expertise to train the locals. As the French went in to Mali we offered to send training teams to the Commonwealth West African States like Nigeria, and most of them said thanks but no thanks!

I don’t know where the idea of training an entire battalion of untrained Libyans came from, but the Army was responsible for making it work.

November 9, 2014 9:51 am


Re the Afghan thing I would have settled for:-

1 Sorry minister we do not have sufficient resources in men and equipment for quite foreseeable problems.
2 Our history of attempted long-term engagement in Afghanistan is disastrous.
3 The place is awash with armed nutters who have had plenty of practice killing foreigners and each other.
4 How about we ask a few experts before we do this???
5 You will have to agree to resource it properly if you want this to happen on my watch.
6 Have you ever read a history book?!!!!

With regard to the 1st point. It’s not all about hindsight it’s about when the first reports of local trouble came in they weren’t sent home.

But I would point out the big bad politicians did not make the poor liitle army choose the venue for the training

Still I think your response well illustrates TDs point. Nothing to see here… Army never fucks up:- its always the politician fault.

John Hartley
John Hartley
November 9, 2014 11:10 am

Options for change, SDR1998, SDSR2010 & all the others, have left us all fur coat & no knickers to use the TD phrase. Service chiefs still act like they have cold war strength, ie, 50 RN destroyers/frigates, 400 RAF FJ, 160,000 strong Army. They think to admit weakness is to invite further defence cuts. Maybe they are right. Britain is heading for a major, avoidable military defeat with huge political fallout, another Singapore1942 or Crete 1941. Our politicians want the prestige of a 5 star military, but will only provide 2 to 3 star resources. Defeat is inevitable.
Sorry to be downbeat, but my 95 year old Dad is in hospital with a minor stroke. He will be watching the remembrance service on TV. I had to explain to a rehab nurse that him slightly dragging his left leg is not the recent stroke, but the result of a German hand grenade 75 years ago. A classic example of how forces up against better equipped forces take casualties.

November 9, 2014 11:17 am

Ixion it is worse than that,

Iraq was Blairs political decision

Helmand was different.

1 Sorry minister we do not have sufficient resources in men and equipment for quite foreseeable problems.

What they actually said, was we have plenty of resources and we are sending exactly the right sized balanced operation unit, and we absolutely can take on this new mission while still being actively involved in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Oh and please let us go Minister because it would be embarrassing if the Dutch and Canadians get to go and we have to stay home.

2 Our history of attempted long-term engagement in Afghanistan is disastrous.

What they actually said was our long term links to the region allow us to do it all better then the Americans with fewer resources because, well just because….

3 The place is awash with armed nutters who have had plenty of practice killing foreigners and each other.

What they actually said was the intelligence picture is mixed but the local Afghan law enforcement units will do most of the work but they would welcome the small amount of support we will bring. We then proceeded to sack the admittedly corrupt local governor, create enemies of most of the local police as they had been his hired thugs and his paid militia.

4 How about we ask a few experts before we do this???

Experts were asked and when they raised problems were told to keep quiet as otherwise the politicians will not let us go.

5 You will have to agree to resource it properly if you want this to happen on my watch.

Reid and the Treasury gave the Army everything the senior ranks asked for. If they had come in 2005 and said we need a 10 year deployment with 25,000 men and we propose we will provide about half and we do not have a clue where the rest are coming from and we do NOT have agreement that the Yanks will help. Reid would have told them fairly bluntly they were not going, and could you come back with a better plan to stabilise Basra.

We need lots and lots of extra Helicopters but we do not want you to get any by leasing or borrowing them from the Yanks as that would disrupt our long term plan to buy something super from Westland!

Oh and there is nothing wrong with Snatch Land Rover because if we replace it with something off the shelf now I can’t get my super whizz-bang replacement we haven’t even designed yet.

6 Have you ever read a history book!!!!

All the history books they seem to have read were about the wonderful things the army did in Malaya or Northern Ireland and we are much better at COIN than this stupid Yanks. But those campaigns involved lots and lots of troops, the British Army had over 21,000 in Ulster in the 70’s and fell to around 10,000 as the size of the RUC increased. The population of Helmand is about that of Ulster so figures in the 25,000 range make sense, not the original 3,000

November 9, 2014 2:08 pm

If Libyan recruits can not even be controlled whilst training as guests in a foreign country does anyone seriously expect them to ever constitute a viable disciplined fighting force?

As for the British military and associated political establishment, I am sure Phil will be a long any minute to tell us everything is just fine and Helmand was a great victory, but the truth is brutal. Two very expensive wars (in both blood and treasure) have effectively been lost and in the process they have further alienated Britain’s main ally.

To compound the problem SDSR10 was the wrong way round. Despite all the ranting, whining, crying and raving the Army, despite its multiple and obvious failings, was largely spared. Worse, it was spared seemingly at the expense of air power which as a result of the Army’s failings increasingly looks like the political establishments preferred means of power projection. The net result is going to be a standing Army nobody is going to send anywhere in quantity yet an Air Force on its way to being half the size it was in 2010 and already demonstrably overstretched.

Why has this happened? It seems to me that the same failings that afflict the rest of the British political establishment are at play, arrogance, denial, amateurism, a craven pursuit of ones own career and earnings above the notion of public service etc. Not just within the military but at a political level too.

What is the lesson: well that is simple, a truly radical approach needs to be taken that takes a chainsaw to the Army, cap badges and regimental histories be damned. It is clear that Britain has neither the desire nor the ability to fight and win in major land campaigns so there is not point in sustaining the Army in its current mutant form. The saved resources should be put back into the capabilities actually being used- air power (that includes strike from the sea).

November 9, 2014 2:28 pm


You pretty much nailed it.

I would just add that it didn’t take very long for the US COIN community to develop a seething contempt for anyone who mentioned Malaya as a model, they correctly pointed out that as far as COIN scenarios go it was about as easy as it gets.

November 9, 2014 2:29 pm

DN – ref ” just planning for success” – maybe its not that obvious but over the past 25 years or so the concept of success based strategy has ripped through industry (and no doubt the public sector too) as much as through the military. Its all glossed-up as ‘efficiency’. Whereas in past times organizations took care to keep a level of contingency to maintain resilience, now the great god Efficiency demands no spare capacity can be carried. But its alright, because to replace the sensible level of reserves, modern management proclaims things like “Failure cannot be tolerated” and “The job must be done right first time” and “We are committed to the highest standards so success is guaranteed”. There you go. Ra-ra statements save the day.

Personally I value resilience. I am content for organisations to run at 85% capacity if that means there is adequate cover for people taking vacation, falling sick or becoming pregnant without the remaining workforce working 12 hour days 7 days a week. Sadly though the modern way is to expect everybody to work more than their contracted hours (unpaid overtime of course) all the time and then to work even more hours when extra cover is needed, because its efficient. For the profit-making business it is, anyway.

November 9, 2014 3:22 pm

Very true Chris on how ‘lean’ companies try to run , my own company is often a victim of its own success in terms of sales which are calculated and sold based on the work been done ‘in house’ and then due to a lack of capacity we have to hire in specialist contractors at exorbitant rates and sub-contract out certain items of manufacture to complete the job on time but at zero profit if not a loss.

November 9, 2014 3:24 pm

Hohum, not surprised that the US does not like Malaya comparisons, it makes them look bad, but there are lessons to be learned from there too. Like the integrated approach of military and civilian policies I mentioned before. For example, the army can deport people into New Villages, but only the civil sector can make these New Villages nicer places to live than their old villages and head off discontent from the eviction, not to mention compensation and “fair value” for the land they gave up. Over here, we are still getting discontent from some of the government’s confiscatory policies in the 70s (not much choice, we were poor then country wise). If the value of the land does not inflate beyond what was confiscated, you will get accusations of the government cheating them, and land price inflation only comes with infrastructure development, not armies running about.

Other things such as Special Branches, IDs, reintegration into society, job opportunities and advancement, all these are civil sector responsibilities, not military. And this is where a lot of COIN fails these days. They send in the military… but leave the old people in charge of the civilian side. And after the military leaves? Business as usual.

Malaya was easy. There was a reason it was easy. Because the commies got hit high and low. These days, they just hit high and forget about the low.

Our ex-Prime Minister, who lived through those times, made a comment once that the military actions bought time, the time for the real policies that defeated the communists to go through, the financial side. By offering people a higher and better standard of living, a lot of the drive to rebel was culled out of the population.

‘If people don’t have anything, they join the riot. If people have something to protect, they hide themselves and their property from the riot.”

November 9, 2014 3:33 pm

“the British Army had over 21,000 in Ulster in the 70’s and fell to around 10,000 as the size of the RUC increased. The population of Helmand is about that of Ulster so figures in the 25,000 range make sense, not the original 3,000”
We eventually began to trust the RUC and gave them an enlarged role outside of more conventional policing but yes it did allow us to reduce our military presence which helped calm the situation. In terms of population comparisons if my relatives were as well armed as the population of Helmand or Basra it would have needed much more that 21,000 to keep a lid on it.

November 9, 2014 3:42 pm

Malaya was easy because it was easy. The Brits were fighting barely 8,000 insurgents of a distinct minority ethnicity who were almost completely isolated from the outside world alongside local forces and political infrastructure with which the British had strong existing relationships having largely built those structures in the first place.

If a COIN campaign was ever winnable Malaya was it, and that is why the American’s didn’t like having it shoved in their faces by arrogant Brits.

November 9, 2014 3:52 pm


No. No. No.

The big nasty govt made the army do it.

And any way its all gone swimmingly. There are no problems. We won.

November 9, 2014 4:02 pm

Have to admit that is also true Hohum, still does not change the fact that you need both civilian and military arms working in coordination to put a lid on things.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
November 9, 2014 7:41 pm


Malaya be dammed do not even pretend tat anyone won in Iraq or Afghanistan, the US simply spent even more money and lives failing than we did.

November 9, 2014 8:20 pm


Who tried to pretend the US won? Nobody here that I saw. The difference between the US and the British was clear though, the Americans were at least able to create just enough security to arrange an exit that gave a veneer of having left Iraq with some sort of future, the British were not able to do that in either Basra or Helmand where in both cases they had to be bailed out by the Americans.

Most also credit the US with considerably greater doctrinal and material agility than the UK displayed too.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
November 9, 2014 8:32 pm


“Who tried to pretend the US won? Nobody here that I saw. The difference between the US and the British was clear though, the Americans were at least able to create just enough security to arrange an exit that gave a veneer of having left Iraq with some sort of future, ”

That comment must be a joke right?

I served in both theatres the difference was mapower, the result the same

November 9, 2014 8:37 pm


A description of reality. The US had to bail out the British in both Helmand and Basra, once the Americans arrived the situation improved markedly. Nobody really disputes it was any more than a sticking plaster to cover exit but there was an improvement.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
November 9, 2014 8:43 pm

They simply used more bodies and kit to spend more money and bodies and leave an equally fucked up situation. that is reality.

November 9, 2014 9:41 pm

As for the British military and associated political establishment, I am sure Phil will be a long any minute to tell us everything is just fine and Helmand was a great victory, but the truth is brutal.

Au contraire, Phil has been busy doing other things. But he has found the time though to pop in to tell you to go fuck yourself. He can speak for himself…thanks…fella.

November 9, 2014 10:19 pm

Hohum, I guess I’ll have to buy you a virtual pint for this one:
To compound the problem SDSR10 was the wrong way round. Despite all the ranting, whining, crying and raving the Army, despite its multiple and obvious failings, was largely spared. Worse, it was spared seemingly at the expense of air power which as a result of the Army’s failings increasingly looks like the political establishments preferred means of power projection. The net result is going to be a standing Army nobody is going to send anywhere in quantity yet an Air Force on its way to being half the size it was in 2010 and already demonstrably overstretched.

Why has this happened? It seems to me that the same failings that afflict the rest of the British political establishment are at play, arrogance, denial, amateurism, a craven pursuit of ones own career and earnings above the notion of public service***end of quote***

Now, did anyone notice the review of Army failings in Iraq, referenced in today’s Torygraph? I was on the road, so only glimpsed over it in a road-side caf
– must be a new one, to merit a newspaper piece ” for the masses” who most of the time are not interested, but can be tempted with a degree of sensationalism

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
November 10, 2014 8:32 am

On the narrow point regarding barracks they did used to have big walls to keep the soldiers in but with the coming of the all professional army in the early 1960s open plan became all the rage. Then NI kicked off and big fences were built to keep the bad people out.

RAF Airfields never had much more than a boundary fence relying on patrols round the perimeter.

CDS would have been better advised to say ‘I don’t know but I’ll find out. ‘ No one can know everything.

November 10, 2014 9:11 am

I see there’s some confused history around.. UK does not have a long history in Afg. The NW Frontier of India was established to prevent Pushto raiding into the Indus Valley. There were two Brit invasions, the first was driven by concerns about Russian expansionism, the second can best be described as ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’. 1919 was defensive action due to Afghan forces attacking British India, the Afghans were defeated pretty quickly and after a couple of years there was an extremely good relationship with the Afg Govt. In WW2 there was an agreed contingency plan to move into Afg with Afg help if German forces spilled over from the USSR, IIRC there was also an agreement to assist if the USSR invade but I haven’t verified that. My guess is that the Paks fear that Delhi might have inherited too much of this Brit relationship hence their antics. I reckon UK should have kicked the Pak int guys out of London from 2006 onwards, but perhaps MI6 were too concerned about the sources they were operating in Pakland.

It’s also worth noting the current or previous Afg army chief was trained at RMAS in the 1960s.

The real issue about deployment to Helmand is not the fevered conversational imaginings but what was the intelligence assessment? The anecdotes seem to be that there wasn’t very much unprocessed information never mind intelligence. And as a pointed out before UK’s first choice was Kandahar, but the Canucks got in first. Still with a bit of luck it might be only a dozen years before the briefing papers are released by NAK. At the moment there seems to be a lot of axe grinding, rumour mongering, dodgy journalism and not a lot of reliable fact.

Re Malaya, the key intelligence operators were the Colonial Police Special branch, they were ace operators, particularly at recruiting CT sources. And anybody who thinks sustained ambushing for weeks on end in difficult conditions is a piece of piss needs to get real. There was first class soldiering by Gurkha and Brit infantry. Malaya was not an easy victory as some seriously under-informed folk seem to think. Of course all COIN is different and the US attempts to replicate Malaya in Vietnam were a failure, which is probably what really got up their noses. That said the US was not a colonial power in SVN so didn’t control all the strings, hence the Malayan solution was never a runner. However, UK has a lot of other COIN success from which useful lessons can doubtless be drawn. It useful to remember that another notable Gunner, Gubbins, head of SOE, wrote the seminal work on partisan warfare in the 1930s based on his experience as an intelligence officer in Ireland.

This of course leads to NI. What enabled the reduction in roulement units was not the RUC, it was 10 battalions of the UDR most on FTD and with a significant proportion of ex-regular soldiers. But more importantly it was army intelligence that contributed most to containing and wearing down PIRA, most of the RUC SB product wasn’t even good rumour (internment being the opening clue).

November 10, 2014 10:27 am


Yes at the moment a lot of the comment and interviews and books coming out are related to a certain amount of cover your own ass and blame someone else.

My instinct is to believe the political side of the argument who are saying they were persuaded by military advice that it was a relatively low risk medium size deployment well within our capabilities. Not by the side which is saying we always said we did not have enough resources and we should never have gone, (particularly as they tend to still be anonymous).

The Dutch went in on one side, the Canadians on the other, both the Dutch and Canadians got to a point and said we have done our fair share and it is an Alliance responsibility so we are going home, and both the Dutch and the Canadians went in with a 3-4,000 force and came out with a 3-4,000 force. they adapted what they tried to do to match their resources and capabilities. The British tried to fight a rolling 6 month new campaign and when they could not deliver VICTORY, demanded more men.

Malaya was a success but it was a different world, The Imperial British Empire force peaked at 40,000 combat troops on the ground pulling on forces from Fiji, Australia, Rhodesia as well as the UK. You are right that is on top of the large numbers of colonial police. Over the 12 years of the campaign we simultaneously fought a war in Korea, fought an insurgency in the Canal zone then pulled out, then invaded Egypt, fought an insurgency in Kenya, fought an insurgency in Cyprus. We were still doing low level policing in Arabia and most of Africa and at least planned for the contingency of invading Iran to protect Abadan.

The military chiefs and some of the politicians but also a lot of the Media like to think we can independently wield power as if it was 1954 not 2014.

There is a story to be told as to how the Alliance decision was made to roll the ISAF forces into the South in 2006-7 was taken in 2005. With hindsight, it was other nations trying to be seen to be doing “something” while avoiding helping the US in Iraq, but once we got beyond that what was the objective?

There is then a story about adequate force and timing, you are right we got Helmand because the Canadians got Kandahar, but also logically because we had volunteered to be responsible for Drug eradication and Helmand produced most of the poppy crop. The initial force was sold to the politicians as adequate, partly because the military knew we it was about the maximum that could be provided while still committed to Iraq.

The Yanks were not paying attention because they were fully stretched in Iraq but also from their point of view southern Afghanistan was OK as a hunting ground for Special Forces and if various milita sold some drugs that was of secondary importance.

November 10, 2014 1:19 pm

About the Bassingbourn fiasco, I wonder if the problem wasn’t the selection process more than anything. Did we get lumbered with the people someone wanted to get rid of?

November 10, 2014 2:14 pm

Regarding Iraq and Afghan (both after my time serving so I don’t profess first-hand knowledge), was not the real mistake to assume ‘job done’ by 2002-03 and take the eye off the Afghan ball by starting GW2? Rather like stopping a course of antibiotics half-way through if you feel better.

November 10, 2014 2:56 pm

: the initial engagement in Afghan was won using proxy forces. They have their advantages (low cost, far better local knowledge) and disadvantages (not under complete control and hence will at times commit atrocities, potentially can drag us into local disputes, will not effect genuine local change if that is what is required), but 2001-2002 there was a lot of talk about how the Afghans hated foreigners and how our footprint should be kept light for just this reason. SF and enablers wouldn’t cripple the US Armed Forces to provide :-)

On the other hand, the US has been keen on getting rid of Saddam for a long time previous (Iraq Liberation Act 1998), and the only way of doing this was clearly a conventional invasion since all the sneaky beaky stuff had failed repeatedly. Personally, I still see Iraq as a success, since it still meets the minimum criteria for such, as it is no longer a threat to it’s neighbours, who are probably quite quite relieved that this Shia state is now acting as a buffer for them against IS. It could have been much more of course, acting as a powerful example of a sorta-working state against IS and the Iranian’s, not to mention much of the Gulf, but that was all casually thrown away in 2009.

Given the background, I would have said keeping Afghan under SF care and maintenance seemed to be the right decision at the time.

November 10, 2014 4:27 pm
Reply to  wf

– yes, thank you – although without the attention on GW2, might we not have nipped resurgence in the bud sooner?

Sure, Dubya wanted to finish his Daddy’s unfinished business. However, I recall the longstanding British policy of C18/C19 of “maintaining the balance of power in Europe”. Were not Iraq and Iran providing some sort of balance of power in their region, which the aftermath of GW2 overturned?

November 10, 2014 5:03 pm

: I doubt we would have committed extra forces in Afghan before we did anyway, primarily because of the desire to “keep a light footprint”. It’s hard to suddenly decide your strategy is either wrong or that you wanted a more complete “nation building exercise”. A lot of the push for the Afghan escalation came from the anti-war side of the house declaring Afghan the “noble” war unlike “neo-con” Iraq. If we weren’t in Iraq, those same people would be crying back in 2005 we should get out of Afghan.

I do think you have a point about the balance of power, but I doubt Saddam would have lasted much more than another decade post 2003. The fate of a similar minority based Baath government in Syria says otherwise. In this case, Iraq 2015 might look rather like now, but without the wholesale bloodletting that Al-Quaeda suffered in 2005-2008, which might have impacted us at home.

November 10, 2014 6:16 pm

The most effective training of foreign troops effected by British forces in the long run, as I see it, was the training of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s Arab Legion. If you want to train foreign forces British officers and NCOs train the officers and NCOs of the force in situ while leading the foreign forces. When the trainers/commanders deem the units, all the way down to the troop level and up to the local officers/NCOs, the trainers/commanders can turn those units over to local control and withdraw. The cost of maintaining the British officers/NCOs would be borne by the foreign government.

Really, it’s the only way I can see it working out.

November 11, 2014 9:27 am

@ Dan Actually the Dutch in Oruzgan were assisted by some 1500 Australians, and not just the sacred ‘special forces’ so popular with Aust pollies*. I’m happy to be corrected but I think the tactic in Oruzgan was to start from a firm base then expand outwards, not deploy in lots of smallish groups and try to locally dominate. There’s a discussion to be had on these differing tactics, but as I understand it the government situation in Helmand demanded an early dispersion of forces.

@ Kent, possibly, but the Arab Legion was directly commanded by Brits who were properly seconded, and had the full support of the King. Oman was similar and the result much the same. The problem in Afg is that they’re trying to build a large army from scratch, apart from having some western trained senior officers, although Soviet trained middle rankers are also available**. I tend to the view that there hasn’t been enough time to complete the job, but withdrawal has been dictated by US political time-lines not sound military judgement.

*SF currently newly deployed to Iraq to train Iraqis, a job that could be done by a large cadre of any infantry battalion, but the pollies love SF, UK does it better, they’ve trained the pollies never to discuss SF deployments and hence they aren’t a political willy waving stunt.

** An example of lack of understanding, Aust took the lead in training Afg arty, the Sov trained Afghans insisted that particular gunnery detail had to be done as per the Soviet book, the Aust instructors who had no familiarity with Sov arty methods insisted otherwise, no meeting of minds, neither side understood the underlying reason for the Sov teaching and hence persuade the Afgs to do the sensible Aust/Brit thing! (Which for those of us who had been in the arty int biz was blindingly obvious – all to do with the Sov method of battalion concentrations but inapplicable to battery fire).

November 11, 2014 11:44 am

Kent, Obsvr

The Arab Legion was trained by the British for the British. When Britain pulled out, the main Hashemite kingdom had been conquered by the Kingdom, Iraq had been carved out as state with a Hashemite King, but there was no correspondence between the population make up and the beduin recruitment base of the Legion. Jordan it had to be…
– Oman was a close corollary, using tried out experience (from the above, but in a different age). As the bedouin population base was not directly applicable, a lot of the recruitment for the “local” forces was actually done in Baluchistan… The feudal lands of the Omani rulers from the times when they ruled over the waves in those waters.

November 11, 2014 12:55 pm

I’ll accept the Dutch were reinforced by 1500 Aussies, but they did not need 15,000 USMC, their original plan and our original plan were similar start from a small firm base and then expand outwards.

The issue is within 3 weeks of arrival we had sent penny packets of 3 Para out to various small towns well North of the original planned area. Yes we were under pressure from the new Governor to do it, and he expected support because the British Embassy had pushed very hard to have his predecessor removed (he was a corrupt drug smuggling thug, but he tended to keep the peace). Our protégé Mohammed Daud, lasted only till December 2006 before he was replaced anyway.

The history of how that decision was taken is one of the critical parts of what went wrong.

June 2006 we are still barely finished unpacking, In Political terms UK Defence Minister has just changed with Reid moving to the Home Office.
Ed Butler is on the ground in Helmand and under pressure from the new Governor, he has 2 separate chains of Command, one to ISAF in Kabul, via a Canadian General in Kandahar at this time another Brit, Gen David Richards, and one back to the UK and PJHQ.

Everyone now blames everyone else as to how the decision was taken.
Butler view is he was excluded from the initial planning of the deployment, he now makes clear he was clear the deployed force was inadequate for the mission. The problem is either he did not believe in the mission as given to him, but thought he knew better and was going to try and perform a different mission which he knew required more resources than he had, or the mission and the objective was clear but the initial lead for the deployment did not believe it could be delivered but was under pressure to expand it from day 1 and did not have adequate support from the political or military chain of command to say no.

November 12, 2014 7:33 am

And it would seem that the NL/AS combo was nowhere near the trouble attractor that UK was. AS cas were 10% of UK ‘s for a force 20% of the size. And it wasn’t because AS could duck faster!

November 12, 2014 8:20 am

A pretty good piece IMO with heaps of insight from a former political adviser !

Politicians, senior military and civil servants should each accept their share of responsibility, rather than colluding with one of the others,
and the media, in blaming the third. The senior military were equal partners in the failings in pre-deployment planning; and after deployment, they were equally slow to grasp the full implications of the new reality – including the rising threat from improvised explosive devices. They lost sight of strategy in their determination to ‘crack on’ and the consequent obsession with troop numbers. They must also
take their share of responsibility for the deteriorating relations with ministers.

November 12, 2014 11:39 am


Thanks for posting that; it is an interesting read. As a bystander, its difficult to assess the piece though as he was a politically connected insider and worse wrt the key 2005/6 process more connected to Brown’s Treasury (anti-Blair camp) at the key phases than to the actual process. As we know, the Blair/Brown government was politically dysfunctional in any case, and his analysis appears to highlight big disconnects between the FO, DFID, MOD, NATO, USA plus whatever impact the different international outlook/interests between the big beasts in No10 and No11, even if this is hardly touched up (and impacted a later phase of the deployment).

The other big question untouched is just why were the Lessons from Iraq not put into an Afghan context ? Perhaps one answer might be that the “system” (ie UK politicians plus MoD plus Army) had yet to appreciated ?

November 12, 2014 1:28 pm

About the Bassingbourn fiasco, I wonder if the problem wasn’t the selection process more than anything. Did we get lumbered with the people someone wanted to get rid of?

If I remember something similar happened with the ANA in the early days (maybe the ANP?) It was seen as a convenient system of free residential care for Cousin Ahmed, who was a bit thick/ a smack addict/ actually disabled in some non-obvious way.

November 14, 2014 7:38 am

“the last time we had our arses handed to us was the Boer War, the Indian Mutiny and Crimea War”

H’mm, knowledge of military history seems a tad flaky.

Crimea – the last gasp of the army that defeated Napoleon. Decades of peace caught up coupled with year round fighting instead of retiring to winter quarters. That said the tools to successfully conduct a siege against a well fortified position weren’t there either.

Indian Mutiny, definitely 2/10 for history on that one. The mutiny was by local troops employed by the HEIC, as were most of the European infantry and artillery. Horseguards/WO (not sure which ran the Brit Army at that time) had nothing to do with it. The Brit officer corps of the HEIC obviously had a few flakes but on the whole the standard was high. Given the size of India and no modern communications, hence counter-mutiny activities relied on the initiative of local commanders went better than might have been expected. Brit Army troops duly arrived, their high point was the sacking of Delhi, the last such event in British Army history (some might think ‘more’s the pity – I’ve have no doubt that some modern Brit squaddies would be excellent at sacking a city). After the war the Indian units came under command of the imperial govt of India and the European units became part of the Brit Army, the infantry becoming Irish regiments, which was pretty fair given the high proportion of Irish in these units.

Boer War, went pretty well until the Boers, having been conventionally defeated, adopted new tactics. This required the creation of mounted infantry to counter the Boer mounted commandos. Obviously teaching the Brit infantry horsemanship was not a quick solution. The veterinary statistics showed that RT’s lot were crap at horse management in the conditions of S Africa (the high veldt grass is not greatly nutritious), but the Gunners were good at it. Hence field arty was converted to mounted infantry. Not the perfect solution but that and other fairly innovative practices eventually enabled Roberts (formerly of the Bengal Artillery and at the sacking of Delhi) to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

I suspect in a few decades when the sound of grinding axes recedes a similarly balanced view of Afg will emerge.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
November 15, 2014 1:39 am

– well said…the last time we actually had our arses handed to us was Castillion in 1453,and Calais in 1558; subsequently we have lost a fair few battles, and some campaigns…and in some cases mounted punitive expeditions but then subsequently failed to impose a peace that suited us… but as far as I know we have lost no full-scale wars at all…

The thing people really should have been alert to was that the punitive expedition with the least satisfactory result was the First Afghan War…because we tried to re-order the “government” thereof in the course of it…an error we avoided in 1878-80 and 1919, but not more recently…


November 15, 2014 11:02 am

@ GNB, your history is a tad flaky (well utter crap really). 1st Afghan War was nothing to do with punitive expeditions. It was all about the ‘Great Game’ (not soccer either), the competition with Russia for influence/dominance in Central Asia. Tactically the War was a British failure resulting is the loss of a British and some Indian infantry battalions, with their families ending up in the slave markets of Central Asia (probably the last Britons to become slaves). Taking the strategic perspective the war was actually reasonably successful in that the Russians did not end up dominating Afghanistan in the 19th C, which was the goal of a permanent Brit presence exercising some control on the Afghan govt, although there is doubtless an argument that this outcome would have happened anyway. Still, if you live among a nation of masochists I guess the traditional view plays better, of course I was born a southerner and hence take a positive view.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
November 16, 2014 12:02 am

– I would have described the first half of the First Afghan War as an effort embed a government there that was friendly to us, but which did not necessarily find favour with the population, and the second half as a (successful) punitive expedition in reaction to loss of Elphinstone’s Army…which did recover at least some of those captives still in reach…certainly, it set down a marker for the Afghans as to our willingness to take them on if we needed to…might even have done the same in respect of the Russians, although it did not check their southward advance which continued for the next twenty or thirty years. In Great Game Terms, I’d argue that after it ended both sides had played a pretty bloody innings, but were only two days in too a five-day test…a dubious analogy, obviously, with three sides in play…