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;
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?