Unwinnable: Britain’s war in Afghanistan, 2001–2014

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Bodley Head
ISBN 9781847923462

Reviewed by Lar Joye

A story is told of a British Army regimental commander in the early 2000s meeting a group of Afghan elders who gave out to him for burning down their local market-place. Returning to his HQ, he demanded to know what idiot had burnt down the market-place in light of his strict instructions that they had to win the hearts and minds of the locals. No one knew what he was talking about until a young corporal suggested, ‘I think we burnt it down in 1879, sir’.

In this authoritative book Professor Theo Farrell, son of Professor Brian Farrell (1929–2014) and brother to Professor David Farrell of UCD, surveys the thirteen years that the British Army spent in Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2014, which failed to stop a Taliban resurgence and lost 456 soldiers, with another 2,187 wounded in action, at a cost of £37 billion. The British Army had previously fought there in the First Afghan War (1839–42), the Second Afghan War (1878–80) and the Third Afghan War (May–August 1919), but in 2001 they came as NATO allies of the United States after the 9/11 attacks. As Professor Farrell suggests, they should probably have quit while they were ahead, by the end of 2002, when the al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban had been defeated and a new government installed. Although Afghanistan has been described as the ‘graveyard of empires’, it should be remembered that it was two world wars that ended the British Empire, while it was decades of economic decline that ended the Soviet Empire, although their Afghanistan war did cost them 50,000 soldiers killed out of the 625,000 who served there over ten years.

From 2006 until 2014 a brigade of the British Army—roughly 6,000–8,000 soldiers—would rotate every six months in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Bizarrely, each brigade came up with different plans and objectives and fought in different ways every six months. This meant that there was no political oversight or strategic plan developed and led by British politicians, beyond maybe wanting to be the senior partner in US-led wars.

As with many wars, there were mistakes and setbacks at the beginning. Early tactics focused on firepower to defeat the Taliban, which of course drove locals into the arms of the insurgents. This meant that many towns in Helmand did become bombed-out and deserted former market towns. A decision in 2007 to eradicate the opium poppy crop provoked a general uprising. There was a failure of basic military intelligence to understand who the Taliban where and the often-complex local tribal network. Unlike the US Army, the British Army lacked the equipment to do the job,especially helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles. Furthermore, the British Army had never intended nor were equipped to fight two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, British military planners adopted the ‘let’s muddle through’ attitude which has often been reflected in British military history. Later tours focused on winning over the local population and supporting British civilian advisers and redevelopment projects. At the same time, the Taliban moved from frontal attacks to smaller ambushes, sniper fire and the very effective IED (improvised explosive device).

The focus of the United States from 2003 to 2009 was the war in Iraq, with the intention of offloading responsibility for Afghanistan onto NATO. This led to a coalition of many European countries, some with a peacekeeping tradition, others with a war-fighting tradition. It was the election of President Obama that led to a proper strategy and the development of a disengagement plan. He believed that Afghanistan was a war of necessity and Iraq a misguided war of choice. Before 2009 the mission moved aimlessly along but by 2010 the British Army and its NATO allies had begun to win the counter-insurgency war at a tactical and local level, especially owing to a revolution in surveillance systems.

They were not, however, able to convert these ‘tactical gains into strategic success’. Professor Farrell argues that at a strategic level the divided nature of Afghanistan, the corruption of its government, US ally Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and a lack of support back home meant that the war was unwinnable. Indeed, there are many similarities with the conduct of the Vietnam war, where the United States failed to hold its ally, the South Vietnamese government, to ‘account for their corruption’. Interestingly, that was a war in which a more confident British government felt no need to participate.

What makes this book different from theindustry of books about the British Army in Afghanistan is that it looks not only at the fighting units and the big operations against the Taliban but also at the policy-makers, the politicians, NATO generals, Afghan leaders and the Taliban. Professor Farrell has previously published on the war in Afghanistan, in particular his research into the Taliban with fellow Irishman Michael Semple, former EU representative there. The one criticism I have of the book is that it lacks a detailed chronology and a breakdown of all the units involved and their commanders.

In the end the US army spent $686 billion and lost 2,352 soldiers,whileNATO lost 684 soldiers. There is no official death-toll for civilians, but records started in 2007 suggest that 25,000 civilians died up to 2014. Recently the Taliban have had a number of successes but cannot take over the whole country. Consequently, Afghanistan’s future looks uncertain; it would be easy to say that the West does not have a role, but Russia, the West, Iran, India and Pakistan would appear to be always involved there. Afghanistan is less the destroyer of empires than a country encircled by too many.

Lar Joye is Heritage Officer, Dublin Port.


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