Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Confusing efforts and effects – the British Army in Afghanistan

This morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 carried a piece by Sima Kotecha on the British Army’s efforts in Afghanistan, including interviews with some soldiers reflecting on what their work has achieved, if anything.

Given the restrictions on soldiers talking to the media, their identities were not revealed but the main points they made were:

  • The performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) did not give them a “warm and fuzzy feeling”;
  • ANA soldiers often appeared to be “going through the motions” and not fully understanding why they had to do things in a certain way;
  • ANA soldiers often displayed poor weapons discipline, slinging them over their backs;
  • Drug-taking was common, as were sexual relations between the ANA soldiers;
  • ANA soldiers were mainly interested in fighting, not the broader range of functions in which the deployed NATO forces have been engaged (i.e. establishing good relations with locals etc.);
  • The ANA lack the capabilities needed to maintain a presence in remote locations (i.e. medical evacuation helicopters, integrated surveillance systems etc.) so are more likely to pull back to the more easily defended bases;

Overall, their view was that Afghanistan is likely to revert to the way it was before NATO operations began in 2001.

Following the report, Brigadier Rupert Jones (the former Commander of the UK 1st Mechanized Brigade that deployed to Helmand last year) was interviewed (2hrs 43mins onwards) and asked to respond.

During the interview, rather than engage directly with the points made by the soldiers, Brigadier Jones repeatedly referred to the “enormous progress” that the ANA has made recently.  His argument appeared to be that lots of people have been trying really, really hard and that they should be praised accordingly. (I addressed this tactic in this post earlier today.)

This is a classic example of what I term, “defensive dissonance” and fails (or, truth be told, refuses) to address the issues raised, since it is perfectly possible for the Afghan forces to have made ‘enormous progress’ yet still fall far short of the capability and credibility needed to prevent any slide into chaos to take place just as the earlier soldiers feared.  Indeed, starting from such a low base, it is not surprising that the ANA has improved nor that local elders have been impressed by this (another of Brigadier Jones’s points).

Where defensive dissonance stalls further journalistic enquiry, it is frustrating. Where it blunts the desire to reveal poor performance, from learning ‘what happened’, it is unforgivable.

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