Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan is an explosive new book by former military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge, which examines the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and asks how and why it went so wrong. Here the author discusses his time in the armed forces, describing his personal realisation that senior military officers are fallible and that the British military operations in Afghanistan were lacking a coherent strategy.
Article by Frank Ledwidge
From the moment you join any military organisation, training is geared to hide the otherwise obvious fact that senior officers are human and subject to error. Military hierarchy is designed to cover very senior officers from very junior soldiers and officers in a fug of mystery. They exist only in headquarters into which even the brave intrude warily, surrounded by choirs of Sergeants Major and staff officers. Needless to say, as in any other profession, there comes a time when realisation dawns. My time came late.
Whilst practising in Liverpool as a Barrister, for a little adventure I joined the Royal Navy Reserves. After a couple of years learning the ways of the Royal Navy on small ships, I joined the intelligence branch. Soon after I was called up to serve in the Bosnian peacekeeping force and served two tours there hunting war criminals. There followed several months as a laughably named ‘ceasefire monitor’ during the Kosovo War. After that I went to Kosovo again as the only civilian ‘international’ (UN Mission member) in a town I had known well in the war. During the hot summer of 1999, I found myself in a tent just outside that town with two Dutch colonels and a German general. They had invited me to give my views on what should be done about a proposal for the Russian army to take over peacekeeping duties in that town from the Royal Netherlands Army. I gave my views and asked ‘general, what are you going to do?’. The general, a very capable airborne officer, sat back in his chair, took off his glasses and placed them on the rickety table, leant forward and put his head in his hands and took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know’ he said.
‘But wait a minute’, I thought. ‘This can’t be right. Generals know what to do.’ I had realised that, whisper who dares, generals are human and sometimes even admit not to knowing what to do. Such is the effect of military conditioning that this was a genuine revelation, arrived at admittedly rather late. Three years later I was called up to go to Iraq as part of one of the teams looking for WMD; literally looking in bunkers, deserted bases, huge arms dumps, universities and the Ziggurat of Ur (yes, with a ground-penetrating radar I hasten to add). This was an exercise in preserving a sense of duty since neither myself nor any of my men or women had any doubt there was nothing there to be found. You will be familiar with the results. I returned to a ‘day job’ as an advisor to a large international organisation on justice reform.
In 2007, I was offered the chance to go to Helmand as justice advisor to the UK Provincial Reconstruction Team. This was a war I believed in at the time. This was the ‘good war’ the one we could ‘win’, unlike the Iraq debacle. The Taliban were, I thought, little better than devils in human form; oppressors of women and fanatics. The British army would sort them out. After some months of gradual disillusion, of talking with real Helmandis, ‘unembedded’ journalists (they existed then), and Helmandi journalists, the feeling I had in the Kosovo field returned, and far more strongly. This was not simply the idea that senior military leaders had doubts. I had formed the view that it was far far worse than that. They were getting it terribly, terribly wrong.
Did they not know how we were viewed by these people amongst whom we worked? Couldn’t they see that at the best of times our military, my military were seen as irritating foreign occupiers? Yet these were not the best of times. Shockingly, to me, our generals –with one or two excellent exceptions – seemed to view the war they were fighting as some kind of ‘counterinsurgency’ desert replay of imagined victories in Malaya and the ‘Great Game’. There was the idea that somehow the deeply contextually specific skills developed and practiced in these old wars were part of some kind of metaphysical genetic military inheritance. There was only the haziest idea that those old campaigns were fought as part of well-thought out strategies of which every single soldier fighting them was fully aware. No such strategy existed here.
Returning home, I had been appointed head of my reserve unit, a group of outstanding, brilliant young and not so young Naval reservists and most importantly my friends. It was likely I would be called up to serve as a soldier in Helmand, and take a very operational role there. I could not in good conscience do so. With regret, but without chagrin in 2008 I retired from the Navy I loved and continue to love.
By the time I left Helmand, Iraq and the British presence there had also gone badly wrong. Yet what were we doing in two fiercely difficult simultaneous campaigns in the first place? Surely our senior command had advised that this was at least one mission too many? Researching the background to Losing Small Wars, interviewing officers, following the various parliamentary and other inquiries it has become clear that they had not. On the contrary, as Blair put it to the Iraq Inquiry ‘they were up for doing it’. Helmand had been seen as the campaign to make up for the disaster of Iraq. Our generals had failed in their duty to speak truth to power. Often physically very brave men had displayed a disastrous lack of moral courage. Losing Small Wars tells that story.
Frank Ledwidge served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq as a military intelligence officer and in Afghanistan as a civilian justice advisor. He is currently a lecturer for Kings College, London at the RAF College, Cranwell. Losing Small Wars is available now from Yale University Press.