Deborah Haynes, Anthony Loyd, Sam Kiley, Tom Coghlan / The Times – 2010-06-16 00:58:44
The Officers’ Mess: Military Chiefs Blamed for Blundering into Helmand with “Eyes Shut and Fingers Crossed”
LONDON (June 9, 2010) — Military chiefs and civil servants ignored warnings that Britain was ill prepared to send troops to Helmand and signed off a deeply flawed plan, a succession of senior figures have told The Times.
Even those in charge of the deployment admit that the decision to go to southern Afghanistan in 2006, which has cost the lives of nearly 300 servicemen and women, was a gamble and that mistakes were made because of poor intelligence. They insist, however, that the operation was justified to revitalise the NATO mission, combat the Taleban and reassert Britain’s military prowess after setbacks in Iraq.
But a two-month investigation by The Times, which includes interviews with 32 senior military, political and Civil Service figures, reveals that there was deep disquiet over the handling of the mission from the start.
Top ranks within the Ministry of Defence and other Whitehall departments are accused of:
* grossly underestimating the threat from the Taleban;
* ignoring warnings that planned troop numbers were inadequate;
* offering only the military advice they thought ministers wanted to hear;
* signing off on a confused command- and-control structure.
The allegations come as a critical defence review gets under way and David Cameron decides how to plot the way ahead in Afghanistanâ€™s most dangerous province.
One senior serving officer who asked not to be named said of the planning stage: “There was institutional ignorance and denial. We who had bothered to put a bit of work in and had done the estimate realised that we needed much more than we were being given.”
Another source, in government at the time, said that the military was pushing hard for the mission despite warnings that preparations were inadequate. “The advice to ministers grossly underestimated the risks,” he said. “The few people who were doubters were either too cowardly or too cautious to say what they really thought.â€
Major-General Andrew Mackay, a former commander of British troops in the province who has left the Army, accused the military of being too acquiescent in rolling over to political bidding. “The genesis of this approach is born of complacency, the thought that ‘we can deal with it as and when it happens.’ It resulted, I believe, in the upper echelons of government going into Helmand with their eyes shut and their fingers crossed. For those who fought and died or suffered injuries in that period, this proved a very costly means of conducting counterinsurgency.”
In January 2006, John Reid, then the Defence Secretary announced that Britain was sending 3,300 troops to Helmand on a stabilisation mission that would last three years and cost Â£1 billion. Within weeks the troops were fighting for their lives, reinforcements were rushed in and costs skyrocketed.
Four years later, 20,000 US Marines are based in Helmand alongside 8,000 British Forces. The British death toll rose to 293 yesterday after another soldier was shot dead.
The Special Air Service was one of the first to raise the alarm.
Its report after a foray into Helmand in the summer of 2005 said that replacing the small, well-funded US mission in Lashkar Gah with a larger, under-funded British one was likely to create trouble. “They noted that there wasn’t much of an insurgency in Helmand, but that if you wanted one then send the British there,” said an officer who has seen the report.
Mark Etherington, a development expert who helped write the cross-government plan for Helmand, said: “It was clear from the outset in my view that there had been a radical underestimation of the challenge.”
Reporting back to the Cabinet Office, his team recommended further intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. “But there was a real sense of the clock ticking, that ‘the Minister is jolly keen to get into Helmand — donâ€™t bring me bad news, bring me good news.’.”
Countering the criticism, Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fry, one of the main architects of the move south, said: “We felt that time was slipping through our fingers in Afghanistan. We had a campaign that was running out of steam, we had an insurgency which was gathering pace and we had a central government that was going from bad to worse. The strategic objective was the resuscitation of the Afghan campaign and by any standard that has been achieved.”
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