Is a lack of political stamina to blame for the catastrophic failure of the West’s 20-year war in Afghanistan? Or, as Paul Dixon argues, did British generals spend decades spinning an unwinnable war as unlosable?

In 2017, Theo Farrell’s semi-official history of Britain’s war in Afghanistan was called Unwinnable. He argued that after the successful invasion in 2001 the West should have withdrawn because the war could not be won. By contrast, former military officers, some of whom have become Conservative MPs, are now arguing that the war was ‘winnable’ and blame defeat on ‘the politicians’.

Tom Tugendhat MP, who fought in the Iraq and Afghan wars and is the neoconservative Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told parliament on 18 August, “Those who have never fought for the colours they fly, should be careful about criticising those who have.” Tugendhat invoked the sacrifices of British soldiers in Afghanistan to argue that the UK needed to further increase its military strength to fight with other partners independently of the US. Britain and NATO had the endurance to remain in Germany for 46 years and, by implication, he argued, should have had the patience to remain in Afghanistan for a similar period.

Tugendhat has been described by the Financial Times as ‘extremely well plugged-in to senior military circles’. He was a close adviser to General David Richards, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan (2006-07) and went on to become head of the army (2009-10) and then the military (2010-13).

In 2010 Richards also argued for a commitment that could last 40 years, claimed, “The military are just about there, but the biggest problem has been ensuring that the governance and all the development side can keep up.”

His predecessor as Chief of the General Staff (2006-09) General Sir Richard (now also a Lord) Dannatt  has also pointed the finger of blame at the politicians and called for a Chilcot-style inquiry into the Afghan war. This would be no bad thing, but its findings might be no less comfortable for former generals than for their ministers.

An Afghanistan Inquiry?

The Chilcot Report (finally published in 2016) investigated the Iraq war, but it also cast light on Britain’s deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan in 2006. The Report concluded that the military elite had pursued beyond maximum military involvement in both the Iraq and Afghan wars. This was ‘beyond maximum’ because fighting the Iraq and then Afghan wars exceeded the ‘harmony guidelines’, which were supposed to protect the mental health of military personnel by limiting their deployments. A consequence of this is high and growing rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly among those who served in combat roles.

Military historian, Max Hastings, was distressed by Chilcot’s revelations which showed that the armed forces were not victims of Blair’s wars because senior soldiers were “panting” and “gagging” to wage both the Iraq and Afghan wars.

General Richards lobbied for maximum army involvement in Iraq. From 2006-10, he consistently claimed that victory over the Taliban was imminent. But in Taking Command, his 2014 memoir, he regarded the invasion as a ‘grand strategic error’ (p. 181, p. 186).

There was a perception in the military elite that if they did not use their assets, they would lose them: ‘use them or lose them’, as General Dannatt reportedly told the British Ambassador to Kabul in 2007.

In 2006, General Dannatt broke constitutional convention by publicly attacking the government. The head of the army blamed Prime Minister Tony Blair for creating a crisis in the military by committing it to simultaneously fight two wars.

By 2014, Lord Dannatt appeared to acknowledge that the military elite was responsible for advising the government that the UK could fight a war on two fronts. This was also confirmed in The Chilcot Report. Lord Dannatt, who aligned with the Conservative Party in 2009, has since reverted to deflecting blame for the crisis onto Labour politicians.

The sacrifice trap

In 2019, The Washington Post exposed the gap between the optimistic front stage presentation of the war and the backstage acknowledgement by policymakers that the war was unwinnable. Since 2006, like their British counterparts, ‘… US generals have almost always preached that the war is progressing well, no matter the reality on the battlefield’.

Rory Stewart, an Afghanistan expert and former Conservative MP and minister, courageously acknowledged the problem for politicians in expressing the truth about the Afghan war. The danger for the politicians was that you end up being ‘very polite’ rather than frank about failure in Afghanistan because the media can claim that your claim of failure disrespects those who died in the war. Being honest and “… remain[ing] alive in modern politics is quite difficult.”

Theo Farrell’s Unwinnable suggests that, in contrast to the military elite’s optimism, the reality was that by Summer 2009 there was plummeting British troop morale:

“. . . Soldiers were understandably terrified; some refused orders to advance or to go out on patrol, and cases of battle shock and non-battle casualties [such as soldiers reporting stomach ailments] shot through the roof. Back in Britain, military chiefs began to worry about the army breaking in Helmand. It did not break, but it came back battered.”

Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014 (2017), p.262, p.273.

NATO governments were anxious to conserve military lives, because of the political consequences of casualties. Casualties could also lead them into ‘The Sacrifice Trap’, where previous military sacrifices justified escalation and a ‘forever war’ of endless sacrifice in a vain search for victory, or at least to avoid the ignominy of retreat or defeat.

The 9/11 wars further increased the power of British and American military elites over their governments, partly because military casualties ensure the military a high profile. Public sympathy could be used by the military elite to evade government control over military operations.

In Brown in No. 10 (2011) Antony Seldon and Guy Lodge conclude of Gordon Brown’s Afghan policy: “It was a moot point whether Brown was shaping British policy or merely managing pressure from the services, and public opinion whipped up by the media.” (p.337)

General Richards boasted that his attitude towards seeking political clearance for military operations was, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, just do it’. Major General Christopher Elliott (retd.) quotes a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence who claims that General Dannatt said, ‘We need to be shedding more blood to show that we’re in there with the Americans.’

President Obama, and then Vice-President Biden, successfully fought off intense US military pressure in order to both surge – to pacify the military elite – but also to withdraw from combat by 2014, because there was little prospect of victory.

There should be a Chilcot-style inquiry into the Afghan war, but senior military officers and their allies, let alone those who sacrificed so much, may not like what they find.

Professor Paul Dixon is Visiting Professor, Birkbeck College, University of London and author of Warrior Nation: The Iraq and Afghan Wars and The Militarisation of British Democracy (ForcesWatch 2018).

For an expanded discussion of the issues of the British military’s contemporary political influence see his The British Military, Democracy and the Limits of ‘Legitimate Debate’ (April 2021).

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Photo Credit: British soldiers from the Royal Air Force Regiment take a break whilst on a combat mission near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, 02 Jan 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez).