A war in search of a raison d’être.

The revelation that British troops are in Afghanistan simply to ‘keep busy’ exposes the surrealism of a disastrous war.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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It would be fair to say that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles knows quite a bit about the Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan. He was the British ambassador in Afghanistan between May 2007 and April 2009. And then he became special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan before leaving his post in June last year. So when he says that the reason for the British army’s continued presence in the region has less to with any military objectives than with simply giving the army something to do, it’s a criticism to be reckoned with.

Cowper-Coles’s comments were made as part of written supplementary evidence given to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last November, but they were only released on Thursday. Coming from a critic of the war, it might be possible for the Foreign Office to brush them aside, but coming from a semi-insider, that’s not so easy. Cowper-Coles writes that the Afghan War gave the army ‘a raison d’être it had lacked for years and resources on an unprecedented scale’. It is this, the unprecedented availability of resources, he says, that drove the strategy in Helmand and not an ‘objective assessment of the needs of a proper counter-insurgency campaign in the province’.

These aren’t just Cowper-Coles’s observations; he even quotes the then head of the British army, Sir Richard Dannatt, from a 2007 conversation. Apparently, Dannatt told Cowper-Coles that unless he used the battle groups freed up with the cessation of operations in Iraq, many of those battle groups would be lost. It didn’t matter that they might not be needed or that they were unsuitable: we’ll use them or we’ll lose them, that was the logic.

Not to be left out, the Royal Air Force also joined in the scrabble for resources. However, as Cowper-Coles reports, the request for more Tornados, a type of ground-attack jet, was difficult to justify given that the one thing NATO had said it did not need were ground-attack jets.

All in all, it’s a damning portrait of the British military. Afghanistan seems to feature as little more than a pretext for any number of internal demands, be it for more personnel or more equipment. As for the troops themselves, the Afghan conflict appears as little more than an opportunity to keep them busy, a form of military exercise for the proper war that never comes. It’s absurd and, given the wretched state in which Afghanistan now finds itself, tragic.

Yet the response to Cowper-Coles’s comments has been too limited to criticism of the army chiefs. In the Spectator, for instance, one commentator suggests that it shows that the army shouldn’t be trusted with military decisions: ‘This scrap is a harbinger of things to come when more and more people, from all political parties, including those with on-the-ground experience in Basra and Helmand, begin to question the leeway given to the military chiefs in the past.’ Army chiefs have behaved cynically and opportunistically, runs the criticism. They have abused the good faith of their political paymasters by extracting as much from them as possible, from useless jets to superfluous troops. Military strategy has been sacrificed for military funding. The tangible ends of conflict have been obscured by the scrabble for the unnecessary means of conflict.

No doubt army chiefs have behaved unscrupulously at points. Faced with an opportunity in the shape of the interminable Afghan War, they have tried to get as much from the British state as possible. Yet this opportunity, this interminable conflict, was not the connivance of resource-grubbing army bosses. And, more importantly, the lack of coherent strategic objectives was not a military failing. Rather, the military simply found itself in a mess of politicians’ making.

Or better still, the military found itself in a strategic vacuum of politicians’ making. From its launch in 2001, the war in Afghanistan has always been afflicted with a lack of tangible purpose, a lack of actual objectives. Aims were stated, of course, with unerring regularity, but they varied. At the start, it was a war against al-Qaeda. Then it was against the Taliban. In fact, so freighted by shifting objectives was the conflict, from liberating women to democratisation, that by 2006 it had even become part of an ‘anti-narcotics campaign’. More recently it has been characterised by both US president Barack Obama and then British prime minister Gordon Brown as a ‘war for security’, a sort of ‘war against terror’ but with the Bush-era shrillness taken down a notch.

This was probably why in response to Cowper-Coles, the UK Ministry of Defence sounded like it had merely spun the wheel of Afghan War justifications: ‘Alongside international forces from 48 other nations we are there to prevent al-Qaeda from again using Afghan territory to plot and launch terror attacks.’ A belli which would be more of casus if terror attacks were actually plotted and launched from within Afghanistan. Which as spiked has argued before, they are not.

It is this, then, the ever-more desperate search for a reason for the war in Afghanistan, that left the British army to search for its own raison d’être. It has created a conflict of brutal surreality, where the military means have become their own end.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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