British soldiers engage the Taliban

Our soldiers didn’t die in vain

446 British lives were lost not for Afghanistan’s reconstruction but to kill violent Islamic extremists

As our final year of combat engagement approaches, the experts and activists are eager to dismiss as pointless the 446 British military deaths in Afghanistan. This perspective arises from a combination of delusional anti-war dogma, the innate ambiguity of unconventional
warfare and the failure of successive governments to explain the reality of the Afghanistan conflict.

British soldiers engage the Taliban
British soldiers engage the Taliban

We have recently seen efforts, especially in government circles, to justify the 13-year campaign on the basis of social and economic development, equal opportunities and saving the integrity of Afghanistan as a nation. This is the logical progression of the John
Reid miscalculation, in which he and his Ministry of Defence advisers presented the launch of the Helmand campaign as an exercise in economic reconstruction with the hope that we would leave within three years “without firing one shot”. A false prospectus engendered by intelligence failure and a politically correct desire not to be seen to use military force for the purpose for which it exists.

Of course the expenditure of vast combat resources to improve the lives of people in Afghanistan can be justified, in the same way as massive aid to Pakistan can be justified, if they are judged to be sufficiently in our national interest to warrant the burden on the
British taxpayer.

But forfeiture of soldiers’ lives in battle avowedly may not be justified on such a basis.

Tomorrow the nation’s solemn mourning at the cenotaph in Whitehall, at thousands of war memorials up and down the country and among the fighting troops in Helmand will remind us of how sacred the lives of our soldiers, sailors and airmen truly are, including
that of Sergeant Major Ian Fisher, killed in action in Helmand only a few days ago.

Asking a soldier to lay down his life can only be justified in the cause of national survival, to defend our people from the depredations of a violent enemy or to protect the lives of others in the name of humanity.

How does the campaign in Afghanistan measure up under this morally inviolable canon?

Like the fighting between forces of the British and Ottoman Empires in Palestine in 1917, raging 96 years ago this week, Afghanistan is but a campaign in a much wider war. In this case, the Global War on Terror, a name that is despised by the politically correct who prefer to wish away the idea that we might have to actually fight to defend ourselves.

Like the Kaiser and his Central Powers, the worldwide al-Qaeda network and its allies are intent on violently imposing their expansionist ideology.

For Britain, the Great War was a huge national effort directly affecting every single person and every aspect of the national life for four years. The battles were potent clashes of vast industrialised armies, each inflicting many thousands of casualties.

The War on Terror is very different. A tiny minority of the people in this country are involved in the fight, and few others are in any way affected beyond the irritation of a pat down at Gatwick airport. This war lacks the public focus of the First World War, leading to a tendency to regard it as a less important conflict. With militant Islam’s bloodthirsty agenda to subjugate huge swathes of the world to its barbaric medieval reign, history may well judge the opposite to be true.

In the mind-numbing machine-age warfare of 1914-18, the greatest military commanders on both sides failed to break the vicious deadlock of the trenches. But the costly attritional fighting eventually paid off when the German will — both at home and at the front — was
broken and the Kaiser’s adventurism defeated.

Blinded as they are by the fashionable manoeuvre theory of warfare, you will not hear military experts say so, but the War on Terror is also, unavoidably, a war of attrition. There is no political answer to religious fanatics who live by an ideology of mass slaughter. Those
who shrink from the idea of forceful confrontation with violent extremism convince themselves that there are unending waves of jihadist mercenaries ready to surge forward, marching eagerly into the shoes of the dead.

That is far from the truth. Islam is not dominated by fanatics, ready to shoulder a Kalashnikov or strap on a suicide vest. There are not limitless recruits to the cause. As Brigadier Rupert Jones, who has just finished commanding the British Task Force in Helmand, said recently: “The average Afghan wants fundamentally the same thing that all of our families want. They want peace and stability and they want to be able to generate a livelihood to be able to look after their family.”

Non-military measures such as counter-radicalisation and diplomatic action with countries whose policies encourage extremism are essential tools, but elimination of extremist fighters — especially their leaders — is the only decisive means of combating global Islamist terrorism.

Many argue that killing or capturing enemy fighters is a recruiting sergeant for extremism  and should be minimised or avoided. I was once upbraided by the Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee who was “uncomfortable” about my proposal that
the MoD publishes enemy casualty figures in Afghanistan as well as our own. I believed it important that people on the home front knew that killing in Helmand was not just one way, as MoD reporting suggested. This does not mean we should glory in our enemies’ deaths nor that we should treat them other than with proper respect. The callous murder in 2011 of a wounded Afghan insurgent by a Royal Marines Sergeant, found guilty yesterday, horrifies us and violates the battlefield morality and humanitarian restraint for which British troops are renowned. Incidents like this, though thankfully very rare, undoubtedly play into the hands of extremists, as the judge advocate in the Marine’s court martial acknowledged when he refused to release a video recording of the killing, fearing retaliation against British troops.

Understandable fury also results from events such as a German U-boat sinking the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 or the accidental bombing of an Afghan wedding party.

But how often in history has the lawful killing of combatants provoked large-scale public outrage?

Attrition by drone strike in the Pakistan Tribal Areas has proved spectacularly successful against al-Qaeda’s central organisation, which is now fighting for its very survival.

In Afghanistan British forces have killed and captured extremist fighters in very large numbers. For example, a battalion from my own regiment, the 1st Royal Anglians, killed an estimated 100 enemy fighters for every one of the nine soldiers they themselves lost.
Among these were international mercenaries from around the world, including Britain.

Had they survived, not all of those killed would have posed a threat beyond Afghanistan’s borders, but many undoubtedly would.

Jihadists in Afghanistan have come up against the best trained, best led troops in the world, heavily armed, well protected, always ready to attack and supported by the most sophisticated surveillance and air power. In every fight they have been soundly defeated.

For many of these fanatics the next step might well have been to blow up vulnerable men, women and children on the streets of our cities where the fight would have gone a very different way.

The former Director-General of MI5, Sir Jonathan Evans, made clear that British citizens are safer from terrorism because of what he described as the heroic work of our forces in Afghanistan. Once dead or imprisoned, a jihadist leader cannot organise a Tube bombing in London, decapitate an off-duty soldier or blow multiple airliners out of the sky. Economic development, building highways, opening girls’ schools, encouraging democracy; these are all important means of supporting a counter-insurgency campaign and have been valuable by-products of British military engagement. Not one of them, however, is worth the life of a single British soldier.

The Government may not like to admit it, but in Helmand our forces’ most vital work has been to kill and capture extremists.

Tomorrow, therefore, we must honour the 446 British troops killed in Afghanistan, just as we remember the one million killed in the Great War. Although separated by 100 years, they made the ultimate sacrifice, valiantly defending their families and countrymen in
exactly the same way as their forefathers. Although the fighting in Helmand has been far from home and often abstruse, we must not allow modish doubts about the value of these soldiers’ heroic deaths to dishonour them.

Even though our Forces will withdraw next year, the Afghan campaign and the Global War on Terror are far from over. Great Britain was the one nation that never buckled under the crushing burden of four years of unprecedented slaughter during the First World War. If we allow our national resolve against Islamist terrorism to weaken in the coming years, we will not only endanger our citizens but also betray the sacrifice of those who fell fighting for us in Afghanistan.

Published in The Times, 9 November 2013. © Richard Kemp