No politicians have experience of war. But the generals don’t have much either

President Obama’s former adviser on Afghanistan, Bruce Riedel, says the British army’s performance in Afghanistan means it can’t fight outside Europe in future.

He has a point. British military effectiveness in Afghanistan was undermined by political correctness. When our forces went to Helmand in 2006 the focus was more on reconstruction and human rights than fighting insurgents. This should have been challenged by the generals, whose job is to wield robust military influence over politicians in war time.

The usual charm and compliance of the senior officer will not do when so many lives are at stake. Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff, clashed repeatedly with Churchill during the Second World War.

There is no evidence of anything like that over Afghanistan. Yet today it is even more important that generals do not take political misjudgement lying down. None of today’s senior politicians has any experience of war. Unfortunately, that is largely true of the generals as well. Most of their experience — at best — came from Northern Ireland. The lack of urgency in that 30-year policing campaign created a peacetime mentality ill-suited to the high intensity combat in Helmand.

Lesson from history: Alan Brooke and Churchill in Normandy, 12 June 1944
Lesson from history: Alan Brooke and Churchill in Normandy, 12 June 1944

No thought was given, for example, to switching military industries on to a war footing so that they could produce better armoured vehicles to prevent troops dying in inadequate ones designed for a different conflict. The lightning-fast dispatch of the task force to the Falklands in 1982 — unthinkable today — was driven by Admiral Sir Henry Leach, who had fought in the Second World War. Under his guidance, Margaret Thatcher refused to let the chancellor attend war cabinet meetings so that military operations were not judged on cost grounds. The opposite was true in Afghanistan, with the Treasury dominating much of the decision-making.

Politicians love to flex their military muscles on the world stage, but are unwilling to pay for it. Too often they believe that — like so much else in politics — spin can replace reality. This leads to the tokenism that we saw in the Helmand deployment and are seeing again in the fight against Islamic State. It undermines our credibility, with allies and enemies alike, and it costs fighting men their lives.

Article published in The Times, 24 October 2014. © Richard Kemp