By John McDermott
FT.com – 22 December 2015
The deployment of British military advisers to Helmand has revived bleak memories among Members of Parliament, for whom the decade-long conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan remains a source of deep frustration. The area around Sangin, where more than 100 members of the British military died, nearly a quarter of the UK’s total fatalities as part of the NATO operation which ended in 2014, is again in the headlines, as the Taliban threatens to take the strategically important town held by Afghan forces.
Although an MoD spokesperson stressed that the deployment announced on Tuesday was of 10 people to another part of Helmand – part of an overall advisory mission of about 450 troops – he conceded that the decision was “symbolic”, given Britain’s recent history in the region.
MP Crispin Blunt on Tuesday called for a
“full public inquiry into Afghanistan on the scale of the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq”.
The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said that
“our whole involvement in Afghanistan has been an unqualified disaster”,
“we are witnessing the tragic conclusion from a wretched misadventure in Helmand province”.
Adam Holloway said that the deployment of the military advisers was
“shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.
The former Army captain said the government’s decision spoke to a broader problem with British foreign policy.
“The big problem with all our efforts, everything we’ve done in the Middle East since 9/11, is that the only tool we use is our military, and we haven’t sought to understand that the primary problems are political problems. The Foreign Office and the MoD have the same problem in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. All of the military engagements are done without any understanding of on-the-ground realities,”
Mr Holloway said.
“In Helmand we rolled out an unwanted political framework at the point of foreign guns.”
Other MPs, however, felt that the response could be part of a more pragmatic approach than the one previously adopted by the UK.
Julian Lewis, who chairs the House of Commons Defence Committee, said that, when it came to deploying the UK military,
“you need to have a system that enables you to intervene in times and places of your own choosing without getting sucked into a war down among the people”.
“Government policy in Afghanistan has been either to do too much or too little. We used to do too much and then after we left in 2014, we did too little. We went from one extreme to another. What you need is a versatile, mobile, flexible force without getting sucked into a long campaign.”
Mr Lewis, one of seven Conservative MPs to vote against the government’s successful motion this month to win approval for air strikes against Isis in Syria, said that the approach in Helmand held lessons for that policy.
“The contrast couldn’t be greater with Syria”,
“where we are using air power without friendly forces [on the ground]. But here there are friendly [Afghan] forces and that should enable us to hold territory.”
Liam Fox, a former Defence Secretary, said:
“It is very clear that we would always want to maintain the ability to help in such circumstances and that we would continue to help the Afghan army in a mentoring role.”
A Number 10 spokesperson said that
“the deployment is in an advisory-only role – they are not ground forces”.