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Afghanhindsight on Afghan hindsight…

January 12, 2015

Summary: The joy of hindsight. A former UK Foreign Minister gives us a timely warning that the UK’s plan for deploying to Helmand might not be a good one…

Helmand: This my ground truth, tell me yours...

Helmand: I’m going where?!

You can’t really get more “Afghan hindsight” than this. A former UK Foreign Minister, Dr Kim Howells has declared at a House of Commons Defence Committee that the British strategy in Afghanistan – and specifically the British decision to move into Helmand province and their subsequent operations – was “completely bonkers”.

At the risk of being cynical, I guess that a mere five years after leaving Parliament and seven years after holding a ministerial position, it is a bit easier and less controversial to launch into an attack on the performance of the British Army in 2006.

In late November or early December 2001, my initial reaction on hearing that British troops were going to deploy into Afghanistan (as part of the initial and small ISAF deployment) was “We’re going to do WHAT??!!”.  It was a very confusing and demanding time.  As with many international crises, the speed and complexity of events made decision-making and prediction very difficult. The number of “moving parts” – actors, agendas, resources, goals – made the understanding of what was happening and, perhaps more crucially, what would happen in the weeks, months and years to come, highly challenging. Key strategic decisions made in the early stages tend to be made when least is known. In the period 2002 – 2005, the main concern was that the warlords would return to fighting each other.  In 2005, when the plans for the Helmand deployment were being drawn up, there was no large-scale Taliban insurgency, successful presidential and parliamentary elections were still a fresh and warm recent memory and the warlords – a major source of civil war risk – were mainly back in their box.

Here in early 2015, it is very difficult to declare that the ISAF operations from 2001 – 2014 were a success without being asked to perform on a stand-up comedy circuit. I spend quite a lot of time in the blog trying to explain and identify the problems that ISAF and the wider international community had in Afghanistan and the many, many errors that were made. But of course, conventional wisdom might change in ten or twenty years time if the current Afghan government system holds together.  Judgements should perhaps also consider what might have happened if no actions or different actions had been taken before criticising – inaction is a decision with its own consequences.

To be fair, Dr Howells was starting to voice concerns in 2009 – but a lot of people were by then. But a much deeper analysis of the decision-making processes will be more helpful for learning lessons than simply declaring things “bonkers” – unless of course, you were saying this very loudly and clearly at the time.

Dr Howells at the time appears to have been “in it for the long haul”, giving fully “on message” statements like this:

kim_1516033c“I have visited Afghanistan a number of times and there is no doubting the international community’s common view of the task ahead… Britain and its international partners are determined to ensure that the country does not slip back into being run by a regime that terrorises and intimidates its people… We are in Afghanistan as part of a multinational effort, under a United Nations mandate, at the invitation of the Afghan government and supported by a majority of the Afghan people…”

And he was also defending what many now might call an equally “bonkers” counter narcotics strategy:

“Tackling the poppy trade was never going to be simple. The Afghan government’s counter-narcotics strategy is not “stupid and counterproductive”. Nor is the policy “entrenched” – it is constantly kept under review with the Afghan government and our international partners. Recent UN figures indicate that in provinces in parts of the north and centre where there are effective institutions, where the rule of law is enforced and alternative livelihoods are available, real progress in reducing or stabilising cultivation has taken place. Last year out of 34 provinces six were poppy-free. This year we expect that to double. There is a long way to go, however, particularly in Helmand. That is why we have announced a new package of initiatives, including an additional £22.5m for the Afghan interdiction forces to help disrupt the operations of traffickers and weaken their links to the insurgency, more support for criminal justice, better eradication and $3.6m from the UK to provide extra incentives to governors to reduce cultivation in their provinces.”

Yes, perhaps the plan was sound but it still didn’t work for lots of reasons only available in hindsight. I mean, you get the point, I’m sure and I don’t intend to turn this article into an attack on Dr Howells.  This is about hindsight and how you can (mis)use it.  I personally do not recall, in early 2006, thinking the Helmand inkspots strategy, such as I understood it, was “bonkers”.  There had been several years of success and progress in Afghanistan, following the surprising (and surprisingly speedy) ejection of the Taliban in 2001. But in October 2001, analysts were worrying that the bombing campaign, based on previous experiences of NATO bombing campaigns, might end up a messy and protracted stalemate. And in November 2001 analysts were stressing about last-ditch redoubts and “final stands” of the Taliban in their home province of Kandahar. Didn’t happen. Full disclosure: I was made a member of the Afghanistan analystical team in early November 2001 from a basis of zero knowledge of Afghanistan and due at least in part to previous (again from zero knowledge) background of analysing the NATO Kosovo bombing campaign.  Collapse of the Taliban, reconstruction efforts, two popular elections and the disarming of the warlords led many to conclude that progress – albeit slow, messy and complex – was a plausible long-term result. Issues like counter-narcotics and reconstruction could therefore be focused on in places like, say, Helmand.  There was only a limited understanding and marginal information on the Taliban’s status in Helmand.
Understanding decision-making is important and needs to focus on what was known at the time and how institutions and individuals come together and interact in order to produce and implement decisions – with all the biases, flaws and systems that shape what we do and why as human beings.

So in (perhaps obvious) conclusion:

a) it is painfully easy to be clever and wise after the event.  But it can look self-serving and generally it adds little to the sum of our understanding
b) fast-moving and complex events will almost certainly produce decisions that are flawed in some way(s) with outcomes that are hard to predict
c) it is instructive – critical, even – to understand how institutions and individuals are flawed and how their decisions are shaped by these flaws
d) politicians, like all of us, are more likely to give a different version of what is going on when they are no longer a responsible part of the process and, ideally, a few years away from it
e) when people give their explanations of a situation, they often present themselves as the lone island of rationality and reason surrounded by the ill-informed, the incoherent and the “bonkers”
f) you are allowed to change your mind about the effectiveness of plans and progress, but if you think an idea is genuinely “bonkers” – and in a case like the UK deployment to Helmand, an idea that is likely to lead to loss of lives and great expense – you should be prepared to say so at the time, explaining why and directly to the person or people who are advocating the plan. It is perhaps not the best defence to say that “the Army told me it was ok, so I went along with it.  You are a senior politician.  You have a powerful tool called the “Armed Forces”.  It is your responsibility to understand how your tool works, its strengths and its weaknesses

Being wise after the event doesn’t mean that we do not make the same mistakes again and again.  But, of course, I’m just being wise after the event.

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