This is a dangerous moment. For a dozen years, Britain over-intervened, spending tens of billions of pounds in Iraq and Afghanistan on missions that were often not only unwise, but also impossible. Now we risk the opposite mistake: pursuing a policy of inaction and isolation – lurching from over-confidence to despair. Military intervention can work and is sometimes necessary. But if Britain is to act with confidence again, parliament must ask some uncomfortable questions about our past performance.
This is not easy. Soldiers risking their lives don’t want to be second-guessed by politicians. MPs are willing to acknowledge that a hospital has failed, and demand reform. But they are nervous about doing the same for a military mission, partly because no one wants to suggest that troops have died in vain. (Although it was very clear by early 2007, that things were going wrong in Helmand, it was not until 2011 that parliament found itself able to point this out, quite gently).
Parliamentary oppositions still often intone: ‘we will never criticise the government when there are troops on the ground.’ Instead Parliament has frequently preferred to side with Generals, and call only for more defence spending, more equipment, and more troops. This allows it to ask the government questions which seem bold and critical, but which in fact leave the fundamental mission and strategy unexamined, and unchallenged. This is nothing new. Palmerston tried to deny the disaster in Afghanistan in 1842, and suggest all criticism was unpatriotic. MPs shied away from acknowledging the catastrophes of Crimea and the Boer War. But this lack of scrutiny and challenge is one of the reasons why Britain has often learned the wrong lessons, and been badly prepared for the next conflict.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we should now be clear that Britain designed the wrong army for the wrong campaign. For over a decade we devoted ourselves to ‘nation-building’ and ‘counter-insurgency’. But we never had the tour-lengths, the deep country knowledge, or support to succeed in ‘nation-building’; and ‘counter-insurgency’ was doomed because we lacked the control of the borders, the local support, or a legitimate and credible government in Kabul. Nation-building under fire – in the context of an insurgency – has never worked, anywhere. But we kept trying to do it. This may feel like ‘yesterday’s story’ but it is shockingly recent.
Here are some questions parliament might have asked but didn’t: ‘General McChrystal, you say that your counter-insurgency strategy will only work if the Afghan government sorts its act out. What are the chances of that?’ “Minister you say you support a ‘gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state, based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law’. Is there anyone in your team who could translate that into language which an Afghan villager might understand?”
Even today we are yet to ask. ‘How did we get it so wrong? Why did no-one see that the mission was internally inconsistent, largely irrelevant to national security, and impossible to achieve? Why did we ignore the critics? Why did we promote officers and officials who were consistently wrong? What reforms have we introduced to recruitment, training, promotion, tour-lengths, and activities to prevent future mistakes? Were we surprised that Putin invaded Ukraine? Why? What reforms are we introducing to stop similar surprises in the future? What more can we learn from the US about the coordination of cyber-defence?
Parliament could also be better at analysing our successes. Bosnia was – for all its flaws – a miracle. We went into a country where a hundred thousand people had been killed, where a million had lost their homes, and where hundreds of thousands of armed men had divided the country, under the control of war criminals. We ended the war, without the loss of any British or American lives. Within ten years, a million properties had been returned, the number of armed men was down to a few thousand, the check-points had gone, the war criminals were in the Hague, and the crime rate was lower than Sweden. Parliament should have asked the right questions about this success, and encouraged us to follow that model again.
Finally, we need to remember that parliament can sometimes get it very right. In May 1940, while we were being humiliated by the Germans in Norway, a highly decorated colonel on the back-benches, Sir Arnold Wilson, made an eloquent speech defending the armed forces, and calling on colleagues not to criticise the high command. He suggested that parliament’s role was to provide generous support, resources, and encouragement for the armed forces, and let the commanders get on with their job. Parliament ignored this plea for support, attacked the entire strategy, and highlighted all the failures. By doing so, they forced Chamberlain to resign, and ultimately gave Britain a chance of winning the war.
Nothing is ultimately more damaging to the military than absence of criticism. Officers need and expect debate, and challenge. Neither they, nor we benefit from a polite establishment consensus. If parliament begin to ask the right questions and focus in the right way, it could help Britain become more not less engaged again. It could remind us that we can still defend our interests, and influence crises, in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
Over-intervention and under-intervention are two sides of the same insecurity. A more critical approach, will lead to a more confident and serious approach. This will rely on service personnel, diplomats, and intelligence officers. But it will also require a parliament prepared to keep on asking some very difficult questions both about our recent failures, and about the world ahead.