An Incompetent War: Britain in Helmand

May 22, 2014
Royal Engineers complete construction of Afghan Local Police station in Helmand capital

Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012 (Oxford University Press, 2014)


Fury Over MOD’s bid to ban Book”, “Captain resigns over Afghanistan book.

These are just some of British newspaper headlines that preceded the publication of An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict last month.  If you don’t know the story, here it is in brief: a former Territorial Army Captain, Dr Mike Martin, was actually commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to read for his PhD at King’s College, London.  In his final thesis he was to provide them with an independent view of the Afghanistan campaign; that thesis has since become this book.

Whilst the MOD’s official objections concern the alleged use of classified information in the book, one can’t help but presume that this is a mask for the real source of anger, which is just how far Martin goes in criticizing the Ministry’s involvement in Afghanistan.  ‘Killing the wrong people’, ‘complicity in corruption’, ‘indirectly funding their enemies’ and ‘sponsoring some of the most despicable people in Helmandi society to rise to the top’ are just a few of the charges being levelled at their door.  Perhaps most cutting of all, however, is the underlying suggestion that this was all the result of a conceptual void which did not allow British military leaders to understand the type of conflict they were engaged in.

An Intimate War tells the story of the last 34 years in Helmand.  Based largely on 150 interviews conducted by the author, in Pashto, it is stuffed with detail – for example, there are a lot of names (people, tribes and locations) and a lot of anecdotes about the sorts of things that those named individuals got up to over the years.  As a result, it doesn’t have the readability of Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars and instead it feels very much like the PhD dissertation it is.  On the other hand, it is precisely because there is such a wealth of detail that it makes it is hard to disagree with Martin when he argues the case of the U.K.’s incompetence in Afghanistan.  The evidence is simply overwhelming.

The central argument asserted in An Intimate War is that the Helmandi people have been locked in an almost permanent state of micro civil-conflict driven by water, land, blood feuds and fights over their grandfathers’ inheritances.  Or, if you will allow me a small pastiche of the book’s general tone: ‘identifying [the conflict] as a counter-insurgency was stupid, holding firm to that belief was stupid and it led to decisions that were stupid.  Furthermore, even the Helmandis realised how stupid we were and began to use our own stupid ideology against us”.  In one of many examples used to illustrate the latter, the U.S. Special Forces started offering bounties for anyone to shop Taliban members.  As a result, locals simply denounced their neighbors and then watched with great glee as their old adversaries were booked on one-way flights to Guantanamo.

As a former serviceman, who worked alongside Martin in the same unit and performed many of the same duties, I find that his picture of Helmand and Helmandis resonates with my own experiences exactly.  I found myself nodding along enthusiastically during his discussion on the unsatisfactory labels of ‘Taliban’ and ‘Government’ and his conclusion that “whilst they may have simplified the narrative, they ended up robbing us of an intelligent war.”

The reading then becomes even more uncomfortable for the MOD as Martin asks: “if you side with the Government because you assume they are the good guys, what happens when your assumption is wrong and the Government is acting worse towards its people – then when do you stand?  And how useful is counterinsurgency as a doctrine?”  Uncomfortable or not, these are sorts of difficult questions that the MOD now needs to reflect on in the aftermath of the Afghanistan campaign.  One can understand the disgruntlement of military officialdom when a junior Territorial Army Captain points out its organizational failings (especially when it is done so in the author’s typical brash style) but to respond by attempting to pulp the very report it itself commissioned, it to compound one of its biggest organizational weaknesses of all: that, at the top level, there exists an institutional inability to listen to criticism, to admit failure and to change course.

This is a charge that has been levelled at the MOD before (see Tim Harford’s Adapt and Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars) but with the media circus surrounding An Intimate War, surely now the MOD needs to be seen as learning lessons.  For example, Human Terrain and Cultural Understanding, Martin’s bread and butter, have until now been marginal activities.  One of the real successes of his book, however, has been to demonstrate what investing in these capabilities can achieve.  There has been and will always be a great difficulty in gaining human intelligence from a largely illiterate society, especially when rumour and corruption are as prevalent as they are in Helmand.  But if men and women with the correct skill set are trained and deployed in numbers, then it should follow that the layers of noise can be penetrated faster and strategic decision-making can actually be shaped around something approximating the truth.

When former CDS, General Sir David Richards lent his praise to An Intimate War (saying, “I wish it had been available to me when I was ISAF Commander in Afghanistan”) he was presumably talking about the quantity and quality of the research contained within its 398 pages, rather than its stinging criticisms.  The irony is that the unless the MOD changes its attitude towards criticism from within and actually engages with learning lessons, the next ISAF Commander won’t get this type of knowledge either.


George Vlachonikolis is an Economics tutor at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford.  A retired British Army Officer, George served 2 front-line Operational Tours in Afghanistan during a 6 year career (2005 – 11).


Photo credit: The U.S. Army