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The struggle to maintain a reputation

Mark Urban | 13:04 UK time, Friday, 27 November 2009

CAMP BASTION - When I suggested to an old acquaintance from Iraq that Britain might soon seek a less risky role for its troops here I was surprised by the intensity of his response.


The officer, a middle ranking British type who normally adopts a cheeky grin and humorous banter, shook his head and gritted his teeth.

"We can't walk away from this one," he said, "that would be disastrous for the Army".

Before Britain can sign off in Helmand, he suggested, it will have to create a better outcome than it achieved in Basra in southern Iraq.

What he has in mind is an "end state" in which the current levels of violence have been quenched and the Afghan security forces are able to cope with little foreign help.

For many at the command level in the British Army, this result is essential because failure to achieve it would damage their international reputation.

Whose responsibility?

It might seem foolish or misguided to place the maintenance of your good name as a professional military as one of the key objectives in an operation in which so many lives are being lost or shattered, but it is something that everyone engaged in this campaign understands (even if some might not share this idea).

In an operation where the US is in the lead, and will shortly by the commitment of additional troops, place themselves even more so, few see the overall success of this mission as being Britain's responsibility.

Under these circumstances, keeping up the UK's reputation for military effectiveness does become a national objective.

Increasingly, as national support for the mission wobbles, this language about needing to maintain the country's international standing as a military power is entering the pronouncements of service chiefs.

Butt of jokes

What about the Poor Bloody Infantry? How do they feel about risking the IEDs and snipers in this cause?

Their language might be different but their national pride burns in an even more forthright manner.

Many a sergeant major or corporal has spent a career running down the armies of fellow Nato countries that they have served alongside.

They do not want British troops to be the butt of jokes or snide comments, as they sometimes were for the Americans in Iraq.

Speaking over the last couple of days to soldiers from 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) about the risks they run in places like Sangin - the IED capital of Britain's patch in Helmand - they appear more than ready to continue the fight.

They do not share the war weariness of many at home - although they do speak frankly about the effectiveness of their enemies here.

Britain though is rapidly reaching the limits of what it can commit to Afghanistan. The troop total is creeping over 10,000 which is entering dangerous territory as far as the Ministry of Defence bean counters are concerned.

Under these circumstances the pattern of this year's operations has been for Britain to leave an increasing amount of this province to the Americans, focussing limited resources on a few key districts.

Growing US role

Here at Camp Bastion, the US side of the base is swelling by the day. The new presidential commitment to send many thousands more troops will accelerate the process of giving them more of the fight.

That's why on this trip I won't be joining British troops in the field but rather the US marines of Task Force Leatherneck.

The marines already control two thirds of Helmand and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Nimruz and Farah.

They are taking on their task with their customary energy and absence of doubt.

So, as the British Army tries to convince its home public that supporting the troops also means supporting their mission, the trend of reducing the area what the UK is responsible for may well continue.

I would not exaggerate this - it is not as if Britain's eventual "success", assuming that is what happens, will be confined to a pacified postage stamp sized areas of Helmand.

It does however mean that if some dramatic turn around is achieved here it will belong (in the eyes of many of those international military spectators that the British officer I mentioned at the start is worrying about) to the United States.


  • Comment number 1.

    A fair assesment. You're very much judged on how your last war went. Our remarkable success in the Falklands ensured that no-one messed with Britain or British citizens for a generation (which was rather useful given that Britian has a defence obligation to Belize etc). Equally the US army still carries stigma from Vietnam and the Russian army from its Afghan wars and some big screw ups in Chechnya.

    We're never going to make Afghanistan into a modern 1st world democracy but we should be able to make it secure enough that terrorists can't train with impunity. Failure in Afghanistan doesn't just mean that the British army picks up a stain on its reputation but will mean that Pakistan falls to the Taliban and we have nuclear weapons in the hands of Bin Ladin's best mates.

  • Comment number 2.


    so this week the reason we are in afghanistan is 'international prestige'.

    every week some new bogus narrative. and every week they will have to keep coming to try to perpetuate the darkness that allows this to go on.

    the army will lose nothing from withdrawing. it will gain.

    its just the wrong tool for the job. its not the army's fault they were asked to do a stupid job by people who talk to god? no one will think less of them for 'failing' to complete a stupid strategy.

    actually withdrawing ends the original 'failure' of strategy. if a strategy is wrong why keep investing in it? hardly good generalship.

    like someone who stops banging their head against a brick wall. its rational to stop and irrational to go on.

    didn't Eisenhower say before d day 'if anyone sees a flaw in this plan it is their duty to speak up'. He didn't say anyone who disagrees with the plan is a surrender monkey.

    on another bbc blog i see the usa has lost more troops through suicide than in afghanistan this year? thta might also be the case for the uk in the long run? and after 8 years with no end in sight this is a long run?

  • Comment number 3.

  • Comment number 4.

    Owning 7,000 bks on War. Watch,read 2 hours a day of World Affairs. READ recent bk. *Aphganistan 200 yrs of British, Russian & American occupation*. And the best of them all Freidmans title about a FLAT WORLD. I now make a comment. I find most people relly on TV bites for news. Start to read ! I am exSgt. WRAF. 50 yrs in America. Fact is, majority of Americans do not know the Brits are there! And, 99.9% do not know any other Country is there. Mad? None realize how big this Country is. Its really seperate Countries hooked up under a Federal Government! Example: farthest from yu, California. It has over half the size of British population ! 34 million.

    As this is an ego searching, expecting Junior Bush trying to beat out his hero fathers image without danger to himself, he accomplished it well. Maggie would not have joined him. And certainly not Churchill. Its doubtful this man ever read one bk on history. And military nil.

    So get out now. Theres an old Brit. saying *Pride goes before a fall*. I KNOW & you KNOW that even against ALL odds, the Falklands was a miracle. Today, with lack of equipment it could not happen again. Nothing to do with bravory of the men who fight & those who support through agony. Bring them home. Freidman has the solution. Who is he? King of Joran consults him ! Most are to young(especially after 8 yrs of over 35,000 killed and crippled), to know when we didnt want to fight the Russians, on the cheap, provided the Taliband with weapons & training to fight them. Russians were not weak. But when an illiterate mountain dweller can hoist a weapon on his shoulder and shoot down every helicopter. They have to re asses.
    Our reason, to give women freedom & Education? Russians had the women going to school etc. But who are we to praise anyone else?

    As a child of the bombing, researching a bk on same for over 24 yrs, I know that all this occupations of towns is rediculous.
    Nothing is worth one ounze of brave military blood. Or coming home blind and minus 3 limbs! An impossiblity in past Wars. They would have died.

    And unlike Brits, mothers are fighting. American military constantly lies. Its so big it can get away with it. No 2 military parents are to go overseas at one time. THEY DO. Grandparents left with modern young children for minimum of a year..without financial help.

    And author BROKOFF invented the *GREATEST GENERATION*. I disagree. The GREATEST GENERATION IS NOW. With neither Country hurting everyday their heroes are gone, why should politicians winde it down? Friedman states..Like Iraq right now. Until you put the responsibility on THEIR SHOULDERS, they are going to milk us stupid Westerners so we have no strength for any other conflict! FACT: Americans now the weakest Country of the BIG. 75% of our youth not fit to serve ! We pay One billion a day for our troops to be killed. No land to be our own. So, give them our taxes directly. Not through the blood of our young.
    And do you know, if a well established citizen of 53in America, you can leave your small business, supervisor job at any work, & be dragged back into full time Reservist service of one year of front line danger. I know of one soldier going back for the FIFTH TIME..5 years !!!!!! Your business goes bankrupt, children tossed from parent to parent if both in the military. Mothers coming home cripled far worse than man problem. CHILDREN DO NOT UNDERSTAND MOTHER HAVING NO LEGS, who's going to look after the home? So this is the *Greatest Generations* spending 2 - 3 times on the FRONT that their grandparents did in WW2.

    History shows, intelligent politicians stop wars. Rarely boots on the ground. Take action. Write & email. Read Freidman. Dont read Women are soldiers. Old chauvenist commanders do not bother to stop thousands of rapes. Army puts one woman with a week patrol. And recently, who could the Psychiatrist Major go to for help ? Which of you could have listened DAILY for SIX YEARS to horrific civilian & military incidents, without breaking? And his break only came when although sorely needed here with over 330,000 PTS casualties, they were stupidly going to wast him in M. East. Who would shoot him first?..his ancestory? Thats how stupid and insensitive the American Army is. Wont facts ? Not one local library carries ARMY TIMES. its in-expensive. Get it! Blessings and ACTION to you all.

    In a 30,000 town, I am the only business/resident to have flag at half staff on 30ft staff. Monthly laminated news for the 8 yrs. And now a 4x3 ft Christmas Board with mailing addresses TO ENCOURAGE residents to..WRITE a card..PARCEL OR send money to the famous USO for them to supply PHONE CARDS FOR THESE SNIFFING, SUCKING SAND EATERS, EVERY HOUR OF THE DAY.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's unbelieveable that Britain should send the bulk of it's deployable forces to Afghanistan, just because of our International Reputation! Our forces should only be there to defend UK interests.
    As for the Armys concern about have jokes saidabout them, It's the long suffering Britain taxpayer who should decide our long we stay there!
    It's quite clear the deployment is destroying our forces ability to do anything else.
    it's reaching the stage, where defence cuts, partly to pay for it, risk this country's vital national interests, Aircraft Carriers, hunter=-killer subs, air defence fighters,ground forces able to fight medium-intensity conventional war's are all being sacrificed on the altar of Afganistan, the Defence of the Realm comes before letting the Army "Get this one right"!
    I personally could not care less what the Yanks think of us, only that UK homebase, our national interests, our dependent terrorities, commomwealth allies and defence treaty obligations are protected and i expect most UK citizens feel the same.

  • Comment number 6.

    #4. The Equipment our guys had in the Falklands was absolute rubbish. The boots leaked causing trenchfoot, the ships weren't fire proofed and burnt like roman candles when hit, the rapier anti-air missiles didn't work, the majority of the helicopters (and tents) went to the bottom of the ocean on the Atlantic conveyor, we had to get flight refuelling probes for the Black Buck Vulcan from a US air museum and what good equipment we DID manage to land (like a potentially useful squadron of Scimitar tanks) weren't used because the junior officer sent with them though wrongly that the ground was too soft. Even the much vaunted SAS made some spectacularly foolish decisions such as the Fortuna Glacier op.

    We won the Falklands using Victorian technology... guys on foot, with rifles and bayonets. Its the same tactic that will work just as well in Afghanistan too. The drawback being that if you close with the enemy and actually fight them you will take casualties. The idea that we can use hi-tech weapons and defeat the Taliban from the air with helicopters and bombers should have been proven to be nonsense in Vietnam never mind 40 years later.

    We are the second best equipped army in the world and have weapons systems I could only dream of. 12 years ago in Croatia I had no body armour at all.... the Osprey 6 & 7 stuff in Afghanistan will stop 7.62 rounds dead. Equipment isn't the problem. Its the media. The BBC do not report our successes EVER. We only hear our dead not the Talibans. We're also extremely reluctant to take really agressive offensive action for fear of media reporting civillian dead. You only have to look at what happens every time the US take out an Al Que'da commander with a drone. The 'collateral damage' gets far more coverage that the killing of the enemy.

    #5 who do you suggest we fight a 'medium intensity conventional war' with? Saddams not going back to Kuwait and the Argentinians certainly aren't going to try for the Falklands again. We've paid for NATO for the past 60 years- if we're attacked we should get our alleged 'allies' to honour their commitments and help out for a change. We're far better off maintaining a few hunter killer subs with cruise missiles for 'gun boat diplomacy' and focus our army on raiding skills (like Sierra Leonne a few years back). With 20:20 hindsight a couple of chinooks swooping out of the sky in Afghanistan round about Aug 2001 would have been a good investment.


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