"This year has been eventful in so many ways. I remember in particular that special day last month when we gathered by the cenotaph to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the end of the First World War. A ceremony made all the more poignant by the presence of Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and Bill Stone, the three surviving veterans of that terrible war.
What history was represented there. Their combined ages cover a span of time that would take us from the present day back to the reign of Charles II.
It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to comprehend the carnage of 1914-1918. The British military alone lost some three quarters of a million dead – around 20,000 on one day at the Somme. The total amounted to almost one in every fifty of the population. Scarcely a community was untouched by the tragedy.
We’ve read the histories and studied the accounts. We know of the frontal assaults, the terrors of no-man’s-land, the devastating effects of automatic weapons, the gas attacks, the awful suffering.
We know of them intellectually; but it seems to me that we can know virtually nothing of them emotionally. Only those who have experienced such things personally can have any real sense of what they were like. And it’s impossible to communicate, let alone to share, such knowledge with anyone who has not undergone similar experiences.
So imagine how those three veterans must have felt. They were surrounded by people. Countless more were watching on television. But they were probably alone in having any true understanding of all that was being commemorated that day. The others who would have shared in that understanding were gone. Those three were the last; the last who could bear witness, if only to themselves, of the horrors of a war that was supposed to end war. They were separated from today by a huge gulf.
And yet there was a thread of remarkable continuity, too. Each of them was attended at the cenotaph by somebody considerably younger. They were accompanied by three people born in an almost unimaginably different age from the veterans. But three people who embody exactly the same sense of duty, service and gallantry: Marine Jones, Military Cross; Flight Lieutenant Goodman, Distinguished Flying Cross; and Lance Corporal Beharry, Victoria Cross.
Three people who are proof, if proof were needed, that while times and circumstances change, the qualities we value most highly run true from one generation to the next. And thank heavens it is so, for we need them as much as ever.
Since I spoke to you last year, 47 of our people have lost their lives on operations, and many more have been wounded, some very seriously. 2008 has seen some hard fighting, some significant military successes, and the continued development of some significant obstacles to success that will make 2009 particularly challenging.
One of the biggest steps forward came early in the year, in Iraq. Although operation charge of the knights got off to an inauspicious start, its eventual success and subsequent developments have transformed the situation in Basra. But the operation has also attracted a degree of controversy, particularly with regard to the British role.
So I want to take this opportunity to lay to rest some of the myths that have emerged. Myths such as: the British had given up in Basra; that they’d done a deal to hand the city over to the militias; and that they failed to support the Iraqis during charge of the knights.
But to do so, I need to take you back a bit. Back to the latter part of 2006, in fact. Now at that particular time, we and the United States were in a process of transition, working to transfer responsibility for security away from the coalition to the Iraqi government.
But there were obstacles to this transition. And the obstacles were different in different parts of the country. The problem for the Americans in Baghdad and the surrounding areas was that the Iraqis were too busy trying to kill one another to face up to the question of how Shia and Sunni could co-exist politically. The problem for the British in the south east was that the Iraqis were too busy trying to kill us to focus on the intra-Shia political issues in Basra. These different problems required different solutions.
The US decided to increase its force levels – the surge – in order to suppress Sunni-Shia violence and create space within which the political process had some chance of success. This was a key step. But the process got a helping hand from a most unexpected quarter: Al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Their appalling treatment of the Sunni tribes in the areas they dominated – such as Anbar province – led to their rejection by the local population, which then looked to the coalition for support. At the same time, Muqtada al-Sadr announced a freeze on violence by his Mahdi army militia.
These factors combined to change considerably the security dynamic in the centre of Iraq. But as I said, this was a means, not an end. The end was a political process that allowed Sunni and Shia (and of course Kurds) broadly to co-exist in the same state.
Progress on that score was a lot slower, and the jury’s still out to some degree. But over recent months the Iraqi government has taken a number of significant steps, and there’s now cause for some cautious optimism – recognising that this is still Iraq, and there are plenty of ways in which things could yet go wrong.
For the UK, increasing force levels to the same extent was never on the cards. We were by then already committed in Afghanistan, and balancing resources between the two theatres was and is a constant challenge. But in any event, such an increase was not the right response.
Our presence was creating a focus for Shia – and particularly Basrawi - discontent. It was creating a spurious but tangible legitimacy for violence, and for Iranian interference in support of such violence. And with all of this going on, there was little incentive for Basrawi politicians to focus on their own governance problems: they could always blame us.
The UK made repeated attempts to deal with extremist militia violence in the south east. We planned and sought to execute numerous Special Forces operations. We also developed Operation Salamanca – an ambitious, comprehensive and hard-edged plan to confront and subdue the militias. All of these combined powerful offensive action with stabilisation and development activity. But each was, in the event, emasculated. Because we simply couldn’t get the agreement of the Iraqi government; their own internal politics made it impossible.
The Iraqi government was at that stage still dependent on the political support of Muqtada al-Sadr, which made decisive action against the Jaish al-Mahdi somewhat problematic for them. And there was a growing desire to assert Iraqi sovereignty, manifested by increasing restrictions on our offensive activity. The latter was of course entirely understandable – and in many ways to be welcomed.
But the result was we found our hands tied to the extent that we were unable to take decisive action. Operation Salamanca became, perforce, Operation Sinbad, a considerably watered down version of its predecessor. It still helped, but it wasn’t the game-changing event we were after. Interestingly, one of its best and most enduring legacies – the destruction of the hated and feared Jamiat Police Station, source of so much corruption and intimidation – brought down on us the wrath of the government in Baghdad.
So the question was how else we could free Basra from its cycle of violence. Early in 2007 we came to the conclusion that we were going to have to do something significant to break the impasse. Something that would force the Iraqis to face up to their problems and to their responsibilities.
We judged that the only way to do this was to withdraw our permanently based forces from Basra city, and to put the Iraqis in the lead there. In our view the Iraqis would then have to deal with the intra-Shia problem, and to confront the allied issue of Iranian involvement.
This was also the judgement of General Mohan, who was appointed by the Iraqi government to take security responsibility for Basra. Indeed, during one of my meetings with him last year he asked us to take exactly that action. He said that if we pulled out of the city, then he could deal with the security situation; if we remained, no-one could.
But of course we were not operating alone, but as members of a coalition. So we had to consult our American partners, who were in the lead. I spoke several times with General Peter Pace, my opposite number in Washington, and with General David Petraeus in Baghdad. Their view was the same as ours: that the problems in Basra were Iraqi problems, and that they needed Iraqi solutions. We did of course debate the precise timing of the transfer of provincial control in Basra; but we were agreed on the overall approach.
It was, though, a means to an end, not an end in itself. And late last year, following our withdrawal from the city and the transfer of security responsibility in Basra province to the Iraqis, General Mohan’s progress seemed to slow. So we pressed hard for an Iraqi-led plan to deal with the Jaish al-Mahdi special groups and criminal elements who, although relatively small in number, were continuing to block progress in Basra.
After much prompting, and in close co-operation with the UK, Mohan produced such a plan in early 2008. This was briefed to and approved by General Petraeus and the Iraqi government. I visited Baghdad myself in March, and stressed two things: we desperately needed to make progress, so we had to keep up the pressure on the Iraqis to act quickly; and the operation could not be allowed to fail. We would need sufficient corps assets to guarantee military success. Again, we were all agreed.
Then, suddenly, Maliki decided that he personally was going to lead the Iraqi army into action in Basra, and that he was going to do it immediately. Little in the way of planning, limited intelligence, no preparation of the battlespace – just get on with it.
I have to say that we felt rather torn by this decision. It was, from a professional perspective, no way to launch an operation. On the other hand, the Iraqi prime minister was giving the political lead we’d been seeking all along. In any event, as our American colleagues in Baghdad said, this was an express train that couldn’t be stopped.
One striking success was that the Iraqis were able to move an entire extra division to the south in very short order. But unsurprisingly, the operation quickly turned chaotic. One brigade of 14 Division was taken straight out of initial training and thrown into a confused fight with no coherent command and control. Not unnaturally, it pretty much dissolved.
We were asked to provide air support, but there were no precise targets and huge uncertainty over the location of civilians and the dangers of collateral damage.
Nevertheless, more experienced units of the Iraqi army stuck to their task, and the coalition multi-national corps deployed supporting assets – particularly air, aviation and joint fires teams. Through our joint efforts, we were able slowly to pull some order out of the chaos, and the tide turned against the Jaish al-Mahdi.
One important factor was the support of the ordinary citizens of Basra for the actions of the Iraqi army. Over time this resulted in a great deal of valuable intelligence, and much more effective targeting. And in my view what set the conditions for that support was our decision last year to withdraw from the lead in Basra city and to hand it to the Iraqi army – as the Americans will be doing in cities throughout Iraq next year.
Another key development was the Iraqi acceptance of the degree of malign Iranian involvement. We’d been pressing them on this for a long time, of course. But only when they were confronted with the consequences of such meddling themselves did they really face up to the problem, and start to address it. This was reflected tellingly by graffiti on one of the bridges leading into Iran. From fleeing members of the JAM special groups: “we’ll be back”. From soldiers of the Iraqi army: “we’ll be waiting”.
So, far from being a divergence from the UK approach, charge of the knights was what we’d aimed for, worked for, and argued for over more than twelve months. Not the way it was launched, certainly; but the substance of the operation.
And the outcome was what we had hoped for and what we had predicted. And for anyone who thinks this is a bit of post-facto rationalisation, I refer them to my on-the-record statements over the past two years.
The result is that we’re now close to the stage where we can alter fundamentally our mission in Iraq. We intend to move to the sort of bilateral military partnership that we have with other friends in the region, and to work with the Iraqis in those areas and on those issues where they want our support. That transition will dramatically reduce the number of people we have on the ground in Iraq.
Now there’s been a great deal of speculation that those reductions will be matched by a concomitant increase in Afghanistan, and some confused reporting on the issue. So let me be clear about this. We’re engaged in two significant military campaigns, and our top priority is to deliver operational success in both. Naturally we keep our force levels under constant review.
At the same time, though, these are campaigns that require continued effort over long periods. And as I’ve said on numerous occasions, we’re currently doing more than we’re structured or resourced for over the long term. So reducing our operational tempo to a more sustainable level as quickly as possible is an important consideration in the strategic balance that we seek to strike.
So we cannot simply make a one-for-one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan. I’m not saying that we couldn’t or shouldn’t do more in Afghanistan if we judge that to be necessary. What I am saying is that we have to be able to sustain whatever we do.
On that note, let me turn now to Operation Herrick. I spoke about this at length last year. I described the progress that we’d made over the previous twelve months, and the significant challenges that lay ahead.
And I reiterated what I and so many of us have said from the start of this campaign: that military force was essential to success; but that it couldn’t by itself deliver that success. Military activity could create the time and space within which political solutions could be forged. But it was politics that in the end would determine the outcome.
That’s as true today as it was twelve months ago. And it’s why we have to be very careful in our choice of words when talking about Afghanistan. Terms like winning and victory have no place in the lexicon there. We should remember our strategic objectives – and I make no apology for repeating them, particularly given the speed with which commentators appear to forget them.
Our task is: to reduce the insurgency to a level that poses no significant threat to progress in Afghanistan; to ensure that core Al-Qa’ida does not return to the country; and to ensure that Afghanistan remains a legitimate state and is able to handle its own security. But Afghanistan’s challenges will be far from ended when we achieve those aims.
Let’s just think for a moment about the wider endeavour that provides the context for our objectives. We’re trying to help what is in many respects a medieval country start to move towards the 21st century. Such an undertaking can have no short-term end point. So in the broader sense, success in Afghanistan looks like each year being a bit better than the one before. It has to be seen as a journey continued rather than a destination reached.
Having said that, we shouldn’t be satisfied with our progress in 2008. We’ve had some considerable successes, but we’ve also struggled in some areas.
On the plus side, the successful move of the third turbine to Kajaki was a great achievement. It’s all too easy to forget now that before the event we saw the operation as a massively daunting challenge. And so it was. But it was planned and executed brilliantly by all involved. The civil effects won’t be felt in the short term. But in the long term they will make a huge difference to the development of the south of Afghanistan.
We also saw progress in the south of Helmand. For the better part of eighteen months the town of Garmsir was an uninhabited battleground. The closest I could get to it was Firebase Dwyer, some kilometres away. That changed this summer, when the 24th US Marine Expeditionary Unit led an operation to clear the area.
I’ve been into the town twice since, most recently driving through the thriving bazaar in an open-topped vehicle and meeting the district governor in his own house. Garmsir is still a long way from being a tranquil haven. But it’s moved from being a dead town to one bustling with life.
And another area where we can feel pleased is the development of the Afghan National Army. They continue to expand, and the increase in planned size announced this year is very welcome. But they also continue, under the guidance of our operational mentoring and liaison teams, to grow their capability. They dealt in exemplary fashion with the recent attempt by the Taliban to threaten Lashkar Gah. They’re in the fight across Helmand, and they’re increasingly in the lead.
So the Taliban remain under huge pressure. But in one particular area they’ve had the better of 2008: information operations. They’ve beaten us to the punch on numerous occasions, and by doing so they’ve magnified the sense of difficulty and diminished the sense of progress. This is down in part to their skill, and in part to our own failings.
The Taliban recognise the importance of perceptions. They realise that the substance of security is of less relevance than how people feel about it. The statistics show that the number of security incidents in and around Kabul has actually declined this year. But that’s not the sense that many people in the capital have, nor is it the sense that’s reported. The Taliban have used their advantages of unpredictability and the impact of asymmetric attacks to heighten the sense of concern over security.
They also recognise the importance of speed in the information battle. And it’s nearly always possible to be faster with an unsubstantiated claim or a downright lie than it is with the established truth.
This is particularly damaging when the issues are in themselves fundamental to people’s perception of the government and the international community. Civilian casualties are the most obvious example.
Let me be clear. We’ve caused civilian casualties, and despite the inevitability of such tragedies in conflict, every one of them is one too many. These are the people we’re fighting for. So we have to do better. I can’t guarantee that there’ll be no civilian casualties in future. But I can guarantee that ISAF is working to eliminate them as far as is humanly possible. For two reasons: first, because we care; and secondly, because we recognise that civilian casualties erode consent and make success that much harder to achieve.
The Taliban, on the other hand, are worse than indifferent to such suffering. They cause and promote it, because of the challenge they know it creates for us. They don’t use civilians as human shields; they’re too smart for that. They know that we’d refrain from attacking, as we have on very many occasions.
We all read about the civilian deaths that do occur. We don’t read about the countless times that ground troops or aircrew have withheld fire because of uncertainties about innocent bystanders.
So the Taliban set out to create situations that put civilians in danger but keep them hidden. They also create some of the casualties themselves. And they lose no opportunity to lay the blame at ISAF’s door for anything that may occur, no matter how unconnected. We’ve even had civilian casualties supposedly suffered in an ISAF attack turn up at one of our aid stations half an hour before the attack actually started.
All of this is despicable and unconscionable. But it’s also clever. And the international response has not been so clever. We’ve been slow to recognise the public relation traps the Taliban have been setting for us. And our handling of the consequences has sometimes been clumsy. In taking time to try and establish the facts, we’ve sometimes unintentionally conceded defeat in the information battle.
But this is beginning to change. General McKiernan’s new tactical directive is helping to counter the Taliban’s deliberate attempts to cause civilian casualties. And ISAF has dealt with one or two recent tragedies in a much more sympathetic and effective manner, even though it’s clear in at least one case that the alliance was not involved at all. It’s sad but true that arguing for the truth can sometimes do more harm than good in circumstances such as these.
But we need to go further. We can seldom match the speed of Taliban disinformation. But we can, in information terms, switch the battle to ground of our own choosing. And at the tactical level, we’re doing this. Our communications in Helmand are rapid, agile and effective. This is not yet the case, though, in Kabul. And I think there are three reasons for that.
The first is that we’ve been too slow to develop effective machinery and processes. Information operations must be at the heart of any counter-insurgency campaign, and the size, efficiency and prominence of the relevant organisation ought to reflect this.
NATO – and I mean all of us in the Alliance – have not been as alive to this as we should have, and it shows. Again, we’re now starting to see some real progress, but it’s late in coming and we’re playing catch up as a consequence.
Secondly, the problems are to an extent a reflection of the fractured nature of the international effort in Kabul. Even the military contribution hasn’t always been co-ordinated as effectively as it might, although the double-hatting of General McKiernan as COMISAF and the theatre commander for Operation Enduring Freedom is a welcome step forward in this regard.
But I, and others, have been saying for over two years now that we have to get a grip of the civilian effort. We all recall the attempts to appoint a senior international figure under the UN to deal with the problem, and how Paddy Ashdown’s candidacy came to naught. Meanwhile, Kai Eide, for whom I have nothing but respect, has struggled to fill the gap, with wholly inadequate support from UN headquarters in New York. The time has come – indeed, it’s long past time – to fix this problem.
Thirdly, we need political leadership from Kabul of the information effort in Afghanistan. We need to understand that difficult challenges pose threats, but they also create opportunities for leadership. When things don’t seem to be going so well, one can cry out against fate, or one can seek to inspire. Churchill’s motto was: 'in war: resolution'. It’s easy to be resolute when everything’s going swimmingly; it’s when the tide of chance runs against you that leadership is truly tested.
I’m not of course suggesting that political rhetoric is by itself the answer. Nobody is going to be taken in for more than a moment by hollow words. There must be substance; there must be a case to argue. But without the argument, the case won’t be heard. And the argument must be made politically, and it must be made by Afghans. We can help; but we can’t do it.
As for the substance, there’s plenty to tell, but even more to do. The presidential election will take up a lot of time and energy in 2009. But it would be dangerous if it focused attention on the process at the expense of real issues of governance. Not least because it’s on these that people are looking for progress; and it’s these that will influence their actions on Election Day.
Security is the top priority. But this isn’t just, or even mainly, about a reduction in the level of fighting. For ordinary Afghans, it’s as much about the level of criminality as anything else. If we fail to make progress on law and order, then we’ll face an increasing risk of Afghans seeing the crude, unjust and retributive rule of the Taliban as at least providing a degree of predictability. The memory of an awful past is not by itself enough; there must be a prospect of a better future. We’ve not done well enough on this score during 2008.
That’s why the recent appointment of Hanif Atmar, with his strong anti-corruption credentials, as Interior Minister is so important. President Karzai has told us that he’s given Atmar a blank cheque to tackle criminality. We can’t expect miracles, especially given the scale of the problem. But we have to do all we can to support the interior minister, so that we’re able to point to some real progress in this area over the next year.
Meanwhile, we must continue to help the Afghan people develop their provincial, district and community levels of governance. Kabul is important. And the National Government is providing the country’s most effective and important institution: the Afghan National Army. But aside from this, its decisions and actions at the local level that make most difference to the lives of ordinary people, particularly in the south.
The joint civil-military task force in Helmand is having a real impact here. It’s necessarily slow going, given the lack of human capital and the weakening of traditional tribal structures after decades of conflict. And there are undoubtedly occasional backward steps. But for all that it’s halting and erratic, the overall motion is forward. This is an area where we’re going to need patience and persistence. It’s for this that the military is creating time and space in Helmand.
But I can’t leave it there. Everybody in this audience is only too well aware that Afghanistan is only part of the problem. The Secretary of State for Defence set out clearly in a recent speech why dealing with the ungoverned space that subsumes Helmand is in the United Kingdom’s national interest.
But that ungoverned space extends well across the Durand Line, and the challenge it poses in Pakistan is just as daunting and just as important to us as it is in Afghanistan. So let me end by saying a few words about that part of the problem. A part that’s grown even more difficult in recent days.
It’s an issue to which, naturally, we pay a great deal of attention. That’s why our relationships with Pakistan and the Pakistani military are such a priority for us. I meet regularly with General Kayani, the Army Chief of Staff - twice in the past month alone – to co-ordinate at the strategic level and to share our thinking. And in recent weeks I’ve been more encouraged by the approach that Pakistan has started to adopt in the FATA.
They’re now taking a doctrinally respectable, and at times innovative, military approach to the insurgency there. And they’ve appreciated that this will have to be matched by an appropriate political strategy if they’re to be successful in the long run.
It would be unrealistic to expect too much too quickly. The Pakistanis are facing a hugely complex situation. They’ll have their bad days as well as their good days. But it seems to me – and to other close observers – that they’re starting at last down a more promising track.
We shouldn’t get carried away here. A few promising signs don’t equate to sustained delivery. And of course the recent tragic events in Mumbai could set us all back considerably. If tensions between India and Pakistan continue to escalate, there’s a risk they and we could be diverted from the real issue: dealing with the terrorist groups who perpetrate such criminal and barbaric acts.
And if we’re to deal with them effectively, it seems to me that we have to do two things. We have to take action, not merely express our outrage and our sympathy. But just as importantly, we have to act together. Nothing would warm the terrorists’ hearts more than knowing that they’d succeeded in setting state against state. Nothing would dismay them more than the certain knowledge that, together, we were pursuing them relentlessly with all the means at our disposal.
The nationality of the terrorists does not strike me as the key issue. Terrorists come from all sorts of different countries. The key is whether those countries work wholeheartedly with others to eliminate such terrorism as a force in international affairs.
So, yes, the massacre in Mumbai sets us yet another challenge. Yes, it presents a threat to progress in the wider fight against extremist violence. But it also presents an opportunity. An opportunity for all to show in deed as well as word that such terrorism, whatever its source, is the real threat to our national interests – Pakistan as well as India; the UK as well as Afghanistan. And the opportunity for us all to reaffirm our joint commitment to defeating it, however long it may take. "