Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

The retired military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge has written a thoughtful book tackling the reasons for Britain’s recent military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Covering politics, strategy, history, operations, institutional culture and academia, Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars is ambitious in scope. Moreover, the book is predicated on a noble ambition: to remind readers of the injustice of Britain’s recent military adventures. Ledwidge hopes to make British senior officers and politicians see sense and promote belated reforms.

Ledwidge’s central argument is now common knowledge: Britain’s forces have struggled in both Iraq and Afghanistan because soldiers and officers alike simply failed to understand why they were actually in these countries. Ignorant of the political purpose, fearful of admitting this, and unwilling to challenge the Blair government’s mistaken policy, the military leadership was guilty of acquiescence. As Ledwidge writes, “What really happened was that generals…failed in their role as speakers of truth to power.”

Yet the Clausewitzian ‘logic’ for war was lost not only on these officers, but also for most of a Labour government who followed the United States into two wars whose rationale was never clear or fixed, but shifted according to expediency. Perhaps unsurprisingly the generals did not question their politicians given their perception that the military exists to serve the polity, not debate politics.

But Ledwidge is uncompromising. He asserts that beneath the military’s overarching failure to contest the political purpose of both wars lies a catalogue of institutional inadequacy: “A failure to adapt, antediluvian structures and intelligence systems, deployment schedules that ensured a lack of continuity, a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to an excessive readiness to use extreme violence…Inadequate equipment and a dearth of [combat] personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure…”.

Unfortunately the writing is sloppy at times. Ledwidge calls Mazar-e Sharif a province (it is the capital city of Balkh province). He introduces the International Crisis Group twice, in almost the exact same way within forty pages. His prose can slip into silly exaggerations: “The police are widely regarded to be at best a disparate group of drug-addled rogues”. He repeats the same arguments throughout the 270 pages, many of which are drawn from the same dozen British journalists or generals. Very few Iraqi or Afghan sources are used, which is ironic given his arguments for greater cultural engagement as a means to improve the understanding of the armed forces.

But Losing Small Wars is nevertheless a brave and important book; essential reading for anyone wanting insights into the dysfunction within the British military today, and the deplorable consequences this has when thrust upon the lives of innocent civilians caught up in war. 

Times Literary Supplement

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The Real Transition That Afghanistan Needs

The Afghan guessing game is intensifying. Nobody can accurately predict what will happen in 2014 – the “transition” year – when international ground forces finally exit and a new Afghan president is elected. Pessimists foresee the outbreak of civil war and a rise in the number of safe havens used by international terrorists. This current rise in attacks, assassinations and abductions around the country will increase their anxiety.

May’s Nato conference in Chicago saw world leaders promise more cash to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling security services, but can we not learn from history and recognise that no matter how much money and lives are expended on military intervention and training, more soldiering and policing will not deliver long-term security.

Military force seeks to prevent insecurity but ignores its root causes. Afghanistan’s insurgencies find acceptance among the poorest, most marginalised communities. These are villages in remote districts that are neglected by government and aid agencies. As US General Eikenberry was fond of saying, “where the road ends, the Taliban begins”.  Roads are important, but providing quality services that vulnerable populations can reach is vital.

Afghanistan’s under-development remains shocking. One in two children under five is chronically malnourished. Nearly half of school age children are out of school. Around half the population is underemployed. Over a third of the country lives below the poverty line. In such precarious environments, religious extremism, narco-trafficking, criminality and corruption thrive, for survival is paramount.

Undeniably there have been achievements over the past ten years. Access to primary health care has increased from 8 percent of the population to more than 60 percent. Access to electricity has increased by 250 percent. The Afghan government has increased its ability to collect revenue. And, yes, thousands of kilometres of roads have been constructed. Donors, development partners and NGOs have played a critical role in supporting Kabul in these and other areas.

But the fact remains that, despite over ten years of enormous foreign investment in Afghanistan, the lives of ordinary Afghans have changed little. About 40,000 Afghans die each year due to poverty and hunger. This figure is fifteen times more than casualties from war. Yet NATO has spent more than twice as much on its intervention in one month than all the combined international aid spent on social protection in eight years.

2012-03-24 14.08.22

Investments in the basic building blocks – quality education, nutrition and rural livelihoods – have for too long been dismally low when compared with the vast sums disbursed on governance and more “visible” macro-economic projects deemed to be the “silver bullet” for Afghanistan’s future GDP.

The poorest Afghans have understandably grown disillusioned with the corruption among Kabul’s political elites when tax-payers’ money should be going towards improving people’s social services. These Afghans naturally start to view the international aid community as equally self-serving and hypocritical. No wonder then that they accept the alternatives that are pressed upon them by Islamist clerics and their foot soldiers.

Next week, Afghanistan’s stakeholders from the international community will meet in Tokyo to discuss development. This is a major conference and needs to be treated as such, not simply as another stop-off in the Afghan diplomatic carousel.  It presents a genuine opportunity for policymakers to shift the balance of power away from war-weary Generals to the Ministers, Ambassadors and senior UN officials who will be responsible for the country’s future development.

If the “transition” is a discursive tool, let us frame it this way: the following two years should see the international community transition from a security-dominated agenda to a development agenda. Critically, this agenda must prioritise the most vulnerable Afghans’ needs and focus on sustainability. The UN must become the major partner in supporting the government’s development strategy.

One thing is clear: the elephant in the room at Tokyo will be the abject lack of human development in Afghanistan; that is, the international community’s failure to help the country’s poorest. Everyone there will be aware of it, but few will have the courage to speak up and propose solutions.

When aid targets the right people directly, it can work. The National Solidarity Programme, funded by the US, UK, Canada and Denmark among others, has empowered communities across rural Afghanistan to spend US$1.2 billion on their own development priorities. This kind of development practice is helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans move out of poverty. What’s more, such measures improve security, cheaply.

As western constituencies vote for accelerated troop withdrawals, and the military aid teams pack up their bases, and the media spotlight moves away from this country after over ten long years, we must finally transition to a more realistic approach. Spending a greater share of limited budgets towards ‘smarter’ development will improve the lives of millions of Afghans, both immediately and in the longer term.

Reducing poverty and hunger, preventing illiteracy and disease – these are not only inherently good things, but they also make communities less amenable to an insurgent’s methods of persuasion. This clearly benefits Afghan people and will go some way to relieving the concerns of a worried, if tired, international community.

Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground

Old fort nr Bamiyan

Jonathan Steele has written a book that is brazenly illuminating. Ghosts of Afghanistan charts a sinuous and sobering history of the country over the past thirty five years. The results are grim reading but also perversely satisfying, as the categorical exposé of hubris always is.

Steele assiduously points out the many oversights of the Soviet and US campaigns in Afghanistan to teach us to learn from these mistakes. “The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history,” he writes, “is that it is wrong for foreigners to arm factions engaged in civil war. For foreigners then to intervene with their own troops is even greater folly.”

Rather than using chronological narrative form, Steele opts for myth debunking to shed light on the crisis. Thirteen myths are dispelled throughout the book. Some are more pertinent to the current Afghan context than others. Myth eleven, for example, writes Steele, is that the Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The ramifications of this misguided intelligence were enormous. It became the principle rationale for the U.S. invasion.

Ghosts benefits from Steele’s thirty years plus of reporting on both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The prose is clear and lively. The personal anecdote is never far away. His history is well-researched. Steele examines WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables from actors such as former U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry to demonstrate the increasingly cagey U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as the support the Pakistani intelligence service provided to the Taliban.

Steele also offers interesting analysis into reasons for U.S. reluctance to entertain a political solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban, based on America’s historical experience; namely, the success of fought victories in the Civil War and the two World Wars, versus their unsatisfactory negotiated settlements in Vietnam and Korea.

Where Steele perhaps comes up short is in his exploration of ghosts, if only because he could have taken it so much further. The Soviets called the mujahedin dukhi – ghosts – since they were so shadowy, much like the Taliban for the U.S. military today. But if today’s various insurgent factions remain spectres in the eyes of the West, then so too does the country as a whole.

This metaphorical ghostliness, or more precisely, misperception, strikes not only at the heart military failings in Afghanistan, but actually at the whole notion of foreign intervention in a weak state that has been – and remains – so weakly understood by outsiders working in the country. This military myopia stems from an overwhelmingly ‘blind’ international civilian engagement. And this breeds the myth-making that has partly caused such tragedy in Afghanistan.

Times Literary Supplement

The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality

The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality

(edited by Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot)

This is a fascinating and revealing collection of articles, written largely by academics, that pieces together parts of the complex story that is Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality seeks to explain the motives surrounding the battles fought across the borders of Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for nearly twenty-five years.

As an assortment of texts, covering subjects ranging from the spiritual order of the LRA to NGO involvement in the Juba peace talks, the book lacks the fluency that would come from a single author’s perspective. But the range of opinions is somehow appropriate for a story that has always been open to multiple interpretations.

Post-independence Uganda is a territory divided between the Bantu-speaking kingdoms of the south and the Nilotic- and Sudanic- speaking peoples of the north. The underlying north-south dynamic has continued to frame the conflict between the LRA, made up of northern Acholi, and President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, derived from central southerners.

Such analytical frameworks are described with greater nuance by many of the contributors to this book. Certain chapters, such as Mareike Schomerus’s, sharply criticize the Western journalists and editors whose portrayals of the LRA as crazed followers of the Ten Commandments have tended to be both simplistic and ethnocentric.

Kristof Titeca’s chapter on the spiritual order of the LRA provides a functional explanation for LRA violence, emphasizing “the importance of religion and spirituality in Africa as both a ‘cultural practice and as a determinant of social action'”. Given the nature of guerrilla campaigns waged within the bush of northern Uganda and beyond, a spiritual order serves the function of guaranteeing internal cohesion and controlling and motivating the combatants, as well as intimidating outsiders. And the widely held belief among LRA soldiers that Kony is possessed by spirits, is omniscient and can read people’s minds, helps to explain the group’s structures of rule and accountability.

Andrew Mwenda, a renowned Ugandan journalist and the editor of the national news and current affairs magazine The Independent, makes a strong case for illustrating “the political uses of the LRA rebellion” to President Museveni. Mwenda’s chapter argues that under the twin pressures of donor-driven economic reforms and electoral competition, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party “transformed the conflict in northern Uganda from a threat to political consolidation into an instrument of it”.

Quantitative analysis on the nature and causes of abduction, or an insider’s view of the International Criminal Court’s investigation of the LRA form the basis for other chapters. Perhaps the obvious fact – the brutal and perpetual violence committed by the LRA across the region – is underplayed. The perspectives of the articles vary widely and while the whole story is not coherently told, this book provides ample and comprehensive insights into the tragic and unending saga that is the LRA.

Times Literary Supplement

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

(edited by David Mosse)

Adventures in Aidland is a collection of articles by anthropologists looking not so much at the social effects of development policy on “beneficiaries” in the developing world, but more at the knowledge producers themselves. The book provides fascinating insights into the construction and constructers of knowledge about global poverty. It concerns the lifestyles and dilemmas of development practitioners in “the field”, a generic term encompassing locations across the entire developing world.

Given the authors’ background, the broad field of study and the structure of such an academic reference book, the ten chapters presented cover a diverse range of subjects. Naturally a sense of coherence is lost, but this is a book for non-specialists to dip into and enjoy passages of illuminating analysis.

In his introduction the editor David Mosse illustrates how “field”-based development professionals’ identities, if at all visible, are rendered homogenous by the universalizing content and transmission methods of ‘neoliberal institutionalism’, the orthodox approach to global poverty reduction. Mosse also explores the paradox of development practice that, under donor pressure, claims to promote unprecedented levels of community participation and local ownership and yet simultaneously makes itself increasingly ‘technicized’ – and therefore removed from those communities – in order to fulfil donors’ demands for accountability.

Rosalind Eyben, a former head of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) country office in Bolivia, describes her need to take ‘reality checks’ to parts of the country to actually learn about Bolivian people and their social and economic institutions at the local level. But this mildly anthropological approach to enhancing her professional work made her expatriate  co-workers suspicious,  vaguely reiterating the same doubts that surrounded those colonial administrators who spent time in the bush a hundred years ago, whispered by colleagues to have ‘gone native’.

Dinah Rajak and Jock Stirrat’s chapter, titled ‘Parochial Cosmopolitanism and the Power of Nostalgia’ illustrates the complex, yet banal, lifestyles of many expatriate development professionals. Their argument is compelling: that while outwardly, “their peripatetic existence, their continual exposure to varying and ever-changing cultural and political milieux” and their international agenda would make development workers appear to be ‘cosmopolitan’, in reality, their insulated, isolated expatriate worlds, and the standardizing effect  of neoliberal thought, which denies difference and historical specificity to countries, makes them somewhat parochial. In extension to this, as Renato Rosaldo has argued, we learn that development professionals “mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”, bringing an “imperial nostalgia” to their imaginings of the countries in which they work.

The disillusion which many aid workers feel is caused by an acknowledged epistemic disconnect between centralized, universalizing development bureaucracies and their diverse recipient clients. By denying developing countries history, culture and specificity, aid agencies arrogantly perpetuate their own insularity. Further, they deny their cohorts on the ground two key motivations which can make them effective: humanity and curiosity. This is fascinating and under-explored territory for anthropologists and development theorists alike, making this an important collection.

Times Literary Supplement

Jonzi D

Jonzi

The name of the upcoming Sadler’s Wells dance festival is both a memorable pun and acknowledges that substantively, it’s breaking the conventions of both genres of performance art it has adopted. Breakin’ Convention  is hip hop theatre; a fascinating affront to both contemporary dance and standard b-boying (break dancing). Somewhere between the stagecraft of bourgeois theatres and the busting energy of South Bronx dancehalls, curator and host Jonzi D has found a beautiful niche.

But what of hip hop being ‘produced’ at a venue like Sadler’s Wells? What of a movement that was once so raw, rooted in the street, moving into the realms of ‘high art’?

“Breakin’ Convention  is an extension of hip hop” Jonzi tells me. “It keeps the real hip hop dynamics: graffiti, ciphers, circles, breaking… We’ve gone to the art and culture of the form, not the swagger side. We’re going deeper than the cosmetic side.”

Jonzi is one of those people you instantly warm to. We’d first met by chance at a house party in Kampala, Uganda, and then coincidentally again at Entebbe airport before sharing a flight back to the UK.

Now we talk at the Sadler’s Wells cafe. Beneath a huge bulbous hat filled with dreadlocks is a rounded, thoughtful face. Jonzi likes to enunciate words that are important, stretching them out and emphasising their syllables. He is clear and convincing. Yet still I question the philosophy of putting hip hop into theatres.

“You see, when I started getting into it, in the 1980s, hip hop was about doing something different” he says, drawing out the word, “Rappers didn’t do the same tracks. You’d be called a biter, someone copying from someone else. For me, bringing hip hop into the dance and theatre scenes was doing something different.”

Jonzi’s story goes right back to the origins of underground British hip hop, b-boying and MCing with the UK’s first wave from 1982. Increasingly drawn to breaking, he graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1993 and set up his first Hip Hop Theatre in 1995.

“I was bringing together two polarised entities in my life” he says. “I thought I was the only person in the world doing it. I felt like I was a bit of a hip hop missionary.”

Jonzi began touring a production called Lyrikal Fearta around Europe that year and realised that others were also onto this hip hop dance combination; it was a genre unto itself.

In 1999 Alistair Spalding, then working at the Royal Festival Hall, saw Jonzi’s production of Aeroplane Man, about a displaced young man of Grenadian origin living in east London. Spalding recognised the significance of Jonzi’s work and five years later, as artistic director at Sadler’s Wells, he commissioned Jonzi to develop a hip hop dance festival. Breakin’ Convention was born.

They hit it off immediately. Spalding gave Jonzi free license to fully capture the essence of hip hop culture, revolving around its four elements: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti.

“When Alistair Spalding supported our guys spraying graffiti on the walls of the mezzanine at Sadler’s Wells, I thought… this will work! The rest is history. We’ve been here every year. We’ve had three national tours. We’ve received money from the Arts Council. We’ve worked with the greatest breakdancers in the world: The Electric Boogaloos, Ken Swift, Mr Wiggles… We’ve become the pioneers of this culture.”

In this eighth successive year at Sadler’s Wells, Breakin’ Convention promises to capture the truly global nature of hip hop, with dancers representing France, Korea, Japan, the UK, US and Uganda.

“Chuck D pointed out that hip hop is developing faster outside the US today. We live in a global world now, with the internet and so on. Hip hop represents the culture of the world…”

One of the highlights of the programme is Ugandan crew, Tabu-Flo, the first time a group from sub-Saharan Africa have been involved in Breakin Convention. The group met at Kampala’s Breakdance Project, a non-profit organisation working to promote social change.  In a country where hip hop culture is phenomenally popular, it’s a direct way to connect with young people.

The piece Tabu-Flo created for their London show is inspired by the story of a battle with malevolent spirits. “Tabu-Flo are working with a local myth called the night dancers: that humans go into trances at night; they possess people; they dig up freshly buried bodies at night and eat them… it’s extraordinary”, explains  Jonzi.

Jonzi’s passion for Africa is obvious. “Africa is the cradle of so many artistic forms. To go near to central Africa, near to the Nile, and find an idea that relates to our concept is too exciting!”

Under the creative control of Jonzi, and amid the dynamics of global hip hop and diverse ethnic cultures, the possibilities are endless. The impetus is to keep exploring; to do something different. So far, Breakin’ Convention  is living up to its name.

Mondomix

Tiken Jah Fakoly: Political War

This was a concert with an edge. Circumstances conspired to lift this performance from one of beautifully arranged and composed music onto another level; here crowd and artist shared not only in each others’ sounds, but in their souls too.

Arguably Ivory Coast’s most political contemporary musician was performing his most politically conscious album, at a time when his country had sunk into a civil war that has cost some 1500 lives.

“Nobody hoped the situation would reach this stage. Il faut cedez le fauteuil, le pouvoir  [literally, you must hand over the ‘presidential armchair’, power]” Tiken Jah Fakoly tells me, in reference to Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election to Alassane Ouattara but refused to cede control. At the time of this interview, Gbagbo was desperately clinging to power whilst hiding in a bunker under his house in Abidjan.

That night, 4 April 2011, the Barbican theatre was almost entirely on its feet, swaying to reggae melodies layered with distinctly West African sounds drawn from the charms of the kora, ngoni, and balafon (all recently added to his band). An Ivorian fan from the crowd, draped in his national flag, ran across the theatre and up onto the stage, handing Tiken the emblem in a purely symbolic gesture.

“The European Union, the United States, the African Union – they all demanded Gbagbo leave, and he refused. In history, sometimes force is the only way. Negotiating didn’t work. Sadly we arrived at this situation” laments Tiken, whose rusty voice in itself seems to carry the pain of a nation’s suffering.

tiken

One could be forgiven for believing Tiken Jah Fakoly had been building his entire career up to this moment. African Revolution was released in late 2010. Perhaps the album’s most memorable song is Political War, featuring Nigerian soul singer Asa, who performed alongside Tiken at the Barbican. It’s a plaintive story of political disillusion based on their parents’ experiences in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Their eponymous chorus rings in the ears like the wailing of the bereaved. Tiken was performing for the first time in London just as the violence in Ivory Coast had intensified into one of the world’s worsening humanitarian crises. This was a concert that mattered.

But in fact, lyrically, Tiken’s music has been politically conscious for some time. From 1993 he began to move away from the metaphor traditionally adopted by griot musicians, which is his heritage, into more direct political attacks after the death of Ivory Coast’s long-standing president Félix Houphouey-Boigny.

“I think if the politicians had listened to me years ago, things would not have turned out this way. In Le Caméléon (first released across West Africa in 2000, then internationally in 2008), I made it clear to people in West Africa that things were bad, that they had to stop, and I wasn’t alone – Alpha Blondy and Ismaël Isaac were also saying politicians needed to be checked.

This approach has both increased his regional and international popularity and risked him his life. Subjected to death threats, he left Abidjan in 2003. He was then banned from Senegal after criticizing its president in 2007 and over the past few years exiled himself in Bamako, Mali, due to the political instability blighting the Ivory Coast.

In the complex world of international politics and advocacy in which Tiken now operates, which would be the one change he would like to see in African politics.

“The struggle against corruption in Africa. With corruption, development is difficult. The wealth of natural resources cannot go to the people. Politicians need to stop talking about ending corruption and put together effective laws and acts that will prevent it from happening.”

What of the role of the external actors, the western donors?

“I don’t think the international community needs to help us. We are not children. We are sovereign. We can take our own route.”

If any artist could embody this route, it would be Tiken Jah Fakoly. Musically, African Revolution is a conscious statement. It encompasses his early adoption of roots reggae, particularly Bob Marley’s, and indeed was partly recorded at Tuff Gong studio in Kingston. But the bulk of the album was produced and recorded in Bamako, under the instrumental influence of West Africa, his homeland. Ideologically, he’s clasped the torch of Peter Tosh, Marley and Ivorian reggae musicians to become a ‘truth teller’, speaking up against injustice. And for sheer on-stage bravura – with statuesque Black Panther salutes, cross-stage sprints, jumps, and flying kicks to drum beats – I saw him as African reggae’s answer to Mick Jagger.

“The role of the reggae musician is very important” he says. “The role is to wake up our children. Music can make people understand what is happening, when politicians say one thing and something else is happening.”

Tiken has developed an enormous following in West Africa. His 2003 Victoires de la Musique Award is a testament to his popularity in France. The growing fanbase across the world support him not just for his wonderful music but for his courage.  At the time of writing, his country’s erstwhile despot has reportedly fallen and the curfew has been lifted. Perhaps a new chapter is opening for Ivory Coast. Everyone is hoping it won’t be one of violence. Come what may, Tiken’s voice will continue to sound, loud and clear.