The contrast between yesterday’s low-key
military ceremony at Camp Bastion to mark the end of British
combat operations in Afghanistan
and the way the nation celebrated victory in the Falklands
could not be more stark. Back in 1982 the heroics of the victorious
soldiers, sailors and airmen who participated in the daring operation to
liberate the islands from their Argentine invaders were marked by
representatives of the Task Force marching through the centre of London to
Guildhall for lunch with Mrs Thatcher and the Lord Mayor, while overhead
helicopters and aircraft staged a triumphant fly-past.
By comparison, yesterday’s event at Camp Bastion, Britain’s main military base
in Helmand province for the past eight years, was a more perfunctory affair,
with pipers playing as the Union flag was lowered, to be replaced with that
of the host nation. And there will be many who will see the manner in which
we have marked the end of these two very different conflicts as representing
the radical change that has taken place during the past 32 years in our
national attitude towards conflict.
Back in 1982 – bar the odd gripe from Left‑wingers and leading members of the
clergy, who felt that we should relinquish our colonial hold over the
Falklands in favour of Argentina – there was nationwide rejoicing at the
Task Force’s remarkable achievement, and fitting tributes to the 255 British
Service personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice during the endeavour.
This extraordinary feat of arms, moreover, is now regarded as marking the
moment that ended Britain’s post-war decline and placed the nation firmly
back on the road to recovery.
But there will be no proud marches through the streets of London or fly-pasts
to commemorate the heroic efforts of the tens of thousands of British
military personnel who have served in Afghanistan for the past decade or
more, in a conflict that has claimed 453 lives – nearly double the number of
British war dead in the Falklands. Yesterday’s simple ceremony may well be
the last time the British public is invited to commemorate the sacrifices –
including the thousands who have suffered serious physical and mental injury
– of all those who served in that benighted country.
Indeed, such was the Ministry of Defence’s determination to keep the official
end to operations as understated as possible that initially ministers wanted
to carry it out without having any media present, keeping the public
entirely in the dark about the conclusion of our vexed involvement in the
For the reality is that, for all the fanfares that supported Britain’s initial
military intervention in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11
attacks in 2001, support for our continued participation waned many years
ago among the political classes and the public at large – not least because
the vast majority of people long ago lost sight of the reasons we had
deployed there in the first place.
This confusion was even evident in the MoD’s own press release that it issued
yesterday to announce the end of combat operations, where it stated that the
reason British forces deployed to Helmand in the summer of 2006 as part of
the Nato mission was to “tackle a growing insurgency in the region”. Well,
that was not what John Reid, then defence secretary, said at the time, when
he hoped that our peacekeeping effort to help stabilise the Afghan
government after decades of conflict could be achieved without a shot being
fired in anger.
The failure of our political classes to justify the deployment of British
combat forces in order to prevent Afghanistan acting as a safe haven for
Islamist terrorists has led to widespread unease about the mission and a
general reluctance to accept that they will leave the country a far better
place than they found it. It was the same with Iraq, where the furore over
the search for weapons of mass destruction completely overshadowed the UK’s
initial military success and meant that, rather than paying proper tribute
to the 179 British fatalities, we stole away from Basra at the end of the
campaign like a thief in the night.
Our senior military commanders are not entirely blameless for the numerous
shortcomings of these respective missions: the failure to provide adequate
force levels and the proper equipment – particularly during the initial
phase of the deployment to Helmand – were military, rather than political
misjudgments. That said, it is the politicians who are principally
responsible for the public’s waning appetite for British involvement in any
future overseas military interventions.
And it is those same politicians, certainly so far as the Army is concerned,
who are now in the process of reducing our military strength to a level
where we will soon no longer be able to undertake a military operation on
the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, even if we wanted to.
Cuts to the Army’s standing strength as a result of the 2010 Strategic Defence
and Security Review have been well-documented, with a reduction from 102,000
to 82,000 – its lowest size since the Napoleonic wars. What is less well
understood is the disastrous impact these cuts are having on the Army’s
ability to replicate the kind of missions it has undertaken in Iraq and
In those two theatres, the Army was able to deploy at a division strength of
around 10,000 and maintain those force levels for as long as was required.
These days the Army would be pushed to deploy at half that amount – one
combat brigade and not much more – and its ability to maintain those force
numbers for any prolonged period of time would depend on the ability of the
new reserve force to plug the gaps which, given the current slow pace of
recruitment, is a very big ask indeed.
Nor is it just the cuts to the Army’s numbers that should concern us. Work is
already well under way on the withdrawal of British forces from Germany,
where the presence of British heavy armour at a network of military bases
liberated from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War has made a vital
contribution to the maintenance of peace and stability in post-war Europe.
The need for military deterrence in Europe remains as great as ever, as
Russia’s recent incursions in Crimea and Ukraine have graphically
demonstrated. And yet, so great is the Government’s determination to scale
down Britain’s global status that the withdrawal from our bases on the Rhine
is taking place despite the resurgent Russian threat, because cutting the
defence budget is considered a far greater national priority than having
adequate measures in place to guarantee our security.
Indeed, not content with the drastic savings they have already made to the
Army’s strength, there were reports yesterday that the Treasury is planning
even further cuts. General Lord Richards, the recently retired chief of the
defence staff, said this would “make a mockery” of David Cameron’s recent
pledge to maintain defence spending at its current 2 per cent of GDP if the
Conservatives are re-elected next year.
Yet arguably the biggest existential threat to the Army’s future lies not with
Whitehall bean-counters but with all our political leaders’ desire to avoid
using ground forces at all costs. For example, ever since the emergence of
the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, politicians have been quick to fall
back on the mantra that whatever action is authorised to tackle Islamist
extremism, it will not require “ boots on the ground”.
Indeed, the fact that there are now far more British soldiers deployed in West
Africa helping to tackle the Ebola virus than there are conducting more
conventional combat operations reflects the politicians’ changing priorities
on how our military is best employed.
There are many reasons, therefore, to conclude that the lowering of the Union
flag at Camp Bastion yesterday will come to symbolise the Army’s last
hurrah. And that will undoubtedly be the case if our politicians have
anything to do with it. But a few words of caution can be offered to all
those who believe their obligations to the defence of the realm can be
accomplished without resorting to force of arms. Wars have a nasty habit of
choosing us, rather than us choosing them.
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