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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Unwinnable          Britain’s war in Afghanistan 2001-2014

Theo Farrell                      Bodley Head, September 2017

Britain’s war in Afghanistan is not quite as over as the title, or Britain’s politicians, would have you believe. Over 500 special forces and Army mentors are still there sustaining the ANA. Notwithstanding this, sufficient time has elapsed since handover of Camp Bastion, and our mass exit, to make a review of the campaign worthwhile. There have been many memoirs by British fighting men about their tours in Helmand – of varying literary merit. But most convey the blood sweat and futility of their authors’ part in the conflict. There have been some stunning reviews of the military and political evolution of the war such as Christina Lamb’s Farewell Kabul (and personal tales of the political/civil side such as Emma Sky’s Unravelling). But Farrell’s work is a step beyond. Not only does he plot the imprecise military campaign with deft precision, chart the political tiny footsteps with a keen eye, but he also – and this is the key USP of this book – maps the shifting sands of the locals’ allegiances. He does this by (together with colleagues) having made contemporary interviews with Taliban operational commanders. This excellent  book will prove to be central to any later study of the West’s interaction with the region in this period.


The introduction sets the scene with precision: the conflict cost the UK £37bn in declared costs alone, the US a staggering $686bn (before accounting for Veterans Aid and ongoing medical costs). 25,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. For what? The scoresheet does not look great for ISAF.


Farrell does not pull his punches: “America went to war, and Britain along with it, without a common strategic vision for the military campaign….A merciless war was waged on the Taliban, and waged to the bitter end. Thus an attempt by Mullah Omar to negotiate the Taliban’s surrender  was rebuffed.” And so on. Thankfully he underlines that Britain’s participation in the war was almost wholly due to PM Blair’s (ego and) international grandstanding. Our initial despatch of forces was done with complete political insensitivity, resulting in the Northern Alliance claiming “a violation of our sovereignty”. This set something of a pattern. In Farrell’s view the US were hardly better, with arch-hawk Rumsfeld turning down a golden opportunity to accept the Taliban’s surrender. Whilst Farrell has not interviewed other ISAF participants so extensively, he does chart the stresses within ISAF caused by differing mission aims – the Germans for example trying to cling to a purely peacekeeping role.


The US mission was hampered by several factors in Farrell’s view: an absence of coherent strategy, and the now traditional lack of post-conflict civil reconstruction planning; and, surprising for this author, their military and the CIA frequently pulling in different directions. (Indeed there is plenty of evidence in this book that the CIA is not properly answerable to the US executive). Both countries were of course blighted by choosing to prosecute war in Afghanistan before having finished in Iraq. Farrell is quietly coruscating of the British Army’s keenness to take on Helmand as a means of redemption after campaign failure in Iraq. Our Defence Minister at the time, Geoff Hoon, was too weak to raise his concerns about this with Blair. Few emerged untarnished from this transition period. The Foreign Office was also guilty of strategic naïveté at this time; indeed Farrell underscores the view that we have been particularly inept at harnessing the knowledge of Afghanistan (and its neighbours) that exists within our shores, and possibly also ignoring the lessons of history (not the least Britain’s three previous wars in the region – which have remained part of Afghan folklore to this day). With the UK showing almost as poor liaison between military and civil service as the US (and indeed interdepartmental liaison), one hopes that both countries have done some heavy forensic lesson-learning. Both nations continued to show alarming ignorance about tribal politics and civilian aspirations. Yet all the while there were experts such as the flame-haired Irishman Michael Semple, only too eager to help.


Farrell makes plain that the allies had a poor hand with which to play in selecting a head of the Afghan government, but Karzai’s weakness and corruption are laid out in plain view in this book. British politicians were strangely quiescent about the scale of Karzai’s gerrymandering. After an episode in which Semple has tried to bring peace to Musa Qala, one might conclude that Afghans (or at least many politicians and warlords) deserve what fate might throw at them.  


In retrospect the CGS, or Army Board, were too relaxed in letting each new UK Force Commander come up with their own strategy, leading to a discontinuity in behaviour which left Afghans perplexed as to what the British quite wanted to achieve in Helmand. Farrell points out this was accompanied by Blair’s ever shifting reasons to justify our participation in the war in the first place. Further when Carleton-Smith, as head of 22  SAS, completed his task of reviewing the Helmand province in May 2005, he recommended retaining the existing warlord, and not inserting British forces on any scale. The author notes pithily “This advice was ignored” (by the MoD).


This book unsurprisingly is frequently very depressing; none more so than when Farrell chronicles the ill-will with which Brown funded (or failed to) the military cost of his former chum’s ego; once in the driving seat Brown’s lack of civility to his military men is shameful. Any US or UK taxpayer would also be sorely depressed to read Farrell’s summation of the failure of the international aid effort. Officials siphoned off insane sums… “In this way very large quantities of international aid for Afghanistan ended up in banks in Dubai.” Some also ended up in London real estate, and Karzai, I am told,  had or has a large estate to the South West of London. Nice work if you can get it, as they say.


Stresses within the international partnerships are laid bare. France and Germany apparently, for example, opposed giving ISAF a role in training the Afghan police, “for fear it would undermine the EU’s Police Mission to Afghanistan”. He goes on to show how EUPOL largely failed in achieving this objective – something poorly covered in other works on Afghanistan.


If the reader can have sympathy for Western political leaders confronting the Afghan challenges, it can surely be when considering the sustained duplicity of Pakistan. Sanctions had of course to be restrained because of the need for that nation’s granting of transport facilities; and “the political reality that the Afghan Taliban were very popular among the political class and the public in Pakistan.

Throughout the book Farrell shows an eye for the illuminating detail: for example the Taliban’s well-publicised successful attack on Camp Bastion was facilitated because the British had only manned 11 of the 24 guard towers at the time!


Farrell’s conclusions are trenchant: “Ultimately the British campaign in Helmand was characterised by political absenteeism and military hubris.  Blair committed the British military to southern Afghanistan when it was still tied down in Iraq. This was in clear breach of defence planning assumptions. Government ministers never properly challenged the military’s ability to sustain this level of overstretch …” and so on. He quotes 2 academics in 2009:

Britain wishes to stay in the strategic ’game’, the rules of which are set in Washington, and it perceives that in order to do so it needs to place a stake on the table. That stake is the Army.”


(How much will change in the next Defence Review, one wonders!)


Some quibbles:

Maps are badly needed. No photos (at least in my review copy). Farrell does not understand transponders in aircraft (in the context of the 9/11 disasters). He is over-critical of the accuracy of UK ‘aerial bombing’ (relative to say GMLRS), when precision-guided munitions were in wide use in the latter half of the war.


And the narrative of successive Herrick campaigns is not comprehensive - probably beyond the scope of one volume, and this is not a campaign diary anyaway.

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