I was once waiting at Oxford train station when a group of soldiers came through the barriers, laden with kit and visibly burdened by their load. Quite understandably, they don’t like it when you get in the way, even if you’re trying to help. I noticed a helmet perched alone on a wall. “Excuse me,” I said, “but I think someone left their helmet behind.” The look that was shot in my direction said “what the fuck do you want us to do about that?” I placed it down sheepishly and walked away, barely managing to get the words “welcome home” out before disappearing. Clearly I had picked the wrong crowd.
This is the year in which British forces withdraw from Afghanistan. I want to discuss whether it was ‘worth it’ and express my sympathy for those soldiers who feel as though they have been asked to do the impossible by a government and public that have, in part, abandoned them. I’m of the opinion that, regardless of your view on the war, soldiers deserve our understanding. Defence policy is not in the purview of the average soldier. Moreover, just because a soldier serves does not automatically mean that they are ‘pro-war’. I have heard numerous accounts of soldiers who express their scepticism for the conflict and yet have done several tours because it is their job.
The war in Afghanistan has not been popular. It was undeclared, an ugly little brother of the war in Iraq. In 2006, the British Army was sent in to investigate rumours that the Taliban had established a foothold in Helmand province. One particular occasion confirms how quickly these soldiers found themselves out of their depth. In the days where there was more silence than there was fighting, patrols were sent out through Sangin town and Musa Quala. Soldiers wore berets instead of helmets so as not to appear “too threatening” (as though camouflage and rifles were not enough). Sprawled across the front of a former shop in the centre of Sangin were the words “Taliban Headquarters” in farsi.
What ensued was a brutal, deadly, and incoherent period of fighting. Where one day came small arms fire, the next would come endless rockets and mortars. The Paras were nearly overrun. Every piece of important information within one British compound was burned in anticipation of the one order that every soldier dreads: “fix bayonets”. As the fighting spread, it became clear that it was a far bigger task than the British were equipped to carry out. With British forces still committed to Operation Telic in Iraq, there were few cards to play further east.
Indeed, every single story that you have heard about the British being under-equipped in Iraq (at first) and Afghanistan is true. In 2013 those soldiers arriving at Oxford were coming through the barriers with the latest in protective clothing, camouflage and load-carrying equipment; in 2006 the story was very different. British soldiers then wore an incongruous mixture of desert and woodland patterns. I am reliably informed that their armour had no chance of stopping a high-velocity round, even if they were lucky enough to be hit in the small area the plating covered. We put soldiers who were not confident in the government’s ability to put enough helicopters in the air and armour on their backs in the line of fire. The results were telling.
The turning point seems to have occurred sometime around 2009/10, when the British Army finally bucked their ideas up. A series of Urgent Operational Requirements, or UORs, were identified, and troops began to be slowly re-equipped. Proper metal detectors were issued, to combat the ever-horrific threat of improvised explosive devices, and military language changed to reflect these changes. The Welsh Guards invented the term “Barma-ing” to describe the process of searching for bombs with said metal detectors. Change was afoot.
What we have now is an army that is well-equipped, for the most part, with soldiers who are much happier with the amount of kit they are issued. Comments to the tune of “the kit does the job now” have appeared on the Army Rumour Service website, and are small indications of the popular support for the changes brought in. But, I am afraid, it is too little, too late. You can’t use re-equipment to justify conflict, and, unfortunately, I can only conclude that the Army’s own internal fight to recognise that what troops had was not enough, and to re-equip them, is a conflict that has massively hindered our success in this far-off land.