Book review: Investment in Blood: The True Costs Of Britain’s Afghan War, by Frank Ledwidge

Shifting sands: the Black Watch are deployed in Upper Sangin Valley. Picture: Getty
Shifting sands: the Black Watch are deployed in Upper Sangin Valley. Picture: Getty
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BY THE time British troops start coming home for good some time towards the end of next year, the 12-year campaign in Afghanistan will have cost UK taxpayers at least £40 billion – probably more.

Investment in Blood: The True Costs Of Britain’s Afghan War

Frank Ledwidge

Yale University Press, £18.99

This is one of the many conclusions Frank Ledwidge arrives at in his audit of the latest British Afghan war.

Was it all worth it? That is the difficult question that our government seems unwilling to confront now, or at any time in the foreseeable future. The Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s Iraq misadventure is three years late, and deliberately stalled, according to Lord (David) Owen. The gov­ernment has taken a vow of silence on any overall assessment of the Afghanistan mission.

Ledwidge’s book follows up on his successful Losing Small Wars, about how the British forces got themselves into impossible positions in Iraq, and to an extent in Afghanistan. He has served in both theatres in the British military and as 
a civilian adviser — in both 
he has hands-on experience. As things now stand, 441 British military personnel have been killed in action there; some 2,600 suffer from injuries, mostly of a life-changing nature; and at least 5,000 
have permanent psychological ­damage.

The story hinges on the decision to move British forces in numbers into Helmand in the early summer of 2006. Helmand before then wasn’t exactly Sleepy Hollow but tribal and community politics worked things out in their own brutally effective way. Prior to 2006 there was very little overt Taleban activity. Today, the Taleban is still very much at war in much of the province, fighting the British and the Americans, but mostly fellow Afghans.

A renowned Afghan ethnologist, Anthony Fitzherbert warned the Blair team that sending troops to Helmand would “stir up a hornets’ nest”. But Blair wanted British soldiers to start rooting out the narco-economy from Helmand, which he saw as one of the main centres of production for the heroin on British streets. He wasn’t far wrong, but seven years on, opium and heroin production from Helmand is up, now accounting for nearly half the total output from Afghanistan, which produces 90 per cent of the world’s supply.

Even the Kabul government’s partial eradication policy has been botched and is riven by corruption and score-settling among the land-owning ruling mafias. Britain’s incursion and aid effort in Helmand, Ledwidge calculates, has brought a semblance of stabilisation and some real progress in governance and welfare to only three out of the 17 administrative districts, and that with the help of 20,000 US Marines since 2009.

The most difficult con­clusion is about the levels of deception and self-deception achieved by the British politicians and officials in the past dozen years over military intervention in Afghanistan.

They didn’t succeed in the end in covering up the fact that they seemed to have lost the plot, or that the mission could never be accomplished within the terms and timetable it had been set.

The book makes the case for a full inquiry into Britain’s fourth Afghan war with economy and real punch. In itself it has made a pretty good start on the job. «