Mackay: hard-hitting report
Major-General Andrew Mackay, the former commander of the Helmand Task Force, said the British Army on the ground had "consistently failed" to understand the motivations of local Afghans.
He added that messages from the MoD in London often had "no relevance at ground level" to troops engaged in contact with the enemy, describing them as "a diluted and distant memory" by the time they reached the front line.
His comments, written in a paper published by the Defence Academy, Britain's armed forces university, come four months after he resigned his post, having expressed growing doubts about the manner of the campaign in Afghanistan.
Mackay's summary of MoD failures is contained in a 40-page report, written with Steve Tatham, a senior commander in the Royal Navy. The pair say the work is the product of two years of experience on the ground in the battle against the Taleban.
Mackay and Tatham argue that a fresh "hearts and minds" strategy is required which focuses less on winning bloody battles against the enemy, and more on understanding their culture, economy and psychology.
Mackay led the successful British retaking of the Taleban stronghold of Musa Qala in 2008 when he deployed such tactics, alongside full contact with the enemy. Figures in his report show that the percentage of men killed in the deployment was 0.16 per cent, far lower than in other comparable assaults.
However, he says the MoD has so far failed to learn the lessons from such successes. "From the top of the MoD through to the army's staff colleges, the structures, despite the best will in the world, are institutionally incapable of keeping pace with rapid change and the associated willingness to adapt – and quickly – at the same time," the paper notes.
He says that the way the MoD is set up is failing to keep pace with wars fought in "the information age" when every action and assault is open to immediate scrutiny. The pair warn that the West has lost the local propaganda war on the ground.
"The reality is that we have consistently failed to understand that what seems to us irrational behaviour (on the part of the Afghans] is entirely rational to the individual facing tough choices," he notes.
He gives as an example the offer of democracy to Afghans, saying such an ideal is "largely irrelevant" to many local people, as they struggle through their daily lives.
Mackay expresses deep pessimism that the MoD will be able to learn the lessons from campaigns over the past two decades. Careers in the army are built on "budgetary and management competence" rather than an understanding of how tomorrow's conflicts are being fought, he declares.
He warns that anyone who attempts to pursue "soft power" in the army is effectively writing the death knell for their careers.
"Thus the UK armed forces have no professional information operations practitioners, no media operators or professional psychological specialists. In their place, well meaning and enthusiastic amateurs are seconded from every branch of the military for two- or three-year tours, who do their best with minimal training but who are unlikely to return to such duties again."
The pair argue that the army now needs to "broaden" its mind so that soldiers have a better understanding of how to influence local populations. They also describe as "ridiculous" the fact that Army personnel are simply drafted in to work on communications. They also urge the MoD to do more to learn the lessons of previous campaigns, from Kosovo to Iraq.
The report concludes: "We believe it as essential that the capacity to do so is now given serious attention by the MoD if we are ... to become nurturers of strategic thinking rather than hunter gatherers." Mackay was one of the most respected senior officers in the British Army before his resignation in September.
He commanded the Edinburgh-based 52 Infantry Brigade between 2004 and 2008, latterly commanding the Helmand Task Force.
Asked to respond to Mackay's criticisms last night, an MoD spokesman said: "The Defence Academy seeks to stimulate debate and discussion to aid the formulation of policy. While the MoD will consider the findings of all its reports, they do not represent the views of the MoD or wider government."
David Cameron yesterday unveiled plans for creating a cross-party "war cabinet" to oversee operations in Afghanistan as he kicked off a potentially long run-in to the general election.
Death of a hero
An army bomb disposal expert who died in a blast in Afghanistan was
the "epitome of a warrior" who showed courage in a bid to make the country safer, said his commanding officers yesterday.
Sapper David Watson, who was brought up in Newcastle-upon- Tyne, was fatally injured as his patrol cleared bombs from an area near Patrol Base Blenheim, near Sangin, in Helmand Province, on New Year's Eve. His family described the 23-year old as a true hero who "lived his dream" and "did what a true soldier is ready to do for his country". His death took the number of British service personnel who have died since the start of operations in Afghanistan to 245.