Today's Times has a multi-page report and a leader on the British military fiasco in Afghanistan. 'There appears to have been an arrogant inability to transfer to Helmand any lessons from Iraq', says the leader.
After 'two unsatisfactory missions' (don't'cha just love that British understatement?) since the last Strategic Defence Review, the Times concludes, 'if Britain is to discharge the responsibility it assumes in the world, it needs a better military apparatus and unequivocal support from the political class.'
Let's start with that assumption of responsibility in the world. As in Iraq, nobody wants or needs a small, under-achieving contingent of ill-equipped troops led by dim-witted officers stubbornly clinging to a demonstrably obsolete doctrine of counter-insurgency. We continue to bleed lives and treasure to no purpose other than avoiding the domestic political cost of admitting that the whole enterprise was misconceived, under-resourced, operationally inept and doomed to defeat.
While senior officers and officials have retired smoothly into well-paid jobs with the companies to which they steered, while in office, fat contracts for over-priced and inferior kit, the British armed forces have taken the biggest blow to their professional reputation and prestige since the darkest days of World War II.
Then as now, the Americans have admitted their mistakes and learned from them, while the British have devoted themselves to denying the causes of their multiple failures. Then as now, American patience has been stretched beyond the breaking point by the patronising tone of British officers who depend utterly on them for resources, but arrogantly refuse to learn from them how best to use those resources.
At the simplest level of showing solidarity with an historic ally, therefore, the British contribution to the American military enterprise in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed in every respect - except providing Blair with a generous pay-off for showing the correct submission. Any Brit leader wanting the same golden parachute in future will have to fellate the Arabs in the enthusiastic manner long prescribed by the Foreign Office.
If the Strategic Defence Review does not start from the premise that Britain is not a serious player on the world stage, and has not been for a long time, then it will achieve nothing. As to that 'better military apparatus' the Times calls for, the uniformed armed forces are over-officered to a Ruritanian degree, the MoD is a foul nest of deeply corrupt incompetence, and you can't get there from here.
P.S. On reading between the lines
Following talks in London, US Defence Secretary Gates today commented on his talks with his British opposite number Liam Fox. He said that the US, now with 20,000 troops in Helmand, more than double the the British contingent, 'simply did not have enough manpower.' With perhaps unconscious irony he continued: 'If I understand Dr Fox correctly, the view of the British military is that they probably [!] don't have enough manpower in their areas of Helmand.'
That's the province into which the MoD sent 3,000 men (700 front line) originally, while setting up John Reid, their Minister of State, to say that he hoped they would not hear a shot fired in anger. Finally, Gates gave left-handed praise to Britain for doing 'all that can be expected of it'.
Meanwhile, at a RUSI conference, General David Petraeus, commander of American forces in Central Asia and the Middle East, declared that NATO coalition in Afghanistan could not succeed without Britain, singling out the 'world-class counter-terrorism expertise' of British special forces for particular praise. These were, of course, SAS elements fully integrated into the US command structure.
For the rest, Petraeus damned with faint praise: 'UK forces are, of course, in the thick of the fight in some of the toughest places in Afghanistan.'