Today, 26 October 2014, the British and Americans handed over Camp Bastion in Helmand Province Afghanistan to the Afghan government, and the British military campaign in Afghanistan formally ended. A few advisors, logisticians and trainers remain but not in combat roles, and they too, will be gone before too long. As the Union Jack was lowered for the last time at a simple ceremony, there were mixed emotions about the ending of the campaign, which has given the Afghan nation the opportunity for freedom and the widening of human rights and equality but has cost us hundreds of servicemen, mostly army, killed and severely wounded and for what end? However, even after our withdrawal, the Afghan army, as reconstituted over the past years, still has a major fight on its hands and takes a large number of casualties annually. We also signally failed to destroy the poppy harvests and the source of large quantities of heroin still exported to the west.
This was the third British and hopefully, last, military campaign in Afghanistan. A major participant in the campaign that commenced in 1838 was the first occupant of Hanover House, Colonel William Croker, commander of the 17th (Leicester) Regiment, part of a British field army under the command of Major General Gordon. The latest campaign cost us about 450 British lives, the majority in Helmand province, whereas William Croker’s campaign was primarily in the south around Kandahar at a time in history when the British Empire was still consolidating its hold on India.
One of the British legacies has been the military academy in Kabul, founded to establish strong leadership for the army and dubbed the ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’. It is staffed partially, and run by British officers and NCOs, and if it survives in its current form, should provide a strong and stable nucleus for Afghanistan’s future. Some senior Afghanistanian officers were themselves graduates of Sandhurst and understand the qualities and standards required. As a sign of the times there is a small but growing cadre of female officer cadets – an aim being 10% of the military being female eventually – who train in combat equipment and face veils. At the Afghan academy, there are guns which are themselves symbols of the long British involvement in the country, having been used in the first campaign, of which William Croker played a major part.
As for the future capability of the British Army as it stands today – and will be for the foreseeable future too – it is highly unlikely that we will be able to mount such a mission on a similar scale again, assuming there is ever the political will to do so. Modern warfare has become highly dependent on advanced technology and logistics, and therefore the costs have escalated accordingly. Whereas a major military dictum was always that wars could only be won by holding ground with sufficient manpower and assuming that the political will and resources were available, the ongoing reduction in trained and experienced military manpower means that we will rapidly be reduced to a ‘policing’ role and that much closer to home. We may play a small part in various theatres of operations as part of larger coalitions – UN, NATO or a European Union force – but we will rapidly provide only token forces of a handful of aircraft, or trainers, or logistic experts, but as a force to be reckoned with on a global scale, with the related geopolitical influence, those times have passed.