Sunday, 2 October 2011

Afghan Obsession

The BBC has recently done a series of shows about the UK military, including the truly excellent Our War, as well as Sandhurst and Young Soldiers. These shows provide a degree of access which goes well beyond what I've seen before, and serve to demystify army life. Giving this type of access to the realities of training and combat is a bold move on the part of the army, and I think its worked out well for all concerned.

For those who haven't as yet had a chance to see them it's well worth taking the time. If you're American I'm sorry the BBC is so crap at providing you with access and obviously I don't think you should go and have a look at the various sites which specialise in putting BBC documentaries online for non-Brits to view.

What has been most striking to me is the fact that one word occurs about every two minutes in every episode of every one of these shows, that word is "Afghanistan". In fact, as I was typing this, one of the Sandhurst trainees said something incredibly telling (slightly paraphrased)

The place is changing in response to Afghanistan
Every one of these soldiers is submerged in a world in which they are training to fight one enemy, in one place, for one reason, and that to me could be a huge problem for the future.

Obviously these is a lot of the training which is clearly usable in any environment, but the amount of training which focusses on the Taliban is quite staggering. Every simulated enemy is a Taliban soldier, every hypothetical exercise is about them too. No one talks about anything other than going to Afghanistan to fight.

As military budgets continue to shrink, and the military itself trains its soldiers to deal only with one set of circumstances, what implications will not only reverberate through a generation, but will be exacerbated over time. When reading Defeat into Victory I was struck by how powerfully Slim argues against the idea of special forces soldiers, instead believing that all soldiers should be trained in as many types of combat as possible, leading to greater flexibility, but also higher morale across all the forces, since there is less sense of an "elite" who are "better" than the average fighting man.

In the future it remains to be seen whether our military is able to deal with the wars of the future, and view them through something other than the lens of Afghanistan. Will soldiers who have been trained in counter insurgency warfare be able to cope with a massed tank assault (recognising this is currently unlikely, but wholly possible), or a battle against enemies who have been professionally trained (possibly even at Sandhurst, which trains plenty of troops who could one day be on the 'other side').

Flexibility of approach is a key to victory, in any campaign (and I include the political in this), and there is a worrying theme emerging that the next generations of our soldiers are not being trained to fight in anything other than the current war, one we are already looking to end.
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