Since 2001, 453 British forces personnel have been killed in Afghanistan and more than 2600 wounded; 247 British soldiers have had limbs amputated (the Ministry of Defence refuses to categorise the severity of these amputations on the grounds that releasing the information would help ‘the enemy’). Unknown numbers have psychological injuries.
In “Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War” Frank Ledwidge puts the cost of the Afghan War at £40 billion. The British forces wanted to have all the equipment the Americans had, but couldn’t afford quite enough of it, quite so up to date or quite so soon. Britain built a base in Helmand, Camp Bastion, bigger than any it had constructed since the end of the Second World War, occupying an area the size of Reading. It has now handed Camp Bastion over to the Afghan military which, at the time of writing, was struggling to prevent it being overrun by attackers. Everything the military did depended on the petrol, diesel and kerosene trucked in from Central Asia or Pakistan; one US estimate calculated that the price of fuel increased by 14,000 per cent in its journey from the refinery to the Afghan front line. In firefights, British troops used Javelin missiles costing £70,000 each to destroy houses made of mud bricks. Ledwidge adds in the cost of buying four huge American transport planes to shore up the air bridge between Afghanistan and the UK (£800 million), 14 new helicopters (£1 billion), a delay in previously planned cuts in the size of the army (£3 billion) and the cost of returning and restoring war-battered units (£2 billion). More contentiously, he includes the £2.1 billion spent on aid and development, not all of which was stolen or wasted – although much of it was. Ledwidge highlights the grotesque sums spent on providing security and creature comforts to foreign consultants: an annual cost of around half a million pounds per head. He was a consultant in Afghanistan himself, besides serving there as an officer. ‘A great many people, several hundred,’ he writes, ‘could be employed in Helmand for the price of a single consultant plus security team and “life-support”.
“The soldiers who are killed and wounded today are not victims – they are not the conscript ex-civilians of the First World War. They are professionals, willingly trained in the business of killing, and (by and large) well paid and well treated while they are soldiers … Servicemen are under no illusions as to the risks they sign up to … In looking so closely at the human costs of this war, the key point that must be borne in mind is not ‘How terrible! Those poor soldiers …’ Rather it must be a realistic and firm realisation: ‘We sent them, now we must take care of the consequences.’ ”
Ledwidge estimates the cost of the British military’s bloodshed and psychological trauma – the amount spent on the ongoing treatment of damaged veterans, compensation under the recently introduced Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS), and an actuarial estimate of the financial value of human life – at £3.8 billion. He points out that, despite the AFCS, Britain’s care for its veterans falls short of the elaborate system in the United States.
An Afghan who sought compensation from the British in Helmand after losing his sight as a result of a military operation might expect a payment of £4500. A British soldier suffering the same injury would be entitled to £570,000.
British troops were moved into Helmand. The defence minister John Reid said he hoped the operation could be carried out without a shot being fired. In those first six months, The commander of the paratroopers, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal’s men fired half a million bullets. Eventually the Americans sent in the Marines, bailing Britain out. Blair and the generals had bitten off far more than the British armed forces could chew.
An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2012 by Mike Martin, a Pashto speaker, a British officer who served in Helmand in the late 2000s argues that ‘insurgency is a pejorative term, one that is useful to governments in establishing their legitimacy or that of their allies and in defining their enemies.’ Martin believes that the conflict in Helmand should be seen as ‘a continuing civil war’. Because the British were ignorant of what was really going on – due, in large part, to their short six-month tours of duty and lack of linguists – they were manipulated into becoming pawns in long-running conflicts over land, water, drugs and power between local leaders. Hostility towards the British among the Pashto-speaking Pashtun tribes of Helmand goes back to the early 19th century. The British were hated in Helmand before they’d fired a shot. A popular local assumption was that the British had come for revenge. The British, Martin explains, were never fighting waves of Taliban coming over the border from Pakistan: they were overwhelmingly fighting local men led by local barons who felt shut out by the British and their friends in ‘government’ and sought an alternative patron in Quetta. The Taliban provided money, via their sponsors in the Gulf, and a ready-made, Pashtun-friendly ideological framework the barons could franchise. Since the British were hated even before they arrived, recruitment of foot soldiers was easy.
Looking at it from the Helmandi perspective, the population might well ask, ‘how can you protect us from ourselves when we are resisting you?’ This idea was recognised during the Soviet era as well. Neither the Soviets nor Nato had conceptual space in their doctrines for large sections of the population resisting them, so instead they were painted as Maoist-style insurgents from outside who were terrorising the community.