The disaster of the Afghanistan war is fading quickly from memory in the UK – Prince Harry’s remarks about his role as a helicopter pilot should force a reckoning with reality
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
The furore over Prince Harry’s much-criticised remarks about his role as a helicopter pilot in the war in Afghanistan in 2012 reveals more about his critics than they do about him. Much of the abuse is hysterical or attention-grabbing, but it stems also from British amnesia about the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his book, Harry writes that “Afghanistan was a war of mistakes, a war of enormous collateral damage – thousands of innocents killed and maimed and that always haunted us”’
In reality, these mistakes should have done a lot more haunting back in Britain where the futile British military intervention in Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand province, is fast vanishing from public memory.
A self-destructive national illness
No nation likes to dwell on its failures, but the refusal in Britain to recognise and learn from past mistakes has become an ever more self-destructive national illness. Its worst symptom is shallow boosterism, the pretence that Britain holds trump cards in its hands and knows how to play them, that peaked under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss last year. But the venom with which Harry’s fairly sensible comments about his war in Afghanistan has been treated show the strength of the public taboos against any realistic assessment of Britain’s ability to make war.
There is a touch of naivety in Harry’s account of flying an Apache helicopter on combat missions, but he has some interesting thoughts about what he was doing. He writes that “my goal from the day I arrived was never to go to bed doubting that I’d done the right thing, that my targets had been correct, that I was firing on Taliban and only Taliban, no civilians nearby”.
But experience in Afghanistan and Iraq showed time and again that people targeted by Western airpower in the shape of fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, drones and ground-to-ground missiles were often not those whom the pilots and air controllers thought them to be. Instead of Taliban or Islamic State fighters, they might turn out to be the tribal enemies of the provincial governor or to be farmers trying to fight off predatory gunmen sent by the local police chief. A prime recruiting sergeant for the Taliban was the civilian loss of life inflicted by misdirected air strikes.
Harry says that he killed 25 Taliban, but I doubt it very much. When the real impact of air power on civilians on the ground in northern Iraq – where the air war was very like that in Afghanistan – was investigated by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal in 2016-17, they found a vast disparity between military claims and the actuality. In a study of 150 air strikes, called “The Uncounted” and publishedin The New York Times on 16 November 2017, they “found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the [Western] coalition”.
For all their claims to be able to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, modern air campaigns depend just as much as in the past on uncertain intelligence about targets. In one residential area outside Mosul city, the Western air forces claimed that they had killed only one civilian in or near the town of Qayara and the Iraqi air force said it had killed nobody. It turned out that there had been 40 air strikes on this area which had killed 43 civilians, of whom 19 were men, eight women, and 16 children aged 14 or younger. In about a third of fatal air attacks, Islamic State fighters had been near to the civilians, but in half the cases none had been present.
Abuse of Harry has focused at times on the false claim that he boasts about killing 25 Taliban or that he breached some arcane military code by giving a figure for enemy dead. He evidently believes that he knew who he was shooting at and, in the age of Apache helicopters and laptops, this is verifiable and time-stamped: “I could always say precisely how many enemy combatants I’d killed,” he says.
In reality, Harry could do no such thing because, accurate though modern weapons may be, they still depend on identifying the right target. If Harry is correct about all his targets being Taliban, this implies an exceptional level of accurate intelligence. Yet at least he thought about what he was doing, though “in the heat and fog of combat, I didn’t think of those 25 as people”. He makes the notorious analogy between the dead Taliban and chess pieces removed from the board. “I’d been trained to ‘other-ise’ them, trained well. On some level I recognise this learned detachment as problematic. But I also saw it as an unavoidable part of soldiering.”
He is surely right about this, though not quite in the way that he means. Armies commonly lie or deceive themselves about the number of civilians, as opposed to enemy combatants, they are killing. They seldom admit candidly to themselves or others why military occupation so frequently provokes armed resistance. In the lead-up to the British Army’s arrival in Helmand in 2006, one intelligence officer noted tartly that “there is no war in Helmand, but there will be if the British Army goes there”.
It is not as if the dismal facts about the direct British military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan were a secret. One retired British ambassador said that the worst mistake on the part of the British government he had witnessed during his entire diplomatic career was the military intervention in Iraq, while the second worst was the British intervention in Helmand. The core reason for each intervention was the priority given to convincing the United States that the British were an ally America could rely on.
Who were the Afghans Harry killed?
This at least provides a rational motive for sending small and inadequate British armies to Basra and Helmand, where they encountered a hostile, well-armed local population.
Much of what went wrong for Britain in these wars has been meticulously investigated by high-quality government or parliamentary reports. Designed to kick the topic into the long grass, the reports by and large succeeded in doing just that. Good news though they are for historians, the lessons they point to are routinely disregarded. Among the important of these is the conclusion that the attempt by the US and Britain to fight wars by relying largely on airpower does not work. If it did, the Taliban would not be in power in Kabul today.
Harry’s account of his time in Afghanistan might have usefully fuelled discussion about the British military record in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no sign of this in the rush to demonise Harry for “letting the side down”.
Two interesting questions will probably remain unanswered. Who were the Afghans Harry killed? And how many joined the Taliban because their relatives and friends had died?
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