“It always struck me that it was a much easier war to support the closer you got to it,” says Patrick Hennessey of the war in Afghanistan. Hennessey, who served in Helmand with the Grenadier Guards in 2007, continues: “It was so obvious that we were making the country better and that we were broadly supported by the locals, certainly in a way that we weren’t in Iraq in 2006. I know that most Guardsmen preferred Afghanistan to Iraq in that respect because they felt they were doing something tangible and positive and that it was being appreciated by the people in the country, if not necessarily the people at home.”
Hennessey has just published Kandak: Fighting with the Afghans. It is an antidote to his first book, The Junior Officer’s Reading Club, which he derides as a “breathless memoir” that said little about his Afghan comrades. In Kandak, he “provocatively takes up the side of the Afghans”, challenging the assumptions that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is a band of incompetents and that our involvement is foolhardy. He achieves this with a mix of gravity and brio, describing the ‘innate ability’ of the Afghan soldier with the immediacy of a hand-held camera.
A cynic might say that Hennessey is so keen to see right that he cannot see wrong: there is, for example, scant discussion of ‘green-on-blue attacks’; but he gives a reason for this:
“When I was serving there, it never occurred to me that one of the Afghans would turn a weapon on me. In 2009-10 [when Hennessey returned to Helmand twice as a civilian observer and, by chance and design, caught up with his former ANA partners], it didn’t really occur to anyone because green-on-blue attacks were almost unheard of. But now it’s probably the most significant problem in terms of overall partnering: trust.”
What has happened? The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is only just beginning to take the problem seriously, but Hennessey’s varied experience has left him with a gut instinct:
“I think it has a lot to with the drawdown date (2014). The only time I had tension with the ANA was immediately before I went on R&R or immediately before I went home, because it was such an obvious moment of ‘I’m a tourist and I’m leaving you behind.’ And 2014-15 is a huge red cross in the calendar that says ‘we’re done here’.”
The notion of a ‘military tourist’ seems odd: wars, like holidays, must end eventually. When pressed, it becomes clear that Hennessey means political commitment. “Qiam (a fearless Afghan infantry officer who served with the Soviets in the ‘80s) berated me about this. He said, ‘You’re a joke compared to the Russians, at least the Russians built roads, they were building barracks, we knew they were here for the long haul.’” ISAF, by contrast, has always emphasised that it will extricate itself, and the black irony is that this war has outlasted the Russian misadventure.
Hennessey laments that Western politicians have missed the opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan because they weren’t bold enough to appeal to their electorates’ better instincts:
“The attitude we encountered everywhere in Afghanistan was one of an ardent desire for improvement by education, which I thought was incredibly exciting… But this has been the history of the small wars we’ve fought for the last 15 years: a coherent and relatively attractive moral case could have been made for them, but rather depressingly politicians appealed to our lesser natures [with] a false picture of self-preservation and narrow self-interest.”
Whether or not this imperfect job unravels after 2014 will depend to a great extent on the Afghan National Army. Here, too, politics has impeded development. The ANA (formed in 2002) adopted a centralised Soviet model rather than ISAF’s flexible structures. Hennessey suspects that this choice was made as the “path of least resistance” because so many Afghan generals had come of age under the Soviets; but, the dissimilarities between ISAF and the ANA have made joint operations torturous. Hennessey explains wryly that even the smallest Afghan units “have to go through three layers of politburo authorisation” if intelligence recommends they change a patrol route at the last minute.
The centralised command system is a senior officer’s dream, a paradise of braid and salutes. There is little emphasis on turning recruits (and junior officers) into rounded soldiers who have served in different roles and varied places. As such, there is practically no rotation of ANA units. Hennessey’s Afghan comrades were dispatched to Helmand in 2007 (and some even before then) and have remained there ever since; their morale is low, and you can see why they might envy their British counterparts’ 6 month tours with 2 weeks R&R. The Afghan army is so rigid that new recruits are being trained by instructors who have never seen action, which sustains the malady of inexperience.
A consensus is building in Whitehall that the West has been strategically defeated in Afghanistan. Hennessey disagrees, citing the “decisive rejection” of the Taliban in troublesome areas like Nad-e Ali, which has allowed ISAF to operate without ‘tooling-up’ and enabled increasingly confident Afghan security forces to assume more responsibility. However, he sounds one clear reservation: the ANA, now nearly 200,000 strong, is growing at such a rate that its overall quality must be compromised. This should alarm politicians whose decisions have forced them to trust everything to the security forces.
Politics is a sub-plot in Hennessey’s book; his central subject is how cultural differences between ISAF and the ANA have hindered partnership. The examples of discord are too many to list, but most of them have remarkably trivial beginnings. An academic study into green-on-blue incidents, found that Americans were appalled by some Afghans’ casual cruelty towards stray dogs, while many Afghans were shocked by the Americans’ general lack of respect for dogs that belonged to civilians and deceased or captured Taliban.
This dispute of ownership ought to be resolved; but some chasms are unbridgeable. The same report noted that several Canadians were driven to violence when they witnessed ANA troops indulging in the so-called ‘cultural practice’ of Bacha Bazi (‘boy for play’): a form of pederasty where androgynous boys are enslaved by older men. However, the report says nothing about the incident except that it took place near Kandahar. This approach is symptomatic of what Hennessey describes as the ‘casual indifference by which young and old, good and bad, Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun and Uzbek were all lumped together in those three easy syllables ANA.’ The relationship might be eased if these distinctions are understood.
Hennessey extends the logic of cultural sensitivity to address recreational drug use by some Afghans. “The genuine revulsion that we were working alongside people who would smoke pot in base; but [many British soldiers] did not see that was ironic, given that they were planning their R&R around getting so drunk that they were catatonic for a fortnight. The difference is that we were on overseas operations and the Afghans were at home. Find me a British soldier who has not been drunk in Aldershot and I’ll find you a liar. That lovely little hypocrisy was effectively a cultural difference: these were soldiers who didn’t drink, but they smoked weed.”
Hennessey also questions the British Army’s zero tolerance approach to even one-off drug use, which it describes as a ‘question of health and safety and operational effectiveness’. He says that he had to sack “two or three” good soldiers who failed compulsory drug tests, which left him feeling “hypocritical” because boozers who collapsed during PT escaped with mild censure.
This is indicative of the army’s historically relaxed attitude to heavy-drinking, epitomised by “rambunctious, drunken messes”. Alcohol abuse can be tolerated whereas drug use is always interrogated. For Hennessey, who has just turned 30, the hypocrisy is a sign of wider generational tension:
“It’s like jeans being banned at Sandhurst. I asked some people in the mess about it and they replied that jeans were banned because hippies wore them. What decade are you living in? … In the army, it’s the older officers who drink-drive: if you’re 30 and you’re driving, you just don’t drink.”
We were discussing this over a bottle of wine, so Hennessey is no apostle of temperance. Rather, these ideas relate to his views on the ANA:
“Whether it’s young soldiers in this country or young Afghan soldiers, rather than look at people who have come from a different place to you and try to knock them to where you are, why not look at where they’re coming from and see what might be positive about it and then harness it.”
The Afghan may not be the model parade ground soldier, but he can be an “awesome fighter”. The question is how to make him so all of the time and for the right cause.
Kandak: Fighting with the Afghans, by Patrick Hennessey, is published by Allen Lane as an eBook £10.00.