Army major's despair at our 'pointless war': Senior officer's damning emails reveal plummeting morale at heart of Afghan campaign that has cost 409 British lives
By Glen Owen
They are stark words that reveal the despair of our forces fighting in Afghanistan.
Emails sent to a former military chaplain paint a damning picture of sinking morale among Servicemen who feel the human cost of the conflict can no longer be justified.
Dr Peter Lee, a university lecturer who spent seven years as an RAF padre, has released the emails to highlight the extent of disillusionment within the ranks.
The correspondence includes two emails sent by a major on the brink of a fresh deployment to the region. He likens the prospect to ‘being put on for the last two minutes of a lost game’ of rugby.
In an accompanying article for The Mail on Sunday – published below – Dr Lee describes this as ‘enough time to get hurt, badly, and perhaps enough time to make the defeat fractionally less embarrassing. But there is no chance that defeat can be turned into victory’.
The emails follow the news that Sapper Connor Ray from 33 Engineer Regiment became the 409th British military fatality since the conflict began in 2001 when he died on Wednesday from injuries sustained in an explosion in Helmand.Polls have shown that a majority of British people are confused about the purpose of our mission and want the troops to be pulled out immediately. Barely one in ten think the conflict is winnable.
David Cameron has pledged that Afghan forces will take over lead security responsibility in all parts of the country by the end of next year.
British forces will then offer a ‘supporting combat role’ in 2014, before withdrawing from all combat operations by December of that year – ensuring the Government will not go into the next General Election against the backdrop of continuing bad news from the front line.
The anonymous major, who Dr Lee calls ‘Jim’, says in one email that his fellow Servicemen predict that ‘the whole house of cards will fall down’ when the international forces depart.
He puts Dr Lee in touch with ‘John’, a British ex-Special Forces soldier who provides security for the logistics convoys that transport supplies by road. John claims that they are sustaining heavy casualties that are not being reported.
‘John’ writes: ‘Because we are civvie private security and get paid well we are seen as mercenaries. So unlike when a soldier gets IEDd, when we get killed or injured nobody gives a s***.’
He adds that the bulk of the casualties are locals working for the British, adding: ‘If anything happens to us we might get lucky and be shipped back home in a box or on a stretcher but the media don’t want to hear about it so nobody else hears about it.
'The locals are left to get on with it. They might not be Brits but the reality is that these are lives lost in the British effort.’
A further email from ‘Jim’ sums up his feelings about his deployment. It reads: ‘I’m being sent out to stabilise a country I have no faith, interest or empathy in, to prop up a government the UN says is corrupt.
‘If I’m unlucky and don’t return my wife won’t have a husband and my three primary school kids won’t have a daddy and I cannot for the life of me justify that cost to them.
‘Not for Afghanistan. Not for a war of choice already lost halfway across the world.’
Although members of the Government are reluctant to question the chances of success of the military operation in public, out of a fear of undermining morale or adding to the distress of Servicemen’s families, privately they are more candid.
One Tory MP, a former member of the Commons Defence Select Committee – and until recently a supporter of the action – said: ‘I’m afraid I find myself increasingly in agreement with the sentiments in the emails.’
Last night, responding to the publication of their contents, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We are now in the final phases of that mission and the Prime Minister has said that UK combat operations will cease by the end of 2014 with that role already reducing.
‘But if we are to make certain that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for international terrorists, we must see the job through.
‘Despite the many sacrifices and hardships, those UK Service personnel I have met during my own visits to Afghanistan have told me they are clear about the mission in hand and the tangible progress they are making every day.
‘All of them deserve our unwavering support and respect.’
Former Army officer Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP for Newark, said: ‘The British Forces must take comfort in the state of readiness of the Afghan armed forces, the development of the Afghan government and the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan have not spiralled down into chaos as they inevitably would have done if it had not been for the bravery of our regiments.’
'LIKE COMING ON FOR LAST MINUTES OF A RUGBY GAME WE'VE ALREADY LOST'
How many votes is a human life worth? It is the question that has been haunting me since I received the three emails printed on these pages, writes Dr Peter Lee, a former military chaplain and lecturer in defence studies.
The first two were from a major – I will call him Jim – who had heard me criticising our Government’s ability to delude themselves and others that the war in Afghanistan is still winnable.
Jim has become increasingly disillusioned with the war. He is sceptical of the reasons that he, the Armed Forces and the British public are given for our continued involvement.
He is far from alone. Jim likens this latest deployment to being sent on to a rugby field for the last two minutes of a match that was lost in the first half. In such a situation there is enough time to get hurt, badly, and perhaps enough time to make the defeat fractionally less embarrassing. But there is no chance that defeat can be turned into victory.
There is no chance that Jim, like the rest of his uniformed colleagues, will refuse to serve: he is a man whose sense of duty and honour outweighs his capacity for self- preservation. Therefore, he and his family have to prepare for the eventuality that he might not come home.
Especially since the job he is being sent to do will leave him particularly vulnerable to Taliban attacks.
To reinforce his point, he introduced me to another friend of his – ‘John’, a British ex-Special Forces soldier, whose email is also printed here. John provides private security for the logistics convoys that transport essential supplies by road into Afghanistan.
These convoys are being ambushed on a regular basis because they are big, slow-moving targets, the security personnel are not allowed heavy weapons, and there is no air cover to protect them.
John reported that he recently sustained multiple casualties in one trip alone – which went completely unreported.
Even more troubling, another Army major of my acquaintance describes Afghanistan as the next political scandal waiting to happen.
He called it the ‘lives-for-votes’ scandal when he asked me how many votes I thought his life was worth.
As a former military chaplain, I care deeply about what happens to our servicemen and women. I have had to look into the eyes of wives, parents and children as they were told their loved one would not be returning home. I have watched soldiers coming out of induced comas to discover a limb, or two, missing.
Grown men have sat in my office and wept, attempting to make sense of what they have experienced and trying to understand why they have to go back again.
I therefore decided to make further enquiries about what was happening in one unseen, unreported corner of our Afghan adventure.
I submitted a Freedom of Information request. I asked the Ministry of Defence for a range of information relating to our supply convoys in Afghanistan. Questions included: How many times have convoys come under attack between 2006 and 2011? How many fatalities and woundings have resulted from those attacks?
After 20 days I was informed that the MoD wanted to use its right to take a further 20 days to consider my request. When the eventual reply came, I was encouraged to learn that the MoD ‘holds information relevant to these questions’.
The response continued: ‘There is a public interest in understanding the robustness of Nato overland logistic supply routes, the impact of insurgent attacks on Nato supply lines and the threats faced by UK and other personnel protecting logistic convoys in Afghanistan.’ It seemed that John’s untold story could now be told after all.
Then came the ‘but’. My request was turned down because releasing the information into the public domain ‘would potentially provide hostile elements with a much greater understanding of the impact, at the operational level, of insurgent action on Nato convoys’.
If there is one group of people who know exactly what impact they are having on Nato operations it is the anti-government fighters who risk their lives to lay roadside bombs and ambush convoys.
There are so few roads in and out of Afghanistan that the task of gathering information on truck convoys is the Afghan equivalent of trainspotting at your local railway station.
Look at the events of the past week. Insurgent fighters managed to launch co-ordinated attacks in Kabul – including in the highly protected diplomatic quarter. Did that look like the work of people who have anything less than a crystal-clear awareness of their impact on Nato operations and upon the hearts and minds of the British people?
In the days following the attacks, British and Afghan spokesmen have been trumpeting the fact that all of the insurgents were killed. Even if what they are saying is true, it misses the point. It was a suicide mission: unpredictable and impossible to prevent.
I cannot avoid the conclusion that the reason my request for information about the convoys was withheld was to do with keeping the British people in the dark about how badly things are going in areas of Afghanistan where the media has no eyes and ears.
A ComRes poll in March showed that only one in ten Britons think the war in Afghanistan is winnable. In addition, a majority have no clear idea what the purpose of the mission is and want our troops brought home now.
These statistics are so bad that releasing information about convoy attacks will not make an appreciable difference to public opinion, which has long been lost.
In the United States, serving Afghanistan veteran Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis has caused political uproar by publishing a report entitled Truth, Lies And Afghanistan.
He believes that the American people should be provided with the full, unvarnished facts about what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan so that informed decisions about whether to continue the operation can be made.
The same principle should apply here in the UK. Our military personnel continue to fight with honour, bravery and devotion to duty at the command of our Government. If they are to be asked to keep risking their lives, then it should be for a clear, defined and achievable goal.
It should not be because politicians and electoral strategists are trading the benefits of early withdrawal against the impact at the ballot box in the next General Election.
The least that we should expect as a country is that when our fellow citizens in uniform are deployed on military operations they, and we, should clearly know why they are fighting and what they are up against. They should not take to the field wondering if their government is willing to trade their lives for votes.