Mike Martin in Helmand, liaising with local leaders
No one likes to be called incompetent – especially not the British army, so they are currently trying to block the publication of a book criticising the war in Afghanistan. Which is slightly ironic, since Dr Mike Martin's An Intimate War – An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2012 is a rewrite of a report commissioned by the British army itself a few years back.
I spoke to its author, who resigned from his post as Captain of the British Territorial Army on Monday, in order to expose the problems inherent in the conflict.
VICE: Hi Mike. So did you jump before you were pushed?
Mike Martin: I resigned to take myself out of the purview of MoD policy, because they sent me a diktat on Friday telling me I was banned from publishing the book, despite it already being published as my PhD. I was left with no option but to resign or to not publish the book. I think there are some important lessons in the book for the army and the MoD to heed.
How did the book come about?
They paid me to do the PhD and while I was doing that, I was working as an adviser in Helmand for the British brigadiers who ran the operation. This has come from within the army – in fact, they initially paid for my PhD because it was part of their "Lessons learning process". They wanted an independent view of the campaign.
Why are they trying to ban it?
They’ve since withdrawn this in the press, but their original argument was that I was using WikiLeaks, which contravenes the Official Secrets Act. Legally, that argument just doesn’t hold water.
They also said there was classified material in the book, which made the publishers and I concerned because we had no wish to publish that. We paused the print run and asked for clarification from the MoD but none was, or has been, forthcoming. We tried to engage with them and ask them to clarify where this material was a couple of times and they didn’t reply. Last Friday, I was read a letter from the Assistant Chief of the General Staff telling me I was banned from publishing this book with no explanation. But as they didn’t mention the Official Secrets Act, we took this to mean they were withdrawing their original argument and restarted the printing process.
The MoD has a strict policy on publishing books and articles. Did you expect trouble?
Bizarrely enough, I thought there would be a copyright issue because they had paid for the PhD, but I didn’t think there would be a problem because the genesis of this was an independent study. At that stage, there was no mention of censorship. King's College wouldn’t have accepted my application had there been any question of the MoD censoring the PhD as that removes the academic validity.
The difference between the book and the PhD is purely stylistic: The thesis has been sitting in King’s College's library and has been available online since January 2013. I informed them about that last January – and said that I was writing the book and heard nothing until January this year.
You were serving with the Human Terrain Mapping Unit.
Yes, it’s now called the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU). In 2008, I pioneered the role for the British army as a cultural adviser, whose aim is to understand what type of society we’re operating in and to interact with it. I then went home to flesh out the context. Before going back to Helmand to head up the unit I trained the first batch; deployed them, set up the whole system and approach. I then came back and worked briefly for DCSU. It was at that point that I said to the MoD, "I want to do this PhD, will you fund me? I think it would be useful." And they said yes.
Did you raise your criticisms of MoD policy when you were working there?
Absolutely, this is the hilarious thing; I was an adviser to four separate commanders of taskforces in Helmand and employed as a constructive critic. My job was to pick holes in our intelligence. One of my brigade commanders introduced me by saying, “Don’t get angry with Mike, Mike is here to throw stones, that is why I employ him.”
What’s the biggest misunderstanding of the conflict?
If you ask the Helmandis what this conflict is about they’ll say water, land, blood feuds and fights over their grandfather’s inheritance. It was these micro-factors that drove the violence in the war.
But we were not set up to understand that. We were set up to fight an ideology and find weapons dumps. We were completely unequipped mentally and conceptually to understand the type of conflict that we were engaged in. It was a micro civil war, rather than an insurgency, and how you deal with that is completely different.
How did you find running the Unit?
The problem was credibility. The MoD did want to do it but they weren’t willing to really, really resource us. When I was in Helmand, I said that we needed Pashtu speakers and they said “Well, we’ve got Dari speakers. That’s OK isn’t it?” We had a big problem with the cultural advisers because the job, as interface with the community, meant you were treading water for three years. There was no scope for promotion. The best needed to become adjutant in order to progress but we got dull people and dull people lacked credibility.
If you’re in an infantry battle group you need guys who are willing to stand up and brief and win the argument against people who are pretty impressive and be the face of the Afghan people. If you can’t do that, you get sidelined and the whole idea of understanding the population also gets sidelined.
But why are the army sidelining you now?
I wrote to them telling them it’s a boring academic book and reminding them that they ordered the report themselves. They could have said, "It’s really uncomfortable reading this, but it is part of our lesson learnt." I’m pissed off because I wanted this to be part of that organisation and contribute to the reform that it needs. But why did they do it? I don’t know, officials aren’t imaginative, are they?
Was the war in Afghanistan lost before it even began?
Completely, because it wasn’t the war we thought it was. We could never win the war that we described it as because that war doesn’t exist. The Taliban are a shifting patchwork – drifting in and out, taking the name, taking some resources, but they’re not an "organisation". People adopt ideologies in order to fight this war of land and water between different clans. They’ll shift. How can you fight the Taliban if they’re this shifting mosaic of factions?
There’s an old saying that we are always prepared to fight the previous war. Is that the case here?
Certainly. In the beginning, the Parachute regiment went in and kicked the shit out of everything, which was unhelpful – I mean, that’s the kind of war they like fighting. That’s the theme that runs through the whole thing. Everyone fought the type of war that they like fighting. They defined the war they wanted to fight, based on their capabilities and strengths.
Didn’t the Americans want us onside because of our dealings with insurgency in Northern Ireland?
[Laughs] Maybe in the beginning, but they got so pissed off in about 2004. This was when Basra was peaceful and Baghdad was kicking off. We started lecturing them about our "soft touch" – it was like, “Listen to us guys because we’ve done this, it’s in our blood.” And the Americans just fucking laughed at us and told us to piss off.
The last ten years have been an absolute trashing of the British reputation. In Iraq, we completely messed up Basra and to be fair it’s not entirely the army’s fault. In Afghanistan we wanted to redeem ourselves but we fucked it up there too. The Americans had already fucked up there but then we came along and compounded a litany of errors.
Did we learn to adapt to the conflict as it progressed?
Some people knew what they were doing, but they were stuck within a system. Systemically no, individually yes. But they were lost within the morass.
Did the Americans learn to adapt where the British failed?
Certainly in Iraq, the pace of reform was blistering. It absolutely put us to shame. In Helmand, I only dealt with the US marine corps, but by the time we reached a level of subtlety in our understanding – not enough to do anything useful but better than it was – the Americans came in 2009 and reset the clock back to black vs. white, good vs. bad. The whole "insurgency" narrative. They weren’t interested in talking to us, and rightly so, as we were pretty shit. But actually in that instance we were right and they should have.
What’s going to happen in Afghanistan next?
Once we go, the driver of resisting the British will go, and a lot of the outside funding will go. That will mean there’s less to squabble over, also diminishing the fighting. The central government will survive so long as the West keeps paying. They’ll control the main roads and the provincial centres. The rest of it will be controlled by the locals. And everyone will say that it's the Taliban but the locals are the Taliban, so what’s the difference? Eventually we’ll try and hand that over to China, I’d imagine.