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Wars can be won by Evacuations

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In August-September 2021 15,000 eligible Afghans and British nationals were evacuated from Afghanistan under Operation PITTING.  With the one-year anniversary of Operation PITTING approaching, and the UK Government continuing to resist an Afghanistan Inquiry, the success of this operation may be doing more harm than good. 

This article is inspired by Ian Smith’s article ‘Heads in the Afghanistan Sand’, which discusses the British Military’s institutional reluctance to honestly reflect on the failings of the Afghanistan campaign.  Smith twice mentions Operation PITTING: first to highlight that the initial internal communications following the Taliban takeover focussed on the operation.  Secondly to highlight the briefings rolled out about the operation in place of reviewing the campaign and acknowledging its failures.  This article expands on these points, arguing that the narrative surrounding Operation PITTING is hindering efforts for a national inquiry into the Afghanistan campaign.

Pitting was successful

The success of Operation PITTING can’t be denied.  Of course, as a cross-government effort it was not flawless.  As the Defence Secretary told the Defence Committee on 26 October 2021, 1,870 people called forward under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy were not evacuated to the UK.  Of these, 1,395 were known to remain in Afghanistan.1  However, as a military operation, no-one can doubt the courage or achievements of the armed forces.  In 16 days, under intense pressure, 15,000 people were evacuated in the largest British evacuation since the Second World War. Human Rights Watch reported in November 2021 that over 100 former members of the Afghan National Security Forces had either been killed or disappeared since the Taliban takeover.  A number which has almost certainly increased since then.  Without the efforts of Operation PITTING and allied evacuation operations, this number would almost certainly be far higher.

What is consistently omitted from the Operation PITTING narrative is the fact it was only necessary because of strategic defeat in Afghanistan.  Some impressive mental gymnastics are being performed to avoid admitting it: arguing the campaign was a success as, due to our presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban have changed, or that it was not a defeat because NATO withdrew then the Taliban took over.  Intellectual aerobatics aside, a spade is a spade. Pre-2001 significant opposition to Taliban rule existed in Northern Afghanistan.  After twenty years, trillions of dollars, and tens of thousands of lost lives, the Taliban control more of Afghanistan than they did in 2001. This is not victory. 

Intellectual aerobatics aside, a spade is a spade. 

Rather than acknowledging failure and presenting Operation PITTING as an effort to save the lives of the friends we served alongside trying to build a better Afghanistan, the operation is masking defeat.  Through official statements, parades, and medals, the image of Operation PITTING is less an evacuation necessitated by failure and more the valiant final act of a glorious campaign.

The campaign was a failure

The linking of Operation PITTING to success in Afghanistan began politically immediately following the operation.  It is most obvious in the following comment to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister on 6 September 2021:

The whole House will join me in commending the courage and ingenuity of everyone involved in the Kabul airlift, one of the most spectacular operations in our countries post-war military history. This fear exemplified the spirit of all 150,000 British servicemen and women who deploying in Afghanistan over the last two decades, of whom 457 laid down their lives and many others suffered trauma and injury. Thanks to their efforts, no terrorist attacks against this country or any of our western allies has been launched from Afghanistan for 20 years. They fulfilled the first duty of the British armed forces: to keep our people safe. They and their families should take pride in everything they did.

A mortar team attached to 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment fires on insurgents, Afghanistan 2010. Photo: MOD

The full statement also discusses veteran’s support, relocation efforts, and the Taliban’s international recognition.2  Rather than acknowledging failure, this statement presents Operation PITTING as the last event of a successful twenty years, not the result of a strategic failure.  On 4 June 1940 Winston Churchill famously said when briefing the House of Commons on Dunkirk that wars are not won by evacuations.  Dunkirk can be described as a retreat, not an evacuation, but the point stands: Boris Johnson has made no such clarifications for Operation PITTING.  It seems wars can be won by evacuations.

Tea and medals

Operation PITTING was followed by a victory parade (in all but name) and medals.  On 24 November 2021 120 servicepersons involved in the operation marched to Westminster Hall and attended a drinks reception.  I don’t know how many units attended drinks with the Prime Minister after being ripped out of Afghanistan, but I would wager not many.  This was followed on 19 January 2022 with the announcement that Operation PITTING veterans would be awarded the Operation Service Medal with PITTING clasp.  Combined, the medals, drinks reception, parade, and statements to the House of Commons create an illusion of success surrounding the end of the Afghanistan campaign that has not been appropriately caveated.

The UK Government continues to resist an Afghanistan Inquiry or even acknowledge that one would be beneficial.  Boris Johnson did so in the House of Commons on 8 July 2021 and again on 18 August 2021, citing an Army inquiry from 2014.3  This 2001-2014 Campaign Study is an army focused document released under a Freedom of Information request.  The HERRICK Campaign Study, however, doesn’t take account of the 7 years in Afghanistan from 2014-2021.  Tobias Elwood secured a House of Commons debate on an Afghanistan Inquiry on 4 November 2021 during which Minister for the Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly cited the 2014 Campaign Study as well as inquiries by the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees.4  However the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee inquiries are focused on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, not the entire campaign.  The RAF, Royal Navy, and other government departments are likely doing, or have done, their own inquiries but they too are likely to be inwards looking and focussed on the withdrawal. 

The Camp Bastion Memorial Wall, 2014. Photo: MOD.

Counterinsurgency is a cross government endeavour, yet no one in Government is independently and objectively reviewing the entire twenty-year campaign, from the tactical to the grand strategic, across all  departments, to draw lessons for the future.  As a result, valuable lessons are almost certainly going to be missed.

It requires outrage en masse demanding to know what 457 of our friends and compatriots achieved with their sacrifice, to ensure that those carrying the flag into future conflicts aren’t needlessly asked to make the same sacrifice.

Herein lies the issue…

Getting a comprehensive inquiry to identify these lessons requires pressure on the government.  Without it the current line that each department’s internal, unmonitored inquiries are sufficient will likely continue indefinitely.  More than pressure, it requires outrage.  Outrage that the sacrifice came to nothing when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.  Outrage that has never existed for the good war in Afghanistan like it did for the bad war in Iraq.  An inquiry won’t come whilst it is only the veteran and other small communities calling for it.  It requires outrage en masse demanding to know what 457 of our friends and compatriots achieved with their sacrifice, to ensure that those carrying the flag into future conflicts aren’t needlessly asked to make the same sacrifice. 

The real harm is that the narrative of success built around Operation PITTING by statements, parades, drinks, and medals has killed this outrage at source.  As Ian Smith observed in a whisper, internally we all know Afghanistan was a failure, but besides the tweets of veterans working to get former colleagues out of Afghanistan, at large it has already been forgotten.  A news story from last year that has long been overshadowed by lockdown parties and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, no outrage means no pressure, no pressure means no national inquiry identifying valuable lessons, and no lessons likely means some future poor bloody infanteer, maybe not even born yet, making the ultimate sacrifice for something that ultimately won’t matter.

Cover photo: an RAF C-17 returning from Op PITTING. Photo: MOD.

Christopher Hargreaves

Christopher Hargreaves has served in the Royal Air Force for 12 years, with operational experience on Operation ELLAMY and HERRICK.  He is a PhD Student at the University of Salford and a Chief of the Air Staff’s Fellow, becoming the first non-commissioned recipient of the Portal Fellowship in 2018.  All opinions are his own.

Footnotes

  1. House of Commons Defence Committee, Oral evidence: Withdrawal from Afghanistan, HC 699, Questions 1-101. 26 October 2021, Q72.
  2. Hansard HC Debate 6 September 2021, Vol 700, Col 21.
  3. Hansard HC Debate 8 July 2021, Vol 698, Col 1109-1110; Hansard HC Debate 18 August 2021, Vol 699, Col 1254.
  4. Hansard HC Debate 4 November 2021, Vol 702, Col 1092-1093.

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