Last night I had the pleasure of attending a guest seminar given by Patrick Bury, a Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment, about his experiences serving in Sangin, southern Afghanistan in 2008. Bury has a book out (hence why he’s doing the rounds) so it was a good opportunity to hear about the situation there first hand.
Bury didn’t really say anything that someone familiar with COIN doesn’t know already: that the population-centric effort in AfPak is undermanned and undersupplied, that he was never sure if his troops being there was actually a good thing, that the situation remains fluid and dangerous.
What I found interesting was his distaste at becoming, essentially, an anti-drugs agent, finding himself going after “Narcos” rather than fully fledged terrorists and insurgents on a number of occasions. As it is, he was open about the coalitions tolerance for the poppy trade, as it is something that is next to impossible to stop.
It was an acronym heavy talk, certainly someone with no experience of military jargon would have been lost. It was a bare outline of what the RIR was doing, what they were doing it with and how they got on. But three points that he made struck me.
Firstly, while spending a very large amount of time discussing the importance of distinguishing officers in the chain of command and other straightforward matters, he breezed right over the issue of morality, and the flexibility of RoE. Certainly that’s something I was expecting him to say more on, but he seemed content to give that area a bare 30 seconds, acknowledging it as a difficult process that was a constant in the mind of a patrolling soldier.
Secondly, another point that I found interesting was how COIN doctrine is impossible to implement fully in a situation where anyone can be a suicide bomber. Since soldiers are advised to keep 30 feet between them and any civilians while out on patrol, a barrier between them and the population they are supposed to be protecting already exists. COIN strategy cannot work under those conditions. The alternative is to close with the population, but in so doing, accept casualties from the inevitable bombers.
The last notable point, by sheer coincidence, was the issue of PTSD and the rise in military suicides, something I wrote on yesterday. In his opinion, the issue of PTSD was “a timebomb…that will explode in American and British faces”. A number of troops suffered severe mental problems following their tours and he was fully of the opinion that what we are seeing today is only the tip of the iceberg.
When I asked what he would like to see done about it, he suggested, obviously, that improved counselling is the standard solution, but the problem is deeper than that. In his view, the culture of the soldier needs to change in order for this issue to be tackled effectively. That is, the stigma attached to PTSD and seeking professional help must be tackled by the armed services internally.
I’m not sure how that can come about without direct, wide scale intervention from higher-ups (certainly, rankers aren’t going to change that on their own).
Interesting guy. Check his book out if you have the inclination.