In late 2014, British combat troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The huge base at Camp Bastion, which had been the central hub of British military operations in Helmand Province, was reduced in size and handed over to Afghan forces.
Afghanistan has entered a new transitional phase. British troops continue to help train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces, but are no longer engaged in active combat operations. So after 13 years of conflict, the British military can take stock and look back on the challenges it has faced.
In spring 2014, IWM staff visited Afghanistan as part of IWM's Contemporary Conflicts Programme. In the individual accounts presented here, senior Army officers reflect on how the war in Afghanistan has affected the British military.
Major General Richard Nugee, Chief of Staff of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command: "We've become, I think, more professional than we have been since about 1945…We are better soldiers, we're better equipped, we have better officers and better senior NCOs because they've all been through war. You won't find many people of my generation - I did Iraq, I've done this and I'm now here for a second time - you won't find many people of my generation, sort of generals and brigadiers even more so, and colonels, who have not fought their way through. That must be a good thing, that they've got real experience of all. So we're a more professional force. We're a more caring force, I think, than we were, whatever might be said in the papers. We really care about the people who are killed, because it means an awful lot to us, when you've fought next door to somebody. So we're a more professional force, we're a more caring force than we were, and I think therefore we are a far better force than we were."
A more professional force
Major General Richard Nugee, Chief of Staff of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command, reflects on how the experience of Afghanistan has impacted on the British Army.
Brigadier Rob Thomson, Deputy Commanding General for Regional Command Southwest: "I think it has been - I described it, as a commanding officer when I left, that we'd been on the fight of our lives, and it had been exhilarating, it had been utterly challenging, it had been heart-breaking at times, when we'd lost people, but it had taken us into a level of operational experience, and the ability to do things, that we had probably had not had before. That's come at a cost, and our hearts go out, absolutely, to every single one of those families who've lost somebody, or to the soldiers who've been dreadfully wounded…So, I think on one hand it's given us a level of operational experience that is second to none. It's given us real cultural awareness of how to work in another country…It's given us the ability to work with another nation's security forces. It's taught us how to build capabilities and capacity…I think all our advisors have done some really, really important work. There is one caveat, is that we have been completely consumed by Afghanistan, and rightly so, for the past few years. What we need now to do is to come back out of that and understand where the right lessons from Afghanistan matter for our army…across so that we're not just consumed about fighting in this way, because there's only one way of fighting, and in the future we will need to fight in a range of different ways."
A more experienced force
Brigadier Rob Thomson, Deputy Commanding General for Regional Command Southwest, reflects on what the war in Afghanistan has meant for the British military.
Lieutenant General John Lorimer, Deputy Commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF): "I think this operation has had a huge effect on the British Army, the British military as a whole. I think we're a lot more professional. I think that we work much better together in terms of the Air Force and the Army and the Marines - we're much better in that respect. I think we've got a lot of combat experienced young men and women who are terrific. They've proven every time how good they are. I think that's one of the lasting takeaways that I'll have from this operation, having commanded young men and women. It's just how good they are. How good our people are. In terms of, personally, what I've got out of this operation, I think I've learnt four main things about our counter-insurgency campaign. First of all, the importance of, in this case, the Afghans owning the problem. If we try and impose any solution on them it won't work. Secondly, the importance of all the lines of development as we would say. So, ensuring that governance as well as economic development is looked after and it's not just security. They work in tandem. Thirdly, is understanding the operational environment. It's so complex out here, far more complex than other areas in which I've served and trying to understand that. If you understand that, or have a good understanding of that, it's easier to try and succeed. Finally, and I think this is something that we've all learnt is, is the concept of time. How long these things take. There is never a solution that is going to provide a miracle overnight. It's about working hard. It's about understanding what the aims are and achieving them through hard work and working closely with the Afghans."
Learning the lessons of Afghanistan
Lieutenant General John Lorimer, Deputy Commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), reflects on the effects of the war in Afghanistan on the British military and some of the lessons learnt.